Last month, an environmental group sued the federal government for failing to protect turtles from cows.

To understand this bizarre-sounding but important lawsuit, you first have to understand the nature of cattle ranching in the American West.

Some 215 million acres of public land in the West — over 10 percent of the continental US — is loaned to ranchers at bargain-bin prices for their cattle to graze. As the cattle graze, they tend to disrupt ecosystems and do a lot of damage to the land. They eat or destroy plants consumed by native species, like turtles, which can lead to biodiversity loss. Their manure pollutes rivers and streams, and as they move about, they erode soil.

“The problems are huge, sprawling, and major,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), the group that sued numerous federal agencies for failing to preserve the habitat of the Mojave desert tortoise and 77 other species. And, Molvar added, we don’t get much benefit from it. About 2 million cattle, […]

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