Having worked in orchards and on ranches as a child and young adult, I have a tremendous respect for the folks who actually produce our food. That respect has led me to work diligently over the years to protect farm land, working landscapes, and family farmers. But in all of this we have to be realistic and honest. We also have to understand—particularly when we look at public lands that are owned by all—that there are a myriad of issues that need to be considered and they need to be considered in a rational and equitable manner.
I bring this up because I was disturbed this week by the news coverage over the wolf attack that seriously injured at calf on federal land in eastern Oregon. That calf will likely be put down and that has an impact on that rancher and that needs to be dealt with, but not hysterically. Portraying wolves as another nail in the coffin of ranching is not borne out by reality or experience.
Right now there are 1.3 million or so beef cattle in Oregon and many of those cattle die before reaching market. In fact, in an average year something like 50,000-60,000 cattle die of non-predator related causes in Oregon. That is about 150 head per day. But one calf gets killed by a wolf in 6 months and it is time to ring the alarm bells and call out the cavalry, because wolves are going to put ranchers out of business. This sort of hyperbole is not helpful.
As much as this piece would suggest that the public lands ranching equation is just a wolf and rancher question, it really is not. There are several other vested players in this equation that need to be considered such as hunters and fishermen as well as the growing number of wildlife watchers who visit our public lands. These uses and desires need to be balanced and currently they are not.
We also need to remember that cattle displace both elk and deer. They also muddy trout streams and remove streamside vegetation critical to invertebrate food production for trout and other fish. They also foul potential campsites with their flops. And grazing from all three often impacts bird habitat—both watchable and hunt-able. Sure ranchers pay to graze BLM and Forest Service lands but those fees are generally much lower than private land grazing fees and degradation much higher.
So am I advocating for an end to public lands grazing so we have more wolves as well as more elk, deer, fish and wilderness experiences? No, but I think we need to examine the entire system again and assess the ecological, economic, and social value of each activity. Are elk and elk hunting more valuable and employ more people than cattle grazing? What are the trade-offs to keep cattle away from streams and have vibrant fishing on our public lands again? Which of the activities provides the largest returns to local communities? And are subsidized grazing fees for a few still appropriate in these times of great fiscal stress for many, particularly in those counties that are hardest hit by the economy?
Moreover, we probably need to re-evaluate each in the light of climate change. Studies coming out of Yellowstone at this point are linking the drop in elk populations to climate change related drought conditions. This notion is reinforced by the fact that female elk are in poor condition which leads to low reproductive rates. This makes sense when you realize that July temperatures in Yellowstone are nine degrees higher than normal and brown-up is happening several days earlier than it has in the past. Any shortening in critical summer feeding is going to hurt elk numbers so keeping commercial grazing levels on public lands static does not seem like a logical course.