Green Ranchers Buck Cattle Industry

Posted February 15, 2008 3:34 a.m. EST
Updated February 25, 2008 9:23 p.m. EST

— Seth Nitschke spent his early 20s working at large feed lots before he returned home to start a business raising beef cattle fed on the grasses of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Nitschke, 31, who herds heifers through pastures near Yosemite National Park, doesn't consider himself an environmental activist, though he's planting saplings to protect nearby streams and runs a light herd to let his pastures breathe.

Unlike some of his counterparts in traditional livestock production, he and a new crop of cattlemen are quietly working to minimize their industry's ecological footprint and are forging unlikely alliances with environmental groups.

"Look at this grass. If I don't take care of it, that's my livelihood," Nitschke said, kneeling as he examined foxtail shoots. "We dress differently than the eco-folks, we probably vote differently, but in the end there's a lot of ways in which our core values are really close."

Across the West, cattlemen and environmentalists have locked horns over grazing practices for decades. But increasingly, ranchers are buying into the idea that they have a role to play in protecting open space, be it through preserving private wildlands or promoting sustainable grazing techniques.

Near Florida's Lake Okeechobee, the World Wildlife Fund has recruited ranchers to build ditches on their lands to improve wetlands habitat for threatened and endangered birds like the wood stork and crested caracara.

In Wyoming, the Audobon Society is trying to persuade oil and gas companies to pay ranchers to maintain sage brush expanses key to the survival of the sage grouse.

And in California, 75 ranching organizations, environmental groups and state and federal agencies have adopted a common strategy to enhance the state's rangelands while protecting its ecosystems.

"This new generation of ranchers knows they have to work on the environmental part of it to survive," said Neil McDougald, a rancher at the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Madera County. "I'll guarantee you the guys driving cows today have a better environmental conscience than the ranchers who were riding around holding up stagecoaches."

Still, a history of bad blood between those who live off the land and those who seek to protect it hasn't made coalition-building easy.

Recent research from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization found that the world's large-scale livestock operations are causing environmental problems ranging from land degradation and air and water pollution to loss of biodiversity.

In last two centuries, foraging has contributed to the erosion of arid Western rangelands and watershed contamination, said Mel George, a range ecologist at the University of California, Davis.

The environmental movement has hit back with lawsuits seeking to ban cattlemen from running their herds on public lands.

Last year, 37.5 million calves were born to U.S. beef producers - the smallest herd since 1951 - a decline the National Cattlemen's Beef Association attributes partially to land loss.

Research and government programs highlighting how grazing can benefit the environment have helped make partners out of livestock producers and their adversaries, George said.

The USDA's Grasslands Reserve Program, which works to preserve rangeland through conservation easements and rental agreements, has kept 712,000 acres nationwide from being developed.

The California Cattlemen's Association, The Nature Conservancy and other groups are lobbying to get more money for the program included in the 2008 Farm Bill, said Matt Byrne, the association's vice president.

Other programs reimburse ranchers when they build fences to keep cows away from sensitive pasturelands or erect water tanks so cows don't foul up creeks, said Sara Schmidt, the Natural Resources Conservation Service's assistant chief for the West.

Such efforts also serve as a marketing tool with eco-friendly customers who seek out Nitschke's grass-fed filet mignons, he said.

Kelly Mulville, a consultant to cattle owners in Colorado and New Mexico, says environmental stewardship can work in tandem with the profit motive: if ranchers protect their grass, they can feed more livestock.

"We may end up using the same tools that are destroying our environment to repair it," Mulville said. "Still, it's going to take a lot more than beef to save the world."