By Scott Russell Smith
Don’t get me wrong—I love watching “Yellowstone,” the top-rated TV melodrama midway through its fifth season on the Paramount Network. Action-packed storylines. Gripping family dynamics. Gorgeous scenery.
I get the mythic Western vibe that co-creators Taylor Sheridan and John Linson are orchestrating. After all, generations of my father’s family ran the now defunct Omaha Horse & Mule Company. I’ve solo camped in the back country of Yellowstone National Park, rafted the Snake River through the Tetons, mingled with moose.
What I can’t abide is just how ridiculous they’ve made Summer Higgins, the jailed eco-terrorist now serving under (literally) Governor John Dutton in house custody as his environmental advisor. While I’m happy to see that Piper Perabo has evolved so nicely from her “Coyote Ugly” days, it pains me that she is rendered a caricature rather than given a sensible voice of veganism and environmental justice.
I work for Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy organization that serves to protect crucial habitat, combat the climate crisis and end the exploitation of animals—both domestic and free-roaming—and would gladly help Summer speak truth to John Dutton.
Let’s leave aside the obvious health benefits of consuming plant proteins over animal muscle and fat, especially for an old geezer with lots of preexisting conditions. And skip any hope of moral suasion regarding animal cruelty with a thug who murders humans at the drop of a Stetson.
Have Summer ask John Dutton what kind of world he wants to leave his grandson Tate. If he truly values preserving the natural beauty of his land, the purity of his free-flowing water and its clean, clear air, how can he ignore the fact that raising a pound of beef releases 50 times more greenhouse gases than growing a like amount of protein from peas? Or that expansion of grazing land is the world’s greatest cause of habitat loss, responsible for 40 percent of the deforestation caused by the food industry? If he cares anything about keeping landscapes wild and untamed, does he realize that if destructive farming and grazing activity ceased on just 15 percent of land in key parts of the world like Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, 60 percent of the extinctions that would otherwise happen could be averted?
These and many other stark factoids are mustered by land-use activist George Monbiot in his book Regenesis, in which he argues for a “greener revolution” that will end the livestock farming and slaughterhouse industries, restore soil health and free up vast tracts of land for climate-change mitigation and the rewilding of species big and small on every continent.
A vegan, Monbiot is especially scornful of hobby ranchers like John Dutton who promote an “escapist” fantasy of livestock farming. Dutton brags that his family has spent decades breeding special qualities into their bespoke brand of beef. Why doesn’t Summer just say, Hey, Gov, chew on this: Cows are wholly unsuited to inhabiting the American West. Always have been, always will be.
“For centuries, domestic breeds of cattle were selectively bred to graze in the lush, highly productive meadows of northern Europe. When dropped off in arid lands, they congregate along the thin green strips of riparian habitat bordering rivers and streams, destroying these oases of biodiversity and trampling the streams into shallow, muddy trickles of fecal coliform,” explains Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.
A cow and a calf require nearly 14 acres of land to feed in the West versus just two acres in the East. Even Dutton’s daughter, Beth, chides him that raising cattle in Montana’s high country has always been a rich man’s money-losing game. Despite enormous subsidies from U.S. taxpayers, cowpokes like Dutton and his gang produce a vanishingly small percentage of American beef. The real world wouldn’t even blink if the family sold off their hoofed tax shelters. Cruel factory farms elsewhere in the U.S. raise the lion’s share of beef, and even they are dwarfed by cows criminally grown on deforested Amazon rain forest in Brazil.
So where does all the money come from to support the Duttons’ fleet of honking big new SUVs, slick helicopter, household staff, a barn full of wranglers and all those fancy rodeo ponies? Hard to say but to get the fur really flying between Beth and Summer, have her call out the family and their cattlemen friends for what they really are: welfare ranchers. Point out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent almost $50 billion in subsidies for U.S. livestock operators since 1995, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. (By contrast, since 2018 the USDA has spent less than $30 million to support plant-based proteins.)
If the show runners wanted to do justice to animal and environmental activists, they would’ve modeled Summer after “Wild Horse Annie,” the fierce advocate for the rights of free-roaming wild horses. FoA has been railing against the Bureau of Land Management and its plan to wipe out wild horses to placate the meat industry for decades. Surely, Summer (and all the Duttons) should be outraged that these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” are not being protected as Congress intended back in 1971.
With just a bit of knowledge about the land-use and pork-barrel issues involved, Summer could ask Beth, if she’s so gosh darn smart with money, why hasn’t she led her dad to the cash trough that is the public range managed by the Bureau of Land Management? The BLM leases some 155 million acres to sheep and cattle producers for just $1.25 per month for cow-calf pairs, far below the $12-$14 per month fee Dutton wrangled to lease private land in Texas for his refugee cattle. That paltry rate is the only thing that makes raising livestock in the arid American West even remotely viable.
The BLM’s sweetheart deals have cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars while benefiting a small number of ranchers—less than 3% of all livestock operators in the U.S. As Monbiot puts it, “Extensive livestock farming is an economic fantasy, sustained either by lashings of public money or public tolerance of massive environmental destruction, or both.”
(And if Summer knew the first thing about our national mammal, she’d tell the Duttons that there has never been a recorded case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cows. Ever. That’s simply a scaremongering myth perpetuated by the ranching and hunting lobby. Summer could point out, as FoA has done in a number of legal battles, that the herds of wild Yellowstone bison represent a unique population that deserves full protection under the Endangered Species Act.)
Summer should know, as Dutton surely does, the square on the map that is Yellowstone National Park was arbitrarily plotted out in Washington 150 years ago and is an historical mistake, if not outright calamity. The highest ultimate value of his land is as an essential part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The land Dutton’s family stole from the Native Americans belongs to Monica’s people and to the buffalo, elk, antelopes, grizzlies and wolves that need Yellowstone Dutton Ranch to function as an integral part of a whole, vibrant and sustainable ecosystem. Everything depends on the freedom of megafauna to migrate in winter from the high Yellowstone plateau to the protected valleys and forests of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Every winter, at the behest of local ranchers like John Dutton, swarms of state and federal agents shoot Yellowstone buffalo, wolves and bears who dare to do what nature mandates; move to survive and thrive.
I pray that in future episodes and pillow talk, Summer can persuade John Dutton that the only future for his family legacy is as a landscape where native wild horses and elk and bison roam free; where there are no invasive cattle or sheep to tempt wolves and grizzlies; where what farming exists is in fields planted with perennial grains or water-stingy crops like millet. Where the tiny proportion of Americans who are trophy hunters give way to low-impact visits by some of the vast majority of Americans who prefer to see wildlife through the lens of a camera or pair of binoculars, not the scope of a high-powered rifle. Where old-growth forest is managed not for logging but for its vital role in absorbing carbon and storing water. Where the boundless land is not torn asunder by oil rigs or casino parking lots but held in perpetuity for all Americans to enjoy.
That’s the happy ending that fans of “Yellowstone,” and all Americans, deserve to see.
Scott Russell Smith is the Communications Director for Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy organizations based in Darien, CT.