Reporting from Havre, Mont. – At the end of a scorching 100-degree day last week, I sat in a circle of horsemen in a camp near Beaver Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains. Perched at a picnic table across from me, rancher Larry Kinsella was relating a story about the vicissitudes of ranching life.
Kinsella said he had been trying to herd on horseback a troublesome cow one day recently, but the belligerent bovine kept eluding him. Up and down hills, in and out of the trees and thicket, the chase went on for hours. Finally, with the help of his wife, Judy, he cornered the elusive critter and got her tied to his pickup by two or three ropes. Before he could load the cow into a trailer, though, she rammed the side of the truck.
The $900 cow had caused about $2,000 of damage to the vehicle, thereby turning a profitable retrieval of livestock into a serious loss on machinery. Such are the economics of ranching.
Kinsella said he was done battling with the cantankerous cow and would haul her off to the sale barn in Chinook on Friday to get whatever he could from the beef buyers. But when Friday came, the weekly livestock sale was a forlorn sight. Only three or four buyers were on hand, and only a few bulls, cows and calves were put up for auction. The whole thing was over in an hour. Kinsella’s cow was not among those sold. His brother and ranching partner, Ron, had persuaded him to skip the sale and tolerate the obnoxious cow for a while longer in hope of getting a better price down the road.
In this well-moistened stretch of hills and prairies near the Canadian border, ranchers can afford to wait. Farther south, though, in Wyoming, Nebraska and east to Kansas and Arkansas, ranchers are being forced to sell off livestock prematurely. The summer’s intense heat and the extended drought have dried up water supplies and broiled the grass. With no way to sustain their herds, the ranchers are selling early, losing $200 to $400 on each head of cattle.
Beef production this year is expected to drop by a billion pounds, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, and will continue to fall next year. That means consumers will be paying more for their steaks and hamburgers, even as many ranchers lose their livelihood. This comes on top of the wildfires, killer storms and crop failures resulting from extreme weather, so you would think it might be a serious issue that the candidates for president would want to address. If you were to think that, though, you’d be wrong.
Political campaigns are not geared to tackle daunting problems in rational ways. Manufactured issues rise up, only to be replaced in the next news cycle by another trumped-up outrage. Right now, Mitt Romney and President Obama are engaged in a contest to define the other guy as negatively as possible. Romney’s career with Bain Capital and Obama’s alleged cronyism are prime lines of attack. Beef prices, wildfires, weird weather and the climate change that may be causing it are nowhere on their list of talking points.
It is no wonder that many – maybe most – Americans tune out the irrelevant campaign noise. During a week of riding horses and moving cattle with Montana ranchers, I heard politics mentioned only twice. The first time was when I was asked which of the candidates was ahead and I had nothing to offer but the conventional wisdom that it is a darned close race. The second time was when a rancher made a disparaging remark about Al Gore and his crazy environmentalist ideas.
But it just may be that Gore’s warnings about global warming are coming true. Plenty of climate scientists believe we have reached a tipping point and, within a generation or two, new weather patterns will make ranching and farming impossible in many states.
That dire possibility is surely something worthy of reasoned discussion. Yet, with American politics in its current polarized and frivolous state, it would be easier to corral a renegade cow than to make a presidential candidate talk straight about issues that really matter.