In recent years, American eating habits have begun to shift toward the inclusion of more plant-based foods, however, it cannot be denied that meat and dairy still dominate our food system. Vast amounts of meat are produced in this country, with McDonald’s alone selling approximately 75 burgers every second. The effort of meeting this level of demand for beef products requires extremely high levels of land, grain, and freshwater resources.

Approximately 78 percent of U.S. cattle are raised on factory farms, with the remaining 22 percent being raised on a combination of private and public lands across the nation. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 155 million acres of U.S. public land is used to graze livestock. A shocking analysis carried out in 2015 by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) revealed that the use of public lands for this purpose has cost U.S. taxpayers $1 billion over the past decade.

Randi Spivak of the CBD explained that this situation has occurred because cattle ranchers are permitted to pay very low prices for their use of this public resource. “Livestock owners pay less to graze their animals on publically owned land in 2014 than they did in 1981. Today the monthly cost of allowing a cow and calf to graze on federal lands is about the equivalent of a can of dog food,” said Spivak.

However, the financial cost to U.S. taxpayers – grave as that is – pales in comparison to the environmental consequences of allowing cattle to graze on these lands. Here are just a few of the many ways that the use of public lands for cattle grazing is decimating U.S. ecosystems.

Wolves Are Being Targeted

The financial interests of cattle ranchers are prized above the maintenance of local ecosystems, which has led to the systematic destruction of any form of plant or animal life that may – in the ranchers’ eyes – threaten their livelihood. Native carnivorous animals such as wolves have long been targeted by government agencies. In 2013, for example, the state of Montana sold hunters 6,000 licenses to kill wolves. Each license permitted the hunter to kill five wolves – despite the fact that the entire wolf population of Montana numbered just over 600 individuals! Last year, the state of Washington planned to exterminate an entire pack of wild wolves after some of the wolves attempted to hunt local cattle.

American gray wolves were once very close to extinction before being listed as a protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. Since then, their numbers have grown to just over 5,000 individuals in the lower 48 states. As apex predators, these animals play a vital role in balancing their native ecosystems by keeping the population of herbivores down to a manageable level and allowing the ecosystem’s plant life to thrive. When they are removed from an area, the overall health of that environment quickly begins to decline. In 2011, gray wolves were stripped of their protected status under the ESA. Since then, fears have grown that wolves could once again…