The healthiest wild lands in the nation cannot be found on recreation maps. The bushes in these secret spots aren't littered with old toilet paper or empty beer cans; there are no crowds, no loud music and no admission fees. No motels, camp sites, toilets, souvenirs or asphalt paths. No gas stations, no boat ramps, no trash cans.
There's abundant wildlife, but you won't see it alongside the road. Instead, it follows its own dusty paths marked by cloven hooves and padded paws.
The catch? A lot of the best wild areas in the West are ranchers' private pastures. Many of those ranchers would welcome interested visitors, but you can't vacation there. So why should you care? Because the fragile grasslands of the Great Plains protect the nation's food supply and replenish our air, water and wildlife. More than 70 percent of our native prairie has been plowed, but little known plants and animals still live on our rangelands.
Studies by various agencies show that working landscapes harbor greater biodiversity and provide more clean air and water than settled landscapes or parks. Privately owned wild ecosystems, closed to the public, remain dynamic and heterogeneous. Critics of beef production denounce feedlot beef. But I'm talking about animals that don't go off for feedlot finishing and that produce a smaller carbon footprint; they feed on perennial grassland, savanna and woodlands that sequester more carbon than cornfields.
Financially, we all benefit from ranching as ranch owners pay more in taxes than they consume in services—the opposite of settled areas and subdivisions. Unlike most manufacturers, ranchers don't set the price of their products by adding a profit to their costs. The money they receive for their cattle depends on who's bidding that day, a process often influenced by factors outside their control.
E. coli contamination thrives in feedlots, but grass-fed livestock, including beef, pork, chicken, sheep, elk, deer, antelope and other wild meat animals, is free of this dangerous pathogen. Range cattle roam freely, rarely spending more than a day in one spot. They must be branded to prevent theft and vaccinated against disease, but they are herded only briefly into corrals. Since cows live outside in all weather, their wastes are scattered and broken down by elements and insects. Pastured cattle never stand knee-deep in manure, because cows don't like to eat near feces. That's why, in winter, ranchers scatter supplementary feed onto clean grass. Buyers who cram cattle into feedlots for fattening waste resources and in the process make the animals—and those who dine on them—less healthy.
To thrive, ranchers must sustain their grazing lands. Some ranchers lease public land so they can rotate grazing and allow pastures to rest, and many would go out of business without those leases. Logic, self-interest and federal and state permitting procedures all dictate that they treat public land as well as their own. If ranches adjoining public lands do go on the block, there's a downside: The land is often developed.
How much grassland is privately owned? Few statistics are available. A 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture study identified 358 million acres of privately owned grassland, pasture and range. The 2007 Ag census noted that only 656,475 farms and ranches are raising beef cattle, even as more U.S. residents consume more imported food every year. Meanwhile, wild animals in national parks and popular wilderness areas live precariously because public lands are increasingly crowded. Private land allows those species to breed and rest. Gary Nabhan, the conservation scientist and writer, estimates that 80 percent of half of the country's endangered mammals, plants and birds are nurtured on private and tribal lands rather than in national parks or wilderness areas.
How can we enhance wildlife habitat in ranching country? We might zone grazing lands so they can't be invaded by housing or commercial developments. How about incentive payments for ranchers who shelter wildlife and protect open space—much like the "tax increment financing" given to businesses? Or we could lower taxes on ranch property, since ranchers feed many animals we consider public property.
On America's private grazing lands, we can produce our own meat safely, giving consumers a chance to know where their meat comes from. You probably enjoy seeing wildlife in national parks. But have you ever thought about protecting another endangered species—the ranchers who help shelter that wildlife? As I write this, 40 antelope are grazing my pasture.
Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches and writes in western South Dakota.