Cattle in rural Wyoming. (Aaron Groote/FlickrCC)

You don’t hear this from former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt or the usual suspects whose goal is to end many water diversions from the Colorado River, but it’s true. Rural landscapes and wildlife need ranching and irrigated agriculture to survive.

Without irrigation, think high desert. Without irrigation in this time of extended drought, less late water will be there for fish, birds and other riparian-dependent species. Wildlife habitat would be traded for urban growth if groups like Western Watersheds and the Center for Biological Diversity have their way.

How can this be when the drumbeat narrative says that without cattle or irrigated crops such as hay, the stressed river could recover? If you believe The Guardian newspaper, “U.S. rivers and lakes are shrinking for a surprising reason: cows.” Another British publication, Nature, wrote that in the Western United States, cattle are responsible for 23% of water use — or 32%, depending on the article — and more than 50% in the Colorado River basin.

Reputable scientists disagree. Leonard Bull, animal science professor at North Carolina State University, says, “The question that needs answered is how much water is used? And how do you ‘charge’ that water use if it falls on grazing land that is not suitable for alternative food production?

“Livestock consume water, excrete most of it, and meat has about 72% water in the lean portion. Does the water excreted in exhaled breath, urine and manure get a credit for recycling against consumed? This is sort of like chasing carbon,” he said in a personal interview on July 9.

Irrigation is likewise under attack. In reality, irrigation in the Western river valleys plays a key role in sustaining wetlands and riparian areas season-long. The green ribbons of irrigated pasture and hay land provide important habitat connectivity for sandhill cranes and other birds on their epic annual migrations. These agriculturally sustained wetlands also provide habitat for many other wildlife species.

Migratory birds are the true canary in the “buy and dry,” or just “dry” schemes proposed by the anti-cow vigilantes. Though an assessment reported in Science blames habitat reduction for the loss of nearly 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, how much more would be lost if irrigated lands become ephemeral streams?

If irrigation is eliminated, a cascade of negative events could result. Instead of flooded fields recharging underlying aquifers, a dry landscape would hold no water. No longer would groundwater feed springs and discharge water in the late season when fish and other riparian species need it most. Early water left in the river does not necessarily benefit fish, as that water flows away with the snow runoff, which climate change is bringing earlier in spring. Most of the early flows would end up in Lake Mead and Lake Powell for storage.

And that is the real point of Babbitt’s proposal to buy up some irrigation rights and fallow lands primarily in western Colorado. That “new” water would go to growing cities.

Cities and industry have real needs, but agriculture should not be sacrificed for either one. Food production and food security are critical to this country, something we became very aware of during the virus pandemic.

Somehow a narrative has become accepted that if more people — especially Americans — stop eating meat, the planet will magically improve. This is a false narrative. In the Rocky Mountain West, as elsewhere, it is ranchers and farmers who hold the landscape together, who provide open space and beauty, and for wildlife, crucial habitat.

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Raising cattle has value in its own right. Some 85% of grazing lands — think sagebrush steppe or high desert landscapes — are not suitable for any other type of food production. The much-maligned hay and alfalfa grown to feed beef cattle and dairy cows provide us with high-quality protein and nutritious dairy products. With inputs of grass, sunshine and water, we receive steaks, hamburgers, milk, cheese, yogurt and a long list of other byproducts.

Before you buy that impossible meat substitute, with its lower-quality protein, remember that you might consume a weird concoction, dependent on chemicals and ingredients imported from China, with its own environmental costs. 

Let’s never forget the wisdom of ecologist Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

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11 Comments

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  1. Peak cow in USA was about 1975 at about 132 MM. (Maximum numbers of living cows)
    Peak beef import to USA was about 2004 and per capita meat consumption is falling.
    We have created an artificial ecosystem with widespread (inefficient) irrigation to grow cow food.
    This is neither sustainable nor likely to persist for long.
    Reversion to natural conditions is a possible outcome for the open range and the hayed riparian zones.
    Water will accelerate its flow uphill towards urban areas.
    Think of ‘high desert’ as natural, beautiful, don’t mourn its return.
    Unemployed cows will wander this landscape waiting for a chinook..
    (C.M.Russell, 1886)
    Perhaps I’m wrong?

  2. While I appreciate the author’s concerns and respect their right to a voiced opinion, this article seems to lack nuance in a few important ways and does not provide a clear argument for a particular irrigation or ranching strategy.

    To be clear, I have no issue with responsible ranching and irrigation. We all need to eat. However, the costs and benefits, in terms of groundwater recharge, habitat value, etc., of both ranching and irrigation depend heavily on the methods employed. I was expecting to read a clear argument for a particular style of irrigation/ranching, or maybe hear about a way in which ranching has led to a measurable and specific conservation outcome, but instead I got a lot of anecdotes that seem to touch on a variety of topics that were neither here nor there (e.g., the protein in impossible burgers ?)

    I personally value agriculture mightily. Moreover, certain grazing and irrigation regimes can provide a lot of conservation value, no doubt. However, I take issue with this article because the argument seems mostly based on a few anecdotes, is sprinkled with red herrings, and doesn’t address the complexity of managing working landscapes. In short, the article read like an apologetic for ranching, but fails because the argument provided is not supported by any actual studies.

    To repeat, I am not against ranching and irrigation. I just want to read clearer arguments.


    As a pedantic aside, Nature is a British publication, but it is one of the top scientific journals in the world and contributing authors come from round the globe. The authors of the article mentioned may have been from the USA, but it is not possible to say without a citation.

  3. Perhaps if California would graze off some the fuel they would not be having such hot fires this week.

  4. A lot of mistakes were made in the last 150 years in the American West ,most of them sanctioned by the US government To remove grazing animals will go down in history as one of the bigger ones. Based on emotion and not science..

  5. Nobody is against the diversion or capture of spring runoff , or using existing riparian water to enable agriculture in marginal high elevation climate zones not at all.

    We just want the producers to pay the going market value for the public resources they use… water, grass, clean air , government hydropower … all those things that taxpayers generously provide to farmers and ranchers at our expense to prop up your bottom line. A business model that requires heavy subsidization by nonproducers in order for the rancher or farmer to break even —or gasp! —actually turn a slight profit., well that business model is no longer valid in a world where we must shift to full 24/7/365 sustainability. Don’t even get me going on the largesse of tax breaks afforded agriculture that I would also love to have for my self-employment business. At the end of the day with all the public assistance and subsidization of agriculture , the returns seem sparse too much of the time. Fact of life : city folk pay for welfare ranchers and farmers coming and going .

    We need to understand the true costs of producing things , and assess the provision of the public’s natural resources to private producers fairly.

    If every cow and sheep in Wyoming disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow , would the rest of the planet miss them in a month or three ? You really have to question the business model of capitalist agronomy. Who really speaks for and looks out for wildlife and ecology first and foremost ?

    1. I’ll answer the last question. Humans will be the first to suffer if food producers are not allowed to produce food. It does not just appear in grocery stores when the author or others want to buy something to eat., every bite we take must be grown by farmers/ranchers. If you just want to eliminate them from Wyoming, which could be surmised by your last sentence, you would need food producers in other places to provide food. If you are suggesting that only Wyoming farmers and ranchers be eliminated, then you will have to create even more pollution to import food. The food and energy producers are essential to our survival.

  6. From the Family Farm Alliance’s website: “The Family Farm Alliance is a powerful advocate for family farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts, and allied industries in seventeen western states. The alliance is focused on one mission-To ensure the availability of reliable, affordable irrigation water supplies to western farmers and ranchers.”
    The author is president of the organization, which is headquartered in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

    1. And the mission of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that built the Riverton Unit and the Boysen is happy to oblige…at taxpayer expense.

      Before getting all romantic and bucolic about subsidized ag, go to the Bureau of Reclamation web site (https://www.usbr.gov/projects/) and read about their Boysen Unit and their Riverton Unit, the history sections, too. Lotta effort and public money for little return to the public at large if you ask me. Boysen exists mainly to store water for the senior water rights holders in the Bighorn Basin. Without it, there would be little water available for the upstream ag interests in the Wind River Basin. By the way, Wyoming imports most of its food supply from other states that are real producers. We’d soon starve if we depended on local ag.

  7. Thank you for this perspective, and would encourage adding impact of managed grazing that improves range land and riparian areas can also help increase carbon levels which in turn increases water holding capacity of the soil. ( That is a simplified summary, and quality managed grazing takes time, education and observation and practice, however another tool we have to contribute to the health of the land and ecosystems.

    1. Kudos to Kari from Oregon! Thank you for your perspective. : – )
      An vintage nugget: If you become a Good Steward of the land, your cattle do MUCH better, along with your birds and other wildlife, for which your hunters will thank you, as well.