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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Lindholdt: Kick cows off refuge lands

Paul Lindholdt

Public-lands cattle grazing triggered the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge bloodshed. The Bundy bunch – father Cliven and sons Ammon and Ryan – think they deserve to graze their herds on our public lands for free.

Cliven Bundy owes $1 million in back fees. In 2014, federal agents found themselves in literal crosshairs when they tried to bring him to justice in Nevada. In a public forum last month, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich called that takeover an outrage.

The Bundys and many of their disciples are freeloaders at the public trough. The solution to future threats, to standoffs, violence and bloodshed is close to hand, but I would share certain backgrounds and personal occurrences first.

Changing American diets are hitting the freeloaders hard. Physicians are citing abundant reasons – think heart disease and cancer – for consumers to reduce or eliminate beef intake. One internist told me he eats no meat and discourages it. Beef growers are working to assure us beef is healthful, lean, affordable, chemical-free, ecologically benign, even patriotic. A New York Times ad by the American Cattlemen’s Association on Earth Day dubbed the cow “Nature’s Recycling Machine.”

Such sorry campaigns blur the ecological facts. Cattle are exotic beasts ill adapted to the arid West. Arising from bloodlines bred in rainy Asia, cattle trample stream banks to reach water. They deepen the collapse of the salmon in regional rivers and streams. They compete with wild hoofed herds for forage. Permitting private growers to fatten cows on federal lands rates little respect.

Corporate welfare is still alive and well on Western ranches, though. Audits show that hundreds of Western landowners profit from subleasing federal grazing permits to the public’s lands. That is, one rancher with a grazing allotment to the public’s lands will lease his allotment to another. When he can get away with it, that same rancher will sublet those lands for higher fees than the government collects.

Producers profit at taxpayer expense by grazing cattle on our federal estate at an absurd one-third to one-fifth the current market rate. Ranchers pay about $1.69 per month per cow and calf pair – if they pay at all. Some 1,800 Western beef producers also enjoy $5.1 million per year by transferring grazing privileges to the public’s lands. These patterns help explain the desperate insurrection by the Bundy bunch.

Picture the federal government as a landlord. He rents to tenants whose rates are kept so artificially low as to guarantee losses. At his personal expense, that landlord erects fences, digs ponds, plants grasses, and kills off pesky predators. We taxpayers absorb the landlord’s loss. Add insult to economic injury when those tenants turn around and profit from the landlord’s generosity.

Many parks have been established only with “permission” from ranchers who graze their stock throughout our campgrounds, monuments and meadows. Money is siphoned from visitor programs, facilities maintenance, wildlife projects, and from the salaries of range conservationists in order to repair the costly damage caused by domestic cattle comfortably at “home on the range.” What absurd use of our tax dollars. Most people go to parks and refuges to escape domestication.

When we stayed at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, we were almost trampled by wild-eyed Angus galloping through camp. Still, it’s business as usual for many of our U.S. rangelands, forests, preserves and wildlife refuges to allow cows.

Just as bad, ranching groups are working to see the Endangered Species Act defeated. It will threaten their interests if species like the sage grouse or desert tortoise were to be recognized as endangered. Ranchers are retaining attorneys to advise them how to stymie the ESA. They have developed coalitions with the dairy industry that sponsored those illegal measures called Ag Gag, a term characterizing a class of anti-whistleblower laws that applied inside the agriculture industry.

Local wildlife refuges, Little Pend Oreille and Turnbull, allowed grazing until the managers of those refuges were permitted to oust the cows. Nancy Curry did so first at Turnbull, although trespassing continued there for years afterward. At LPO, I dared to testify against grazing in the course of one public forum. Ranchers in the audience scowled, hounded me to my car and copied down my license plate – as if they were the ones in charge. We abandoned plans to camp there that night.

My solution – like that Turnbull and Little Pend Oreille managers Curry and Lisa Langelier managed years ago – is to banish cattle from refuges. Not only are the economics out of whack, so are the renegades who’ve been running the show.

Paul Lindholdt is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University.

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