I'm always surprised, yet not all that surprised, about the general public's negative perception towards cattle.
One particular case was brought to my attention yesterday when a wild horse advocacy group posted a video and posted quite the complaint over a herd of cattle that were driven through a parking lot up some hiking trails.
Here's what the Heber Wild Horses Facebook page had to say:
Cattle being driven on public lands put people at risk. This occurred today, July 11, 2019, at Black Canyon Lake in the Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. This is a lake where people go to enjoy nature by fishing, canoeing, hiking, picnicking, relaxing, and enjoying the peace. Today the peace was broken when privately owned cattle were driven through the parking lot, and up a hiking trail by the lake. With no regard for public safety the cattle were driven through. There were men, women, and children at the lake. Some people were forced to go up a steep embankment and climb boulders to try to get out of the way of the cattle. The cattle don't just walk in an orderly single file fashion, they spread out and take different routes. No cowboy rode out ahead to make sure everybody was safely out of the way. Thankfully on this day, although there were some scrapes and bruises, everybody was okay. But what if a person had had a physical handicap and they were unable to get out of the way? What if a person was old and frail who could walk on the trail but couldn't climb up a boulder? Or a little one who got separated from his/her parents in the scramble? Or a near term pregnant woman? This is supposed to be multi use land, not a private cattle ranch. Grazing cattle on public land is a privilege, not a right. Cattle don't belong at Black Canyon Lake.
To provide some context, this advocacy group is quite strongly opposed to any and all ranching and cattle grazing activities, particularly on public lands. If you don't believe me, I suggest you take a look at the link above to check out some of the comments. It's not uncommon for most people on there to be complaining about so-called "welfare ranchers" and voicing their abhorrence to cattle supposedly destroying any and all wildlife habitat.
That's mostly what got me to write up this post, because I certainly have some things that need saying. But what also encouraged me to do a little write-up on this was what was said about the video itself, regarding the quote above.
Bovinophobia, or a Result of Sheer Ignorance?
People are scrambling up those rocks like those cows are going to come after them and have them for dinner. Or, should I say, like they're right in the middle of a thundering stampede, just like what they've watched on The Lion King.
I hate to sound so crude and heartless, but I found the whole shebang highly amusing. I mean, talk about making a mountain out of a mole hill! All that whining and useless worrying about these "what if??!"'s, and the whole over-dramatic hand-flapping over a herd of cattle that merely inconvenienced those people out at the lake.
In all seriousness though, it makes me wonder: why the unfounded drama over a bunch of cows? Is it because these people really are terrified of cattle, or is the fear more of a basis of misunderstanding and ignorance?
Let's face it, there's been a lot of propaganda and misinformation out in the media today that demonizes cattle. There's also many, many people that have never been around cattle before. Compounding the fact that these people probably have already had their minds made up that cattle are evil creatures from the underworld that should forever cease to exist, and the sudden opportunity to get, probably for them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be less than ten feet away from a cattle-beast (or 100+), and I can sort of see why they may be so terrified to be scrambling up on the rocks like they were.
I get it, bovines can be scary creatures to some folks. They don't act like a dog, a cat, or even a horse. They're very different creatures, they think and behave differently, and they're a whole lot bigger than most even realize. I would imagine that those who have never been around bovines before think that they're no bigger than a big Great Dane. I'm only guessing, but I have read comments from people who think that cows are much smaller than they actually are. So, I can imagine people get quite a shock when they see for themselves how big a cow actually is.
The noisy herd probably didn't help matters either. Cows calling for their calves, calves calling for their mommas; quite the din for the average urbanite to live through. I think it's safe to guess that most people think cows are very quiet and don't bawl all that much; Truthfully, they are pretty quiet when they're not being herded in a large group. When they're out grazing, they're too busy eating grass to be moo'ing at each other; and often by that time the cows would have already joined up with their young'uns.
Here's what I thought was even more amusing: The fact that these cattle were not walking in an orderly single-file fashion, and instead were spread out and taking even routes! Oh, the horror!
It's like this advocacy group (and most city folk perhaps) thinks cows should be brainless, unthinking, automated machines that have been programmed to walk in queues, yet somehow can biologically turn grass into meat and milk. The shock that these cows actually are living, breathing animals with a brain that have the capacity of thinking and deciding for themselves which route they would should take seems to be very real for these poor people.
They don't realize that the herding behaviour of cattle is not the Disney-fied version of marching two-by-two, hurrah, hurrah, (or even single-file) down the trail. No, a herd of cattle is more like orderly chaos, where each animal has the freedom to choose which way they want to go, so long as they're still within sight of the other animals they're following behind. Honestly, the herding behaviour of cattle is no different from how a herd of African wildebeest, North American wild horses, elk, or bison behave. Do these people not watch nature documentaries? Or even get out much?
Oh, that's right, cows are an unnatural, non-native invasive species to the natural landscape (/sarcasm). More on that, later.
The thing is, these cattle were walking. They weren't a panicked stampede. Those people had ample time to get out of the way, and quite honestly, were in pretty well no danger. Those cattle were moving slowly enough that anybody who couldn't get out of the way of those animals would simply have the critters moving around them. Notice a few seconds or so into the video one of the calves stops suddenly when she suddenly sees these panicked humans scrambling out of the way. She's a little bit alarmed, sure, but not scared. Soon the movement of the herd encourages her to move forward. You never get that kind of response from an animal in the midst of a stampede.
A stampede is a whole lot different. Back in the 19th century, many cowboys and their horses were killed in stampedes because the cattle were too wild and panicked to pay any attention to what was in front of or around them. What couldn't keep up with them or got in their way was turned into mincemeat, bits of stuff, and mud. Panic makes an animal completely irrational and reactive, and will not stop to think about what to do next about this thing (or animal) in front of her, instead she'll just plow on through full tilt because the rest of her herd mates are doing the same. That's what makes a stampede so dangerous.
But was this really as dangerous as what this advocacy group and its faithful followers is claiming? In my honest opinion, absolutely not. I think these people got a grand opportunity to sit and experience a wonderful thing like watching a cattle drive go through. I may be biased, but that's something I would absolutely love to sit through. I'd be happier than a lark.
Sure, maybe a cowboy should have been riding up in front of the herd to warn the people on the area that there was a herd of cattle coming through, but for all we know, we really don't know the entire context of why this herd was even there at that point in time. They may have been moved back to where they were supposed to be because someone didn't check to see if they locked the gate behind them, and there was only one rider available to move them back to whence they came. Who knows. But what I do know is that this whole situation got blown completely out of proportion.
It also certainly gave this group an excuse to clamber on about cattle grazing being so horrible for public lands.
How "Non-Native" Cows can Destroy and Heal the Landscape
In all honesty, it would take an entirely other article to write up about the conflicts around cattle grazing versus feral or wild horses, and wildlife, on both public lands and private lands.
For the purpose of this article, though, I'll try to keep my explanations as short and sweet as possible.
In particular, the most important things to address are all summed up in this quote from some privileged white city guy who won't be named:
Let’s be honest with the cattle industry apologists who are commenting here. Non-native cows are locusts on the arid lands of the West. The land is sick because of so much grazing, for so long, of so many non-native cows. Cows are native to the wetter parts of Europe, the opposite of the arid West. Native bison are meant to live here. Let the bison return and roam free again. Bison belong in the West, cows do not unless you bring the grass to them on private land that you own. Bison make the land richer and healthier, and they co-exist with all the other native wildlife, in a way that non-native cows cannot and never will. And the truth is also that western lands were stolen from native Americans, just as the entire continent was. The cattle industry destroys almost everything it touches, clean water, native plants, native wildlife. It corrupts our government at every level to give itself everything almost for free. Pennies per acre grazing on lands cattle men and women do not own. That is the federal welfare cattle business, a nasty, selfish, business of massive theft of taxpayer money, our money. But it doesn’t end with the theft of taxpayer money. The cattle industry is an industry of killing and death to wild nature. They have lobbied our government, through politicians they own and too often they are also the politicians, too, to demonize, persecute and massacre the continent’s innocent and most amazing native wildlife just for existing. For hundreds of years now, till this very day. Native wolves, cougars, grizzlies, prairie dogs, coyotes, sage grouse, wild horses, whatever moves. All native to this continent and all persecuted, brutalized and killed for existing on this planet, because of cows and their selfish, intolerant, greedy owners.
Well, this cattle industry "apologist" would like to say that this quote is a fantastic example of someone who's still stuck in the old ways and utilizes confirmation bias to always see the worst in the ranching community, never the better.
I won't deny that there are problems associated with cattle grazing, as I've seen lots of them to this day. But what most people completely fail to understand is that it's not the cattle themselves that are the problem, but how they are managed.
Yes, you will get deleterious to rangelands and riparian areas when the Columbus method is used with grazing cattle--a Greg Judy term to describe how cattle are left to graze a large area for the summer and get discovered in the fall. That's a form of management called "continuous set-stock grazing." All that's needed is a large area, a perimeter fence, and enough forage to last the animals for 4 to 6 months or more.
This form of grazing has been practiced by ranchers for far too long; basically after the American Civil War, and when barbed wire started showing up. It was just the easiest thing to do, and many ranchers didn't know how to do it any different.
The reason I say this person is stuck in the past is because he certainly isn't up on some new grazing management practices and adaptive planning framework that has been available to ranchers and farmers for the past few decades. One of them is called Holistic Management, a completely new paradigm-shifting way of planning and managing everything to do with the ranch that has been brought on and tenaciously encouraged by none other than Allan Savory. I was very pleased to see one of the ranchers--oops, sorry, "cattle industry apologists"--posting multiple times to many of the negative comments the very TED talk that was done by Allan Savory. I think it's well worth 15 minutes of your time to check it out below!
The point I'm trying to make here is that, cattle aren't the enemy here. They don't deserve to be singled out and demonized as the primary culprit to all the issues that have been going on in rangelands and public lands. It's us. We're the enemy. We're part of the problem.
It was the decision making practices by the people who managed those cattle to not try to find ways to better manage their animals. Due to ignorance and inability to see other ways of doing things, rangelands have suffered as a result. And so have the wildlife.
Therefore the person who wrote that quote above is very wrong with saying that the land is sick because of so much grazing by these "non-native" cows. The land is sick because it has been MISMANAGED. These "non-native" cows can certainly help heal the land by being managed much more carefully in a holistic context. There are many ranches that have taken Holistic Management courses and have adapted their practices to manage their land more holistically, and have found that just changing the way they graze their cows and changing the way they see the landscape made an enormous difference. They found the water cleaned right up, they had many more wildlife, including some endangered species, come in than they imagined, and even better, produced much more grass than they ever thought they could. Talk about a win-win situation.
To put it into context, Allan and his wife, Jody Butterfield have a ranch that is managed holistically in Zimbabwe from where Savory originally came from (which was formerly known as Rhodesia). The cattle that are grazed there are not grazed at all like what's typical for American public lands. They are mobbed up in a dense herd and moved around to various parts of the ranch, leaving dung and trampled plants behind. The area gets rested for quite some time, depending on the year. The result is that the Dimbangombe sees far more wildlife, including predators like lions, leopards, hyenas, and African wild dogs, than the neighbouring "protected" national parks.
It's not surprising that there are still a number of people that don't believe that cattle can possibly help heal the land. Too many still think that by removing cattle, the land will heal itself. That reductionist frame of mind is much more harmful to the land than most think. Here are some ranches that have adopted HM and seen some incredible results.
There's much more where that came from. These are just a few examples of the millions of acres that have been changed by just changing the way we look at a the landscape.
What about the fact that cattle are non-native to North America? In all honesty, the fact as to whether cows are native or not native is a non-issue. In fact, it's a very silly argument to even make. Cattle are here because the Europeans came over to North America as early as the late 16th century to colonize themselves. The wild horses that this advocacy group lobbies for, also came over at the same time; thousands of years after the last truly native equines of North America went extinct. By all accounts, many of us, including myself, who do not identify as First Nations people are just as much an invasive, non-native species as those poor demonized domesticated bovines. And that includes that same person who made that comment.
At this point I have to admit that I got banned from Heber Wild Horses Facebook page; most likely because I was very upfront with some comments that really offended them. One of them, if I can recall correctly, involved pointing out how many of these people who are lamenting the degraded rangelands and decimated wildlife populations more than likely have ancestors tracing back to the very European immigrant colonists--ranchers, miners, pioneers, outlaws, and the like--who were very much a part of the over-hunting of wildlife, the extirpation and legalized genocide of hundreds of thousands of First Nations people, and the "taming" of the West. In a word, many of the people on that page who so vocally hate ranchers and cattle so much, don't realize that they've been part of the problem since before the United States won independence from the British Confederacy.
Honestly, it makes me shake my head at the ignorance and the gall of these people to stake such verbal claims and at the same time completely ignore their own genealogical lineage so they can take the moral high ground and continue to act like a bunch of self-righteous sanctimonious pricks. I, for one, am sure as hell not going to sit here and pretend I'm not a part of the problem nor deny that my own ancestors weren't part of the either. I know they were, even though they had absolutely no idea at the time, and only knew that what they were doing was what they thought was right.
This, I think, blows the whole "cows are non-native" argument completely out of the water, through the Earth's atmosphere and into the timeless vacuum of space. At the same time, Holistic Management completely obliterates the blanket-statement myth that, "cattle [grazing/industry] destroys almost everything it touches." Such statements can only come from those who just don't know what they don't know and pose a far greater danger to themselves and the land they're supposedly fighting to protect, than the very ranchers they abhor so much.
Welfare Ranching: An Amusing Myth, and a Word About Bison
One last thing I'd like to touch on is the oft-repeated mention of "welfare ranching." My knowledge of public lands in the United States with respect to the partnership between the feds, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and ranchers is foggy, but I suspect I have enough knowledge and information in my belt to be dangerous.
My guess is that the anti-ranchers call cattle grazing on public lands "welfare ranching" on the assumption that ranchers get to graze extra land from the government, apart from their own land, for virtually nothing; or, that ranchers somehow get some kind of welfare cheque to graze their animals on public lands.
Here's a side thought: Wouldn't it be something if the government provided some kind of incentive to ranchers to graze their livestock on public lands using holistic planned grazing or adaptive planned grazing management practices? That would really piss off the wild horse advocates. But it would be on hell of an incentive, especially when it encourages ranchers to manage their animals more intensively all for the purpose of encouraging more wildlife into the parks, increasing biodiversity, and creating even more pristine areas for the general public to come and visit?
It's a wild random thought, but it's something.
Anyway, it's hard for me to believe that it's "welfare ranching" when ranchers have to pay a fee to graze their cattle. Isn't welfare the term used for a person or business entity or institution who relies on receiving money from the government? That's what a welfare cheque is, right?
Thus, ranchers aren't being paid nor having to pay mere "pennies per acre" (actually, it's per head per month or per animal unit month, and current rates from the BLM and the US forest service is $1.35/AUM or head month [HM]) to graze their animals on land they don't own. So in that respect, and to my limited knowledge, that doesn't qualify as "welfare ranching."
What also puzzles me is that these groups are so opposed to cattle ranching, yet fail to see the benefits cattle grazing provides, even if it's not the best of the best management practices out there. Cattle are the only and best proxy available to eat and trample down plant material that would otherwise accumulate quickly over time and create quite the fire hazard. Particularly in forests.
Let's be real here: there's just not enough bison or elk or other wildlife around to satisfy the grossly inaccurate and romantic notion of seeing them "roam free" over the checker-board of public and private lands. Let's not forget that much of the land in the United States alone is so fragmented by access roads, fences, above-ground pipelines, and other things, it's impossible for the wild grazing herds to be as they once were when Lewis and Clarke explored the Great Plains. Even on large tracts of public land, these wild herds still need to be managed accordingly so they don't overgraze and degrade water sources. This has already been happening in such places as Yellowstone National Park. In my humble opinion, it is absolutely irresponsible to think that letting the bison roam free again is going to be the best solution. It's not.
That's not to say that bison are all bad, it's to say that bison have their place, but taken out of context they can cause damage that is unforeseen by those who don't want to acknowledge the not-so-great things about these large grazing ruminants. I actually took some time to talk about that: see Bison vs. Cattle: Neither are Better nor Worse than the Other for more.
All in all, I think this goes to show folks that there's a lot of misinformation out there. It also shows what lengths lobbyists like this wild horse advocacy group will go to demonize a public entity so as to remain in their blinded moral high ground. It would be wrong to say that advocacy groups such as this are bad, but it wouldn't be wrong to say that they're misguided, because from my point of view, they really are.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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