Commentary: Playing the extinction card

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Activists are busy sharpening another dart to throw at ranchers — now they’re accused of sending the wildlife we love to watch (on TV) into extinction. But guess who’s pushing back?

A new campaign from the Arizona-based activist group Center for Biological Diversity — “Take Extinction Off Your Plate” — aims to persuade Americans to cut back on meat consumption. Nothing new there, right?

The campaign’s message, though represents a new wrinkle: Eat less meat and help save wildlife.

According to the Center’s campaign, the livestock industry is responsible for the “near extinction of iconic species like the Mexican gray wolf and the California grizzly bear.” That, plus the good old standby — meat production causes climate change — is why it’s necessary to replace meat in the American diet with plant-based foods, the group stated.

The campaign attracted the attention of National Public Radio, which ran a story and an online report on the Center’s initiative.

Here’s a few bullet points from Take Extinction Off Your Plate:

  • Animal agriculture has taken over nearly half the landmass of the lower 48 states;
  • Livestock have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and groundwater in 17 states;
  • Grazing is a serious threat to wildlife and ecosystems; the ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use. 

The first two points are wildly exaggerated, but it’s that last statement with which some environmentalists are taking issue, and in fact, several prominent groups contacted NPR to dispute the Center’s contentions.

“These commenters noted [that] we’d completely overlooked the many partnerships between conservation groups and ranchers to conserve grasslands and protect wildlife,” NPR’s report stated. “It turns out, they're right.”

Damn right.

Pushback from eco-groups

Those groups include Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and others, and their spokespeople made the case that raising livestock and protecting wildlife can be mutually compatible. It’s true that there are plenty of examples where improper use of rangelands — such as allowing cattle unfettered access to riparian areas and open water sources — as well as overstocking have damaged the resource.

And in a number of western states there has been conflict between ranching activities and preservation of wildlife habitat. But that doesn’t have to be the norm.

Chris Pague, a senior conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, told NPR that in his 22 years working on western land issues, he's seen a lot of improvement in the ways ranchers manage their land.

“I know many ranchers who are excellent — they want to know how to manage lands to improve the chances of many of these species with high conservation value,” Pague told NPR. “I would say fully a third of land out there is in pretty good condition, supporting wildlife and plant communities.”

As is true in politics, too many activist campaigns ostensibly aimed a “generating awareness” are actually deliberate attempts to mislead a large percentage of the public who have no connection with and minimal knowledge about animal agriculture. The mythical “average guy on the street” is predisposed to believe that cattle and wildlife cannot coexist, because that’s what they’ve heard over and over from every corner of the activist community — with precious little to the contrary from mainstream media.

With a few rare exceptions, most reporters, broadcasters and journalists I’ve ever known could care less about ag science or range management or even food production in general. Oh sure, they’re all ears if there’s a food-safety scandal or if commodity prices suddenly escalate. But spending the time and patience it takes to get educated about the complexities of ecosystems and multiple use issues — forget it.

But all you need to do is remind people what the West was like 150 years ago. There were plenty of iconic wildlife — bears, wolves, elk — as well as multi-millions of bison roaming all across the Great Plains. Funny how the presence of so many gigantic bovines didn’t destroy the prairies or ruin entire watersheds.

Yes, we could learn a lot from studying the impact of the great migratory bison herds, and rotational grazing is nothing more than a more functional way to duplicate that action of bison on soil and vegetation, which were all positive, by the way.

Whereas the modern system finishing cattle in large-scale feedlots creates problems with manure management, it certainly can’t be blamed for loss of habitat. If all the cattle on feed needed to be turned loose on grass, it would make the scenarios that activists lament exponentially more challenging.

The bottom line is that everything conservationists prioritize — preserving habitat, protecting watersheds and safeguarding endangered species are fully compatible with livestock production — if it’s done with those goals as part of the program.

It’s totally legitimate to point out that other uses of public lands, mining, logging, irrigation projects, are far more damaging to those environmental priorities. But that’s not the message industry needs to convey. An “others are worse than us” positioning never gets a serious traction.

Instead, the comments from the environmentalists who are collaborating with ranchers are exactly what more people need to hear: Cattle can coexist with wildlife. The message isn’t that we need to pick one or the other, but that responsible production enhances — not degrades — the habitat and the non-domesticated species dependent on it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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