Cows, What a many Splendored Thing

Click to view in Google Maps

Last week I went out with a co-worker to check out what was going on in the Jarbidge Field Office where Western Watersheds Project has won a court victory that ends corporate ranching on 450,000 acres of public land. When we arrived we found cattle on several of the allotments even though the injunction is in place.

The ranchers are asking the judge to stay the injunction and say that they have met all of the terms of the stipulated settlement agreement (SSA) which has expired. They argue that utilization monitoring has shown that they have not exceeded the terms and conditions of their permits or the SSA and, because of this, sage grouse habitat has improved. Even if they have met the terms and conditions of their permits and the SSA, which I won’t say one way or the other, the BLM’s Analysis of the Management Situation (AMS) notes that the Jarbidge suffered the cumulative loss of 800,000 acres of sagebrush-steppe habitat from 1982 through 2006, such that 46% of the JFO is no longer sage-steppe habitat. This doesn’t even account for the massive fires which have burned since 2007 such as the Murphy Complex of 2007 and the Long Butte Fire in 2010. Sage grouse and other sage steppe dependent species are in dire straits in the Jarbidge and as the WWP press release says:

“Recent data from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game shows that sage-grouse populations in the Jarbidge Field Office are in a free fall, with declines of over 90% since 2006 alone. For example, in the Browns Bench area of the Field Office, total male sage-grouse lek counts are down from 185 in 2006 to 29 in 2010, and some areas are in an even steeper decline.”

Jarbidge FO Pastures.  Click for larger view.
Jarbidge FO Pastures. Click for larger view.

While my biggest concerns lie with the plight of the wildlife there, I also find it startling that the Jarbidge Field Office has essentially turned into a livestock feedlot. Even recreation values have been totally eliminated here. The whole Field Office has been fenced into small pastures with what amounts to a weeping sore in each caused by cattle that congregate at water troughs surrounded by feeding tubs with some kind of molasses slurry, salt blocks, and even oat hay. On top of that is the droning of military jets overhead, some of them containing training pilots from Singapore.

I guess this is what they mean by “multiple use”.  I call it a cowpocalypse.


  1. Ron Kearns Avatar
    Ron Kearns

    Ken Cole,

    Your uses of Google Maps and/or Google Earth here and elsewhere within this blog are very effective in portraying your message. Additionally, your video was an especially helpful complement to this article.

  2. wolfsong Avatar

    Are the cows there year around or have they just been put out for the season? Whoever is grazing there needs to go to school and learn pasture management, there’s not enough out there to sustain the cows let alone any wildlife! What in hell is wrong with people that they think they can destroy public land? And it appears that the BLM just turns a blind eye to the whole issue.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    Judge’s injunction notwithstanding, were these cows out there before the turnout date as specified in their grazing allotment plan? I mean were they there illegally on public lands?

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      I’m unsure of that. The Annual Grazing Plan (AGP) for 2010 allowed them to be there on November 1, 2010. The 2011 AGP, which started on 3/1/2011, continued to allow them to be there until April 25, 2011. However, when we went out on 3/1 we only saw 2 cattle. I don’t know if they moved more in or we just didn’t see them.

  4. Phil Avatar

    I took a little trip a couple years ago to a farm about 35 miles south of where I live. Seeing the livestock (cows, pigs, chicken, etc) was a thrill for me, especially the calf born a couple days earlier. The farm was not a slaughter farm where they use their livestok for meat purposes, but some of the conditions (not all) were of great and humane purposes for the livestock (large free-roaming area). The major predator in the area was a few black bears, coyotes and a sustained level of foxes. If a problem predator occured, killing the predator would be only of last and pressurized resorts from the farmer and rancher. When talk and criticism of livestock causing problems to wildlife and ecosystems comes about, I tend to not blame the livestock for acting upon their instinctive behaviors, I direct the blame to the ranchers and farmers who put their livestock in those positions. As I understand making a living is a primary goal for mankind, so is maintaining a healthy wildlife, ecosystems, livestock as well as personal family.

  5. Alan Gregory Avatar

    One of the best pieces about livestock and public land is this column by Andy Kerr of Oregon:

  6. mikarooni Avatar

    I’ve seen worse and this is early spring conditions. I’ve got a few spots on land that I have that look this bad from grazing prior to my getting it. It does take many years for land to recover once it is in this condition; but, the “bottom line” is that the BLM should never have allowed conditions like this to go this far and the BLM itself should be suspending the grazing here …without the need for court action. As someone above pointed out, pretty much all the sage, scrub, and taller bunch grass that would provide grouse cover has already been extirpated and it will take decades for significant re-colonization. Ironically, this condition, where only the denser sod grasses are left, is actually the unspoken end-state of HRM programs; Savory has so many people fooled. It’s also interesting that supplemental feeding is being allowed on these public lands; it is not allowed on most allotments and leases. Again, I’ve seen worse; but, we got that permit cancelled and the allotment retired.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole