“There’s something wrong at the heart of our most popular American myth—the cowboy and his cow.” –Ed Abbey

Myths tend to persist even long after they’ve gone out of fashion. Even if they’ve yet to go out of fashion, they often linger because of cultural inertia—they’ve been around so long no one takes the time to question them anymore. It’s probably well past time to look into the cattle myth, especially in light of some recent occurrences surrounding ranching in the drought-stricken American West.

At best count, from the Arctic heights of Canada to the civil unrest in southern Mexico, North America houses some 87.73 million head of cattle. The vast majority of those cattle are raised in the central and eastern United States. In the US, the Bureau of Land Management controls 245 million acres of public land, of which 155 million are open to public grazing. This vast acreage seems impressive until you consider that most of it is arid semi-desert, and perhaps 2 – 4% of the cattle raised in the United States come from this gigantic area. These lands are leased to ranchers at $1.35/head, a cost that hasn’t risen in almost a decade. The program barely breaks even. So that’s the first myth that should go: that cowboys and ranching and cattle have anything to do with dry places or rural economies. They don’t. Cattle eat up what little forage there is in an area before moving on, making life extremely hard for the few species adapted to these areas, like sage grouse, mule deer, pronghorn antelope. Public lands should be for wildlife.

Canada generally manages its Crown Lands better. Canada’s Range Act and Land Act offer permits of 1 – 5 years as well as 10-year licenses to ranchers. These contracts come with guarantees toward restoration and ecological sustenance. Issues still exist even when ranges are managed to their best, as Trevor Herriot notes in a recent blog post. Range problems occur across the spectrum wherever cattle walk the land—the afore-mentioned sage grouse is only one casualty. Well-managed buffalo lands, by comparison, such as the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and writer Dan O’Brien’s Wild Idea Buffalo, both located in South Dakota, begin restoration projects the moment the bison step on the prairie. Unlike cattle, buffalo are part of the complex plains ecology and they eat on the move, keeping grasses low but not reduced to rootstock that won’t grow back. Bring back the buffalo and the other species that surrounded it return, too. So break myth #2: cattle are ecologically unsustainable, do not belong in the arid West.

The impressive and sustained rise in veganism sends a powerful message of a better future for the land and for our collective health. Since 2008 Canadian red meat consumption dropped almost 50%; in the US, consumption fell almost 10%, but the total amount of beef consumed in the US still floats around 26 billion lbs/yr, something like 200 lbs/American. If you think simply giving up beef will immediately help these mangled ecosystems, think again. Your tax dollars are still hard at work to maintain a dysfunctional system you abhor. Both the US and Canada offer tax breaks, incentives, and work to improve each country’s market share on the world stage for North American beef. Myth #3: the independent rancher actually benefits vastly from public subsidies on everything from feed to transportation.

Concerned individuals should still work to change a system that’s bad for the animals, the land, and our own cardiovascular health. Just take a look at water, something that everything that lives, walks, crawls, or flies needs to exist. Trying as hard as we can to turn this ecological mess around hits a brick wall if we’re still buying into the cattle myth. In this case, when you think green, think blue. Let’s blow this last myth apart together.

Enough of the mythical madness. Abbey was right in 1985 and he’s right today: “I love the legend too—but keep your sacred cows…out of my elk pastures.”

Author William Huggins

William Huggins is an avid hiker, reader, husband, father, and dedicated rescue-dog maniac--though not necessarily in that order. Educated in a series of remote places because of his father's work for the United States Air Force, he was born an advocate of wild places and grew into that green skin. Bill writes for Texas Books in Review and has a series of six essays for Conservation Lands Foundation appearing at westernarctic.org and a new short story, "Watercharmer," coming this fall 2017 in the anthology Visions VII: Universe."

More posts by William Huggins