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Ranchers Not the Problem: Public Lands Management Is

Now that I’ve been better educated about ranching in a recent educational conversation with a management-track cowboy and a woman equally informed about ranching, I am going to venture some conclusions about cow pies, cattle and public lands management.

Here are highlights of the points made by the man and woman with whom I spoke the weekend before last:

When I stated my willingness to be educated about ranching, I noted that I like my grass-fed beef as much as the next steak lover. The cowboy informed me that the cattle on the ranges are not the cattle that get butchered for food. They’re the breeders. The calves become the food; adult cows make tough meat.

Ranchers take cattle off their land in order to regrow grass, thus being good public stewards of the land. That is why I saw pristine private land across the fence from Arizona Game and Fish land that was covered in a particularly disgusting volume of cow pies. (See this 2013 photo of cow pies covering a campsite.)

But then the rancher loses his agricultural land tax status and must pay much higher taxes. (My followup questions: How long does it take a rancher to lose agricultural status? How many years of grazing does it take to initially gain, or later regain, agricultural status? How many years to reclaim grasslands?)

Cow pies fertilize the land, especially when dispersed by rain. (I saw the result of water combined with cow shit when I hosed off my dogs; see previous blog entry.) Cows aerate the land with their hooves. And cow pies carry grass seeds.

Conservationists who know little about ranching come in and fence off cows to try to save a species. Sometimes then the species dies. That’s because some endangered species have symbiotic relationships with cattle. They need the seeds carried in cow pies, or the flies that travel with cattle, or something else they no longer get when separated from cows.

cooperation between conservationsists and ranchers

With better public lands management, it is possible for everyone to win. This pond and water tank are part of a project benefiting both threatened species and cows.

“Open range” means that if you own land, you must put up fencing to keep the cattle off your land. Homeowners living in open range often don’t see cattle for months at a time. They get used to that, so they leave their gates open. Then when cattle come onto their land the homeowners complain.

One of my informants has recommended to ranchers that they give notice to landowners when cattle will be in their area. Then homeowners will know when they need to close their gates, and everybody wins.

As for my complaints about cow pies littering campsites: Camping is one of many public uses of the land. Others include cattle, horseback riding, ATVs, hiking and biking. All have to be accommodated. I agreed with the cowboy’s comment that ranching is not the problem when my dogs bark at cattle: That’s a dog problem.

The above are valid points, and I appreciate being educated. However, I still maintain that there is a public lands management problem in some of the USFS, Arizona Fish and Game, and Bureau of Land Management lands I’ve recently visited. If the key to good lands management is finding ways to accommodate all (intended) users to at least some reasonable extent, I don’t see that happening.

It’s one thing to move cattle through an area, letting them stop here and there for extended grazing or watering. In that scenario, even hikers who move through the same area slowly and without the means to quickly escape shit-covered landscapes can still enjoy the area. That is the case in the last place I camped, on one section of BLM land that showed little signs of cattle but through which cattle are now moving.

cow pies overwhelming public land

It’s another matter to let cattle sleep in the same spots for weeks (or successive herds pass immediately through the same spots) until flies and cow shit are the most noticeable inhabitants. Campsites become unusable. The air in low-lying wet areas becomes unhealthy, prompting people with breathing problems or sensitivities to mold to cover their nose and mouth or wear a mask driving through. Hunters, birdwatchers and hikers have to watch their step instead of watching the wildlife and scenery. That is not good public lands management.

That is the case in the next section over from the BLM land I just applauded. The road goes through a marshy area that is littered with soggy cow pies. I can’t be the only person to not want to breathe that air.

Good public lands management means everyone wins. At least in most of the limited areas I’ve seen in southeastern Arizona, it does not seem that we’re there yet.

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