Watersheds Messenger     Fall 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 3     PDF ISSUE


Livestock Spoil the Native Diversity on America's Public Lands
By Debra Donahue

We in the West have a chance to avoid the wholesale conversion of native habitats that has changed the face of much of eastern North America. But instead we are endangering species and disrupting entire ecosystems at an unprecedented rate by permitting 270 million acres of land belonging to all Americans to be used for domestic livestock production.

No matter where livestock graze, they and "improvements" undertaken for their benefit (1) introduce and spread exotic plant species and diseases, (2) out-compete many native species for habitat, (3) disadvantage or destroy sensitive native plants, (4) contribute to excessive soil erosion, and (5) foul surface waters and disrupt hydrological patterns.

Why is livestock production permitted on public lands? Are there legitimate policy reasons for continuing this enterprise despite its negative consequences?

My book, "The Western Range Revisited" (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), answered this question with an emphatic "No." Commercial livestock production is an inappropriate use of public lands - inappropriate because it is ecologically damaging, uneconomic and inequitable. TWRR synthesizes the scientific, economic, historical and legal thinking on an issue of increasing importance. It argues that commercial grazing should be halted on (1) arid lands, because of their marginal productivity for livestock and their susceptibility to irreversible ecological changes, and (2) riparian zones, because of their tremendous importance for native species habitat and water quality.

Both of these recommendations have substantial scientific support. Range ecologists agree that livestock impacts are the greatest where the mean annual precipitation is 12 inches or less. In these areas, livestock grazing has caused irreversible ecological changes. And Western riparian habitats, which provide habitat for 70-90 percent of all native species and water for both wildlife and humans, are highly vulnerable to livestock grazing/trampling damage.

Yet, despite 60 years of management, most Bureau of Land Management rangelands remain in only fair or poor condition; riparian areas are in their worst condition ever. The BLM concedes that the single most important cause of this degradation is livestock grazing, and that "watershed and water quality would improve to their maximum potential" if livestock were removed from public lands. (Rangeland Reform "94 DEIS)

Of all public-land uses, livestock grazing is by far the least valuable - a tiny blip on the economic radar screen. There are fewer than 23,000 federal grazing permit-holders, although nationwide there are more than 1 million livestock producers. Meanwhile, recreational users of the public lands number in the millions.

Federal grazing fee revenues are swamped by the costs of administering the program. Other regions and other producers could handily replace the mere 2 percent of U.S. livestock products that come from public lands. The few thousand low-paying jobs directly related to federal land grazing could be replaced in a matter of days by normal job and income growth in the national economy.

Since 1976 federal law has required that BLM lands be managed for the sustained yield of multiple resources, including wildlife, watershed and recreation, without impairment of the land's productivity. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the BLM's principal statute, also directs the BLM to weigh the long-term benefits to the public when it allocates lands for use, and to consider the relative scarcity of resources. Most important, FLPMA charges the BLM with managing the public lands to prevent any "unnecessary or undue degradation." Plainly ignoring these criteria, the agency defends grazing as a means of sustaining small communities and preserving an important western way of life and culture.

These justifications are vulnerable on at least two grounds. First, they are belied by the facts. There has never been a single, identifiable ranching "way of life." Federal grazers include banks, other corporations and wealthy individuals, as well as small family operations. Only a minority have been in the business for more than a generation. Few depend on federal grazing lands for their living. (In fact, 70 percent of cattle producers in the West own all the land they operate.) For many, the ranch is a hobby or a tax write-off, while small operators support themselves with second jobs or by other means.

Nor does public-land grazing support Western communities. Rather, the services and employment opportunities afforded by small towns help sustain public-lands ranchers.

Grazing advocates oppose the total removal of livestock, urging instead that AUMs be reduced or management intensified. But many livestock-related impacts simply can't be avoided. A few may be alleviated, but only at significant cost. Either approach will only prolong the inevitable result: conversion of naturally functioning landscapes to degraded cow pastures.

The only practical way to restore public rangelands is to remove livestock altogether. Where ecological thresholds have been exceeded and restoration may not be feasible (e.g., on cheatgrass-dominated areas), livestock also should be removed. Otherwise, land degradation will continue, and the resulting grazing-induced communities (such as medusahead wild rye, which can out-compete cheatgrass) will be even less desirable for native species and ecosystem functioning.

Livestock can, in very limited situations, be used as an ecological restoration tool. In most cases, however, the desired result can and should be achieved with wild ungulates or other agents native to the ecosystem, such as fire. Even where livestock might be the tool of choice, they must be removed promptly once the desired manipulation is accomplished. Commercial livestock production simply has no utility for ecological restoration.

Similarly, public-lands grazing has no demonstrable role in maintaining open space. Those who would keep livestock on public lands just to keep condos off private ones are more concerned about their view than about wildlife habitat or healthy watersheds.

Debra Donahue of Laramie, Wyoming serves on WWP's advisory board.

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