Native Wildlife Recovery / Livestock Grazing

What We Do: Native Wildlife Recovery / Livestock Grazing

According to the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Plan, 1.3 million acres of the Forest are classified as suitable for livestock grazing. The Forest annually can provide 186,000 animal unit months (AUM)

Riparian areas are the top priority for management improvement.

Federal grazing fees for cattle on public lands are dropping for the second straight year due to ranchers’ overall costs, although the program loses more than $140 million a year. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lowered the fee from $1.56 to $1.35, the lowest allowable by law, effective March 1, 2007. Ranchers pay the fee to cover the amount of grasses and other forage that a typical cow eats on public lands for a month. In 2006, the fee fell from $1.79 to $1.56.

According to the Sierra Club, livestock grazing occurs on more federal public lands than any other commercial use, affecting more than 260 million acres – an area the size of Texas and California combined! In the United States, livestock grazing has contributed to the listing of 22 percent of federal threatened and endangered species—almost equal to logging (12 percent) and mining (11 percent) combined. No other human activity in the West is as responsible for the decline or loss of species as is livestock production.


Environmental Consequences of Cattle Grazing on Public Lands


Grazing Competition with Wildlife

Forage Allocation
In one study, scientists found that domestic livestock grazing consumed 88.8 percent of the available forage (cattle and [domesticated] horses 82.3 percent, free-roaming horses 5.8 percent, sheep 0.7 percent), leaving 11.2 percent to wildlife species (mule deer 10.1 percent, pronghorn 0.9 percent, bighorn sheep 0.1 percent, elk 0.1 percent).

Forage Use 
It is a simple concept: the forage (grass, forbs [wildflowers], shrubs) consumed by domestic livestock is not available as food and cover for native wildlife–species that are important to healthy ecosystems, admired by wildlife enthusiasts, and prized by hunters. Range managers use the rather imprecise animal unit month or AUM to measure and allocate forage. An AUM is the amount of forage necessary to sustain a cow and calf for one month (approximately 650 pounds, although some estimates are more, between 800-1000 pounds). Below are generally accepted AUM equivalents.



Native Wildlife Animals Per AUM Domestic Livestock Animals Per AUM
Bighorn Sheep 6.9 Cow 1
Pronghorn 10.8 Bull 1.25
Mule Deer 7.8 Horse 1.25
Elk 2.1 Goat 5
Bison 0.8 Sheep 5
Moose 1.2


  • The threatened desert tortoise eats less vegetation in one year than a cow eats in one day.
  • Percentage of prairie dog towns eliminated for ranching in the 20th century: 98 percent.
  • Number of species, including ferrets, hawks, owls, mice and snakes, dependent on prairie dogs and their burrows: 170.

Predator Control to Protect Livestock


Predators Killed by USDA Wildlife Services FY1999

Animal Number
Coyote 85,938
Fox 6,182
Bobcat 2,435
Badger 601
Black bear 359
Mountain lion 347
Total 95,862


  • Percent of cattle and calf losses attributed to predation (1995): 2.7 percent.
  • Percent of cattle and calf losses attributed to digestive problems, respiratory difficulties, calving complications, weather and other causes (1995): 97.3 percent.


Grazing Impacts on Threatened and Endangered Species

Threatened and endangered plant and animal species inhabiting federal rangelands and imperiled by livestock grazing: more than 175.

In the United States, grazing has contributed to the demise of 22 percent of federal threatened and endangered species-almost equal to logging (12 percent) and mining (11 percent) combined.

Livestock grazing is especially harmful to plant species, affecting 33 percent of endangered plants.



Sensitive Focal Species Adversely Affected by Livestock Grazing

  • Sage grouse
  • Pronghorn (especially Sonoran subspecies)
  • Bighorn sheep (California subspecies and Rocky Mountain subspecies)
  • Black-footed ferret
  • Wolf
  • Grizzly bear
  • Yellow-billed cuckoo
  • Prairie dog (black-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, white-tailed)


The More Livestock, the Less Wildlife

It is a simple concept: the forage (grass, forbs, shrubs) consumed by domestic livestock is not available as food and cover for native wildlife-species that are ecologically significant, admired by wildlife enthusiasts, and prized by hunters. Range managers use the rather imprecise animal unit month or AUM to measure and allocate forage. An AUM is the amount of forage necessary to sustain a cow and calf for one month (approximately 650 pounds, although some estimates are more, between 800-1000 pounds). Below are generally accepted AUM equivalents.



Wildlife Animals Per AUM Livestock Animals Per AUM
Bighorn Sheep 6.9 Cow 1
Pronghorn 10.8 Horse 0.8
Mule Deer 7.8 Goat 5
Elk 2.1 Sheep 5
Bison 0.8
Moose 0.8

Available forage is often a limiting factor for wildlife. The species vary by habitat type, but for every domestic animal we see on public lands, we are not seeing – and the ecosystem has been deprived of-the commensurate number of native wildlife. Not only do livestock compete with wildlife for food, but also for space and water.


Predator Control to Protect Livestock

Federal funds spent by USDA-Wildlife Services to kill 94,502 predators in seventeen western states (FY 1999): $10.8 million.

Percent of USDA-Wildlife Services predator control budget spent to protect livestock on public lands: 75 percent. Percent of predator control budget paid by ranchers: 1 percent. Percent of cattle and calf losses attributed to predation (1995): 2.7 percent. Percent of cattle and calf losses attributed to digestive problems, respiratory difficulties, calving complications, weather and other causes (1995):


Predators Killed by USDA Wildlife Services FY1999

Animal Number
Coyote 85,262
Fox 5,531
Bobcat 2,419
Badger 589
Mountain lion 359
Black bear 342
Total 94,502

Cattle and Calf Losses 1995

Non-predator Loss Percent
Digestive Problems 19.7
Respiratory Difficulties 27.5
Calving Complications 14.8
Weather 9.5
Poison 1.1
Theft 0.4
Other Causes 9.1
Unknown Causes 15.2
Total Non-predator Loss 97.3


Livestock and Water

Livestock grazing has damaged 80 percent of the streams and riparian ecosystems in the arid West.


“Extensive field observations in the late 1980s suggest riparian areas throughout much of the West were in the worst condition in history.”
Although they represent only 0.5 to 1 percent of the surface area of federally owned Western arid lands, riparian zones are critically important to over 75 percent of terrestrial species in southeastern Oregon and southeastern Wyoming, and 80 percent of wildlife in the Arizona and New Mexico.


“Improvident grazing…has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage [affecting 225 million acres or 351,562 square miles], within the United States.”
Nearly all surface waters in the West are fouled with livestock wastes that produce harmful waterborne bacteria and protozoa such as Giardia.



Belsky, et al. reviewed livestock grazing impacts on water quality and quantity

  • Water quality: livestock deposit pathogenic bacteria into streams and increase nutrient content, water turbidity, and water temperatures, all of which harm cold water fish and other species.
  • Stream channel morphology: grazing results in streambank downcutting that shrinks the channel, and reduces streambank stability and the number and quality of deep pools and stream meanders.
  • Hydrology (stream flow patterns): grazing causes increased runoff, flood water velocity, number of flood events, and peak flow, while reducing (or stopping) summer flow and lowering the water table.
  • Riparian soils: grazing exposes bare ground, compacts soil and causes erosion, while reducing water infiltration and soil fertility.
  • Streambank vegetation: grazing reduces the cover, biomass, and productivity of herbaceous and woody vegetation, and impedes plant succession.
  • Instream vegetation: grazing increases algal populations while causing declines in other, beneficial water plants.
  • Aquatic and riparian wildlife: grazing reduces the diversity, abundance, and productivity of cold water fish, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates and alters the composition and diversity of birds and mammals


Livestock and Invasive Weeds

Livestock cause weed invasion by grazing and trampling native plants; clearing vegetation, destroying the soil crust and preparing weed seedbeds through hoof action; and transporting and dispersing seeds on their coats and through their digestive tracks.


“At the community scale, livestock may be the major factor causing weed invasions.”
Weeds spread on western federal lands at an estimated 4000-5000 acres per day. Introduced weeds alter and damage western landscapes by increasing fire frequency, reducing biodiversity and wildlife habitat, and increasing topsoil loss. Competition with or predation by alien species is the second-ranked factor for the listing of all threatened and endangered species.



Livestock transport weed seeds into uninfested sites on their coats and feet and in their guts; preferentially graze native plant species over weed species; create patches of bare, disturbed soils that act as weed seedbeds; and destroy microbiotic crusts that stabilize soils and inhibit weed seed germination. Grazing also creates patches of nitrogen-rich soils, which favor nitrogen-loving weed species; reduces concentrations of soil mycorrhizae required by most western native species; and accelerates soil erosion that buries weed seeds and facilitates their germination.

Livestock grazing for “weed control” is counterproductive-research demonstrates that grazing harms native species, reduces species richness and vegetative cover, while promoting alien plant growth in many ecosystem types.

Cheatgrass, a noxious weed perpetuated by grazing and wildfire, is now the dominant species on 100,000 million acres – 158,000 square miles – or one-third of the sagebrush grasslands in the Intermountain West.


Livestock Major Factor in Unhealthy Forests

The classic open stands of ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests that once blanketed the interior West from British Columbia to New Mexico have changed dramatically for the worse since Euro-American invasion.

What were once widely spaced, fire-tolerant forest stands with a dense grass sward underneath have been converted over the last century to thick stands which are more fire-sensitive and susceptible to disease. Scientists, government foresters, the timber industry and conservationists have identified two major factors causing this transition: (1) prevention of low- and moderate- intensity fires that suppressed the number of fire-sensitive and shade-tolerant tree species such as Douglas, grand and white firs, and (2) logging the economically valuable and fire-resistant ponderosa pine and western larch.

Today, there is much talk, though little action, about the “forest health crisis.” Of course, a healthy forest to an ecologist or conservationist is not the same as to a mill owner or government bureaucrat. They vehemently differ in the relative importance of logging, fire suppression, disease and roading to forest sustainability.

While these are very important factors, a third factor has been overlooked in the debate. A major force in changing the forests has been livestock grazing. Livestock range over 284 million acres or 91% of all federal land in the eleven western states. Though livestock do not wield chainsaws, they nonetheless have dramatic effects on forest composition and density.

Livestock grazing has modified forest dynamics by removing the understory grasses, which serve two critical roles in a natural forest.

First, healthy, thick grass out competes conifer seedlings and prevents the heavy densities of small trees.

The forest floor was once carpeted with Idaho fescue and bluebunch wheatgrass, pinegrass and elk sedge. These “old-growth” grasses with their extensive roots could out-compete little tree seedlings for moisture and nutrients. Besides serving as a source of nutrients and organic matter, the litter is critical for slowing surface water flow, enhancing water infiltration, insulating the soil from freezing, and mitigating the erosive force of raindrops.

Second, the natural grass stands served as fine fuels to carry low-intensity fires through the forest, which also keep tree numbers down.

On the dry low-elevation south-facing slopes, the dominant tree was ponderosa pine. In wetter mid-level north-facing stands, the dominant trees were western larch, and Douglas, grand and white firs. Those that made it to maturity evolved with fire to have self-pruning and thick fire-resistant bark, so the frequent ground fires that came an average of every 5-12 years throughout the West were usually no problem to the big old trees.

Gone with the grass are these beneficial fires. Dense stands of sapling- and pole-sized fire-sensitive species are now all too common. These species are more susceptible to stress during drought, making them more vulnerable to diseases and insect infestations. Fuel loads have increased ten-fold in the last 25 years.

Dr. Joy Belsky and her associate, Dana Blumenthal, reviewed the scientific literature and found numerous examples comparing grazed and ungrazed (livestock was excluded, but not native wildlife), mostly unlogged forest stands. They found that the ungrazed stands retained their park-like character, in spite of active fire prevention and the absence of logging. To restore the stability and sustainability of our interior forests, we must not only stop logging the big trees and carefully reintroduce fire into the ecosystem, but also limit livestock grazing so the grass can return.

This ecological debt must be paid off by investing in true forest restoration, not merely continuing to subsidize grazing and timber sales. The cow may be mightier than the chainsaw, not only in myth, but also in fact.

Livestock Grazing Pollutes Water

Western federal lands were originally set aside to protect their watershed values. Public lands are critical to the water supplies for many western communities, yet commercial livestock production is an on-going threat to water quality.

Livestock impact “riparian” areas (zones of lush vegetation along streambanks) by:


  • trampling stream banks and causing sedimentation;
  • eating the streamside vegetation that holds streambanks together;
  • defecating near or directly in streams and lakes; and
  • spreading numerous highly infectious water-borne diseases to water supplies.

In addition to riparian area impacts, livestock eat vegetation and compact soil in upland areas. This reduces water infiltration into the ground, which leads to additional watershed degradation with greater flooding and stream channel destruction.

Livestock are the major source of non-point pollution in the West.

Livestock Grazing Can Kill Fish

The same reasons that livestock grazing pollutes water and de-waters streams are also the reasons livestock grazing kills fish. In addition, loss of riparian vegetation and the breakage of stream channels by livestock hooves change streams into wide, sediment-filled waterways that have much higher water temperatures. This makes them less attractive or even uninhabitable to many native fish species.

Livestock Require Fences

Miles of fences clutter our public lands for livestock production. Fences have incredible negative impacts on wildlife, killing wildlife directly and disrupting migration patterns. Fences make convenient perches for avian predators leading to greater predation on vulnerable birds like sage grouse, which avoid fenced areas due to predators.

Read about cow impacts on Global Warming at:,0,1365993.story?coll=la-opinion-bottomleft

For more information on grazing, see “The Long Shadow of Grazing: Environmental Issues and Options” prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006, at: (pdf)