Posts tagged ‘ranchers’
I’ve made a subspecialty out of writing to journalists about wild horses and, more importantly, cattle.
Below is a letter I wrote to Matthew Shaer of Smithsonian, whose May 2017 article, “How the Mustang, the Symbol of the Frontier, Became a Nuisance,” is typical of how journalists cover wild horses. It is also typical of what senators can expect to hear today, June 21, when U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in support of the Trump budget plan, which will lift Congress’ ban on removing protections for wild horses and burros and selling them for slaughter.
This is not journalism that speaks truth to power. My solution is to speak truth to journalism. Here’s my letter, dated May 5, 2017:
Dear Mr. Shaer,
I read your Smithsonian article, “How the Mustang, the Symbol of the Frontier, Became a Nuisance,” with interest. I have been writing about wild horse politics and roundups, as well as the livestock and slaughter industry and the related topic of subsidized public lands ranching since 2011 (for Forbes, AlterNet, Salon, Newsweek, HuffPo and my own web site, The Daily Pitchfork).
And I have to disagree completely with your article’s (and your sources’) claim of too many wild horses “eating ranchers out of house and home” and causing long-term damage to rangeland, based on data I’ve provided, below.
To know who (or what) is causing long-term damage to rangeland, you have to do a historical head-to-head comparison of livestock vs. wild horses out grazing on public lands. The BLM provides data to do this, but the livestock side of it is buried in its Livestock and Grazing web pages — where journalists pressed for time and unfamiliar with the BLM and ranching do not know to look. The BLM and ranchers, for their part, are not anxious to have them find it, either.
Last year, I pulled 13 years of BLM grazing receipts (which I then converted into a headcount of cattle grazing on public lands). I also pulled 13 years of BLM estimates (of wild horses), and computed the following ratios. As you will see, they tell a very different story than the one you published in Smithsonian.
Ratio of cow/calf combinations vs. 1 wild horse. All figures BLM.
2002 67:1 2009 72:1
2003 61:1 2010 59:1
2004 30:1 2011 58:1
2005 40:1 2012 60:1
2006 79:1 2013 53:1
2007 87:1 2014 37:1
2008 73:1 2015 30:1 (30 cow/calf combos vs 1 wild horse)
The way you get livestock totals from grazing receipts is by dividing the receipts by the cost per AUM (animal unit month, or what the BLM charges livestock producers to graze a single cow and her calf for a month’s time on public lands) and then divide it by 12 (months). This gives you the total equivalent number of animal units (cow/calf combinations) grazing vs. wild horses at any given time. Again, all these figures are taken from the BLM’s web pages for wild horses, and for livestock and grazing. The BLM, by the way, tallies animal units for wild horses and cattle differently. The BLM says a cow and her calf equals one AU (animal unit). But it considers a mare and her foal to be two AUs. So you can safely double the above ratios, if you want to make the comparison fair and square.
I ask you how it is possible that 1 wild horse could possibly out graze, out eat, out damage 30 cow/calf combinations (or 60 cattle) in 2015, much less 87/174 (in 2007) or 67/134 (in 2002)?
And this is still likely to undercount the degree to which livestock outnumber wild horses, because livestock grazing receipts are based, not on a direct head count by the BLM, but on self-reported AUMs submitted by ranchers at the end of each fiscal year.
Further, the estimates of wild horses are not based on actual headcounts, but on estimates done long ago that the National Academy of Sciences has deemed “unscientific.” Wild horse advocates say they’re inflated.
My point? If you’re going to use BLM’s numbers to tell a story, don’t just tell the ranchers’ side. The case against them is strong — and if you don’t believe me, go to the websites of Western Watersheds Project, or WildEarth Guardians, or the Center for Biological Diversity and specifically look at their pages on public lands ranching. You will find, not just research on livestock “picking ranges clean of essential plants and trampling streamsides and pond banks, but fouling the water that fish and other animals depend on.” Cattle are doing this. Not wild horses.
My data simply underpins why this is so. Cattle overrun the range. The BLM’s numbers show it, and there’s a reason for you to expose that right now, since Congress, just this past weekend, opened up a backdoor for wild horses to be sold to slaughter based on the false arguments that your story presented.
American Wild Horse Preservation and other wild horse groups report that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees restored language to the 2017 Omnibus spending bill that amends the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act by stripping them of their federal protections and transferring them to state and local governments ostensibly for use as “work animals.”
Here’s a link to their announcement:
It would be especially brutal for this to happen, because journalists unwittingly misled the public on who is out-eating, out-damaging whom. You have the data now to do that story. And I’d be happy to provide you with other resources and references to help you tell it.
Is that is of interest? Please let me know.
Matt Shaer wrote back:
Hi Vickery:Thanks so much for the email. If I do another piece on wild horses, you’ll be the first one I contact. In the meantime, can I give you the email of the person who runs the letters to the editor page for the magazine?Best,Matt
I emailed the person who runs the letters to the editor page of the magazine, as Matt suggested. That person never responded.
So here’s my prediction:
The media will write more articles just like Shaer’s in the wake of Zinke’s testimony. That coverage will echo power but not speak truth to it and get fed through the media echo chamber. The articles will feature handsome cowboys like Zinke and earnest ranchers and no photos of cattle doing the destructive things that conservationists and the BLM itself has documented cattle doing. And then it will be your turn to speak truth to journalism.
Do it, or wild horses will die.
An open letter sent to New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan (email@example.com):
Less than a year ago, I examined 19 reader complaint letters sent to The New York Times regarding errors in the article “As Wild Horses Overrun The West, Ranchers Fear The Land Will Be Gobbled Up” (Sept. 30, 2014). I also collected the editors’ corresponding responses. No corrections were made.
What I learned from this exercise is that your statement that “Times leaders are listening to their readers” (from your October 7, 2015 article, “Readers Will Rule, Says The Times, So Don’t Be Shy“), doesn’t extend to readers who happen to be wild horse advocates, wild horse groups and anyone critical of The Times’ wild horse coverage (including, in this case, three PhD’s and two academics, one of whom published two New York Times op-ed pieces, five books and is a columnist on food and agriculture for Pacific Standard).
The reader complaints that I examined looked at various flaws in the Times article, but converged almost unanimously on a single point: the lack of data supporting both headline and storyline of “wild horses overrunning the West.”
The Times writer (David Philipps) cited rising wild horse population estimates from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website; but he did not provide any corresponding livestock population stats. (The BLM doesn’t share these, even when asked; but they can be calculated from grazing receipts and AUMs listed in the BLM’s online section on “livestock grazing”, as well as through the agency’s rangeland administration database).
Phillips instead took the ranchers’ word that land was being “gobbled up” by wild horses.
One might ask how a reporter can determine that wild horses are overrunning and out eating cattle without knowing how many of each and, at the very least, providing photographic proof. Phillips’ article offered neither.
The complaining letter writers rightly pointed out that cattle do in fact outnumber wild horses by a significant margin, not just in protected wild horse habitat, but on millions of acres of public rangelands that are leased to private livestock producers and sought by energy and mining companies (but which have zero wild horses on them).
The problem arose, though, when they couldn’t cite sourced figures to back that up. Had they done this, The Times would have been hard pressed to stick with the story’s premise of “wild horse overpopulation” causing extensive rangeland damage.
For the record, 2014 BLM grazing receipts put the ratio of cattle “livestock units” to wild horses out West at roughly 17:1 (this translates to a ratio double that number since a livestock unit, as defined by the BLM, consists of a cow and a calf).
AUMs (a metric used by the BLM to indicate how much privately owned “livestock units” eat on public lands in a month’s time) can also be converted into a ratio of cattle/livestock units to horses. On land managed for grazing by the BLM and the US Forest Service, it’s 23:1 — again, a lowball figure given that a single animal unit = a cow and a calf (or five sheep).
By siding with ranchers and ignoring the subject of livestock totals, The Times turned a deaf ear to evidence provided by readers that would have undermined the headline “wild horses overrunning the west”and the story that followed it.
Advocates do the kind of research that reporters do not have time for. They read studies, go to BLM meetings, do FOIA requests, observe roundups, write letters and articles, start petitions, visit their elected representatives and follow new developments — day in and day out. But they are given short shrift in the media’s “he said/he said/he said/she said” telling of the wild horse story. Yes, they need to be cross-checked, as any source does — ranchers, included.
My experience, having followed social media groups on the wild horse issue, as well as writing more than two dozen articles on wild horses, public-lands grazing, and the horse slaughter trade in the US media*, is that the advocates’ knowledge of this issue is an asset to the public that journalists would be wise to embrace. (*Forbes, Newsweek, AlterNet, Salon, Huffington Post)
“I hear about improving commenting, about intrusive or confusing advertising, about the importance of journalistic fairness, accuracy and straightforward truth-seeking above all, and about the public-service mission to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. (And not necessarily in that order; in fact, probably the opposite.)”
— The New York Times Public Editor, October 7, 2015
The Times, for its part, heard from 19 different voices on the “she said” side, all pointing to a serious flaw in its wild horse reporting — and turned its back.
If The Times wants readers to “not be shy” about speaking up, heeding their expertise — and making necessary corrections — is a good place to start.
Executive Editor, The Daily Pitchfork
There had been some speculation that my Forbes departure had been spurred by Steve Forbes having grazing leases or that people with influence at Forbes did and that my exposing the federal grazing program was not to their liking. Would I be interested in writing a piece on rich welfare ranchers?
The idea of exploring that topic was attractive, even though I knew it would be challenging, so I agreed.
SourceWatch was created to address the media’s twin habits of single-source reporting while failing to disclose favored sources’ economic and political conflicts of interest.
“Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List” is the culmination of an intensive amount of research, and contains a photo gallery of 12 of the US biggest welfare ranchers, including the Koch brothers, the folks who supply McDonalds french fries, and Ted Turner (but no Steve Forbes). Eight of the twelve are on one or more of Forbes “rich” lists.
The rancher series describes different aspects of the federal grazing program important to anyone who cares about Western politics, public lands and wildlife, and truth in media. Two of the segments examine research studies and one has a proposed reading list.
I hope you’ll read all four segments. To learn more, follow us on Twitter @dailypitchfork or become a Daily Pitchfork subscriber (you can sign up from our home page). Please join us!
The news that the Center for Biological Diversity’s excellent report, Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands was picked up by only three publications (after being sent to easily 100 journalists covering ranching and public lands issues) got me googling. Was the press not interested in rancher and public lands issues since the report was published in late January?
This is why I’m writing a series in The Daily Pitchfork for our new SourceWatch feature: “The media adores ranchers. Here’s why they shouldn’t.”
Economic data isn’t iconic the way ranchers are. It doesn’t have that rancher-campfire smell about it. But still, I know journalists care about informing the public. So why does the only truth they’re putting out there have a big cowboy hat on it?
Swing on over here for Part I. And it’s a series, pardner. That means more romance is headed your way.