We tend to think (and many Westerners tend to think of themselves this way) of cowboys as the quintessential American individualist: dependent upon no one, self-reliant utterly…this is the image (regarded both positively and negatively) that makes “cowboy” such a resonant symbol. But insofar as modern-day ranchers are cowboys (and of course, they are that, among other things), they put your Reagan-fantasy “welfare queens” to shame with their reliance on government funding. Christopher Ketcham (in an article in the June 2008 issue of Harper’s) notes that not only do most major ranchers use federal lands (national parks and forests and the like) for grazing, the cost of such grazing permits is only about a twelfth of the cost of the market rate for foraging on private lands and costs US taxpayers at least $120 million annually, with additional hidden costs driving that figure up as high as $1 billion per year. On behalf of such ranchers (who include poor folks like Ted Turner and Paris Hilton’s grandpa), Ketcham notes, the US government “clears forests; plants grass; builds roads, cattle guards, and fences; diverts streams; blows up beaver dams; ‘improves’ habitats; monitors the health of stock; excises predators, including 80,000 coyotes; and poisons, traps, or shoots more than 30,000 prairie dogs and beavers…each year.”
Worse yet, this welfare (and half of Montana’s cattle, for example, are owned by only 10 percent of the state’s cattle ranchers) goes to support an activity that is hugely destructive to the Western habitat. Cattle, it turns out, are grossly less-suited to the environment, and more destructive of it, than were buffalo. Had the US not driven out the original buffalo herds in favor of beef cattle (and – no small factor this – as an effective strategy to clear Native Americans from the land), and had we instead relied upon buffalo rather than cattle, the deforestation and desertification, the loss of topsoil and even species, would have been mitigated if not eliminated. To take one example, buffalo hooves are sharper than cattle’s hooves, which means that their passage separates and oxygenates the soil, whereas flat cattle hooves pound it down deplete it.
So: not only are cattle ranchers welfare-dependent guzzlers at the state teat, their practices are extremely harmful…not only to the land in general but ultimately to their own livelihood.
(Introducing: vaguely associated musical selections…)