Free Term Paper on Stock Grazing and the Environment

The grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats provides food but also has environmental impacts. In some environments, stock grazing can be destructive. Stockmen use 70 percent of the U.S. West for raising livestock, and most of this land is owned by the public. Experts and environmental activists consider ranching to be the rural West’s most harmful environmental influence.

Outline

I. Introduction

II. Global Context

III. U.S. Context

IV. Environmental Challenges and Benefits

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Stock Grazing and the EnvironmentMany animals naturally graze or eat plants such as grasses and leaves. Some animals and plants develop strong symbiotic relationships in the natural environment. Grazing animals in nature can fill important parts of the food chain in a given ecosystem. Many predators rely on them for food. Humans learned that raising your own animals was easier and more reliable than hunting them. Since early civilization, humans have grazed animals such as sheep, cattle, and goats. With the advent of large moving herds of the same grazing animal, environmental impacts increased, especially over time and in the context of increasing human population. Increasing population and expanding development reduce the amount of pastureland available and can increase the environmental impacts on the pastureland that is left. Increasing population also increases demand for food. The demand for meat and animal products drives the overall production of meat and the need for efficient industrial production processes. Part of these more efficient processes is producing the most meat per acre, which may have environmental impacts. Producing meat from pastures generally requires a minimum pasture size, depending on pasture quality and grazing animal.

II. Global Context

Not all pastureland is affected by large stock grazing systems. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s pastureland is covered by grazing systems. This is just less than half the world’s usable surface. The grazing land supports about 360 million cattle and over 600 million sheep and goats. Grazing lands supply about 9 percent of the world’s production of beef and about 30 percent of the world’s production of sheep and goat meat. For an estimated 200 million people, grazing livestock is the only source of livelihood. For many others, grazing animals provide the basis for a subsistence lifestyle and culture.

III. U.S. Context

Ranching is big business in the United States. Although it is concentrated in the western United States, other states have some ranching interests. (Hawaii, for instance, has one of the biggest ranches in the United States in the Parker Ranch on Hilo.) One issue is the use of federal land for grazing. The federal government is a large landowner is western ranching states. In the western United States, 80 per cent of federal land and 70 percent of all land is used for livestock grazing. The federal government grants permits to ranchers for their herds to use federal lands. The mean amount of land allotted per western grazing permittee is 11,818 acres. Many ranchers own both private property and permits from the federal government for ranching public land. The public lands portion is usually many times larger than the private one.

Cattle and sheep have always comprised the vast majority of livestock on public land. Cattle consume about 96 percent of the estimated total grazed forage on public land in the United States. There are some small public lands ranchers, but corporate ranchers and large individual operators control the market now. This is also an issue because some say that ranchers are exploiting the land with the aid of the U.S. government. Many of the permits involve long-term leases at below-market rates. Forty percent of federal grazing is controlled by 3 percent of permittees. On the national scale, nearly 80 percent of all beef processing is controlled by only three agricultural conglomerates.

IV. Environmental Challenges and Benefits

Stock grazing can damage the environment by overgrazing, soil degradation, water contamination, and deforestation. Seventy-three percent of the world’s 4.5 billion hectares of pasture is moderately or severely degraded already. Livestock and their need for safe pastures is one reason for the cutting down of tropical rain forests.

Prolonged heavy grazing contributes to species extinction and the subsequent dominance by other plants, which may not be suitable for grazing. Other wild grazing animals are also affected by the loss of plant biodiversity. Such loss of plant and animal biodiversity can have severe environmental impacts. In sensitive environments, such as alpine and reclaimed desert environments, the impacts of overgrazing can be irreversible. Livestock overgrazing has ecological impacts on soil and water systems. Overgrazing causes soil compaction and erosion and can dramatically increase sensitivity to drought, landslides, and mudslides.

Actions to mitigate environmental impacts of overgrazing include preservation of riparian areas, place-sensitive grazing rotations, and excluding ranchers from public lands. Each one of these actions is controversial. Ranchers do not like being told by the government how to run their businesses and resist taking these steps because their implementation costs money. Excluding ranchers dramatically increases the intensity of the debate, but that is the preferred solution for many conservationists. The areas that benefit from these types of mitigation include the following:

  • Grasslands, grassy woodlands, and forests on infertile, shallow, or skeletal soils
  • Grassy woodlands and forests in which trees constrain grass biomass levels and prevent dominant grasses from outcompeting smaller herbs
  • Other ecosystems on unproductive soils that occur among grassy ecosystems within managed areas

V. Conclusion

Given climate change, population growth, and the dependence of people on grazing animals, it is likely that this controversy will become more intense. In the United States, perceptions of a vested property right in U.S. land by ranchers, their families, and their communities clash with the reality that this is land held in trust for all citizens of the United States. As environmental restrictions on grazing on public and private lands challenge this perception, courts and federal agencies will be front-and-center issues in this controversy. As concern about endangered species and sustainability rises, so too will these issues enter this controversy.

 

Robert William Collin

 

Bibliography:

  1. Davis, Charles E., Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
  2. Robbins, William G., and William Cronon, Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940–2000. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.
  3. Vaughn, Jacqueline, Conflicts over Natural Resources: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.