The Cattle in the Desert Paradox

A cow completely out of place grazing in the arid deserts. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I’m standing at the base of Jackson Lake Dam, my position normally below about 20-30 feet of water, or in this case, ice. Severe drought has gripped Jackson Hole and the western United States, evidenced by the lake, now restored to its pre-dam levels, as well as the scarcity in snowfall this season. It brings me back to a question I often ask myself: Why on earth are we grazing an animal as thirsty as cattle all across the deserts of this continent and our public lands?

According to the Water Footprint Calculator, it takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water to yield only 1 pound of beef. In addition, The Guardian says that nearly 75% of Lake Mead’s diminished levels are solely due to cattle. Given those facts, where’s the logic in putting these animals in the driest parts of our country? Areas that are only getting drier and hotter? The simple answer is that there is none. It genuinely makes no sense to have cattle grazing in the arid western U.S., especially on public lands. The complex answer requires a bit more understanding, ecologically speaking, of both cattle and the western continent.

Cattle evolved in Europe, or better said, cattle devolved in Europe. They originated from an animal known as the aurochs, a massive beast that could dwarf a full-grown bison. In the early days of agriculture, farmers found the animals too large to control, so over time they bred smaller and smaller offspring, as well as less intelligent ones to make captivity an easier job for the farmer. In time, the native aurochs went extinct and we were left with cattle closely resembling its modern counterpart. The species flourished thanks to the temperate European climate and plenty of rainfall to consistently feed plentiful rivers and streams.

Back in America, or what was to become America, an animal leftover from the Ice Age evolved without interruption to adapt to not only arid lands, but also to occasional droughts as well as brutally harsh winters. This was of course, the bison, not only feeding the native humans of the western continent, but also creating symbiotic relationships with all life around it, resulting in healthier soil and ecosystems. Adapting to survive in much harsher conditions than in Europe, its needs were, and still are, minimal, yet in turn it seamlessly worked with prairie dogs to aerate the soil, was frequently avoided by wolves who preferred elk anyway, create wallows which aide in vegetation growth as well as other animals, and supplied nearby humans with a leaner and healthier meat than their distant relatives in Europe were consuming. These benefits are only a sliver of the bison’s impact on the lands it grazes.

As Europeans made their way across the Atlantic Ocean and subsequently to the western part of North America, bison were removed to make way for cattle, and also to coerce the natives from their land, both deemed inferior to European advancement. And why wouldn’t they? The study of ecology and the understandings of the North American natural world were barely in their infancy. To them, domesticating the aurochs into a farmable animal was the pinnacle of meat supply while also deemed suitable to be raised in any terrain. The natives, of course, tried to inform them of better alternatives, but no one was listening.

Fast forward 200 years and cattle have inexorably become more American than European. And yet, if we’re to preserve the health and longevity of our fresh water sources, we need to undo that thinking. On public lands especially, we should not be grazing cattle, but rather bison. More bison can be ranched in an allotment than cattle, yielding a higher profit for the rancher. Rivers and streams would be healthier thanks to less competition for water. There would be less losses since bison are not only already adapted to both hot and cold environments, but also to predators, who already have a hard time with the mighty beasts. This would also add a sense of wildness back to our public lands rather than domestication, creating a lasting impression for visitors that would encourage more care for them. It would be a win for both ranchers and environmentalists. Therefore, the complex answer would be to only allow native animals to graze on public lands.

Of course, something like this would require a paradigm shift, but it all starts with the decisions you make and the votes you cast. The easiest votes are made at the grocery store. Instead of buying beef next time, consider buying bison instead. Yes, it’s currently more expensive than beef, but with enough support and growing demand the industry will listen. Likewise, you’ll know you’re doing your part to help the mighty Colorado River reach the ocean again one day, something it currently doesn’t primarily due to cattle.

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