Want more elk? Then take back the public grass that cattle eat

Elk numbers depend not just on birth minus mortality, but on square miles of area where they can find something to eat-

There are many places in the West where elk could live and thrive if they had something to eat, but they don’t. Livestock is the reason.

Aside from those areas of continuous forest with little for elk to eat and the hot desert, the typical case is where cattle and sheep eat up to 90% or more of the forage. Unlike with deer which are browsers, elk are more like cattle and sheep. Elk do browse many kinds of brush and trees. They are “mixed feeders,” and need grass and forbs as about 50% of their diet.

Most of the Forest Service and BLM public lands are broken into grazing allotments for cattle and sheep. Repeated visits and data collection by Western Watersheds Project and others show that livestock often eat 90% of  the grasses that elk could eat and sometimes more. In addition, this heavy grazing temporarily or permanently reduces the productivity of the grass and forbs by weakening them and allowing poorly edible and non-edible plants and shrubs to increase. This includes alien invaders like cheatgrass and medusa head. Cheatgrass changes the fire regime serving to create frequent fires eliminating other grasses and the browse, often creating a near mono-culture.

Where alien plant invasion has not been too severe, reduction or elimination of livestock can sometimes create a quick bounty for elk. Other places will take much longer to restore from abusive grazing by livestock.

But how about an example?

Twenty miles south of Pocatello, Idaho and just west of Malad City, Idaho are the Pleasantview Hills. The Pleasantview grazing allotment of about 60,000 acres has very few elk, and some deer. Every canyon bottom save two recently reclaimed from cattle is trashed, grazed down to dirt, with even the stream channels trampled out. The typical bad example below is of West Elkhorn Canyon in these hills (actually mountains).

West Elkhorn Canyon after cattle season. Sept. Pleasantview Hills. SE Idaho. PHOTO Ralph Maughan


Not much left for elk, although you can see it would be elk habitat if the canyon was lush with grass.
What could the canyon look like?  Don’t take my word as mere speculation.

After many years of non-compliance with the grazing allotment plans, the Pocatello BLM kicked the cattle (at least partially) out of two canyons in these hills — Wood Canyon and Sheep Springs Canyon. Upper Wood Canyon is still grazed.

The photo below shows the growth of grass in Wood Canyon. Three years ago it looked like the photo above.

The middle reach of Wood Canyon. Sept. 2009. It was bare dirt except for the sagebrush 3 years earlier. PHOTO Ralph Maughan


One-half mile upcanyon (Wood Canyon) from the previous photo. Sept. 9, 2009. PHOTO Ralph Maughan

Don’t believe this canyon was ever like the first photo? I took the photo above on the very same day just 1/2 mile up Wood Canyon at a slightly higher elevation where grazing is still allowed. At this higher elevation you might expect even more luxuriant grass, but hardly!

In 2008, the first year of the livestock closure, we saw a moose in Sheep Springs Canyon, something I thought I’d never see in this area.

This photo, which I posted to Google Earth shows the uneaten grass (2 to 7 feet tall) in the bottom of Wood Canyon on Sept. 9, 2009. It’s too bad there are no elk to utilize it, although it is serving to rebuild the soil and put water back in intermittent spring and creek in the middle of Wood Canyon.




  1. Brian Ertz Avatar

    it’s the habitat, stupid !

  2. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    A very good comparison photo would be to go up mink creek and park in that turn out just before the east fork road up to lead draw/Scout Mountain.
    Walk up to the fence that is about 200 yd up and take a picture down that fence line. on the east is extensive grazing on the west is none. Very dramatic difference.

  3. josh sutherland Avatar
    josh sutherland

    I agree, on my elk hunt in UT last year I was sick and tired of all the cows at every water hole and elk wallow. Wish they would pull em off the mountain.

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Thanks, Jeff E.

    I might do it this afternoon.

  5. Anthony Avatar

    I was above Three Forks last weekend between the Middle Fork Owyhee and the South Fork Owyhee rivers in SE Oregon. Most of this land is owned by the state of Oregon and not many people ever go up there. As you drive up there out of three forks there is a sign at the cattle gate that says “respect your public lands”. I drove in there and it looked like a nuclear bomb went off, but I soon realized it was from the cattle grazing, because the only life still standing was cattle. Maybe public land managers should respect the land before they tell anybody else to do so. Later that day I saw two atv’s offroad. I considered turning them in, but then I thought what damage could these guys possibly do that the cattle have not already done.

  6. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Article title seems like a no brainer…


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