Miller Creek Allotment on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest

On September 14 and 15 Katie Fite and I visited the Miller Creek Allotment on the Mountain City Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to check out the riparian areas there. What we found was just a horrible mess that any land manager should be embarrassed about enough to actually do something about but, as Katie tells me, this has been the situation for the last ten years when she and Jon Marvel toured the area with the Forest Service.

The permittee is the Simplot Corporation, the largest livestock grazing permittee on public lands.

One of the main reasons that the riparian areas suffer so greatly from overgrazing, aside from the fact that cattle just shouldn’t be here in the first place, is because the USFS converted the grazing use from sheep to cattle without taking into account the different ways that they use the land.  Sheep usually have someone moving them around from one place to another so they tend to utilize the upland areas away from water more. Cattle, on the other hand, tend to want to sit in the shade of the willows and aspen in the riparian areas (wet areas) next to streams and water. When the USFS converted the grazing from sheep to cattle they issued a permit for the same number of Animal Unit Months (AUM’s) without considering the difference between the way the two species graze so they essentially vastly overstocked the allotment with cattle.

As a consequence of the overstocking, the riparian areas are heavily grazed and the streams, springs, and seeps are drying out while the riparian soils that hold the water are eroding away to smother the streams below with sediment. The vegetation next to the streams, notably aspen and willows but also other species, is being severely degraded to the point that the ground is beaten to dust or mud mixed with cow flop and the willows and aspen have very little chance to regenerate because the cattle like to eat them.

We visited Miller Creek, Reed Creek, Rain Creek and Willis Creek on this trip. Miller and Reed Creeks are tributaries to the Owyhee River drainage while the other two flow north into the Bruneau River Drainage. These small streams should be capable of supporting redband trout during part of the year, if not year-round, but they have degraded to the point that there was no sign of them in the portions of the creeks that we examined. The Great Basin population of Columbia spotted frogs, which are a candidate species for the Endangered Species Act, should be present here but they were nowhere to be found.

On Reed Creek we found beaver dams but, because of the heavy livestock grazing, the aspens were receding away from the creek because they had no ability to regenerate due to cattle grazing. The willows here were all older and suffered from the same problem. Under ungrazed conditions we would have had great difficulty getting around in the riparian area and likely wouldn’t have been able to enter them at all because the vegetation would have been extremely thick.

On the other creeks beavers have disappeared entirely and the willows are almost gone. There was evidence of historic beaver use and the areas where there used to be beaver dams were suffering from headcuts. Many of the larger aspen are still present but regeneration is being suppressed due to cattle grazing of the young shoots.

Headcuts are formed when the vegetation that holds the riparian soils together is beaten down and killed resulting in areas where flowing water cuts and washes away the soils. The headcuts work their way upstream over time to leave a barren rocky substrate that can’t support vegetation. This also results in a lower water table allowing sagebrush to grow into meadows. These features were ubiquitous on this allotment and the damage caused by them will take decades to recover.  If grazing weren’t occurring here the beavers would be more active and the stream banks would be stable with little movement of soils.  There would be places for fish to spawn and better habitat for all kinds of species.

Part 1 0f 2

Part 2 of 2

You can read the Annual Operating Instructions for the allotment here 

View Miller Creek Allotment, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in a larger map


  1. jdubya Avatar

    BTW, a wonderful series of articles are in the Salt Lake Tribune on the effect of climate change on the forests..

  2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Ken- What does the Simplot Company say when they are said to be overgrazing public lands? Do they make any attempt to be better stewards?

  3. Mark A. York Avatar

    Excellent presentation on the perils of livestock grazing on riparian areas. I used to do this kind of work as a fish biologist for the Forest Service and BLM. It wasn’t pretty then and isn’t now. “This is your creek. This is your creek on cows.”


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.

We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ken Cole