Most Often, the Right Word is “Grazing,” Not “Overgrazing”
by Andy Kerr
Using the correct word matters.
Not only in the popular media, but often in government reports and scientific papers, the term “overgrazing” is used to describe a land use that affects the natural environment. Herbivory by domestic livestock in a natural environment is accurately called “grazing.”
The use of the term “overgrazing” when the facts actually call for the term “grazing” incorrectly presumes or represents that some level of grazing in the arid American West is benign—if not helpful—to native wildlife, water quantity, water quality and ecosystem function. But that is not the case.
Livestock (including cattle, sheep, goats and horses) trample vegetation, damage soil, spread invasive weeds, pollute water, steal forage from native wildlife, and even contribute to global warming. Livestock grazing in riparian (streamside) areas—especially in the arid American West—causes immeasurable damage to riparian resources, including the loss of fish and wildlife habitat, soil erosion, and diminished water quality and quantity. Public lands livestock grazing occurs not only on the "tree-free" landscapes in the American West, but also in many forested areas. In addition to the proliferation of roads, the scourge of logging and the exclusion of fire, livestock grazing plays a major role in creating unhealthy forests.1
Grazing—just “grazing”—is among the most environmentally destructive activities in the American West and around the world. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt concluded that grazing—not overgrazing—“is the most damaging use of public land.”2
Because of their numbers and pervasiveness across the landscape, the bovine has done more damage to the Earth than the bulldozer. This fact makes its all the more distressing that apologists for livestock grazing in natural ecosystems prefer to characterize the ecologically irritating agent as overgrazing rather than grazing. Such is to be expected because, after all, they are apologists. What is overdistressing is when scientists and public land managers also misuse the term overgrazing when what they are actually describing grazing.
One does not see the use of the term “overlogging” when describing harm done to forests by chainsaws and bulldozers. Nor does one see the term “overmining” or “overdrilling” to describe the activity of mineral extraction as a cause of degradation of land, water and wildlife. One does not read the term “overroading” in a discussion of landscape fragmentation.
A common dictionary definition of “overgrazing” is “to allow animals to graze (as a pasture) to the point of damaging vegetational cover.”3 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization further expounds:
Overgrazing: What is it?
One of the risks associated with arid and semi-arid grazing systems in particular, is land degradation as a result of overgrazing. Overgrazing can be defined as the practice of grazing too many livestock for too long a period on land unable to recover its vegetation, or of grazing ruminants on land not suitable for grazing as a result of certain physical parameters such as its slope. Overgrazing exceeds the carrying capacity of a pasture. However there may be other factors involved or contributing to apparent overgrazing such as climate change. Overgrazing often results in soil erosion, the destruction of vegetation, and other problems related to these processes.4
Overgrazing is most appropriately used to describe the impacts of too much grazing in an area to maintain domestic livestock grazing, rather than in the context of sustaining functional ecosystems, intact watersheds and native species.
Sage-grouse, Pacific salmon, native trout, Mexican spotted owls, and numerous others species, as well as water quantity and water quality are all detrimentally affected by grazing long before soil loss becomes an issue. Even “light” grazing (if such could be done by 1,000-pound beast ill-bred for such environments) alters ecosystem composition and function.
The continued use of “overgrazing” rather than “grazing” to define the problem of grazing impacts on western public lands in the American West serves to shield that activity from needed scrutiny.
Andy Kerr (andykerr.net) is Czar of The Larch Company (www.andykerr.net), and consults for public lands conservation organizations in the American West, including those who seek to end abusive livestock grazing on public lands through the use of federal grazing permit buyouts, in which public lands grazing permittees are compensated for voluntarily relinquishing their permits back to the federal government, which then permanently retires the affected allotment from livestock grazing.
1 See in general, Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. 2006. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Rome, Italy; and Wuerthner, George and Mollie Matteson (editors). 2002. Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. Island Press. Washington, DC.
2 Babbitt, Bruce. 2005. Cites in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America. Shearwater Books. Island Press. Covelo, CA: 148.
3 Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overgraze