Public Lands Livestock Grazing


00000-02152 Cow damaged riparian area TNC Red Canyon Ranch Wyoming George Wuerthner-2670

A cow-nuked landscape. Photo by George Wuerthner

Americans have a deep love for our “wild west” beginnings, with starry-eyed visions of dusty cowboys aback horses, crooning to cattle scattered across wild open prairies. Yet, behind this idealized vision is a truth that reveals an ugly history of public lands abuse, runaway subsidies, and a broken system that is impacting the health and function of our western public lands.

Livestock grazing occurs on more than 250,000,000 acres of public land, representing an area roughly the size of California and Texas combined. 57% of the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management is grazed.

Many people are unaware of just how damaging improperly managed grazing can be. Read on to learn more and check out our recommended reading list to dig deeper into the topic.

Improperly managed public-lands grazing is one of the most destructive uses of our precious wild public lands. Broads does not want to eliminate all grazing, but instead, advocates for management that ensures grazing practices are sustainable, allowing lands to remain ecologically diverse with healthy, functioning ecosystems.

DontfencemeinPolicies and programs must be developed that allow agencies to “retire” grazing and to help ranchers through these transitions. This is especially important as climate change grips western lands in extreme drought and with erratic weather.

How Broads Help Broads and Broadbands across the country work with agencies to gather data and monitor the effects of livestock grazing on public lands. We partner with agencies on specific projects, contribute to sensible grazing plans, and hold agencies to task on policies and enforcement activities.

To get involved, contact your local Broadband or work with the national office to start your own monitoring project. Watch our website for action alerts and events that provide opportunities for education, advocacy, stewardship, and (of course) fun.

This video gives a good overview of the harmful effects of grazing on wildlife:

The Not-So-Wild West

By the late 1800s, millions of cattle tromped across the seemingly vast federal lands of the U.S., injuring native vegetation, wildlife habitat, soils, and water supplies. Overgrazed western lands were the impetus for many of our national forests as local communities begged Congress for watershed protections.

00000-02446 Fenceline showing overgrazed pasture at TNC's Dugout Ranch Utah George Wuerthner-

Fence line showing overgrazed pasture at TNC’s Dugout Ranch in Utah. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Yet regulation was slow to come. Even though the Taylor Grazing Act of 1935 was meant to address overgrazing, poorly managed grazing continued to be one of the most ubiquitous and destructive uses of our western public lands.

In 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed, yet public lands grazing stood fast as a concession to the legislation. Though there are continued efforts to regulate and minimize impacts, much remains to be done. The public has few opportunities to learn about existing grazing use and provide input in agency management of grazing.

Rangeland, a Terrible Misnomer

Land management agencies refer to the public lands in their care as rangeland, even though these lands may consist of wet and alpine meadows, aspen and piñon-juniper forests, sagebrush seas, short-grass prairies, deserts, and more. Not all lands are suitable for grazing. This misnaming and seeing entire landscapes as nothing but “forage for livestock” needs to stop.

00000-02648 Cows and cow trashed lands Sonoran Desert NM Arizona George Wuerthner-2649.tif

A trampled landscape in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Chew on This

Selective munching and overgrazing reduces the hardiness and reproductive ability of preferred plant species—and in many cases eliminates them altogether rendering them unable to produce seed and reproduce. The less favored forage (non-native grasses and invasive weeds) thrives, altering the make up and balance of plant communities. Grazing animals also transport seed from one plant community to another, often spreading non-native invasive species.

Soil Stomping

All that tromping not only affects the plant life, but also the soil crust, density, and inherent ecosystem organisms that work together to create a healthy biomass that effectively holds water and prevents erosion. Overgrazed lands lose plants and expose bare soils, feeding the cycle of degradation.

Water & Habitat Wreckage

Mismanaged grazing transforms riparian zones into denuded mudpools, devastating water quality, hastening erosion, and robbing wildlife of habitat and clean water.

00000-02125 Cow damaged riparian zone Centennial Valley, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner-2667

Cow damaged riparian zone Centennial Valley, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Impeding Infrastructure

Grazing on public lands requires intensive infrastructure and often results in habitat manipulation. Required allotment fences obstruct wildlife movement, changing wildlife behavior. Vegetative treatments to “improve forage” alter and sometimes decimate native plant and wildlife communities.

Senseless Subsidies

Heavily subsidized by taxpayers, public lands grazers pay fees far below market value. The direct cost of agency management of public lands grazing is six times the revenue received. Additionally, we subsidize conflicting activities such as predator control via “Wildlife Services” while simultaneously paying for recovery of threatened and endangered species affected by grazing activities. Add in other indirect costs such as soil erosion, degraded water quality, and conflicts with recreation—and expenses far outweigh revenues.

00000-02112 Fenceline contrast from overgrazing Red Rock River Centennial Valley Montana George Wuerthner-2625

Passive Restoration

Too often, our land managing agencies attempt to improve conditions on damaged lands and waters through expensive and sometimes destructive treatments rather than by simply removing the causal agent of the problem (livestock) and allowing nature to restore herself. This website shows how injured lands can recover if given time and grazing is suspended.

A View at the Allotments

Curious about where there are grazing allotments and the agency assessment of the land health? Check out the PEER’s BLM  Grazing Allotment Health Map. You’ll find the assessed health “on paper” does not always match true conditions on the ground.

Public Lands Grazing

Broads’ Position Statement

  • Grazing must not be allowed to cause irreparable environmental damage to water quality, vegetation, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities on federal lands.
  • Public agencies must protect the ecological health of the nation’s federal lands where grazing takes place. Agencies must be guided by sound scientific research to shape grazing management policies and actions.
  • Management plans must be consistent with stated laws, regulations, and policies.
  • Although livestock grazing is authorized under theWilderness Act, Broads supports the elimination of livestock grazing in designated wilderness areas and encourages voluntary permanent retirement of grazing allotments.

Here’s a PDF of the Public Lands Grazing position statement.




Broadtastic Books: Public Lands Grazing