Monday, December 1, 2008

How The West Was Lost

Gadfly
by Mort Malkin

How The West Was Lost

The taxpayers get to: bail out the investment banks, give subidies to Big Oil, cut taxes for people so rich they feel embarassed by the giveaways, and generally make the rich richer & the poor unemployed. But, it is not all happening in Washington DC or on Wall Street. A large area of the country that receives government largesse is out West where the buffalo used to roam, and the beneficiaries today are the ranchers and Big Beef.

There was a time that the buffalo (really bison) dominated the landscape — over 50 million of the great beasts that were the livelihood of the Indian nations. Today, the herd of genetically pure wild buffalo — about 3600 in number — live in Yellowstone Park. Settling the West required getting rid of the Indians and their sacred buffalo. It took a while, but the US Army, the railroad barons, the cattle tycoons, the British banks, and the industries that dealt in pelts, belts, and leathers generally, wiped out buffalo by the millions. With the Indians and the bufflo they depended upom gone, cattle raising could go forward, indeed, fast forward. You may ask why raise cattle, why not domesticate buffalo that were already there. The answer is that buffalo are powerful, ornery creatures that are difficult to raise. If a buffalo, especially a bull, wants to go from point A to point B — pasture, water, or buffalo whimsy — the beast will just break through a fence. In a rodeo with buffalo, coyboys would lose. Cattle are more docile and, besides, not associated with Indians. The English and formerly English (now Americans) liked beef, not gamey buffalo. Buffalo were only good for robes, coats and leathers — soft, yet tough.

Today, there are vast stretches of public lands managed by governmental agencies, where cattle are permitted to graze.for a token fee. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and various state agencies such as Montana’s Department of Livestock (DoL) encourage cattle grazing, often right up to the borders of Yellowstone National Park where the buffalo are supposed to obey the White man’s regulations and not transgress the artificial boundaries.

The real problem is not the buffalo but the cattle that are destroying the landscape. Buffalo have sharp hooves that break up the turf, increasing aeration and establishment of a diversity of grasses and shrubs. They also eat a greater variety of greens. They don’t congregate around streams as cattle do, preferring to wallow in water-filled potholes and shallows. Cattle flatten and compact the soil, deplete it of oxygen, worms and insects, and muddy the banks of streams.

Buffalo are strong constitutionally and survive adverse weather conditions. They are resistant to the devastating effects of brucellosis even though they may be carriers. Brucellosis will ravage a herd of cows, causing miscarriages ad other endocrine disturbances. The ranchers say their cows contract brucellosis from the few buffalo that wander beyond the arbitrary confines of Yellowstone Park, but those buffalo have not been seen consorting with cattle. A more likely suspect is the elk feeding grounds of Wyoming and Montana, used by both elk herds and cattle. But, elk hunting is big busineess in the Northern plains, and it would never do to eliminate the elk.

In return for cattle turning the plains into a nice flat dustbowl, the government: builds roads & fences, plants grass (monoculture, unnaturally), “controls” predators, and tries to reclaim streams. The grazing fees don’t begin to approach the costs to the taxpayer. Wall Street investment banks, of course cooperate with the beef enterprise by making loans to the ranchers, the only collateral being the grazing permits. It makes the financial crisis and the markets for unregulated mortgage derivatives and credit default swaps seem like ethical business practices.

It would all be under the radar except for the recent book “Turf Wars” by Mike Hudak published by Biome Books. Hudak’s book is a series of extrensive interviews with rangers, fish & wildlife biologists, and range conservationists from Texas all the way up to North Dakota, from New Mexico thtough eastern Colorado to Montana and the Canadian border. Many of them are or were government employees out in the field, not political types sitting in well appointed offices. They are all quoted in their own words, and so the writing style changes from one to the next. How cattle grazing ravages the botanical ecosystems, archeological sites, and natural animal populations are all documented. Some of the writers point fingers at both politicians and the “system” as well as at Big Beef. The most valuable resource, the watershed of the great plains, is being destroyed.

There are 25 free-ranging interviews with men and women who love the land of the plains, the animals and the fish. The interviews, all arranged into basic topics that are relevant, are called “chapters.” The experience and thoughts of the many authors seem unprompted, and the writing/speaking styles are as varied as personalities could be. Many of them work or worked for the BLM or Forest Service; others were independent conservationists. They all describe the destructive effects of cattle grazing on public lands and the political power of the cattlemen. The establishment blames probloms with the cattle and overgrazing on coyotes, prarie dogs, the buffalo of Yellowstone Park, and even the few wild horses left in the West. Luckily the large ranchers who didn’t like the wild horses were stymied. Horses in America can’t be treated like buffalo. Horses have a constitutiency of horse lovers.

The book is well documented with over 500 notated references but could use a few maps to orient the reader. Despite the detailed organization (maybe because of it) the book is a good read. It is highly recommended for its insight into how our country is run. It may even be enough for you to swear off hamburgers in fast food joints.

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