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November 26, 2020
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What Cows Eat Affects Climate

What Cows Eat Affects Climate
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I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I visited cattle feedlots in the Texas Panhandle a month ago, but the scene before me at the Wrangler Feedyard in Happy, Texas, wasn’t it.

I’d gone there with a photographer, George Steinmetz, for our story about greenhouse gas emissions from cattle feeding. While they aren’t the largest source of emissions in the United States, efforts are being made to reduce them — part of a push toward greater sustainability in the beef industry.

Since most of the emissions come directly from the animals themselves, in the form of methane belches, much of the work to reduce them focuses on feed supplements or other dietary changes. And as you’ll learn from reading the article, their diet is already a little strange to begin with.

George had experienced feedlots before, but I’d never seen one up close. I had smelled them, though, on Interstate 40 outside Amarillo during cross-country drives. The odor was memorable.

Maybe I’d been thinking the Wrangler lot would be full of thousands of bellowing, snorting animals stomping around in their own sloppy manure. In short, a chaotic and, unlike its location, a thoroughly un-Happy place.

But while it’s hard (for a city slicker like me, at any rate) to know whether a steer or heifer is unhappy, the feedlot was far from chaotic. Instead, it was downright calm: 46,000 animals standing about, waiting for their feed to arrive, looking like they didn’t have a care in the world.

And yes, they were standing (and sitting) in their own manure, but it was dry and compacted and didn’t seem to bother them one bit.

Occasionally the cattle were shifted by pen riders, cowboys on horseback who forced them to move a bit as a means of spotting any that were ill.

Of course, life in a feedlot doesn’t have a happy ending. Just about every day at Wrangler, tractor-trailers arrive to take away those animals that have reached market weight. For about 2,000 animals every week, it’s the end of the line.


In about two weeks, Colorado residents will finish voting on something highly unusual: whether or not to reintroduce gray wolves to the state.

It’s a rarity that a decision such as reintroducing an endangered species gets put directly to voters.

“We have a situation where the majority of the public want reintroduction, but the political appointees have consistently voted against it,” said Rebecca Niemiec, an assistant professor of the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. “So eventually, wolf advocates turned to a ballot initiative.”

Usually, decisions like these are made by federal or state wildlife agencies.

The last native gray wolf in Colorado was believed to have been killed in 1945. Since then, farmers and others have argued against reintroduction: wolves prey on livestock. But surveys have shown for decades that Coloradans in general support the return of the sleek, charismatic hunter, which is on the state and federal endangered species lists.

Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, headed the campaign to put the issue to a vote, which if successful, he said, “will be a historic voicing of public sentiment towards how we manage wildlife.”

If the measure passes, Colorado Parks and Wildlife would be required to create and execute a plan to reintroduce gray wolves to western Colorado by the end of 2023. A federal permit would also be required in the unlikely event that gray wolves remain on the federal endangered species list.

Colorado is part of the natural habitat for gray wolves, and people who support reintroduction say it could encourage elk herds to move around more — preventing overgrazing and creating a cascade of ecological benefits. And some argue that because people removed the wolves, people have an obligation to bring them back.

Wolf advocates also argue that the state gives more weight to the interests of farmers and hunters (who also oppose reintroduction) than to the broader population. So they call the vote a democratic way to ensure that other perspectives are considered in decision making.

Opponents decry the initiative as “ballot box biology.” Their objections center on the possibility that Colorado’s ranchers, who could bear the financial burden of wolf reintroduction through livestock lost to the predators, would be outvoted by city dwellers who might never encounter a wolf.

Despite the political rhetoric, Dr. Niemiec said opinion polls suggest that the question of reintroduction will come down to personal values. “Everyone will come up with a different answer,” she said, “depending on what they care about most.”

Overall, it’s a reminder, said Kevin Crooks, a professor of wildlife biology and director of the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University, that “wildlife management is much more about people than it is about wildlife — and that’s definitely the case with wolves.”


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