Gretel Ehrlich is a skilled writer, but she is wrong to suggest that “grazing animals benefits the world, or that grazing can reinvigorate and restore grasslands.”
Vast areas of the earth from the Sahel to the Mongolian Steppe have been, and continue to be, desertified by sheep, cattle, goats and other livestock. To this day, the introduction of livestock in Western North America represents the most ubiquitous negative impact on our environment rivaled only by the conversion of millions of acres for irrigated farming—much of that also tied to supporting livestock. Throughout the West, streams continue to be dewatered and riparian ecosystems destroyed. Livestock grazing is a major factor in the precipitous decline of sage grouse and wolves. Every year thousands of coyotes, big cats and other predators are killed by Wildlife Services at the behest of livestock operators. Recently, cattlemen in Wyoming petitioned to kill over 40 endangered grizzly bears. Domestic sheep spread disease to Rocky Mountain bighorns resulting in their extirpation wherever the two are in close contact. I could go on and on.
Grasslands and steppes may indeed sequester large amounts of carbon but much of that carbon is stored in the roots and organic matter deep in the soil. “Trampling and manuring” compacts soils and exposes them to oxidization, reducing carbon storage while providing a perfect seed bed for cheatgrass and other invasive weeds. Cheatgrass, in turn, promotes fire that further destroys native grasses and sagebrush. Claims that rotational grazing systems are beneficial do not hold up under rigorous scientific study in our fragile arid landscape. Removing livestock entirely, however, does result in remarkable recovery.
To suggest that running sheep will combat climate change distorts the facts. “Cowboying” may hold a special place in our cultural history but ecologically it was, and still is, an unmitigated disaster.
Kelley Weston, Hailey