The old National Cattlemen's Association used to refer to ranchers as the first environmentalists. That was not P.R., it was the truth. The difference between ranchers and most of today's self-appointed environmentalists is that ranchers truly understood the interplay between flora and fauna. They genuinely understand resource management. Urban environmentalists, on the other hand, do not believe in intervention by man. Typically, they believe that everything should be left to nature.

Hunting, or otherwise removing animals for slaughter, is considered cruel. In reality, it's humane. Left on her own, nature will control animal populations. But nature is inexorably cruel. Nature controls animal populations through starvation, disease and predation.

Ranchers and other genuine land managers realize that you manage land for the flora, not the fauna. As the amount of forage declines, you must remove a portion of the animals. If you don't, overgrazing (and starvation) will result.

Urban environmentalists typically believe that overgrazing is a result of domestic livestock, not wildlife. That is nonsense. If you want to see overgrazing by wildlife, go to Yellowstone Park ... where scores of elk and bison starve to death each winter.

I once asked a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone how he could justify allowing those animals to starve. His reply? The carrion makes good feed for coyotes and bears. To me, that type of thinking is sick. It's a total lack of compassion.

Sound Ecological Policy To the "back-to-nature" types, predation is the answer to population control (and justification for reintroduction of wolves). The reality is that weather, not predation, is nature's primary population control agent.

During droughts, predator and prey alike starve to death. The only humane and ecologically sound policy is for educated principles of range management to control animal populations ... not the whims of nature.

Ted Turner, who has bought up enormous amounts of ranchland, has taken a lot of criticism for his widespread reintroduction of buffalo. With all due and sincere respect, I would have to say that Turner's move to repopulate the West with buffalo is probably well intentioned, but not based on sound principles.

Actually, there's nothing wrong with buffalo. The problem is that it has been reported that Turner is tearing out all the crossfences. In essence, instead of practicing rotational grazing, he'll be involved in continuous grazing.

Continuous Grazing Is Harmful Knowledgeable range managers have long recognized that continuous grazing is not a viable system. No matter what the animal population, overgrazing will occur. The reason is that range forage must be cropped like hay. You let the animals graze it, and then remove them. The plant will then regenerate from energy reserves within the roots and crown.

Most range grasses require at least three to eight weeks to replenish the energy used during regeneration. If animals are allowed to regraze before the energy reserves have been replaced, the plant will die. A lesser quality plant, such as sagebrush or mesquite (often called invader plants), will ultimately replace it. Under continuous grazing, that's exactly what will happen. Animals will selectively regraze the lush, tender regrowth.

In the 1800s, bison roamed the West and, as a general rule, they did not overgraze. They did not overgraze because there were no windmills or other developed water sources. Water, not grass, limited animal numbers. As areas were grazed down, buffalo had to move as much as a hundred miles or more for grazing near water. (There was little opportunity for grazing regrowth.)

The invention of barbed wire is often credited with the overgrazing of America. While that may be true, it was the advent of the windmill that allowed animal numbers to expand. Fences simply confined the animals and allowed regrazing (overgrazing) to occur.

But while fences created the problem, they also can alleviate the problem. By concentrating animals and moving them in a timely manner, range condition can be restored (grasses replacing less desirable plants).

Water's Role In The Environment What the urban environmentalist must also understand is the importance of water development in relation to wildlife. The windmills and other wells ranchers drill and maintain benefit wildlife as much as livestock. Because of water development, today we have more deer, antelope, elk, quail, turkeys, grouse, doves, as well as non-game or non-native species, such as chukars, than existed during the 1800s.

Incredibly, even people within Bruce Babbitt's BLM do not understand this. They want to restrict water development on some BLM lands. I'm quite sure it's not the range conservation officers or other range scientists with BLM who want such changes. It's the seat-of-the-pants bureaucrats in Washington.

It's time to let professional range managers make the decisions. It's also time the public realized that ranchers are their allies in the maintenance of wildlife populations. In addition to the invaluable water resources ranchers maintain, ranchers also put out supplemental feed.

Armchair biologists often claim that wildlife do not need supplemental feed. That's totally and completely wrong. The mineral and protein feeds ranchers provide their livestock are also consumed by wildlife and, in some instances, have a highly positive effect on their reproductive rate. Certainly, the benefit is not as great as water, but it is significant. (Without water development, wildlife in many Western states would only be about 1Ž3 of what it is today.)