Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Two Sacred Cows, only one of which is a Cow...

So there's been some media coverage recently regarding a fight here in Utah regarding sacred cows vs horses that are treated like sacred cows.  Ranchers are accusing horses of eating all the forage for their cows and feral horse advocacy groups are claiming that this is mainly a problem because there are too many cows overgrazing the land in the first place.  With forage levels low from drought conditions the conflict is reaching the point where state and county governments are beginning to directly challenge the federal government to try to force a solution to the problem in favor of the cows.  While you might expect me as an environmentalist ecologist to side with the horses against the cows, I really feel ambivalent about the whole situation.

None of this will make any sense without knowing the background of the situation.  The short and sweet of it is that Federal Law provides really intense protections for feral horses- almost as if they were an endangered species.  Left to their own devices they breed like crazy and eat a lot of forage.  Meanwhile- cows also eat like crazy and are grazing on lands that are no where near economically viable because the federal policy is to graze the lands at far under market prices to sustain ranching as a traditional way of life.  So we as a nation feel nostalgic about feral horses and about ranchers and put in large amounts of support to both in order to keep them at very high levels.  To resolve the conflict between the two of them, the federal government is supposed to round up excess horses and feed them in taxpayer funded pens until they are adopted.  Meanwhile those left in the wild continue to breed like wild- sometimes slowed by contraception treatments but not really for long.  The thing is there isn't that much of a market for adopting feral horses out there- not compared to the supply.  And the federal government hasn't given unlimited funding to the program to keep the horses off the land.  Out of money- the BLM is in the awkward position of writing up land management plans that call for removing the majority of the horses from some areas and then doing nothing about them because they don't have any money to move ahead with the plans they draw up.  The horses in the pens are sometimes poorly cared for.  The law prohibits slaughtering the horses for profit which might get rid of the excess horses and provide funding to help take proper care of the ones that are left.  So the ranchers have a really good point- there are too many horses out there and the government knows it and is doing mostly nothing about it.

But the horse lovers aren't without there points as well.  The time honored tradition of ranching and grazing in the US before FDR decided to regulate everything was for grazing on public lands to be essentially unregulated and unlimited.  Even after FDR the rules more made things orderly rather than tried to stop anyone from doing anything in particular.  Its only been in recent times and with a great deal of protest that the federal government has acted more aggressively to regulate the use of its own land for the public good.  But traditionally over grazing on public land has long been perfectly acceptable. Some Republican appointees have even tried to declare that over grazing is a myth.  So horse lovers have a really good point as well- there are probably too many cows in many areas.

But from an ecological perspective of whether land is overgrazed- it doesn't matter as much what is trampling and over grazing the land as how much it is doing so.  You could destroy the health of land by overgrazing pigs, sheep, goats, horses, cows, elk, deer, or bison.  Different animals have different food preferences etc that make the nature of the damage unique for certain.  But when there are both too many horses and too many cows it is ridiculous to point the finger at either side individually.  Its like cooking dinner for two and then inviting the whole neighborhood over for dinner and then arguing that its the fault of the family next door that there isn't enough food to go around.  Cows aren't native species to North America and neither are horses.  The total stocking of the land of both species combined is ridiculously high and both as a result of nostalgic policies that benefit horse lovers and cattle farmers at the expense of the nation as a whole.  So a compromise needs to be worked out.  I'd prefer one that doesn't encourage local government lawlessness and takes the legitimate needs of all parties into consideration.  But unless Congress better funds the BLM or reduces the protections for feral horses or raises the lease prices of public land to be close to that of private land we are stuck with an absurd situation where the local economies that depend on cattle have every reason to want to take the matter of horses into their own hands.

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