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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Ghosts of the grassland : why decision makers ignore the massive damage done by grazing cows

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

By Staci-lee Sherwood

What is a ghost? To most people a ghost is something they can sense can feel they know is there but can’t completely see. Step into the world of wild horse advocacy and it quickly becomes clear that cows, and other livestock, seem to be like ghosts. Only in this situation they can be seen but politicians and government employees choose to not see them as if they were ghosts. A mythical creature causing damage yet seemingly unseen by those in charge.

The massive damage they leave behind just from their very existence appears to go unnoticed. There are huge swaths of land now turned to dust from their overgrazing. During a drought they out compete with native wildlife for precious water. In many areas our public land is so dead it looks like another dustbowl waiting to happen. Just the sheer volume of them grazing destroys countless plants and flowers many of which are already endangered. When they stampede they trample everything in their wake.

Having spent a lot of time out west on public lands I can attest to the many ‘cow jams’ we had to sit through. Thousands of cattle lining the road as far as the eye could see. Looking across the vast landscape many times there was barely more than a sparrow because the land had been so ravaged and no longer supported life. Some states have more cattle residents than human ones.

Livestock is the main reason our wild horses and burros are being driven from their homes in brutal roundups and for the most part shipped out of country to slaughterhouses. Yet to our elected officials, who vote on policy and allocate funding, the cows and the damage they cause seem to be invisible to them. Chiming in with their own agenda driven ‘data’ are the ranchers themselves propped up by the Cattleman’s Association. It seems that even just one cow ranks importance to this association despite the fact the American beef market could lose all the cows currently grazing on public lands and no one would notice. More than 98% of livestock graze on private not public land.

There has been a steady decline in overall beef consumption since its high in the 1970s. The decline goes hand in hand with rising numbers of diet related diseases like heart disease, cancer. hypertension and high cholesterol. Add the high cost of healthcare which can bankrupt even the most cost cutting family and you have a recipe for disaster. These factors are driving down beef consumption in the U.S. so why are taxpayers spending more to increase beef production? Just who are American taxpayers really footing the bill for?

These grassland ghosts appear to do no wrong in the eyes of the government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service. They can look at devastated land and only see the few thousand wild horses and burros we now have left as the reason for the loss of viable land while these ghostly livestock carry on as if all is well. According to BLM own data almost all the damage is done by cows and hardly any done by any other species. It is quite the feat to invest this much energy in denying the obvious.

The main reason these people in power refuse to acknowledge what we all see and know to be true is funding, though some might call it kickbacks or ‘campaign’ contributions. Bottom line is money goes to elected officials, through a variety of channels, who then allocate inflated budgets to various agencies. These huge agencies then take those tax dollars and use the money for salaries, pet projects and various other things with little to no oversight. The lack of accountability makes for a sweet almost undisturbed gravy train for those who would fail if they had to work in the private sector.

Big Ag $ > Politicians $ > Govt agencies $

It’s been said by many that the BLM is the bottom ranking agency often the last stop for people who would otherwise be unemployed, and unemployable. Over the years the agency has become so emboldened they no longer hide the corruption, negligence and abuse. At times they seem to relish in denying those that pay their salary even a glimpse of the roundups which are suppose to be public.

The U.S. cattle beef industry in 2021 is estimated to be worth $66 billion dollars, the global meat market over $383 billion of which the US is one of the biggest exporters. These numbers are the driving force of all policy relating to livestock, land use and the wild horses and burros who live on the range. In a capitalist economy value is placed soley on products that generate revenue. For public servants paid by tax payers they see little value in animals that can’t be sold for a price.

For many activists working to save endangered sharks they argue that a live shark generates so much more in tourism dollars over several years versus the one time payout of killing them. They point to all the businesses in the support system from dive shops and tour boats to hotels and car rental all of whom get a piece of the pie in the supply chain. For our wild horses and burros that type of equation doesn’t really exist. Wild horse advocates have to rely more on the wasteful cost of the removals, holding corrals and millions paid to the wranglers with questionable character.

Fence line showing overgrazed pasture at TNC’s Dugout Ranch in Utah. Photo by George Wuerthner

Talk to just about anyone in D.C. about livestock and almost immediately they reach for the standard talking points driving the ranching industry’s agenda. All the usual buzz words are sprinkled in when talking to the public. Drought and starvation are used to justify the humane removal of the excess wild horses and burros for their own good, Never mind the simple mathematics that has one wonder how maybe 30,000 (because there has never been any proof that more than that exists) wild horses causes more damage than say 1,800,000 cows. That’s a tough one for those who chose to ignore the ghostly cows. For those that see things clearly there are no ghosts no mysteries to unravel. We need change regarding livestock grazing on public land and we need it now. The longer we wait the less wildlife there will be and the more damaged our public lands will become.

A trampled landscape in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo by George Wuerthner.

If you would like to voice your concerns find your Senator @ and your House of Rep @

The Agriculture committee for the Senate members list

The Agriculture committee for the House members list

A cow-nuked landscape. Photo by George Wuerthner

Also published on Emagazine on October 4, 2022

Also published on The good men project on October 25, 2022

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Deanna Lynn Morris
Deanna Lynn Morris
Jan 25, 2022

Thank you Staci, a very true and important piece to understand as we all seek to keep our ecosystem and the life that dwells within protected, free from corruption.


McKenna Grace Fisher
McKenna Grace Fisher
Oct 31, 2021

~ I really appreciate this extensive well thought out and penned piece ~ You cover it all sis and people need to know ~ There are solutions if we can get big Ag out of the pockets of politicians and visa versa ~ mgf

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