And you paid for it
Part 1 of a 3-part series examining winter, wildlife, & livestock
SAN FRANCISCO, California; BOZEMAN, Montana––Green grass is already pushing up through the bones of grass-eating hoofed animals who starved or died of exposure amid the exceptionally deep snow that hit parts of the western range during the winter of 2015-2016, but the legal and political storm over the losses of cattle, sheep, deer, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and wild horses has just begun.
Winter Storm Goliath
“Winter Storm Goliath, which ripped through the southwestern United States beginning on December 26, 2015, claimed the lives of tens of thousands of dairy cattle, calves, and other farm animals in western Texas and eastern New Mexico,” wrote Humane Farming Association founder Brad Miller to U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack on May 5, 2016.
“With 18 inches of snow on the ground, snow drifts as high as 14 feet, and wind pushing animals into fenced corners where they were literally buried alive in drifts, an estimated 40,000 cows and calves perished,” Miller recounted, then emphasized that the deaths should have been foreseen and prevented.
“Little or no shelter”
“Millions of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and other livestock in the United States are provided little or no shelter from adverse weather,” Miller explained. “Whether on private pasture, in feed- or dry lots, or on public lands, many animals are subjected to prolonged suffering and agonizing deaths.”
Meanwhile, Miller noted, a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Humane Farming Association uncovered that in just two fiscal years, 2013-2015, the Livestock Indemnity Program administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency “issued payments of $134,140,346 to farmers and ranchers for animal deaths due primarily to weather-related issues.
More than 2.7 million animals lost
“Total animal deaths,” Miller summarized, “included a staggering 202,445 livestock and 2.5 million poultry.
“These figures do not include animal deaths or payouts to eligible producers who declared losses from Winter Storm Goliath,” Miller added, “as those applications had not yet been processed when our Freedom of Information Act request was fulfilled.
Negligent farmers are rewarded
“Instead of providing adequate shelter to vulnerable livestock,” Miller charged, “producers who do not assure protections from inclement weather are rewarded for livestock deaths in the amount of 75% of the animals’ market value, up to $125,000 per year.
“Compensating producers for dead livestock without ever requiring adequate shelter,” Miller pointed out, “is actually a disincentive to farmers and ranchers to make an effort to provide for their animals. Instead, neglected livestock are dying painfully and needlessly and taxpayers are footing the bill.”
Asks for “adequate protections”
Miller asked Vilsack “to petition USDA to cease the Farm Service Agency Livestock Indemnity Program’s benefits to farmers and ranchers for livestock deaths caused by adverse weather––including blizzards, hurricanes, hail, extreme heat, and extreme cold––when adequate protections are not put in place.
“We believe that, if compensation is made available,” Miller said, “the Farm Service Agency should only provide it to those producers who have put protections in place to shelter the animals in their care.
“If the natural landscape does not provide protection from extreme weather elements, adequate facilities––such as run-in sheds, windbreaks, or other barriers from prevailing winds––must be installed for livestock. Livestock producers should not be compensated,” Miller concluded, “unless they have done everything possible to protect their animals from adverse weather.”
35,000 dairy cattle
Texas Association of Dairymen executive director Darren Turley told Winnipeg Free Press reporter Betsy Blaney that as many as 15,000 dairy cows died in northwest Texas.
“An agent with New Mexico State University’s extension service told Turley that the area around Clovis, New Mexico lost an estimated 20,000 dairy cows,” Blaney added.
Explains a USDA Farm Service Agency fact sheet, “The Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill) authorized the Livestock Indemnity Program to provide benefits to livestock producers for livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by adverse weather. In addition, the Livestock Indemnity Program covers attacks by animals reintroduced into the wild by the federal government or protected by federal law, including wolves and avian predators. Livestock Indemnity Program payments are equal to 75% of the market value of the applicable livestock on the day before the date of death of the livestock as determined by the Secretary [of Agriculture].
“To be eligible for the Livestock Indemnity Program,” the fact sheet continues, “an owner’s livestock must have died as a direct result of an eligible adverse weather event occurring on or after October 1, 2011; and have been maintained for commercial use as part of a farming operation on the day they died and; not have been produced for reasons other than commercial use as part of a farming operation. Excluded livestock includes wild free roaming animals, pets, or animals used for recreational purposes, such as hunting, roping, or for show.”
Because the terms of the Livestock Indemnity Program were specified by an Act of Congress, amending those terms to require that livestock be protected from the elements might require a further Act of Congress, but Miller and Humane Farming Association chief investigator Gail Eisnitz believe otherwise.
“I consulted an attorney before filing the petition who said that a request to abolish the Livestock Indemnity Program would require an Act of Congress, but a petition to request a change to the program would not,” Eisnitz told ANIMALS 24-7. “If we were asking to abolish the Livestock Indemnity Program, it might require Congressional action,” Eisnitz added after double-checking with the HFA legal counsel, “but we are just asking for a tweak of the program.”
Bison better adapted
The most fundamental threat to cattle and sheep left out on the range over winter is simply that domestic cattle and sheep have been selectively bred for 5,000 to 10,000 years to produce more meat, milk, and fiber, mostly in habitats with considerably less harsh extremes of weather than much of the U.S. west.
Even after about 150 years in the U.S. west, domestic cattle and sheep are poorly adapted to cope with the arid conditions prevailing from west Texas to southern California, and the glacial cold winters in the upper Rocky Mountains.
North American bison, the native elder first cousins of domestic cattle, are by contrast eminently well adapted to survive almost anywhere in the continental U.S. west of the Ozark, Appalachian and Adirondack mountains.
But bison also suffered
But even the estimated 4,300 wild bison inhabiting the Yellowstone National Park region struggled through the winter of 2015-2016, despite a variety of hunts and culls that thinned the herds by 593 animals.
“Our main concern right now,” e-mailed Buffalo Field Campaign publicist Stephany Seay on May 12, 2016, “is that there are so few buffalo in the Hebgen Basin. This area is usually teeming with hundreds of buffalo, sometimes from 400 to 600,” Seay explained, “but in the past few weeks our patrols have been able to count fewer than 200 buffalo. A winter kill assessment has yet to be conducted, and Yellowstone isn’t expected to complete their population estimate until later in the summer.
“This estimate is always suspect,” Seay said, “because it is part of what drives the Interagency Bison Management Plan’s politically driven kill quotas. We will continue to work to determine the status of the population and proceed from there.”
Nearly 2,000 bison have been culled since 2013, but, hoped Seay, “If the population is in as rough shape as it appears to be, there can be no argument against an absolute ceasefire.”
(Next: Winter policy favors feeding elk but starving bison and End of PZP program means more people could eat a horse.)