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Can Cattle Grazing be Good for the Environment?

A former environmental lawyer has written a book that says that when done correctly, livestock grazing can have some benefits for the land. (Scott Bauer/USDA)
A former environmental lawyer has written a book that says that when done correctly, livestock grazing can have some benefits for the land. (Scott Bauer/USDA)
November 16, 2016

BILLINGS, Mont. - The ancient plains of Montana once hosted herds of animals that grazed the land. Now, cattle and other domesticated animals do that work.

According to former environmental lawyer and author Nicolette Hahn Niman, the planet actually is grazed far less than it used to be. Her book "Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production" explores the benefits of raising cattle and the positive effects it can have on the land - when it's done correctly.

"Rather than so much attention being paid to the negative impacts of cattle when they're poorly managed," she said, "we should be focusing on the tremendous benefits of well-managed grazing."

Cattle ranching has been criticized by some as contributing to climate change. However, Hahn Niman said, well-managed grazing can improve soil health and even help sequester carbon dioxide. She said it also can help keep water in the soil.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation manages more than 4 million acres of land classified for grazing across the state.

Hahn Niman defended eating meat in her book as well. While she believes the industrialization of the livestock industry isn't the healthiest approach to producing meat, she said that doesn't mean meat production should be halted completely.

"Eliminating livestock is literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because there are so many benefits to having livestock in the food system," she said. "We need to correct some of the problems that have come about through modern systems, but we really need to have these animals."

Hahn Niman will be the keynote speaker at the Northern Plains Resource Council's 45th annual meeting on Friday and Saturday in Billings. Other topics include oil-by-rail safety, the future of coal, and accessing financing for clean energy. The public can hear Hahn Niman speak on Saturday morning. Information on how to attend is online at northernplains.org.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT