"As cities and suburbs expand into more former Ag land, the remaining farms, ranches, open spaces, and public lands are even more valuable for conservation and wildlife. Think about that for a minute."
This semester I’ve been learning a lot about wildlife ecology and management. My goal is to get a well-rounded perspective that can inform how I will manage a rangeland ecosystem. I also think about how the things I’m learning now can complement knowledge I’ve already gained about cattle, horses, ranching, and farming. I envision a future helping ranchers use their cattle as a tool to improve rangelands on public grazing allotments while ensuring their economic security as we create an ecosystem that maximizes water infiltration and forage production. At the same time, this would improve habitat for wildlife from song birds and small rodents that move seeds around to birds of prey, bobcats, mountain lions, deer, elk, and my personal favorite the pronghorn.
In my classes, I’ve become the voice for the rancher. That’s a position I never thought I’d be in. In part because I’m two generations removed from Ag and because my own experiences in Ag are so recent. But it’s a side I’ll gladly take. Most of my natural resource classes cover the history of how the west was overgrazed, overhunted, and over plowed. Somehow that fault seems to fall squarely in the lap of today’s ranchers and farmers, at least in my classmates’ minds and maybe some of my faculty, too. I’ve found for many the story stops there. Somehow, there’s an unspoken belief that farmers and ranchers haven’t paid the debts of the past and continue on some reckless path. If you haven’t reset the flow in your ditches multiple times a day, cleaned you’re your pivot heads clogged by fish guts, gotten up before sunrise to feed cattle before you eat, spent a day in the cold vaccinating 300 head until your hands are almost permanently clenched, held your breath until a pulled calf took its first breath, held a cold rejected calf to your body trying to impart heat and get her to suckle a bottle, or had to watch a fetotomy that still resulted in momma getting put down…well, I guess I feel sorry for you because you’re missing some of the greatest, hardest, and most powerful moments that life can offer.
On the Ag side, in my classes we covered the mistakes of the past, but moved quickly to the science of improvement. Maximizing forage production, maximizing gain, maximizing intake, growth, milk production, maximizing genetics and…well the list goes on and on. We’re feeding the world after all. There have been a lot of amazing advancements, I have no doubt of that. But I also have to admit that sometimes I feel like we’ve pushed the science of production to a place that isn’t always economically supported, asking the land for more and more. With more drought years creating more bust years leaving many to sell out. And yes, that’s been true long before we made these scientific advancements. And yes, sometimes ranchers make mistakes and overgraze, which believe-you-me has made me ask “why the heck are we still using a grazing optimization chart from 1969 for rangelands?” I get that busts sometimes come from the price of inputs like grain and hay being too high, especially in drought years. Sometimes it’s the weather in one growing season that breaks a farm or ranch. I’ve watched a hail storm ruin a wheat field a day before harvest, wreck a corn crop in half the county, and leave fresh cut hay too wet to bale. Ag life isn’t a steady paycheck by any means and it involves a lot of hard work, risk and faith that not many are willing to take on these days. I just want it to be more sustainable for everyone who chooses to make a living this way. Although I miss the sound of cattle mooing at night, the smell of the feedlot, and having half a cow in the freezer, living in town makes me appreciate my Ag experiences and that food is always available at the store. I think many my peers lack that appreciation.
Sometimes my classmates offer solutions to cattle-wildlife conflict issues like “pay the rancher to create a buffer so elk that might have brucellosis abortus won’t come in contact with herd,” “get the rancher to watch his cattle better so that wolf and coyote predation of calves doesn’t happen,” and “why can’t ranchers just pay someone to do x, y, or z?” I grind my teeth a lot and I try to come up with thoughtful answers that include getting them to imagine adding more work to their long day, to understanding that compensation for a lost animal this season doesn’t account for the loss of the future reproduction of that animal’s lifetime, and for the fact that ranchers care about their animals, the land, and wildlife. When they try to bring up the carbon footprint of cattle, how much water it takes to raise beef, or some other inane statement of how cattle and ranchers continue to ruin the planet, I ask them to look at how cities use water, ask them who’s buying up Ag water, to look at the carbon footprint of cities, their pollution, and waste compared to family ranches and farms. Mostly I get blank looks and silence. I haven’t convinced them. I can’t rattle off a bunch of facts about cities or the average American’s carbon footprint and water use. Yes, I actually do lay awake at night wondering how we’re going save the planet when there’s a lot more people thinking like this, ignoring their own consumption, and blaming the hand that literally feeds them.
How did we get here? There are so many great examples of ranchers healing the land, creating shared habitat for cattle and wildlife, and working to save threatened and endangered species. Yes, sometimes begrudgingly but they’re doing it. I could pull many examples from the last twenty years as well as the past few months, but they don’t seem to be reaching a wider audience. Why do ranchers and environmentalists have to be on different sides? Why can’t we all reach across the table and work together? I think we have a lot more in common in terms of wanting healthy ecosystems. Often, we’re talking about the same thing but using different vocabulary. There are a lot of problems we could actually solve together. As cities and suburbs expand into more former Ag land, the remaining farms, ranches, open spaces, and public lands are even more valuable for conservation and wildlife. Think about that for a minute.
Yup, I’ve got a lot questions and the list keeps growing. In the meantime, I’m trying to focus on what I can do, what I need to learn so I could help make changes, and how I could get people to the table to work together. I take heart that it is already happening, and I try to stay hopeful about the future.