Wilderness and Cows

Cattle grazing Mojave National Preserve, CA. Photo by George Wuerthner

The 1964 Wilderness Act requires federal agencies to protect and manage designated wilderness areas “to preserve its natural conditions.” Given that all domestic livestock are exotic alien animals and hardly contribute to “natural conditions,” one might assume that livestock production would be prohibited in designated wilderness.

However, livestock production occurs in 330 designated wildernesses in the lower 48 states covering approximately 10 million acres. To put this into perspective, Yellowstone National Park, one of the largest protected areas outside of Alaska, is 2.2 million acres in size.

Unfortunately, when the Wilderness Act was being debated in Congress, House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall (D Colorado) would not allow the bill out of committee unless it contained a provision that permitted livestock grazing to continue in designated wilderness areas. Aspinall had effectively stalled the bill in committee from 1960 through 1963.

Correctly, the Wilderness Act concludes: “the grazing of livestock, where established before the effective date of this Act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture.” Federal agencies managing wilderness have interpreted this to mean that livestock activities are permitted in any designated wilderness. And agencies have determined that curtailing or restricting livestock grazing in a wilderness is prohibited simply because the area is designated wilderness, though livestock can be removed as with all federal lands to meet resource needs like protecting watersheds, soils, and wildlife habitat.

As a result, ranchers are permitted to install fences, stock tanks, create stock ponds, destroy springs with development, and even use motorized equipment and vehicles in designated wilderness. In addition, activities like predator control, poisoning of prairie dogs and other rodents, and associated activities can occur. Don’t let the image of the cowboy on horseback fool you; most ranchers are far more comfortable riding the range in a pick-up or ATV.


It is important to note that livestock production harms all public lands, not just wilderness. But, by definition, our wilderness areas are supposed to be managed to maintain natural conditions and to be “substantially unmodified by humans.”

One analysis concluded that more native western wildlife are endangered as a result of livestock production compared to any other source of human activity.  This analysis included both public and private lands, but the point is clear.

Given the overall aridity of the West, grazing by a slow-moving, water-loving, and some would say dim-witted animals, in a land with predators, limited water sources, and low productivity is the definition of insanity. Because of aridity and other factors, there is no way to grazing livestock without harming the ecological integrity of the land. Anyone who claims that “well managed” livestock has limited impacts fails to do a full accounting.

Livestock pollute water. Western Watersheds Project tested the water of streams passing through actively grazed lands and found excessive levels of E coli in nearly all waterways with cows.

Livestock compact soils, reducing the infiltration of water, making lands already arid, even more desert-like.

Livestock consumes forage that would otherwise support native wildlife. There is only so much vegetation available for animals to eat, and if 50-90% of it is going into the gut of a cow, there is that much less for everything from grasshoppers to elk.

Livestock transfer disease to wild species. For instance, it is well established that domestic sheep can transfer pneumonia to wild bighorns, which is one of the significant causes of bighorn declines around the West.

Livestock trample riparian areas. These are the green line of vegetation found along streams. Riparian areas have a disproportional value to wildlife in the arid West. Some 70-80% of all wildlife will use these areas at some point in their life cycle, yet livestock by consuming the vegetation, breaking down banks, and compacting soils degrade these essential habitats.

Livestock damage tends to widen streams, which reduces their hydrological function and allows water to heat, reducing their suitability for cold-water fish species like trout and salmon.

Livestock by their mere presence can socially displace native species like elk and deer. Presumably, if an elk is using some habitat and is forced to move to another area, it leaves the best habitat for the second-best terrain.

Livestock fences and other developments can harm native species. For instance, fences can block wildlife migrations, in particular, pronghorn, which are reluctant to jump fences, while sage grouse have suffered as high as 30% mortality due to collisions with fences.

Livestock spread weeds, in particular, the spread of cheatgrass, which is considered the biggest threat to sagebrush ecosystems, is facilitated by livestock grazing.

Development of springs for water and grazing of wet meadows can harm amphibians like frogs and native snails, which depend on these areas for survival. For example, the grazing of wet meadows on the Fremont National Forest is associated with the decline of the Oregon Spotted Frog.

Native predators are regularly killed to protect private domestic animals using public lands. For instance, in the Upper Green River area of Wyoming, 38 grizzlies have been killed to protect domestic animals grazing there. In contrast, the Endangered Mexican Wolf has been killed in designated wilderness in New Mexico to protect cattle.


As previously mentioned, one cannot remove livestock simply because an area is designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act. However, livestock removal can be facilitated by Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement. Under permit retirement, a rancher agrees to remove his livestock and to permanently give up access to grazing allotments in exchange for some agreed-upon sum of money. Private parties usually provide this funding.

It’s important to note that grazing on public lands is a privilege and can be terminated at any time. However, given the political stranglehold that the livestock industry has over western public areas, permit retirement is the most efficient means of eliminating livestock impacts.

Other measures that could be implemented immediately is the closure of vacant allotments. Throughout the West, there are over 3 million acres of grazing allotments in designated wilderness, which are currently ungrazed. Permanently closing these allotments is legal.

Whether designated wilderness or other public lands, livestock production is easily the greatest threat to native biodiversity. It’s time to reclaim our lands and send the cows home.




  1. Nancy Avatar

    As always, a good article on the subject of public lands, George (and WWP) from someone who’s lived in these areas affected by the destruction of cattle grazing on public lands (and even private lands) for profit.

    Its been a slow, destructive and degrading process to what’s left of the natural landscape out here, that’s seldom obvious to the naked eye who just pass through, hitting the high spots of tourism or reading about it on a 5 minute news spot and then not giving it another thought.

  2. Jim Eaton Avatar
    Jim Eaton

    George, it doesn’t sound like your mistake, but Mohave is the way they spell it in Arizona. It is the Mojave National Preserve

  3. Kelie Hobson Avatar

    Yes! And what about the wild horses,burros and prarie dogs being destroyed, makes me sick!!this not a duplicate note.

  4. Beeline Avatar

    Invasive Species: with regard to a particular ecosystem, a non-native organism whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human, animal or plant health.

    Cattle grazing on public land is not economically sound. It would not sustain itself without being subsidized heavily from our tax money. Cattle kill more people each year than sharks or grizzly bears. Cows set back ecological succession which allows the spread of invasive noxious weeds such as star thistle and cheat grass. The result of which is the need to apply more damaging “treatments” to the land-vegetation complex. Ranchers see other animals as competitors and wish to eliminate them down to insects like grasshoppers. Cattle were originally tropical creatures so it’s no wonder they are so destructive in more arid habitats.

    The general public however, remains ignorant of the damage caused by cows and with each successive generation people become less sensitive to the plight of Grandmother Earth under the hoofs of cattle. They see pleasant cartoon images of cows on milk cartons, billboards and T-shirts.

    So as Nancy says above there is a slow degrading process at work. Indigenous people had a very strong connection to the earth and its cycles. Anglo-centric people largely wiped out indigenous people and their spiritual connection to the land inorder to make the American brand of capitalism a kind of dogmatic religion.

    My great grandfathers generation saw the last of the passenger pigeons, bison and Tule elk to mention a few. My fathers generation was deprived of the awesome sight of billions of pigeons in the skies over head. My generation saw the rapid decline of the band tailed pigeons, morning doves, grouse etc. when they were still numerous enough to hunt without the danger of going extinct. But the human lust for more and more is writing their epitaph as well.

    And as far as our leaders are concerned, H. D. Thoreau summed it up this way ” Conservatism discards prescription, shrinks from principle, disavows progress- having rejected all respect for antiquity (history), it offers no redress for the present and makes no preparation for the future”

    The system is broken. We had better fix it pretty soon if we are to save anything.

  5. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Now, let’s see GW do a piece on industrial wreckreation and the definition of “untrammeled’ in Wilderness in regard to human bovine.

    I won’t hold my breath.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Chris, instead of trashing GW about what he doesn’t write, why don’t YOU write it yourself? I would love to see how eloquent you are.

    2. Sara Avatar

      Both are problematic! Unfortunately, our public lands are being managed to benefit the livestock industry as well as the recreation (“wreckreation”) industry. The land, water, vegetation and wildlife take a backseat to and are being destroyed by human uses.

  6. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    GW knows why I no longer write.

    And, I’ve found editor gatekeepers are effective at cultivating echochambers.

    Here’s something from a year ago – a pre-rebuttal to GWs piece – the last on Counterpunch because I’m blackballed for a review of Ketcham’s This Land, calling out the echochamber of which GW & Molvar are a part.


  7. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Sounds like GW’s cow intro, no?

    “I maintain many designated areas in the United States no longer meet the definition of the 1964 Wilderness Act and must be delegislated if the impacts of industrial recreation are not controlled to maintain an untrammeled state. These controls can only the placed by the Federal government from the consent of the governed, a difficult task as both capitalism and anarchistic freedom, collectively known as ‘Natural Rights,’ colludes with the myth of environmental education’s role in self control.”

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Chris, I think the tracks of quail, deer, javelina, raccoon, coyote, etc. I see every morning when I hike blow the “1/2 mile impact from every hiker” theory. These are trails that see hundreds of hikers and mtn. bikers a week. Yes, wildlife sometimes flee humans (sometimes not-ever been to Yellowstone? Thousands of Bison and Elk might disagree with you. The same goes for Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Sequoia & Kings Cyn. N.P.). I would argue, based on what I witness daily, that these animals use the same areas and even the same trails that we do. Just not at the same time.

      Hence these Wild Places still fit the definition.

      Also, GW may know why you don’t write, but I don’t. Please enlighten us.

      1. Hiker Avatar

        I forgot rabbits, lots of rabbits, every day.

      2. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        As I said, anarchistic freedom and a disregard for science that doesn’t fit indoctrination.


        “One notable finding is that wildlife response to hikers vs. mountain bikers was identical, so the actual presence of humans is what counts, not the type of recreation. An even more sobering finding was that trails create a “corridor of impact” wider than the trail itself: the wildlife reacted to humans 100 meters or more away on either side of a trail, not just on the trail itself. The impact distance of unofficial or side trails was even farther.”

        Why don’t I write?

        Why bang my head to convince editorial gatekeepers and their audience who fiercely defend their echochamber? See my work on Red Rock Biofuels, the Ketcham review on Medium.

        My time these days is better spent at home with family and garden where efficacy during planetary collapse lies instead of virtuously consuming fossil fuels to consume nature while saying I’m protecting it (like the Great American Outdoors Act & LWCF, another piece I will never write).

        1. Hiker Avatar

          Even the study you site states:
          “Really, though, it comes down to this: stay on the trail and carry binoculars.”

          That was one study done on an island in Utah. You say people ignore science. I say science is often wrong. Let’s not make the mistake of worshipping at the altar of science, as if no scientist is unbiased, or even worse, bought and sold. If the same result was found by many, many other studies then we could discuss their merits.

          I’m sorry you’ve given up and decided not to write. I guess it’s not worth the fight for you. I’m glad people like GW, for all his faults, has NOT given up.

          This is all interesting but off the topic which GW brings up; which is cows and wilderness don’t mix. You seem to think that’s true for people as well, forgetting Wilderness is a man-made concept and can be unmade as well. {We are watching it being unmade by the current admin right now}.
          I would guess that one cow does more damage than one hundred of the worst users. Maybe one thousand. They certainly outweigh us.

          1. Chris Zinda Avatar
            Chris Zinda

            GW/WWP can’t do the right thing because their hands are tied doing the wrong thing (i.e. Ruby settlement & litigation along corridor & spurs). GW/WWP used to be a heroes to me. Now, because of my work & research, they are an indication of what’s wrong.

            In fact, GW doesn’t overtly support carrying capacities because he (and WW Nikkas) don’t want to alienate supporters like you.

            And, from early 2017:

            “OIA cohorts sell their natural resource consuming wares to a currently unlimited public lands based market, claiming credit for $646 billion in annual consumer spending. Over 15 million people visit Utah to recreate, having access to most public lands everywhere. In comparison, 850,000 resources damaging cattle roam in Utah, most on Federal public lands permits. They are not found everywhere like humans, and some are present in “protected” places like Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase / Escalante National Monument and, criminally, the culturally rich and under-dispute Bears Ears.

            People want to say, “Cattle do more damage than a human!” to which I reply these figures. Surely one four legged beast is equal to the environmental damage of 17.4 carbon consuming, fossil fuel wearing, roadkill traveling, lithic tromping, blissfully traipsing, trespassing to the common cactus wren and uncommon winkler cactus, humans.

            Consider the millions of dollars in public subsidies either promoting the industry or mitigating negative impacts of any public lands use regardless of user group – including those promoted by the OIA.

            I see lots of trails, campgrounds and other visitor infrastructure of which OIA members (along with guides, outfitters with promo deals) take advantage and, certainly, there are more than enough people who buy and use their wares. Sounds like a fence sold to a rancher, sagebrush steppe converted by the government to crested wheatgrass or the installation of a fake waterhole guzzler, to me. Trail, meadow, lakeside, roadside rehabilitation projects are cheatgrass, wildland fire programs and riparian restoration/juniper “treatment” projects. Search and rescue is also subsidized, not unlike predator compensation programs. No matter human shit is as much a problem as cattle and sheep, pit-toilets, catholes, waterholes, cesspools, reservoirs, groovers, helicopters flying barrels of it from Zion’s Angels Landing and all.”


            1. Chris Zinda Avatar
              Chris Zinda

              “Let the Ruby remind you of Glen Canyon and the damn dam. Let Red Rock remind you of a project in a special place no one knows, including, it seems, you. By choice.”

              GW & WWPs Brower & Sierra Club have much in common.

            2. Hiker Avatar

              And yet Wilderness would likely not exist at all if it wasn’t for these pesky, carbon-using, don’t what’s good for them, humans. I think that’s the point you always miss in your rants. Humans created these protected areas, they can, and are, uncreating them. Even now, as you endlessly list all the problems with having people on their land! Watch what you wish for: get rid of the people and watch our precious Wild disappear.

              1. Chris Zinda Avatar
                Chris Zinda

                I have one for that, too.

                But, this time, one of Brandborg’s last, lamenting industrial recreation & the enviro complex collaboration with it.

                Too bad GW (you) takes no such stand.


                1. Hiker Avatar

                  How do you know what stand I take? This whole thread started with you trashing someone for not writing what you thought they should write. Instead of telling people what to do or write, keep it to yourself!
                  Again you site some article as if that’s the end of the discussion. An article that I think has nothing to do with what I wrote. I think there is a great danger in keeping people off their land. Wilderness needs the support of these people.
                  Again, protected animals seem to have little problem with people. Anything to say to that?

              2. Chris Zinda Avatar
                Chris Zinda

                “If wilderness areas (and all public lands) are today nothing more than corporate subsidies and individual anarchistic playgrounds no longer meeting their legislative intent, we must stop deluding ourselves and treat them like any other vandalized throughout history and delegislate.”

                The same is true for cattle.

                But, only one will be litigated again and again; one, never.

                1. Hiker Avatar

                  Strange that you keep quoting yourself. You should make that clear. For instance, you could say: ‘as I’ve said before’. Otherwise it looks like you’re quoting another of your irrelevant articles.

        2. Hiker Avatar

          Also, you imply my disregard for science yet have no reply to MY observations of Wildlife/human interaction in Yellowstone and other N.P. I don’t see protected animals fleeing from people. Usually in Yellowstone it’s people fleeing from protected animals. It’s as if these animals know they will not be harmed. I guess that’s what happens when they are not being shot at.

          1. Chris Zinda Avatar
            Chris Zinda

            Your anecdotes are not science.

            1. Hiker Avatar

              I never said they were. However, they are true. Just look for yourself. Countless articles, photos, and observations by thousands of people should be considered.

              Most of the articles you post are anecdotes. One study does not make science.

              1. Chris Zinda Avatar
                Chris Zinda

                Above you said, “Again you site some article as if that’s the end of the discussion. An article that I think has nothing to do with what I wrote.”

                An article from one of the “founders” of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

                When someone like he spoke on the subject, it was like from God (for some, it seems).

                Good luck.


                1. Hiker Avatar

                  My point, which your article does not address, was that we need the support of the people to have Wilderness. I didn’t have a problem with what he wrote at all. It just didn’t apply to my point.

                  You make your own luck. Blessings.

  8. Beeline Avatar

    I read Chris Zindas article (2017) and I believe that the author was trying to expose hypocrisy. I see nothing wrong with that. I think GW is also attempting to expose hypocrisy. Me too. But we all see through our own lens that colors how we do it.

    I have been telling folks about the folly of damaging the environment they live in for like 50 years. Some of my extended family thought I was crazy, some of my friends called me a communist. One cousin of mine could not believe I would go against capitalism. Another cousin thought I was undermining his job at shell oil.

    At that time I belonged to a lower echelon tennis club and while most of members tolerated me and even threw a party for me once; they voted me the least likely to succeed because I “unwisely” chose to be a wildlife biologist/range ecologist. There was even a guy who was employed by Getty Oil that said he would be my friend “as long as the “grass growed and water flowed”. About a year later when I got the job as a biologist working with endangered species habitat on BLM oil and gas leases he would no longer associate with me. That is how strong the ‘endocrinating’ powers of corporate/industrial capitalism in “Americana” are.

    I told people about the hypocrisy of the government/ corporate cabal but they would not believe it. They chose to accept declining wildlife populations, dirty water , dirty air, ionized atmosphere, suburbs , strip malls, and the American Empire, etc instead. They lost what connection they had with nature – and the chance for spiritual growth and better health as well.

    Maybe if the old Roman-Catholic form of Christianity had made hypocrisy the original sin instead of using apple trees, snakes and women as scape-goats, things would have turned out differently.

    So it is frustrating as Hell (maybe this is Hell) but those of us who find something soulfully important about wilderness cannot afford not to allow free speech to roll on as unfettered as possible on this subject.

    Don’t know if this will help but H.L. Mencken said- ” It is a natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false.”

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Beeline, Chris seems to say that GW has no right to say anything because of his past. He seeks a perfect solution in an imperfect world. I say let’s judge GW’s words as they stand. The bottom line, whether recreation is destructive or not, is that GW’s point is that cows don’t belong in Wilderness. How could Chris disagree? If there’s agreement on that point why trash GW’s character at every turn?

  9. Beeline Avatar

    Hi Hiker: I cannot speak to others motivations, but I feel that at this time cooperation is better than separation for whatever is left of a genuine environmental defense movement.

    If we become too critical of people that are trying to expose long standing problems occurring on public lands, then we weaken our chances of protecting what we value.

    As you said it is not a perfect world. If one reads through John Bartlett’s familiar quotations he or she would find that it has not been a perfect world for quite a long time. EG: Plato mourned the loss of the forests in Greece where he frequently went as a child. Roman leaders cut down sacred groves of oaks that were sacred to my own ancestors and punished or killed Druid priests for seeking spiritual higher ground in the ancient forests.

    So I think that is one reason that folks like to go to “wilderness” because it provides an example of something natural that is closer to “perfection” in that it stands apart from the ‘whitemanized’ world.

    “Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage ” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded by the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families that we loved was it “wild” for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing his approach , then it was that for us the “wild West” began. Luther Standing Bear (from Land of the Spotted Eagle 1933).

    1. Hiker Avatar

      I couldn’t agree more, that’s why I argued with Chris. He is too divisive when we need to unite. GW writes about cow’s and Wilderness and Chris has to post something snarky about GW that has nothing to do with the current article. I read all of GW’s posts here and I agree with most of what he writes. I’ve read Chris’s posts and I’ve gleaned {through all the snarkiness} that he thinks we need quotas for Wilderness. I agree that some trails get overused but budgets are tight and focused more and more on fire suppression. Where will the money come from for staffing for these quotas? Where will they check people in? Where I live many trails start outside Wilderness and only enter a couple miles down the trail. Would we put a kiosk two miles away from the road to enforce these quotas? Maybe quotas can be used in certain locations, like the NPS does for backpacking. I am not against the concept, just the execution. I’m also against someone so black and white in their approach that they see enemies who could be allies, at least most of the time. Chris is too extreme for me.

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        What’s divisive and extreme is a $25M settlement with El Paso/Kinder that rips the heart out of the steppe and ties their litigation / advocacy hands – saying they’d do it again – while as with the last 30 years writing, lamenting, about grazing and the demise of sagegrouse.

        What’s divisive and extreme is an entire movement indoctrinated to believe and act that wreckreation is a virtue during the 6th mass extinction and climate chaos, pious groups like WWP & WW placating Hikers who do not want to be inconvenienced for support and funding by never addressing the concept if carrying capacities so we can even get to the discussion of execution.

        GW once called me Copernicus on these subjects – then ignored the subjects entirely.

        That’s my beef with fallen heroes.

        1. Hiker Avatar

          Chris, don’t assume I fund or support any of these groups. I believe in action. Every day I close down shortcutting and help lost tourists. That’s how I contribute. Decades of being a NPS Ranger still affects my behavior.

          Wildlife report from my daily walk:
          Ravens attacking a hawk
          Coyote with a squirrel in it’s mouth
          Bubble Bees
          Mule Deer
          Scrub Jays
          Cliff Swallows
          Javelina tracks

          Not bad for 1 1/2 hour hike that also had about 40 people and will likely get a hundred more today! All done using gear I’ve had for a decade or more, except for my boots, I go through a pair every year. {My hiking shirts are pretty gross by now.}

          Just saw a snake chased by a Quail from my living room while typing this!

          So Chris, you can advocate all you want for quotas. Like I’ve told you before {you must have forgotten} I have no problem with them where appropriate. There’s still the funding issue.

          And despite GW’s past and flaws, he still makes good points in what he writes now. I think he’s worth listening to. I don’t think he’s 100% right all the time and if he’s been compromised in the past he’s not alone.

          Maybe instead of focusing on the differences we can focus on the similarities. I think we can all agree that the Wild {not just Wilderness} needs protection.

  10. Robert Weinick Avatar
    Robert Weinick

    Well this is an interesting thread. I spend most of my time home at the confluence of the Escalante River and Calf Creek where I have a five acre inholding within GSENM.

    I came here in 1979. Urged on by Abbey. Co-founded the SUWA. Endured shootings. Effigy hangings. Spring vandalism. I helped create this NM. I understand compromise that will effect us in the future. George N and UWA were part of the compromise that made me compelled to act.

    I have changed my mind about some things since 1983 because now I see the impact of humans. What you said in your article had a lot of truth.

    Today I watch the many tourists who come here. Most never get off highway 12. The cattle allotment has been bought out and the canyon is recovering.

    Chris all I can say is writing about these things is good. Lets talk about what can be done right now. Where were you in the 1970-80’s

    1. Robert Weinick Avatar
      Robert Weinick

      One more thing. I was here in the 1970’s and 80’s before monument designation. After 1995 I have seen the visitors and all they bring and do here. I can walk to calf creek falls from my house so it is easy to see. Cows are still here in many of the same numbers. Visitors are here by the millions. There is no doubt in my mind that cows degrade the land here far more than the visitors. All three million of them. Not even close.

      1. Robert Weinick Avatar
        Robert Weinick

        Trying to find Chris Zinda



      2. Hiker Avatar

        Robert, thanks for your work and ongoing observations.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner