"Not the environmentalists. Not the ranchers. Not the public employees. In some cases, not even the cows."
"At the first National Forest site we visited in California’s remote Modoc Plateau, nearly every plant had been chewed on by cattle. The botanists, there to track down and collect seeds from rare plants, pointed out the soil erosion from stomping hooves. The cow pies were everywhere, unavoidable on the steep roadside slope, and they crunched or squished under our boots. The seeds we had come to collect, from a delphinium only known to exist in a handful of places in the state (though more common elsewhere), were mostly gone before the botanists could preserve them—disappeared in the digestive tracts of hungry ungulates. These plants, which just a few weeks ago had been flush with purple flowers, and which the botanists had thought would now be covered in seed pods, were instead largely gnawed to stubby stalks. At the base of the hill along the river below, we could see the offending cattle. And even before we saw them, we could hear their lowing.
The cows are innocent enough, of course. But they’re unknowingly at the center of an ongoing battle between ranchers, conservationists, and the federal government. The conflict, which spans more than a century, is set to get even more heated this year, with the forthcoming release of new Bureau of Land Management rules on cattle grazing and a recent legal challenge filed by environmental groups. The outcome could permanently alter the western U.S.’s public lands.
At the field site, the botanists collected what they could of the remaining seed pods in small yellow envelopes. Christa Horn, the trip coordinator and a plant conservation researcher at the San Diego Zoo, pulled up the state records for the delphinium at our location on her field tablet. Cattle damage had been noted at this site all the way back in 2010. This time, before we moved on to the next place, Horn submitted a note to the purple plant’s digital file. She indicated that cattle damage wasn’t just present at the site but that it posed a real threat to the flower’s survival there."