Scientists Call to End Cattle Grazing on Federal Land, Make Way for Wolves

A group of scientists is calling to replace cattle grazing in the American West with predator wolves.

Published in BioScience journal this month in response to President Biden’s “30×30” executive order, “Rewilding the American West” is a two-part action plan: Stop grazing on federal land, and reintroduce gray wolves and beavers. The team behind the paper is made up of 20 scientists led by Oregon State University’s Department of Forestry.

To save the planet, they call for booting cattle from 70 million acres, reducing cattle and sheep grazing by 29% in Western states.

Authors recommend buying ranchers out of grazing rights with an “economically and socially just federal compensation program.” They state the net benefit would be positive “given the social carbon cost of livestock grazing on federal lands”–a controversial claim given that many rangeland and environmental scientists believe grazing on grassland is a highly effective carbon sequestration tool.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures, the entire U.S. agriculture industry contributes just 10% of greenhouse gases, with animal agriculture consisting of a mere 3.9% of that number. Often when industry emissions numbers are quoted, scientists use global figures, which misrepresent how efficient the U.S. market is. U.S. cattle are just 6% of the global herd size but produce 18% of all beef production.

While admitting the plan is drastic, authors of the rewilding plan demand “ultra ambitious action” in light of climate change, and their solution has received strong support from climate activists who agree this is the best way to achieve Biden’s wishes to conserve 30% of land and water in the U.S. by 2030.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, American consumers are more aware of the fragility of our national food supply. This increased awareness comes at a time of global emissions crackdowns. Farmers in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Canada and other countries are protesting in the streets, warning consumers of closed farms and coming food shortages caused by severe climate regulations.

With these prospects looming for 2023, the United States plays an even more critical role in the global food supply. Ranchers are already facing high feed prices thanks to widespread drought and soaring fuel costs. American beef is one of the most humane and sustainable food sources in the world. Any steps to curb production would be a step in the wrong direction. Between the 1960s and 2018, U.S. ranchers reduced carbon emissions by 40% while producing 66% more beef.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, argues that instead of punishing American farmers and ranchers, the climate would be better served by exporting their techniques.

“In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices, to make more food with less greenhouse gas production,” Mitloehner told Futurity.

The federal government owns approximately 47% of the Western U.S. The so-called Western Rewilding Network would cover nearly 500,000 acres across 11 state–roughly 34% of federal land in the West. Wolves need room to roam, authors insist, and replacing grazing with beavers and wolves would “rewild” the West and increase biodiversity. They say the wolves will kill off “overpopulated” ungulates such as deer and elk, among other environmental benefits.

Culling cattle to make way for even more gray wolves is bound to trigger a reaction from ranchers, hunters, and rural Western communities who already struggle to co-exist with gray wolves. Ranchers (and Americans who eat) need to get used to it, researchers say.

“Right now, livestock still take precedence over keystone species, and that has to change,” Randi Spivak, public lands program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Popular Science.

Wes Siler at Outside Magazine is another fan of the proposal, writing that the only problem standing in the way of this “perfect plan” is “politics.”

“Across the West,” Siler states, “Republican politicians have successfully turned wolves into a culture war issue in which the species and its defenders are cast as monsters trying to destroy the livelihoods of Republican voters.”

The possibility Siler does not mention is that political representatives in these states are speaking for voters whose livelihoods have been destroyed.

But the study’s authors have a backup plan, telling Siler even if they can’t succeed in erasing ranching from the entire West and repopulating it with predators, maybe they can do it in some places where Democrats maintain political control, such as Colorado and California.

Scientists insist this plan would benefit many of the “92 threatened and endangered species across nine taxonomic groups: five amphibians, five birds, two crustaceans, 22 fishes, 39 flowering plants, five insects, 11 mammals, one reptile, and two snail species.”

There is no apparent benefit to the national food supply, or to the rural American communities built on agriculture.

The group admits gray wolf and beaver populations are not at risk, but insists these species still need more land.

“Although gray wolves and beavers currently have low risk of extinction, we are very concerned that these keystone species have been lost from many ecosystems across the American West,” coauthor Christopher Wolf told CNN.