Copper Basin, Idaho

This high valley, surrounded by sky-raking mountains for about 330 degrees is one of the most scenic in Idaho if you don’t look down. Link to Google Maps.

For a hundred years it has been abused by livestock. The situation is so bad that they even range far above timberline in the adjacent Pioneer Mountains, Idaho’s second highest mountain range. It have seen them crapping in Idaho’s highest lake — Goat Lake — beneath Standhope Peak.

All of Idaho’s native wildlife persists here (except grizzly bears), but in small numbers. For a number of years various Copper Basin wolf packs have formed and taken a few cattle (mostly calves) now and again. They have been controlled and controlled, but they keep coming back much to the apparent dislike of Idaho’s new governor Butch Otter, who apparently had a “show me” tour at the courtesy of livestock politicians last summer.

He emerged vowing to wipe out the wolves.

More and more people are thinking we should (legally) wipe out the cattle. This valley could dwarf Yellowstone’s Lamar with the abundance of fish and wildlife and beauty if the cows were gone.

Pronghorn in Copper Basin. Numbers are not large, but the variety of wildlife is great. Photo © copyright Ralph Maughan

I’ve seen pronghorn at 9800 feet in the adjacent Pioneer Mtns. (beneath Scorpion Mountain). There are moose despite the trashed out condition of the beaver ponds from cattle. I predict the moose population would explode in a few years, if the cows were gone.

Goat Lake, elev 10,438 feet with Standhope Peak on the far side (just short of 12,000 feet). Cattle are allowed to graze the "lush" pastures 😉 in the photo. © copyright Ralph Maughan

Copper Basin in late July. © copyright Ralph Maughan

Pioneer Mountains from Copper Basin. © copyright Ralph Maughan

"Cowhumps" in Fox Creek. Copper Basin. Cowhumps are caused by cattle standing in marshy ground for many seasons. They are a wetlands in its last stage of degradation. Withdraw grazing and the humps persist for 20 years or more. The white deposits on the humps are dried urine. Fox Creek is on the Boone Creek allotment. Guess who has the grazing lease on that allotment?* Photo © copyright Ralph Maughan

copperbasin-grazing1.jpg Trashed out by grazing beneath the Big Black Dome.

Right after I took this photo, a group of elk bowhunters drove up. There were out scouting the country a week before the hunt. They drove off cursing about the cows.

*Legal disclaimer. Note the photo is not to necessarily imply that all of the Boone Creek allotment is in this condition. The purpose of the photo is to indicate that the grazing permittee, who as a “public person,” may have considerable influence with the governor and other persons who make decisions about livestock use and wildlife use of public lands.

Storm light in Wildhorse Canyon, Pioneer Mountains, just to the north of Copper Basin. The are lots of elk, deer and mountain goats in this drainage, and a few moose and pronghorn. The wide mouthed lower canyon is cow-stomped, but cattle have been eliminated from some side drainages, such as Fall Creek. Photo © copyright Ralph Maughan


  1. be Avatar

    wonderful essay. hopefully good things will come…

  2. Keri Davis Avatar

    I totally agree !! Lets evict the cows and allow wildlife to come back; people should know that eating beef is not healthy anyway !!

  3. skyrim Avatar

    Just one of a thousand reasons I stopped eating the damn critters 8 years ago. Sheep and Pigs too………..

  4. matt bullard Avatar
    matt bullard

    Fall Creek (and Surprise Valley) are two of the most beautiful places in the State, imo…

    Here is a photo I took in Fall Creek, looking toward Surprise Valley, for folks to look at.

    Ralph Maughan

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Thank you for your comments. I wonder if a campaign to transform Copper Basin into what it can be, should be, what God intended 😉 would gather support?

  6. jordan Avatar

    Great photos and essay. Another word for those “cowhumps” is “hummocks”. Never heard ’em called “cowhumps” before but I kinda like that.

    It’s well-known that Dave Nelson of Mackay is the permittee of the Boone Creek Allotment. If there’s any part of that allotment that isn’t cow- trashed it’s news to me. He’s the former head of the Idaho Cattleman’s Association. Boone Creek Allotment is one of several in the general area of Copper Basin and Pioneer Mountains that has been degraded by livestock for over 100 years.

  7. Slow-Elk Poacher Avatar
    Slow-Elk Poacher

    Good luck trying to get these cows outta there. But, it shoudl happen. I was up on Big Black Dome a couple years back, and around 10,000 feet where the sage turns to talus was a giant heffer acting territorial to the lone hiker. Personally, I should have just shot it and kept moving, but I let it go.

    I have stated a few times on this site that Copper Basin should be left to the Pronghorn, Elk, and Wolves, but good luck trying to convince all the mormon ranchers in Carey of that position.

  8. boynian Avatar

    cattle ranchers are wrong. If mormons really cared about our planet they would stop the cattle dead in their tracks. PLEASE let our native animals thrive. No more gov beef

  9. boynian Avatar

    game is the only way to eat

  10. not_a_smelly_vegan Avatar

    I’m sorry but eating beef is not “not healthy”.

  11. amy Avatar

    My father used to bring our family of five kids and mother to Copper Basin camping in the 60’s. Oh what a wonderful time we had. My Dad (decesed) would be so sad to know about the cattle issue. He grew up farming in Wyo. & Idaho, later was a doctor. He believed in good land management/stewardship and would be thrilled that wolves are back. We need to find a better way to ensure jobs, including ranching, but allow our natural processes to be restored! Won’t we be sad if we don’t have antellope habitat in 30 years. We don’t have salmon in Red Fish anymore! Let’s support the local farmer’s market and eat less meat.

  12. Becky Braxton Feldpausch Avatar
    Becky Braxton Feldpausch

    I hiked up Wild Horse Canyon Creek, don’t know if this is near by, as it was a while ago . . .more than a decade. At the time my boyfriend and his friend, both geophysicists, took me near the glacier (hopefully it is still there). That meadow is my heaven (except for the biting bugs). It was surreal. We spent 4 hours up there and I never took a picture, but it doesn’t matter because that image will always be with me.

    It is sad to see the devestation that has taken place. I am now married to a different man – I’ve become a farmer’s wife – so I can appreciate both sides. I don’t live in Idaho, so I can’t speak for farmers or ranchers there, but I do know that here in Michigan, as well as those in the Great Lakes Region are on the same side as environmentalists.

    As I have lived “both” sides, certainly there must be a balance. For those of you who choose not to eat meat, for whatever reason, please don’t use your choice of food as a reason for your cause . . . the fact that cattle are not natural to the region is rationale enough. However, for the 6.7 (+) billion people on our planet or the 300 (+) K people in the U.S., there are certainly many mouths to feed, so like it or not cattle will continue to prevail. Hopefully you don’t try to play both sides of the fence, no free range, no CAFO. Unfortunately the masses do not have an understanding of the true complexity of feeding our people and trying to preserve our world.

  13. vicki Avatar

    I am always in awe at of the expanses of meadows and valleys the rest in the shadows of mountains. There is always that moment when you first look that you can barely breathe when you look out. Then your eyes focus and you see some where, close or in the distance, a cow. It really robs us all.
    There are people to feed. But those mouths should be filled with burgers that don’t graze on public lands. That would be a huge start toward balance.
    Then maybe they could madate refining of methane and manure. (It can be broken down and use in natural gas lines—saw it done in California. )That would be all I think we could ask for. Keep cows off of public lands, and sheep, and clean up/make use of their waste. We expect nuclear waste to be properly disposed of, and trash to go to the dump…why not expect the same for cow pooh?

    There is a bigger picture here to consider. Like the distruction of what little public land remains has to end. Between the roads, the wells, the mines, the OHV’s and the manure, our great expanses of wilderness are now reduce to patchy spots on a map. National Parks are minute in their area. There is precious little time left to do what needs to be done. Look at these photos and take the time to speak up, write letters, inform children, tell a friend….and vote to save natural spaces, clean water, and the “public” in public land ownership.

  14. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Thank you for your comments, Becky. Yes, Wildhorse Canyon is nearby. It is very scenic, although the snowfields have receded.

    I think most of the livestock operators on the Wildhorse Allotment would sell their grazing allotments if they were offered a price. They don’t make much money with the short season, infertile soil and high cost of diesel.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan