After writing a lot of generalized blog posts that summarized my work and travels, I decided to dedicate a post to America’s favorite ungulate- the cow!
Dramatic cow photo. Such mystery, so aloof…what are they thinking about?
Every day I encounter hundreds of cows to, from, and during work. We drive by packed dairies carpeted by manure and spotted with black and white heifers during our commute. But mostly we encounter free-range beef cattle on BLM lands at work. When we see the cattle they are usually either crowded at watering areas or in repose among the sagebrush and grasses. They also play chicken with the truck, giving you the blankest, emptiest cow stares until the truck is literally inches away and they bolt and scatter.
Usually the cattle are well-fed and calm, with lots of clumsy and chubby calves that gallop around, always less than a year from being full-grown and ready to have their own calves that will replace them after slaughter. There are also the occasional unlucky individuals that get separated from the herd. It’s usually a lame bull, a skinny cow, or a fatigued calf.
A lot of cows.
We’ve also become experts at spotting sun-bleached cow bones from our truck and our hikes to our monitoring sites. We’ve even collected a few choice bones for our balcony museum of dead things (several cow bones and skulls, a dog skull, and a coyote skull)
But the constant exposure to these ungulates is starting to get to me. Sometimes I’ll spot some cows on the slope of an extremely steep mountainside or floundering in the dust of a veritable desert and just laugh. I know they’re deceptively surefooted and extremely self-sufficient (I mean, they turn wimpy grass into BURGERS), but most of the time they just look completely lost or out of place.
We’ve also encountered a couple calf-dumping sites which, as you can imagine, are considered bio-hazards. About a month ago we spotted four dead calves decomposing next to a trailer. As we drove past, two herding dogs came out of nowhere and chased our pick-up. It was a little creepy. We’ve been told that sometimes dairy farmers will dump their dead calves on BLM land as a show of hostility that stems from a dairy vs. beef ‘beef’ that has grown in recent years. We spent a lot of time at that particular allotment, which has gained some infamy at our field office for having less than desirable grazing, habitat potential, or diversity in some pastures.
That isn’t to say that this is representative or typical for our field office’s lands. On the contrary, we have an enormous range of different ecosystems from lush and green mountainsides covered in Douglas firs and snowberry to your classic sagebrush steppes, and of course, a few cheat-grass dominated sites. And it’s rare to see any sick cows. But after encountering thousands of of beefy bovine and a fair amount of areas nearly desecrated by grazing, drought, or erosion, I wanted to learn more about the other less obvious implications of cattle grazing.
The last Habitat Assessment Framework site we did at Muldoon Canyon
I’m from Florida, which has almost 1 million head of cattle that supplies $2 billion of our state’s economy. Historically, we are the first state to have large-scale cattle ranches. At the moment, the majority of the beef produced in Florida is shipped elsewhere, like Oklahoma or Texas, due to there only being one industrial-sized slaughterhouse located in Florida (Florida Beef Council).
A few Floridian cows hanging out under the palm trees at my friend’s family ranch in Loxahatchee.
This is in stark contrast to Idaho’s beef industry, which caters its own products within the state and has more than double the amount of cattle in Florida. The profits from Idaho’s beef industry are only surpassed by that of Idaho’s dairy industry. Despite having gigantic corporate operation headquarters, the majority of the cattle in Idaho are raised on privately owned feedlots and ranches. More than 2/3rds of the state’s lands are owned by state and federal government, which means most cattle spend a portion of their lives on public rangelands (Idaho Beef Council). They’re a pretty big deal out west, and the BLM grants 18,000 permits and leases for ranchers and puts aside 155 million acres for grazing.
Cows are arguably the most important domesticated animal that has ever existed and the “second most influential mammal in North America” (you can probably guess who’s number one). Some consider cows to be the oldest form of wealth and today is one of the most resource-intensive forms of agriculture (Cowed). We use 25% of the world’s land to graze cattle. It costs 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef and producing one pound of grain-fed beef has the equivalent ecological footprint of burning one gallon of gasoline (Rise & Fall of Cattle Culture). These gentle giants are as tasty as they are costly.
Our obsession with the ungulate can be traced back to humanity’s first attempt at domestication 10,500 years ago. We started with 80 of the first domesticated cows from Turkey, which grew to between 1.3-1.5 billion cows worldwide (UCL). The effects of this milestone has altered our landscapes and resources. It started as a symbiotic relationship where cows converted grasses into food, labor, and fertilizer, and we provided them with water and protection from predators (Cowed). However, taking into account global warming, declining soil quality, contamination of our water systems, the spread of invasive species, heart disease, erosion, and even wildfires– the symbiosis is equivocal at best.
Drill-seeded crested wheatgrass
On the other hand, cows are a celebrated resource- a seemingly endless supply of hamburgers, steak, cheese, milk, ice cream, fertilizer, leather etc. Our obsession with cows is evident in our favorite foods as well as scientific research. Cows are the only animal to have their entire genome mapped (and share 80% of their genes with humans). They also played a crucial role in settling the west. As the demand for beef grew, so did the need to expand westward in the 1900s (Humane Society). As a result, cattle culture is completely ingrained here in Idaho. There’s a new rodeo in town every other week, a surplus of western wear outlets, and trucks with unfathomably long trailers absolutely stuffed with bright yellow hay, ready to be munched on by dairy cows.
Most of the work we’re assigned (directly and indirectly) is a response to these animals’ existence and their profound effects on the environment. We monitor vegetation at long-term trend sites to gather vegetation data on pastures that will be used to inform allotment management plans and we perform grazing reintroduction surveys to determine when and if pastures can be grazed after a wildfire occurs.
These grazing reintroduction studies are conducted a few years (usually 2-3) after a fire has occurred and restoration efforts have begun. Some sites are naturally regenerated while others that require more intensive management are drill-seeded. Data on species type, count, and how established the root systems of the grasses are collected to determine the health of the pasture and when cattle or sheep can be reintroduced.
A grazing reintroduction monitoring site that burned about 3 years ago. The vegetation that followed was naturally regenerated and surveyed to determine when permittees can let their cattle graze in these pastures again.
We frequently encounter cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) during our monitoring. Cheatgrass is an invasive species that thrives in fire-prone ecosystems and is also an incredibly flammable fuel source. They’re also prolific reproducers, peaking at 10,000 seeds for every square meter of established cheatgrass and are expert competitors when stacked against most native flora (Greenwire). The Fish and Wildlife Service predicts that “in 30 years we may have five times more cheatgrass dominated areas in the Great Basin than we have today”. Between 2012-2014, 3.7 million acres of suitable sage grouse habitat went up in flames– and that number is rapidly increasing after this year’s sporadic incendiary fire events, like the Pooping Cyclist Fire in Boise (National Interagency Fire Center).
To combat this, the BLM has been pushing to plant more native grasses since the 80s, as well as introduced species like crested wheatgrass (a non-native that’s good for grazing, wildlife cover, and less flammable than cheatgrass) and forage kochia that tend to fare better than natives when it comes to out-competing cheatgrass and happen to be extremely palatable to cows (Greenwire).
Bromus tectorum, aka cheatgrass, aptly named for its poor forage value. It ‘cheats’ cows out of nutritious grass!
Although a strategic and calculated maneuver, it hasn’t been enough to deter wildfires. The recent fires in Idaho have created a lot of controversy and pointed fingers between the BLM and ranchers. Idaho has battled 21 wildfires this year. Ranchers and the Idaho Cattle Association have been very vocal about their opinion that the BLM could have drastically reduced the size of the Soda Fire. Many ranchers are arguing that had the BLM allowed more grazing this year to reduce the fuel load, which has increased due to higher than normal rainfall, the Soda Fire would not have reached the size or intensity that allowed it to destroy hundreds of acres of land. In an interview with KTVB, BLM state director Tim Murphy explained that the extreme weather, conditions that have not been seen in the area for nearly 90 years, was to blame and that increased grazing would not have affected fire behavior (KTVB).
BLM Director Neil Kornze recently toured Owyhee County to survey the Soda Fire which burned 280,000 acres and is now the agency’s priority rehabilitation site. The project to restore the lands may cost as much as $10 million. Grazing permits are an important factor when considering the complexity of how rangelands are managed in the future. This in combination with restoration efforts are exceptionally crucial for next month’s USFWS decision on whether the sage grouse will be put on the endangered species list at the end of September (Idaho Statesman).
I hope to write a post about at least one more human-rangeland topic (i.e. the BLM horse round-ups) before my internship comes to an end in October. Until my next post, I hope to speak to ranchers, range conservationists, and wildlife biologists to develop a better understanding of this complex interface of people, weather, flora, and fauna. It’s a sensitive and contentious time for Idaho’s ranchers, natural resource agencies, and public lands–but it’s also an invaluable opportunity to observe the sociology and ecology of this unique state.
Poorly organized sources