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Can The Meat Industry Help Protect Wildlife? Some Say Yes

Fox Ranch, outside Yuma County, Colo., is a 14,000-acre nature preserve and working cattle ranch owned by The Nature Conservancy. The ranch is an experiment in planned grazing, which aims to improve soil health and help ranchers' bottom lines.
Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media

Last week we reported on a new campaign from the Center for Biological Diversity that hopes to persuade Americans to cut back on their meat consumption. Their pitch? Eat less meat and you will help save wildlife.

argues that the livestock industry has been responsible for the near extinction of iconic species like the Mexican gray wolf and the California grizzly bear. And that, combined with the industry's other significant contributions to climate change and habitat loss, warrants a movement to replace at least some of the meat in the American diet with plants, the group says.

The story generated quite a bit of discussion in our comments section. And several people who work on land issues in the West wrote in to tell us that the Center for Biological Diversity's hard-line views on the impacts of meat production aren't shared by all environmentalists.

These commenters noted we'd completely overlooked something: the many partnerships between conservation groups and ranchers to conserve grasslands and protect wildlife.

It turns out, they're right. While ranching and farming have hurt wildlife and their habitats throughout the West, ranchers are working with Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and other environmental organizations, demonstrating that raising livestock and protecting wildlife can be compatible.

In states like Montana, where there's a long history of conflict between ranchers and grizzlies, The Nature Conservancy says it has taught ranchers how to avoid tempting them with food. According to the conservation organization, some ranchers have installed electrified fencing around feed storage sheds to deter the bears. And instead of the standard practice of leaving carcasses of cattle or sheep that die naturally out in the open, The Nature Conservancy moves them to a preserve where the bears can eat them in peace.

Chris Pague, a senior conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, says that in his 22 years working on land issues in the West, he's seen a lot of improvement in the ways ranchers manage their land.

"I know many ranchers who are excellent — they want to know how to manage lands to improve the chances of many of these species with high conservation value," says Pague. "I would say fully a third of land out there is in pretty good condition, supporting wildlife and plant communities."

And Pague notes that the conversation around how to produce beef in a "sustainable" way is evolving fast. "Meat buyers and packers, land managers, government agencies, McDonald's — a lot of people are interested. This topic is really hot." (See Dan Charles' post from earlier this week on how this conversation is playing out globally, too.)

Stephanie Feldstein of the Center for Biological Diversity, who has been leading the Take Extinction Off Your Plate campaign, acknowledges that "some forms of livestock are less damaging, and some ranchers are more sensitive to wildlife."

But, she contends, "our primary focus is that there are too many people eating too much meat. While there are better and worse ways of raising meat for wildlife, overall we still need to see a reduction."

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