Hearings and Business Meetings
September 28, 2005
SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM
Dr. Rick Knight
Ranchers as Keystone Species in a Healthy West
Dr. Richard L. Knight
Professor of Wildlife Conservation
Department of Forest, Rangeland, and Watershed Stewardship
College of Natural Resources
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523
Listen to this: "Livestock grazing has profound ecological costs, causing a loss of biodiversity, disruption of ecosystem function, and irreversible changes in ecosystem structure." Now this: "The trend of U.S. public rangelands has been upwards over a number of decades and the land is in the best ecological condition of this century [the 20th]."
Could both be right, or wrong? In 1994, the research arm of America's most august group of scientists reported that inadequate monitoring standards prevented them from concluding whether livestock grazing had degraded rangelands in the West. Critically, they concluded that, "Many reports depend on the opinion and judgment of both field personnel and authors rather than on current data. The reports cited above [this report] attempted to combine these data into a national-level assessment of rangelands, but the results have been inconclusive."
Because the American West is half public and half private, and because so many Western ranchers are dependent on public grazing lands for an economically viable operation, one cannot discuss public-lands grazing without acknowledging the half of the American West that is privately owned. Their fates, and the fate of the New West, are entwined, indivisible.
The future of Western ranching and the role of science in shaping public policy regarding ranching is a topic still under discussion. What gives urgency to this issue is the rapid conversion of ranchland to rural housing developments in much of the West. As ranches fold and reappear in ranchettes, 20 miles from town and covering hillsides, people of the West and beyond increasingly wonder what this New West will resemble. For with the end of ranching and the beginning of rural sprawl comes the question most central to conservationists, "Can we support our region's natural heritage on a landscape, half public and half private, but where the private land is fractured, settled, and developed?"
Some people might think it is a far stretch to connect livestock grazing with former-city-people-now-living-country but I see it differently. Ranching and exurban development are part of a single spectrum of land use in the West, representing the principal alternative uses of rangelands in much of the New West. This is so because the protection of open space, wildlife habitat, and the aesthetics of rural areas runs right through agriculture; at one end stands a rancher, at the other a developer. As we transform the West, seemingly overnight, we see the region's private lands reincarnated as ranchettes, those ubiquitous estates, ranging from mobile homes to mansions, that are covering hillsides faster than Herefords can exit. We have arrived at a point in Western history where conversations about Western lands and land health, grazing and ranchettes, are entwined, cannot be separated. They must be dealt with simultaneously when discussing the future of our Next West. The science needs to be accurate, not value driven, and the conversations about cultural and natural histories need to be honest, not mythologized. Science is important in these discussions, but to be useful, the science must be done carefully so that the answers are the best we can get. Ranchers and scientists and environmentalists need to look better and listen more carefully. Below are five observations, supported by social and ecological science.
a. Ecologically Sustainable Ranching is Possible. Ranchers understand that to be economically viable on a sustainable basis requires one to ranch in a way that is ecologically sound. Rangelands co-evolved with grazing and browsing (natural ecological processes). In the absence of grazing and browsing rangelands shift into something else. Science is just now catching up to what many ranchers already know--that by letting animals behave within "nature's model" they can have their grass and eat it too.
b. Cultures Matter. Ranching in the American West is over 400 years old. Indeed,
it is the oldest sustainable use of Western lands. More than any other justification, the timeless traditions of ranching legitimizes its existence and continuation. An irony hard to ignore is evident when Americans argue for the maintenance of biodiversity without realizing the equal legitimacy of different cultures.
c. Ranchers Protect Open Space. It is estimated that the approximately 21,000 ranch families who operate approximately 30,000 federal grazing leases own at least 107 million acres of private land. Private lands in the American West are the most biologically productive (deepest soils, best watered, lower elevations). These lands are critical for the maintenance of the West's natural heritage. The alternative uses of these lands (residential and commercial development) are ecologically and economically flawed. In the only scientific study to date that has compared biodiversity (carnivores, songbirds, and plant communities) on lands that are grazed with equivalent ungrazed lands, the ranchlands supported more species of conservation concern and fewer invasive species; while the ungrazed lands were dominated by non-native species. In addition, the alternative land use to private ranchlands is residential and commercial development. Studies to date show that these rural lands, once they have been sub-divided, support the same human-adapted species that one finds in city suburbs. This occurs at the expense of species of conservation interest, hastening the day that these species become candidates for Federal protection. There is a perverse economic twist to this land-use conversion as well. Property taxes from exurban development (former ranchlands now in "ranchettes") fail to cover the economic costs of county governments and local school districts. For example, in Wyoming, for every dollar of property taxes paid by ranchette owners, the cost of county services and schools is $2.40; whereas, for every dollar of property taxes paid by ranchers and farmers, county and school costs are only $0.69. As the saying goes, "cows don't drive and wheat doesn't go to school!"
d. Ranchers Practice Husbandry and Stewardship. Husbanding domestic animals and stewarding open lands are traditions in America practiced by ranchers. These skills no longer exist in any other American enterprise. By their very scarcity, they are being increasingly valued by Americans who are paying attention.
e. The Movement to End Public-land Grazing is Detrimental to a Healthy American West. The reciprocal demonization of ranchers and environmentalists--the so-called "rangeland conflict"--has dominated public debate for too long. It has not contributed to on-the-ground solutions. Instead, it has enraged rural Westerners, paralyzed agencies and frustrated public leaders. It has divided people who might otherwise be united by common goals: the conservation of magnificent open spaces, scarce water resources, and imperiled wildlife. If it continues, both sides will lose what they purport to defend. The increasing popularity of rancher-led initiatives (community-based conservation, cattlemen land trusts, grass-banking, healthy beef initiatives, cooperative conservation initiatives) demonstrate that cattlemen are an essential pillar in an American West that works better.
Ranch families working viable ranches that sustain biodiversity and contribute to the social fabric and local economies are critical to a West that works. Indeed, in most of the arid West, ranching is now the only livelihood that is based on human adaptation to wild biotic communities. Its ultimate competitive advantage is equivalent to its ecological sustainability; grass and cattle can grow on their own, with minimal human inputs. No matter how grave its flaws or its historical misdeeds, ranching now stands out for its dependence on native biota and unaltered landscapes.
Aldo Leopold, a pioneer in the American conservation movement, and the father of wildlife management, wrote 72 years ago in his seminal work Game Management:
"The central thesis of conservation is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it--axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun."
Leopold's words anticipated today's time when land stewards, such as ranchers and loggers, would be needed to restore health to degraded range and forest lands. We run a great risk if we lose ranching as an economy in the New West. I suspect, in the not too distant future, public land agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, will be taking Leopold's words to heart and using cows and sheep to help restore degraded rangelands. This may seem a far stretch in the eyes of some, but only for those who have not walked the land, and listened to what it says.
Peer-reviewed scientific publications supporting my statements are summarized in a book chapter titled "The Ecology of Ranching" by Richard L. Knight, Pp. 123-144 in Ranching West of the 100th Meridian, edited by R. L. Knight, W. C. Gilgert, and E. Marston. 2002. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Additional information can be found in the following scientific papers:
Stohlgren, T. J., L. D. Schell, and B. Vanden Heuvel. 1999. How grazing and soil quality
affect native and exotic plant diversity in Rocky Mountain grasslands. Ecological Applications 9:45-64.
Gentner, B. J., and J. A. Tanak. 2002. Classifying federal public land grazing
permittees. J. Range Management 55:2-11.
Mitchell, J. E., R. L. Knight, and R. J. Camp. 2002. Landscape attributes of subdivided
ranches. Rangelands 24:3-9.
Maestas, J. D., R. L. Knight, and W. C. Gilgert. 2002. Cows, condos, or neither: what's
best for rangeland ecosystems? Rangelands 24:36-42.
Maestas, J. D., R. L. Knight, and W. C. Gilgert. 2003. Biodiversity across a rural land-
use gradient. Conservation Biology 17:1425-1434.
Richard L. Knight is a Professor of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University. He has served on the boards of the Society for Conservation Biology (10 years), the Center of the American West (4 years), the Natural Resources Law Center (8 years), the Malpai Borderlands Group Scientific Advisory Committee (4 years), and the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust (4 years). He is presently an Assigning Editor for the journal Conservation Biology. He was selected by the Ecological Society of America for its first group of Aldo Leopold Fellows. He has published over 110 papers in scientific journals and over 45 book chapters. Titles of his books include: A New Century for Natural Resources Management; Stewardship Across Boundaries; The Essential Aldo Leopold; Forest Fragmentation in the Southern Rocky Mountains; Ranching West of the 100th Meridian; Ecosystem Management: Adaptive, Community-based Conservation; Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience; and Wildlife and Recreationists: Coexistence Through Management and Research.