This time, we head to Wyoming’s Red Desert – and hear the history of the 19th-century range wars. They led to laws requiring grazing fees and regular land health check-ups. But over a century later, some say these regulations haven’t done enough to protect our wild spaces. Not to mention our climate.
When I was a little kid, I got lost in the Red Desert. It’s a giant basin in southern Wyoming. At least, my mom thought I got lost. We’d driven out to the Red Desert to visit my dad who was working as a roughneck on an oil rig. We knew we were someplace special when we saw a cloud of dust and, as we got closer, saw it was a herd of wild horses, running, manes streaming. We slept in my dad’s travel trailer on the worksite – they’d never let you do that these days – surrounded by sand, pink-yellow sand. I don’t know where we were but it must have been near the Killpecker Dune, the largest living sand dunes in the US, 55 miles across. For my brother and me, the urge to wander out into the dunes was irresistible.
Engulfed by open space, the Red Desert is the largest unfenced area in the continental US and we felt it. We didn’t know we were lost but all that wildness freaked my mom out. She got our friend Robert, who was working on the rig with my dad, to go find us. I guess because she was too nervous to wander out into all that space herself. When Robert appeared, he didn’t tell us we were lost. He admired the big hole we’d dug in the sand and led us back to camp. That was the end of that. But the incident left an impression on my mom who realized the danger of kids in the wilderness. But also on me. That pure experience of solitude in a very wild place.
I’ve been back there since to camp by a little spring at the foot of a cliff. All the same exhilaration returned. Plus, a new adult understanding of the place. How fragile that pool of water was where all the birds stopped to swim, where the wild horses came to drink, where the coyotes howled at the full moon, where hundreds of elk migrated past on their way north … and, yes, where cattle grazed along the banks.
Today, I’m headed back out to the Red Desert in the company of Erik Molvar. He’s a wildlife biologist who’s written a slew of hiking guides about the American West, not to mention a beautiful photography book called Wyoming’s Red Desert. Erik looks like the kind of guy who’s hiked hundreds of miles: tall and lanky with black hair and a beard and eyes that often seem to be squinting out at a distant horizon. These days, Erik is also the director of Western Watersheds, an environmental group. To Erik, the Red Desert has that same kind of specialness it has for me. Probably more since, over the years, he’s hiked nearly every square inch and knows lots of its secrets. Like where to find the crazy rock hoodoos and the sage grouse mating sites and the petroglyphs sacred to local tribes.
“Well, the Red Desert could be a national park for its sagebrush ecosystem values and it has spectacular landscapes in some areas,” Erik tells me. “Yeah, it’s a national treasure. But the federal government doesn’t treat it like one.”
What he’s talking about there is that a lot of the Red Desert is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and ranchers are given leases on that land to graze their cattle. In Erik’s opinion, way too many grazing leases. Today’s goal is to see the effects of all that grazing– and to dig into just what are the environmental impacts of livestock, not just to someplace like the Red Desert but to the world. We climb in his SUV and start heading west on I-80. It’s going to be a long drive. So along the way, Erik tells me the story of how, after pioneers arrived, the government set out to manage all the cows roaming across the American West. It turned out to be a complex and sometimes confrontational endeavor.
A Bonanza Out West
Remember that TV western, Bonanza, about a Nevada ranching family? I used to love watching reruns in the middle of the day when I stayed home sick from school.
In the first episode, a father and son look out over a vast expanse of land.
“Look at it, Adam,” says patriarch Ben Cartwright. “Feast thine eyes on a sight that approacheth heaven itself.”
“You’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of things, Pa,” his son shoots back. “But you’ve never seen or been to heaven.”
“Well, maybe I’ve never been to heaven, maybe I’ll never get the chance. But heaven’s going to have to go some to beat the thousands of square miles of the Ponderosa.”
“As long as it’s ours.”
There it is again. That deep pioneer love of the land and the terror of losing it. Erik says there wasn’t much chance of that after all the bison were slaughtered and large numbers of Indigenous people annihilated. For European colonizers now in control of all this land, the operative word really was “bonanza.”
Erik tells me, “back in the 1800s, and early 1900s, anybody could put whatever livestock out on the land they wanted for free, it was called the public domain. And the federal government didn’t charge anything to run cattle or sheep out there on the public lands.”
We like to think of that era as pastoral: hardworking families building a homestead with their own bare hands. But Erik says a lot of the land was controlled by big business.
“What ended up happening was that the big ranching conglomerates, by hook or by crook, homesteaded up all the lands on springs and along streams and rivers that were permanently flowing,” he says. “Because if you could control the water, then you could control all the land surrounding it. And if you could prevent somebody else’s cattle and sheep from coming to take a drink, then you could keep them off vast areas of dry land surrounding that.”
And so, even though the Plains Indian Wars were now over, fighting in the West continued. This time, Europeans fought against each other.
“You know, back in those days, there were hot wars between different cattle operations and different cattle and sheep operations all over Wyoming where herders were being shot and killed,” says Erik. “Sheep wagons were being burned, herding dogs were tied to sheep wagons and burned with the sheep wagons. Sheep were being shot and poisoned and driven off of cliffs. It was the Wild West. And it was all about controlling all of the access to this free grazing. That was big money to be made at that time.”
But then, ranchers started using a new-fangled invention in the late 1800s that changed everything: barbed wire. It put a permanent end to the era of the great cattle drives. One rancher sent a letter to barbed wire’s inventor Joseph Glidden, raving about how wonderful it was: “It takes no room, exhausts no soil, shades no vegetation, is proof against high winds, makes no snowdrifts, and is both durable and cheap.”
Containing cows had always been a big headache. Before barbed wire, people had to build fences out of wood. Doing that across the vast expanses of the West? No way. Historians say it was barbed wire that tamed the West. But Erik says this obstacle of migration has hurt wildlife across the West ever since. The Red Desert is the winter destination for the longest mule deer migration in the world, 150 miles from their summer range in the mountains up near Jackson Hole. Elk and pronghorn also migrate vast distances to reach this place.
“That has been a serious issue for pronghorn in the Red Desert,” Erik says. “Particularly when they had the woven wire fences for sheep in a lot of places back in the 1960s and 70s. Those are largely replaced by three-strand barbed-wire fences now, which are still a problem for pronghorns.”
Pronghorn don’t like leaping fences like deer or elk. They try to go under. Their legs get tangled in the wire, they can’t escape and they die trying. By the turn of the century, barbed wire was a powerful tool strung up everywhere. Ranchers were even fencing off public lands for their own use. America had only just invented this idea of public lands and was still figuring out the logistics. How to limit who could graze on it? In the Red Desert, Erik says itinerant Basque sheepherders used to trail their flocks from the Wyoming Range to the Red Desert and back every year. The Basques didn’t own land but they used up a lot of the grasses. The cattle ranchers around Rock Springs started spoiling for a fight.
Erik says, “These Basque sheepherders would come through with their millions of sheep and these sheep would be like locusts, it would be like a plague of locusts, they would eat every stick of vegetation as they moved through. These ranchers who were tied to the land, said, ‘You know, our cattle are now starving.’ There were even, in the Wyoming Range, soil pedestals that were six feet tall with a little tusks of grass on top left showing where the original topsoil used to be where everything else had been eroded away. And by the time the Dust Bowl had come, Congress finally acted, and they passed what was called the Taylor Grazing Act. And the Taylor Grazing Act was there largely to say, you can no longer graze for free on the public lands.”
And under the new rule, you had to own some land to get a lease. That cut out the Basque sheepherders and their roaming flocks. The Taylor Act set up a system of leasing public lands for a small fee to landowners. But it didn’t really help. The land was looking worse and worse.
“The grazing permits are designed to be ten-year leases,” says Erik. “And at the end of ten years, the original intention was that there was going to be an environmental assessment and they were going to look at the level of impact and make adjustments if there were ecological problems. And the reality is about 40 percent of these grazing allotments across the American West have never had a land health assessment. Across 40 or 50 years, there’s never been an assessment.”
They weren’t enforcing the laws already on the books but still, in the 70s and 80s, the government passed more laws to control the amount of grazing. The US developed what’s called the Animal Unit Month program or AUMs. That’s a way to charge ranchers a fee for each cow-calf pair. Sounds fair, right? Problem is, it’s never had any teeth, Erik says.
“When you have a cow-calf pair out there for a month, that costs a rancher $1.35, nationwide, on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. That is a pittance,” says Erik.
The law doesn’t allow the fee to go any lower than $1.35. But it hasn’t gone much higher since the law was passed either. Even President Biden agreed to keep it at just $1.35 this year. Erik says meanwhile when ranchers charge each other to lease a cow-calf pair on private property, they charge around $22 per pair.
“So essentially,” he says, “The taxpayers are giving away the public lands for livestock grazing at a rate that is a tiny fraction of what that fair market value for grazing is on the open market. And that’s why ranch operations that do happen to have these federal grazing allotments fight so hard for them, because it’s almost like free money.”
Erik says the formula for figuring out the fee is based on a base rate from 1966. Adjusted for inflation, it should now be over $7 per pair. Erik says the reason these programs are so lenient is because the ranching industry in the West struggles to be profitable and it’s one way for the federal government to help it survive.
“Well, I think that there’s a certain level of desperation in the livestock industry,” Erik says. “And, in particular, small operations that are really struggling financially because they’re trying to raise livestock that were really bred for moist climates, in an arid environment. And so economically and ecologically, it’s a marginal prospect to start with. And they’re faced with drought and financial difficulties. They’re forced to choose between ecological sustainability and economic survival. And they’re choosing economic survival every time at the cost of the land. And that’s one of the great tragedies of the American West.”
That desperation of ranchers is getting worse as droughts and climate change put the heat on. Some ranchers feel like the government just keeps piling on more rules and regulations and it’s made them angry and afraid for their survival. But now, that desperation is getting exploited by anti-government extremist groups. And there have been ranchers who’ve joined efforts to get states to take over management of federal public lands. The most infamous case, of course, was the armed take over of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for over a month in 2016 by a militia group led by Ammon Bundy.
Erik says that wasn’t the only public lands standoff: “There have also been other smaller examples of this happening all over the West where individual ranchers will threaten the Bureau of Land Management employees with death or bodily injuries. There have been bombings at the BLM offices or even the homes of BLM officials that have been traced back to livestock permittees. And this has been a simmering problem since at least the 1940s.”
Erik tells the story of one defiant rancher in northern Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin whose case went all the way to the US Supreme Court in 2007.
“There was a rancher by the name of Frank Robbins, who’s got land up there still, who basically tried to prosecute the BLM for trying to manage his own land,” says Erik. “And basically what he did is he put locked gates up on roads leading to public lands and said, ‘You can’t cross, and that includes you, Bureau of Land Management. You can’t access your own land.’”
Robbins felt like the feds were forcing an easement across his land on him that he didn’t know about when he bought the land, according to a summary of the case by Harvard Law Today. All but two judges disagreed though and the case didn’t advance. Robbins is well connected – from a wealthy family in Alabama. The fact that his case made it that far shows that ranchers aren’t always the underdogs depicted in the pulp western novels. Actually, Erik says, there’s a great deal of political power behind the ranching industry. In fact, the agriculture lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington and there’s just as much sway at the local level with ranchers filling many of the political seats from county commission on up, creating a kind of political pipeline. And all this simmering conflict has made it very complicated for the federal government to enforce its grazing rules.
A Biological Desert
Outside Rawlins, Wyoming, we head north on a route I’ve taken often in my travels around the state. Colorful, crooked geology rises up on either side of the highway like shelves of books tipped over. After a while, Erik turns on his blinker and we make a left down a long straight road headed into what appears to be Nowhere Land.
“I’ve always wanted to turn down this road,” I tell Erik.
“This is called the Mineral X Road,” Erik says. “It was originally the Mineral Exploration Road. And there’s an old uranium mill that’s out here that’s been shuttered for many, many years.”
“Are we headed out into this ridge here?” I ask.
“This is called Separation Flats,” says Erik. “And this is part of the Red Desert that’s one of those checkerboard areas. This area we’re heading into here is an area that is used for feedlines in the winter and spring.”
“What is a feedline?”
“A feedline is…,” Erik begins. “We’ll go ahead and just pull up, have a look here, this is where we’re headed. …A feedline is an area where a rancher will come out and they’ll take hay and they’ll chuck it off the back of a truck so that the cattle come in and feed on the hay. And as you can see, this is an area where there’s an area of concentrated animal use and concentrated animal impact.”
“All right,” I say. “Let’s go check it out.”
It’s a warm, calm autumn day…unseasonably warm. We climb out and walk across the flats. The ground is weird, hardpan, the color and texture of concrete almost, only intricately cracked like a porcelain cup.
“What are you seeing in terms of land health out here?” I ask.
“Well, I mean, basically, this little area here is basically completely desertified,” says Erik. “And there’s nothing left in terms of native bunch grasses out here. All you see is maybe a little gardener saltbush, maybe some halogeton. But basically, the native vegetation out in this area has been pretty heavily impacted by overgrazing, and also by just the compaction of the cattle hooves, the high concentration of livestock in a small area in the feedline area. And if you look across the landscape, as you look in this direction, there’s just cow pies as far as the eye can see. And that’s from the heavy concentration of livestock in a small area.”
And Erik says for an area like this to recover, cattle would have to stop feeding on it for decades, maybe even up to a hundred years. It reminds me of something the author Wallace Stegner once said: “I think we lost the chance to develop a much more stable society in the West and one that wouldn’t have destroyed so much of a marvelous part of the world and left it wounded. Because the West being an arid country, it doesn’t heal. You can still see General Patton’s tank tracks from World War II training down in the desert. Nothing heals.”
Looking at this white-hard earth, that phrase comes to mind. Nothing heals. Erik says the worry is that when plants do grow again here, it’ll be cheatgrass, an invasive plant that came over from Europe with the pioneers.
“And it spread very rapidly,” says Erik. “And its basic cause is overgrazing by livestock. It’s a primary colonizer of disturbed lands.”
Disturbed lands like these. A big threat of cheatgrass is that it tends to burn and when it does, those fires are huge and fast.
“And because the native bunch grasses have been suppressed and are dying off,” Erik says, “what you get in the wake of those fires is cheatgrass monoculture. And that cheatgrass is really poor wildlife habitat. It’s basically a biological desert. And that’s something that is coming to Wyoming. We’re just at the very beginning of it.”
Erik says fewer cows on the land could help slow the spread of cheatgrass. But couldn’t fewer wild horses help as well? Driving in, I keep an eye out for those clouds of dust I’d seen as a kid. But Erik tells me there are fewer horses these days because the BLM has been rounding them up, and in only a few days, they plan to gather another 4000. To Erik, the whole thing doesn’t make sense.
“They’re taking the wild horses off the public lands to make more room for cattle in an area that’s completely unsuited for cattle,” he says. “And in the Midwest, they’re bumping cattle off of pastures that are suited to cattle, so they can put wild horses out there at taxpayer expense.”
Erik considers the wild horses a historical treasure and a great tourist attraction for the Red Desert. But for me, I’m not so sure. As a kid, spotting wild horses made me feel part of the Wild West, as exciting as seeing a bear. But as an adult, I can see it’s way more complicated. Like cattle, horses are a transplant that are adding to the intense pressure on these lands and creating more conflicts between ranchers and the government. But I do agree with Erik that the battles like these rage on in part because places like the Red Desert are off people’s radar. Most people couldn’t point out the Red Desert on a map. And that makes it feel disposable. Erik says, we sort of think of the Red Desert and a lot of the West as beef factories: land where we grow young cows until they’re big enough to go to the feedlot.
That metaphor of the beef factory comes up again in another conversation – this time over Zoom. Mike Grunwald is the host of a podcast called Climavores. Plus, he’s most of the way through writing a book.
“I’m working on a book on how to feed the world without frying the world,” Mike tells me.
Talking to me on his phone as he paces around his house in a rumpled t-shirt, he looks a little harried by all these projects he has in the air. But that’s because he’s passionate about the story he has to tell about food and climate. Mike says it’s not just places like the Red Desert that are beef factories.
“The Earth is really becoming an animal farm. And two-thirds of all agricultural land is used to feed livestock, either through grazing or by growing grain to feed to our livestock. So that’s really where they cause the most problems. And it’s a very big problem,” says Mike.
A very big problem that’s growing as more of the planet is taken over for agriculture to feed an ever-expanding human population.
Mike says, “The entire food system is about a third of all emissions. And depending on how you do the math, you can make the case that livestock is more than half of that agricultural and food problem.”
And the reason livestock contributes so much to climate change is… well, you know…
“You hear a lot about the burps and farts, and that is a real problem,” Mike tells me. “They create a lot of methane in their stomachs that they release out into the world. And the longer they’re wandering around in their pastures, the more methane they’re releasing.”
And methane is one of the worst greenhouse gasses there is. Conscientious foodies like me and my friends, we try to buy only grass-fed beef, imagining a cow roaming the open range, snow-capped mountains in the background. But Mike says grass-fed cows take quite a bit longer to grow big enough to slaughter and that means they’re doing a lot more burping and farting than a feedlot-finished cow. But cows contribute to carbon emission not just with methane released from their guts, but also, Mike says, “the methane and nitrous oxide that’s created by their manure, mostly methane in the kind of feedlots and dairies and other sorts of managed manure situations whether in a lagoon or a pit. And it’s mostly nitrous oxide when they’re just pooping and peeing out on the open range.”
Nitrous oxide is also a terrible greenhouse gas. Not to mention that cows often graze in places that have been deforested.
Mike says that so far, “the only reliable technology that anyone has developed for removing carbon from the atmosphere at scale is vegetation. It’s trees.”
But a lot of carbon is also stored in the soil. Good soil, that is. Thick, spongy black soil. Not the kind of white hardpan we see at the feedline in Separation Flats. Less grazing in the Red Desert could help store more carbon. Especially around places like that spring I visited at the foot of the cliff. The rich soil around such places can’t store much carbon when it’s been damaged by lots of cow hooves. So yeah, Mike says, cows are a major contributor to climate change. And that means, out here in the West, we have the two most problematic industries plopped in our laps.
“Well, look,” Mike says, “Fossil fuels are a really big problem. And right now, that’s still a bigger problem than our food problem. But the thing about fossil fuels is that, at this point, we’ve been working on getting away from them for a long time. And we pretty much know what to do about them. We’ve got to essentially electrify the global economy and transition to zero-emissions electricity. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. But that’s what we got to do. Agriculture and food is a much harder problem. And we’ve really just begun to start dealing with it. And honestly, we still don’t even know how to do it.”
First of all, Mike says we’ve got to have the will to solve the problem.
“There isn’t a lot of political momentum behind the kind of solutions that are going to take research and development and deployment to try to reduce the emissions from these practices that not everybody likes in the first place,” says Mike. “So there’s a lot of opportunity to maybe make beef better. But right now, that’s being held up by people who are happy to make beef the way they’re already making it and people who don’t want to make beef at all.”
The vegan versus the cowboy. Like lots of problems in our country, the two ends of the spectrum aren’t talking to each other or opening their minds to real solutions. Mike says both those groups will need to adapt…and soon. For ranchers, that might mean letting go of some of the rigid insistence on ranching just the way Grandpa did. Mike says the time has come for both sides to kick into emergency mode since we’re fast approaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming– that’s the threshold before the droughts and wildfires and depleted water becomes too extreme for us to live with. But Mike says the solution to the livestock problem isn’t necessarily going 100 percent vegetarian.
“Over the next few decades,” Mike says, “billions of people who are poor today and eating virtually no meat are expected to join the meat-eating middle class. And of course, that’s a great thing. We want them to be able to have a more nutritious diet and a more enjoyable diet because meat is delicious! But that said, the average American eats three burgers a week. And that’s not going to be sustainable.”
Mike says there are exciting new technologies to inhibit the nitrification of manure. And I recently came across some great results adding seaweed to livestock feed to reduce methane in cow burps. These things could make beef more sustainable. Even Erik Molvar isn’t envisioning a cow-free Red Desert. He just wants the BLM and the Forest Service to enforce their own rules. He wants them to cough up the money to hire more range managers to monitor the land – not from an office somewhere – but out here, on the ground, adjusting the number of cattle as droughts worsen and cheatgrass spreads.
“I think that there’s a real question that we as a nation need to grapple with, which is, what are these public lands really most valuable for?” says Erik. “Are they most valuable for livestock production? And how much oil and gas and coal and minerals you can extract from them? Or really, are they more valuable as healthy native ecosystems and as open spaces for public recreation and enjoyment? And increasingly, it’s becoming obvious, in a shrinking planet with a growing human population, that having big open lands might be more valuable for their native wildlife, might be more valuable for having healthy ecosystems, than for any of the private commercial exploitation that happens out there.”
Which sounds really lofty, right? But I know the intrinsic value of the Red Desert – I have childhood memories here. Erik knows its value. But there’s this little niggly thing bothering me.
I tell Erik, “I mean, when you drive along the interstate, if you’re driving, say, from Salt Lake City to Denver and you come through this area, and you look out across the Red Desert, it’s hard to see it as a National Park. People don’t see it that way.”
“Well, if you drive along the interstate, you’re driving through all that oil and gas wasteland and empty country and it doesn’t look like much.”
I can see I’ve touched a nerve for Erik. This is his life’s work: to teach people the value of wild places far off the beaten path.
“But,” he says, “If you get out beyond the highway and back into the hinterlands there are some really spectacular landscapes and some really untouched, ecologically vibrant areas. This is probably the last fence for 50 miles going west here across the public lands and it’s pretty rare to find a place that’s that undeveloped left in North America or even the world.”
Every time I come to the Red Desert, I leave with one of its gifts. As we drive out of Separation Flats, we spot two wild horses, a mare and her colt. I can see their ribs showing. Yet another reminder that out here, there’s just not enough grass to go around.