Basin Creek, Little Lost River Drainage. Lost because of livestock

A disgrace for the Salmon Challis National Forest

Basin Creek is a headwater tributary of the Little Lost River drainage in Idaho. It was home to bull trout and had a series of wet meadows which are in the process of eroding away and becoming biological wastelands.

Western Watersheds Project staff and supporters visited this stream in late 2008 along with the Salmon Challis National Forest District Ranger, Diane Weaver. It was in the process of severe erosion at that time and she was embarrassed enough to authorize an exclosure to keep cattle out of the stream. This is the photo that was taken that day.

Basin Creek, November, 2008

Over the weekend I, Brian Ertz, and his kids visited the same spot and found that cattle had been in the exclosure last year, as evidenced by the utilization of the grass and the numerous cow pies that littered the area. The stream had also cut an additional 5 feet down into the soft, riparian sediments that were deposited over centuries, and the head cut had moved higher up the meadow.

The stream and the meadow are dying. Sediments are eroding into the stream below and the head cut is moving upstream slowly but surely. The lower stretches of the stream are drying out because the water table is lower. Sagebrush is growing next to the stream and willows are dying. It’s a disgrace that is happening, and has happened, to countless western streams.

Basin Creek, April 21, 2012

So often people and agencies advocate for these types of exclosures around sensitive stream areas but once they are built they fail to take another look. Exclosures usually end up turning into enclosures for cattle, and, rather than keep cattle out of an area, they keep them in because, frankly, it is exactly the type of area that cattle like to be.

It is not an uncommon experience for us to find exclosures that have had trespassing cattle or contain the offending animals themselves. It also not uncommon to see accelerated degradation occurring to these areas when they are not properly maintained or monitored. The fences keep other, native wildlife out and, in some circumstances end up killing sage grouse that collide into them. They don’t work, and agencies are foolish to depend on them.

The habitats that these exclosures are meant to protect are our natural heritage and they are actively being destroyed.

The case of Basin Creek is a little unusual because it has gone this long before being destroyed. Most streams reached this level of devastation long ago and have become completely dysfunctional on a biological level and a hydrological level.

It is frustrating to see, but there may be a solution to slow the irreparable harm and possibly reverse it. First, cattle need to be removed entirely from the allotment and not allowed to be anywhere near these important streams. Second, beavers should be actively encouraged so that the stream can regain some proper function and restore some of the vegetation and riparian soils.

This needs to happen now, not later. The bull trout in the Little lost River can’t wait for the complacent agencies to make these changes.

Wildlife advocates need to understand that livestock grazing doesn’t just impact wolves and other predators. It impacts the entire ecology of our western public lands. In the West, public lands livestock grazing is not just a problem, it is THE problem. These same advocates should understand that the tropic cascade caused by wolves doesn’t apply to livestock, but it needs to. No amount of kowtowing to the sheep and cattle barons of the west will bring tolerance for wolves but it will just serve to entrench them, and this kind of damage on our public lands.

You can view a slide show of the photos from Basin Creek below.

Basin Creek, Pass Creek Allotment

View Basin Creek in a larger map


  1. Craig Avatar

    This is the norm from Lower Stanley to Salmon unfortunately. I’ve hunted so many of these spots and just gave up because cattle run the wild game out.

    1. Jerry Black Avatar

      A shame……Like the redbands and bull trout don’t have a tough enough time surviving in the Little Lost.
      It’s so unfortunate to see such a unique area be trashed by cows and sheep. How many people are even aware of the uniqueness of this valley? Sink-drain streams??….many never have the opportunity to see one.
      My son’s first job out of college was with TU, out of Idaho Falls. We spent 4 days fishing and exploring the Little Lost in the fall. Lots of wonderful memories but also lots of evidence of destruction of stream banks and riparian areas by cows.
      Thanks, Ken, Brian and all of WWP for your continued fight to get livestock off our public lands.

    2. Richard Slack Avatar

      Well, this is surely one they CAN’T blame on the Wolf Population, But NO DOUBT THEY WILL TRY ! This one is CLEARLY ON THE CATTLEMEN !!!!!

  2. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    “In the West, public lands livestock grazing is not just a problem, it is THE problem. These same advocates should understand that the tropic cascade caused by wolves doesn’t apply to livestock, but it needs to. No amount of kowtowing to the sheep and cattle barons of the west will bring tolerance for wolves but it will just serve to entrench them, and this kind of damage on our public lands.”

    This statement can not be repeated often enough.

  3. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    Looking at the map this is a typical problem. I am guessing they do not have a water source on the high ridges to keep cattle away from the riparian, which is very important.
    Craig I agree in some places where over grazing happens the game is not there, but on the other side I have had good luck. The reasoning is that the new regrowth is higher in protein and the game prefers that over matured grasses.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      There was a water development placed just outside the exclosure but once the cattle get in they don’t leave.

      You say:
      “The reasoning is that the new regrowth is higher in protein and the game prefers that over matured grasses.”

      That is belied by a recent study which says that elk avoid areas that have been recently grazed.

      BioOne Online Journals – Effects of a Rest–Rotation Grazing System on Wintering Elk Distributions at Wall Creek, Montana.

      Also, I don’t look at a landscape just for its hunting potential. It is much more than that. A place for all kinds of wildlife not just elk and deer or things to kill.

      A meadow, or upland, is structurally and ecologically simplified through livestock grazing and the pressures placed on other wildlife are not placed on livestock in the same way. Since sheep and cattle are only on the landscapes part of the year, and nutritionally subsidized on private pastures the rest of the year, they aren’t subject to the habitat degradation in the way that wildlife who depend on it are. They don’t suffer through a winter and aren’t exposed to predation like a sage grouse or pygmy rabbit would be because they don’t depend on vegetative cover to survive like those species do. Sheep and cattle can do just fine if the water is hot, muddy, and low in oxygen but a bull trout can’t. Sheep and cattle can do just fine if they are only on a landscape in the spring through fall eating all of the forage that elk and deer depend on but the elk and deer can’t.

      Simply put, livestock compete for forage and degrade habitats of wildlife. They don’t belong on public lands, especially if the taxpaying public is heavily subsidizing them.

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      Also, there is a study, which I will try to find online, which showed that a landscape that had been grazed took longer to recover after decades of sheep and goat grazing than an ungrazed habitat that had undergone a nuclear blast.

      1. louise kane Avatar

        Ken, is this largely because of compacted soil? The recovery period taking longer than a nuclear blast?

  4. Larry Keeney Avatar
    Larry Keeney

    Yes. Yes. But what is a single person to do that really makes the change happen? It seems the only avenue is judicial action to stop livestock rampages. But if a person lacks the financial resources or expertise all it is, is more words and words will not change the cattle barons. They take pride in being more powerful than public opinion and just keep on bribing their way into irrational political powerhouses. Vote environmental yes, but states like Idaho that’s like emptying the Pacific Ocean with a Dixie cup. And the barons just grin because they know they have the real power. WWP is so very important but if one is not an attorney it is so frustrating.

  5. Dan Avatar

    The problem is not live stock grazing. It is the overwhelming demand for beef. Go after the demand side of the equation, not the supply side. The problem is really that we need cleaner(methane,carbon footprint, etc) and less riparian impacting sources of protein. If the demand is there, the supply is going to be as well. If you do not believe me, look at our country’s war on drugs. Have we made any headway in 40 years on that war? No, because as long as there is demand, there is going to be supply. Legal action is fleeting and a heavy drain on resources. Sure, you might get the cattle out of this creek but I can show you 100 more like it in Idaho without even trying to look hard. Trust me, the supply side can outspend you and out lawyer you. If you want our riparian areas in the west free from beef, go after the demand for beef.

    Even if you win a blockbuster legal suit and get all of the cattle removed from public lands in the U.S., but the demand is still there, the problem will just get exported to streams and creeks of other countries. The barons will raise their beef somewhere and if they’re blocked here they’ll go somewhere else.(Look at Brazil beef exports) Look at how we exported our industrial pollution problems to China.
    Look at old Cliven Bundy, they took him to court and won. He was ordered to remove his cattle. How has that worked out?

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar


      The high demand is artificially fostered by the ‘cheap’ supply. If the cost of beef at the market reflected the true cost of production, no one would buy beef – or it’d be a luxury item and people would demand it more sparingly – like lobster. One of the ways that it is made artificially cheap is that producers are not expected to pay market value for forage on public lands, they pay a shameful fraction. additionally, public lands ranchers are not expected to pay for much of the infrastructure on federal public lands that is necessary for industrial production of livestock on public lands – nor are they expected to pay for restoration of the damage that they do to public lands – nor for other conflicts with public values, water, wildlife that are a natural consequence of their economic activity in an environment that does not suit livestock production. Nor are agricultural producers of feed on private land expected to pay comparable property taxes, or for a market price on the water that they use to irrigate alfalfa and other sources of feed – which is water belonging to the citizens of Idaho (in this case) and is water-intensive in the desert. etc. etc. etc.

      That said, federal public lands only contribute 2% of the supply of forage for livestock production in the country. It is insignificant, and removing livestock from public lands entirely would not be measured more than a slight bump in cost of livestock at market. fuel cost fluctuation over the past couple of decades are much more significant.

      There is no way to attack demand when the economic incentives at the point-of-purchase are so skewed by a myriad of subsidies and exemptions to restrictions. To change market behavior of consumers – you really need to incorporate those costs into production and at the point of purchase.

      The most direct and effective course to promulgate policy change at this point in time is litigation on Endangered Species Act, NEPA, FLPMA, NFMA, etc. violations. While you may not notice a lot of the change occurring right away – it’s important to the landscapes and wildlife involved directly. It also creates crisis within the agencies which creates a problem that bureaucrats and ranchers recognize as such – the systematic rape of our natural world apparently isn’t big enough an incentive to change policy on its own.

      When politically connected ranchers and bureaucrats are agitated enough to call for change – the policy wheels get moving in DC – and while there is risk that they’ll move in the wrong direction sometimes, often times it is the ranchers’ and bureaucrats’ own effort in DC that opens up opportunity for conservation interests to move in and play policy jujitsu as the ball starts to roll – as took place with the Bighorn Sheep Rider.

      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        “The high demand is artificially fostered by the ‘cheap’ supply. If the cost of beef at the market reflected the true cost of production, no one would buy beef – or it’d be a luxury item and people would demand it more sparingly – like lobster.”

        In one respect that is true, in another not so much.

        I buy a half of beef every year that has had nothing but the federal requiered worm shots. No antibiotics, no hormones, raised on private ground pastures from start to finish. It cost me lesss than $4:00lb cut and wrapped which I choose the cuts. So instead of ground beef which may have over 100 different sources such as is mouldering on the supermarket shelf, mine originates from one source that I know the complete history of. And it is not that hard to find someone that does this type of production.

      2. Dan Avatar


        All our ranchers and farmers are subsidized. Most our industries are subsidized in some way or another.
        I don’t think you’ll ever see unsubsidized markets in the U.S. Subsidies are not novel to the beef market by any means.

        And, like I mentioned above as long as there is demand the supply side will meet the demand even if that means going overseas and carrying on like they were here or even worse environmental degradation. The only true victory you’ll ever see is if the demand can be quenched or limited to the point that raising beef becomes a small niche market on private lands.

        1. Brian Ertz Avatar


          subsidies are relative – industries are subsidized to varying degrees and for varying reasons. that said, there are few industries whose proportion of income is so bloated as agriculture – and in particular, public lands ranching.

          it’s a values choice – what do we choose to subsidize ? and what gets chosen for us as a consequence of corporate capture of policy-making ?

          the fact that bad thing X gets subsidized to a certain degree or another is not a compelling justification for bad thing Y to be similarly subsidized.

          Points like yours don’t diminish my resolve, not when i hike the landscapes and see for myself the tangible improvement brought to the special places by my/our effort. I invite you to visit some yourself – and take part in it, because dollar for dollar – legal action for legal action, there is not another effort in this country that gets more done with less – and it’s culminating – things are changing, one need only look so far as the halls of Congress to see that change is on the way. Whether it improves or worsens is yet to be determined.

          that said, don’t buy beef if it makes you feel better, or only buy from a source you can feel good about – but the system needs agitation, it needs a bright light pointed at the failures and its consequences. litigation enforcing existing environmental protections is the most effective, economical, and practical way of bringing lasting light in that respect.

          1. Dan Avatar

            “Points like yours don’t diminish my resolve, not when i hike the landscapes and see for myself the tangible improvement brought to the special places by my/our effort. I invite you to visit some yourself – and take part in it, because dollar for dollar – legal action for legal action, there is not another effort in this country that gets more done with less – and it’s culminating – things are changing, one need only look so far as the halls of Congress to see that change is on the way. Whether it improves or worsens is yet to be determined.

            that said, don’t buy beef if it makes you feel better, or only buy from a source you can feel good about – but the system needs agitation, it needs a bright light pointed at the failures and its consequences. litigation enforcing existing environmental protections is the most effective, economical, and practical way of bringing lasting light in that respect.”

            I hope you’re not taking my comments the wrong way. I applaud your efforts. I admire your tenacity. My points are aimed at the bigger picture. A way of looking at the problem that would bring broader closure.
            As far as beef goes, I quit eating it years ago. I prefer venison.

      3. Tom Page Avatar
        Tom Page

        “The most direct and effective course to promulgate policy change at this point in time is litigation on Endangered Species Act, NEPA, FLPMA, NFMA, etc. violations.”

        While you and I agree on some things, Brian, this is the big one where we diverge. While the initial results in the 80’s and early 90’s were great, I have seen little evidence over the last fifteen years that procedural lawsuits effectively change things on the ground. They certainly gum up the process and spend lots of taxpayer dollars in more ways than one, however.

        I believe the most effective way to effect policy change is to buy land that has grazing privileges and water rights important for conservation purposes. Once you have some “skin in the game”, it levels the playing field between you, other landowners with similar assets, and agencies. They know you can’t just walk away if things don’t go right. They may or may not like you (and tell you why) but if you keep showing up, you’d be surprised what may happen. I’m always surprised that WWP has never pursued another property after Greenfire (or at least one that I know of) – certainly there are some big WWP donors that could fund such an enterprise.

        No less an authority than Michael Soule has made similar comments in recent years…he’s looking toward guys like Paul Vahldiek because he’s simply “lost faith” in the agencies.

        Your last paragraph makes a very good point…hopefully we will see some interesting things come into the discussion in the next few years.

        1. mikarooni Avatar

          “…I have seen little evidence over the last fifteen years that procedural lawsuits effectively change things… I believe the most effective way to effect policy change is to buy land that has grazing privileges and water rights important for conservation purposes. Once you have some “skin in the game”, it levels the playing field…”

          In difference situations, I’ve been on both paths. Buying land and working at a personal scale certainly does give you a warm and fuzzy feeling; however, it consumes and funnels so much of your time, money, energies, and attention into a localized improvement that, although you have lots of “skin in the game” on the micro-level, you end up being sidelined and “out of the game” in strategic terms. You end up neutralizing yourself in terms of the big picture, which is actually what your opposition wants you to do.

          Based on my experience, Brian is right. “The most… effective course to promulgate policy change at this point in time” actually IS “litigation…” The strategic leverage, the mechanical advantage, of using litigation to set case law that ripples throughout the system enables you to effect changes in a few years that, unless you’re someone who can operate on the scale of Ted Turner, can dwarf the contribution you can afford to make on your own lands. Litigation actually ends up being cheaper as well …and, depending on the situation, winning your case can also allow you to more than recoup your investment.

          In hindsight, my own efforts to improve my own properties and understand and collaborate with “other landowners with similar assets” has had a net “case ground” impact from an environmental activism standpoint …the best thing I could ever have done for the other side.

        2. Brian Ertz Avatar

          Tom, I’ll politely refer you to the question I pose of you further down on the thread.

          While I certainly appreciate your effort – the fact is that most folk don’t have the resources to acquire the assets necessary to have “skin in the game” — and public lands belong to all of us, we shouldn’t need to have them to have a voice.

          I suppose an “all of the above” approach isn’t half bad. There are good cops and bad cops – but legitimizing the crooks by insisting on playing their crooked games never appealed to me.

          That said – as I understand it, your “skin in the game” beat the shit out of an allotment last year that’s quite nearby the Pass Creek Allotment being scrutinized in the article didn’t it ? Of course, it’s not just your “skin in the game” that got impacted by those livestock is it ? That land belongs to me, to you, to everyone else in this country, wildlife, and to future generations.

          a couple years back i was relieved to learn of a recent private purchase that you had made that had associated public lands allotments. your contribution to these discussions made me believe that this meant that our effort could be redirected elsewhere — after all, maybe it is just a matter of good actors and bad actors ?

          It’s one thing to preach Tom, to have good intentions – i’ll admit, i’m a sap for good intentions – but it’s another to put an exotic animal on a landscape that’s not made for it – didn’t evolve with it – and to have the hubris to believe that your good intention can make the square peg fit into the round hole. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not economically and ecologically compatible – it may be one or the other at any given time, but my experience suggests it ain’t both at any same time.

          Perhaps now that you know that we’re watching you’ll make a greater effort to ensure the resource on that allotment is protected, perhaps not. if so, it sort of proves my point about the effectiveness of public oversight – and litigation is the teeth that ensures such oversight is effective – litigation, or if we’re lucky, a permittee’s own vanity – shame.

          Your skin, Simplot’s skin, a subleasee’s skin, whomever’s skin – and for all the preaching about “better management”, the allotment got blasted Tom – it did here, it did there, it does just about everywhere you look. that’s the bottom line.

          1. Tom Page Avatar
            Tom Page

            Brian – I assume you’re referring to Dry Creek…blasted or “beat the s**t out of” is hardly how I’d describe it. I should go and take more photos and put them on Panoramio…then we’d get more perspective than cherrypicking the worst of the worst, and it wouldn’t just be your word against mine on your own website.

            Although I’m hesitant to talk about specific allotments in public, I will say this, since you ask. We didn’t use it in 2010, we’re not using it again in 2012. That allotment is 16000 acres, and maybe 50 (and that’s a very generous estimate…) of those acres along Short & Long Creek were affected…and certainly not to a worse extent than when we acquired the rights to that allotment. To suggest that those riparian areas were in superb condition until we put cows on last year is simply not true, and I’ll bet the BLM monitoring photos would clearly show that. The overwhelming majority of the range in that allotment is in excellent condition, and I’ll take a tour with you anytime if you disagree. I’ll also visit any of our other allotments if you wish – my personal feeling is that two others are in much worse shape from historical grazing patterns. Still, I saw what happened last year on Short & Long, and now we’re not going to use it this year because of those problems (and other reasons).

            Regardless, it’s a massive distortion to suggest that Dry Creek looks like that picture, anywhere in the allotment.

            As you probably know, I haven’t put or proposed any new fences on that allotment or any of our allotments, so I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to with “properly placed fences”. I am working on converting many other miles of nasty fence into wildlife friendly fence (or just removing it altogether).

            See above for two years of rest out of three that we’ve had it. I don’t believe that allotment had ever been rested prior to our purchase, although I may be wrong on that.

            And finally:

            Yes, public land does belong to all of us…but after several years in conservation, it became clear that certain players had more pull than others. It was my belief that if I wanted to be more effective, I needed to change my approach, and find a place where the scale was possible to effect changes on a watershed level.

            And again, I’d be happy to give you a tour anytime…there’s way more to what we’re working on than one allotment.

            1. Ken Cole Avatar

              The problem with grazing on an arid landscape is that the worst impacts happen in areas with the most ecological value, riparian areas. You can say that the impacts were limited to a certain small area but, again, if it was the riparian area, then it was the most ecologically important area.

              50 acres along Short and Long creeks is a big deal.

            2. Tom Page Avatar
              Tom Page

              It is a big deal, I agree Ken, and I didn’t like what happened there one bit – a big reason we’re not using it this year. My contention with Brian is that he characterized the whole allotment as looking like that, which is absurd. I also believe that there are many spots on our private land and public allotments with significant improvement over the last two years, even in the presence of livestock, and it’s not nearly as simple as Brian makes it out to be.

            3. Brian Ertz Avatar


              I did not mean to suggest that the conditions on Short & Long Creek were comparable to those on Basin Creek – I did not mean to not suggest it either.

              It is a massive distortion to suggest that I did any such thing.

              I don’t believe it unfair to scrutinize public land ranching apologists who purport themselves as “enlightened” ranchers and make consistent claims of the ability for better management practices that would serve to keep livestock on lands unsuitable to be grazed – particularly when they pound the shit out of their own allotments.

              If you’re going to make public claims that grazing can be benign – particularly in a basin that is so dry and unsuitable for livestock grazing at all – I’m going to hold you to a hefty standard – and whether it’s better in some places is largely irrelevant. Less bad is still bad – wildlife would make better use than your cattle – that is my objective, that’s my standard.

              And I’ll grant you, you may not have pounded the shit out of 100% of the allotment, just the water – the place that the vast majority of life depends upon – as Ken points out.

              Your commitment to rest the allotment is admirable and a true credit to your commitment to conservation and those values that we share. I applaud you for that and do not question your integrity in that regard. That being the case, the standard is still the condition of the landscape, and I continue to maintain that any management regime on a landscape as arid as we’re talking about is only consistent with recovery to the degree that livestock use is lessened or eliminated altogether.

              As for your offer to tour – I’d be happy to take you up on it – just as I was last year, and if I remember correctly, the year prior to that. The last couple of times you’ve been out to tour and I packed my bags in anticipation I was stopped and made aware of your hesitation to be seen with a Western Watersheds Project employee. Was this an accurate characterization of your hesitation

              Have you had a change of heart since ?

              If so, I’d be happy to take a tour together – You could show me some of the areas you’re proud of, and maybe you’d be open to suggestion – i.e. visiting some spots that need “better management”…

            4. Tom Page Avatar
              Tom Page

              Brian –

              Apparently, I misinterpreted your comments…my mistake.

              Fair enough standards and objectives…I don’t ask for any special considerations, and certainly WWP has had no hesitation in pursuing action against the BLM on our Grouse Creek allotment (which we have only used once in the last three years), so we’ll see how that turns out.

              I would ask in return that you be specific when referring to locations that you feel are degraded and not make blanket claims such as recently suggesting the Lost River Mountains are totally trashed…when we both know that most of the Forest allotments there have been vacant for years, and many other locations on the forest have no cows on them.

              I also have made no secret that I’m in favor of being able to transfer or retire allotments that are unsuited for grazing, or better allocated towards different public values.

              As far as I know, you have never contacted me via phone or email to take a tour, nor has anyone brought up your name as someone they’d like to have along. I have requested in the past that if I’m going to take someone from Advocates or WWP, that they not wear logos or hats advertising such.

              Once Trail Creek opens, I’ll email you and we’ll set something up.

            5. Brian Ertz Avatar


              sounds good – I look forward to it.

              The allotments without stock are not the problem nor are they the subject of my scrutiny – I guess I thought that implicit in my blanket statements about the condition of the landscape – i.e. that my criticism of the impacts of livestock were directed at those allotments being (ab)used by livestock.

              Let me add, I sincerely wish that the Forest Service and BLM – those charged with the authority and the statutory responsibility to attend to the betterment of the environmental condition of the landscape – were as willing as you are to rest/exclude cattle in the face of legitimate environmental degradation – that’s responsible management and an appropriate response — it’s a sad state of affairs that would have that decision be at the unique discretion of the permittee(s), which is what we see out there. That’s captured management – and it’s wrong. Unfortunately, we don’t see managers as conscientious about their trust responsibility as you seem to be. I hope that changes.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Well, well! I see another case of mad cow showed up in a U.S. dairy cow today. Beef sure took a hit on the markets.

      1. Dan Avatar

        Definitely an issue that can influence demand. I believe these types of issues can have far larger impacts on cattle barons than lawsuits and supply side impacts.

      2. jdubya Avatar

        It is really a non-story but it did get the Korean’s worked up about tainted US beef.

  6. Daniel Berg Avatar
    Daniel Berg


    It’s easy to see that there’s a problem in Basin Creek and countless other areas, but sometimes it’s hard to picture how Basin Creek would look in an unspoiled state.

    I appreciate this thread and others like it you have done. Would you mind occasionally posting pictures of healthy riparian areas from similar landscapes as a comparison from time to time if you are able to?

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      I’ll try but healthy landscapes and streams are difficult to find in similar types of ecosystems because they have all been grazed.

    2. Brian Ertz Avatar

      @Daniel Berg,

      This is Lake Creek, East Fork Salmon River Watershed – a comparable riparian habitat – that has been rested from livestock grazing for over a decade.

      Healthy meanders and high water at the level of the soil characterize this which saturates the entire meadow around it creating wet/riparian habitat – as opposed to the 15 foot downcut on Basin creek which is far below any of the vegetation’s rootzones – i.e. the soil is drying and the entire vegetation community is dying of thirst, upland vegetation (sage brush, etc) is creeping in.

      Notice the beaver activity and the lush vegetation which holds/builds soil. Beaver need willows (which need that moist soil zone) to establish. Lake Creek is what the riparian habitat would look like on Basin Creek if the cattle had not blasted it out.

      Basin Creek is gone – dead.

      1. Daniel Berg Avatar
        Daniel Berg


        Those pictures from Lake Creek magnify the damage being done at Basin Creek.

        The difference is just shocking…….

    3. louise kane Avatar

      Daniel and Ken,

      I have images of healthy riparian areas some in California and lots in New England, perhaps some in Monatana. If that would help I can send them to Ken. It may take me a couple of weeks to dig them out but I can work on it?

  7. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    USFS and BLM personel see the cowboys they are supposed to regulate on a day to day basis. They shop in the same small town stores and their kids attend school with rancher’s kids.If they are stationed in a certain area for a long time, they get intermarried with the cowboy families.
    The term some people use is “Cowboy Up”. The USFS range managers start wearing cowboy boots and going to rodeos.
    Some of them start chewing tobacco. It becomes hard to tell the USFS guys from the cowboys.
    They shift their allegiance to the livestock industry and overlook the damage the cows and sheep are doing our public lands.
    They see their job as SERVING the livestock industry rather that regulating it.

    1. Daniel Berg Avatar
      Daniel Berg

      I think they need to find a way to rotate BLM and USFS personnel that have to make unpopular decisions regarding grazing, so they don’t become to entrenched in the communities they are working in. It’s a huge burden to place on somebody and most just aren’t up to that kind of challenge.

      Increase their pay and stipulate up-front that the positions require you to be on-board with moving every couple of years potentially, at least for the first several years of their careers.

      I believe the IRS does this, and the base pay for a college graduate is much higher than you would expect for most government jobs. When I was graduating from college, the IRS had a base pay of around $52k or so for newbies (If I remember correctly).

      1. Ken Cole Avatar

        There are problems with that too. We see employees moving around all of the time but when this happens they never learn from the on-the-ground disasters they cause because they aren’t around to see it anymore.

        1. Daniel Berg Avatar
          Daniel Berg

          Then they aren’t hiring the right people, which ultimately stems from a lapse somewhere in management.

    2. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      “They see their job as SERVING the livestock industry rather that regulating it.”


      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        what producers do is have “the regulators” over “to the house” for a “bar-b-que” to get “to know” the area producers. After the “regulator” has their mouth full of prime loin; then the whine starts about how hard it is just to make ends meet. It is like a virtual gang rape. If the “regulator” does not play along then life gets real miserable for him/her and any family.

        The word goes out.

        You either play along or your quality of life including you career just got flushed.
        The livestock industry has been playing this game for a hundred years or better in this country and do it very, very well.

    3. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      That certainly has happened on the Lost River Ranger District for years — district ranger after district ranger.

      1. Larry Keeney Avatar
        Larry Keeney

        If so where are the ethics people. I had to fill out an ethics form every year listing all interests, very comprehensive. We also knew we pay our own way, lunch, travel, etc. It is unlawful for feds to accept donations from private sources for equipment, resources, etc. If the bar-b-que isn’t open to the public then ethics should have an issue with it.

  8. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    From looking at the pictures the one shows some sign of the presence of cattle, the other shows either signs of a big run off or a something like a cloud burst.
    I can see why they had trouble with water enclosure if they could not get the cattle away from the riparian water source in the first place.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar


      those runoff events do damage don’t they ? Especially when there’s no riparian vegetation stabilizing the banks.

      What do you suppose is responsible for removing the riparian vegetation that would have otherwise stabilized the banks year after year after year ?

      Think about it.

  9. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    It’s worth noting here that the bull trout in the Little Lost River are not native to that basin. Genetic tests done by (I think) IDFG showed they arrived via the irrigation ditch that transports water from Big Gulch Creek over the Pahsimeroi Divide and into Summit Creek, somewhere in the last 90 years since that ditch was built. It doesn’t excuse their demise, of course.

    I would agree with you that there are places in the Little Lost that are pretty hammered, however I think that nearly all of the cattle exclosures I’ve been around have made conditions better – they do work, in other words. I’m sure you could go farther up the Howe-Ellis road and take pictures of the Burnt Creek exclosure or the Donkey Creek exclosure that show this quite clearly. Where they don’t work is when people leave gates open, such as the exclosure on Big Gulch Creek, north of Pass Creek. I’m not familiar with this particular exclosure in the photo, but that’s far worse than any of the ones I’ve observed over the divide in the last three years (or any here in Blaine County.) So, I don’t agree that it’s happening on “countless western streams”, even in the hardcore cattle country of SE Central Idaho.

    Incidentally, after engaging the hard-working Sho-Ban tribe to pull nearly fifteen miles of nasty 5-strand wire, we fenced six miles of the Pahsimeroi (which was essentially nuked at the time…) with single-strand temp hotwire, starting last year. Despite nearly constant cattle presence on the adjacent pivots and irrigated pastures, we’ve had almost no riparian trespass and little maintenance. The corridor now holds many more animals, even after only a year. Food for thought. I don’t know if I’d apply it on public lands, for a number of reasons, but it clearly works and is much less intrusive than barbed wire.

    As for the idea that the cattle are running the game out of the country from Stanley to Salmon…take a look at elk/deer/bighorn sheep/antelope/mountain goat surveys for those units, because they (and my own observations) do not align with your experience. The Lost River mountains have the strongest Bighorn population in the state. The Lemhi Range has the strongest goat population. Several thousand elk inhabit the Lost Rivers, the Lemhis and much of the private land on either side of those ranges. The high valleys running SE from the Salmon River contain a large percentage of Idaho’s antelope. I’ve seen lion, bear, wolf sign…the coyotes are thick. You get the picture.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar


      I’ve heard your grandiose promises about reformed/”better” management ~ about how “enlightened” ranching can make it all better … properly placed fences – rest/rotate/etc. and I’ve seen your allotment Tom.

      What happened ? Perhaps you’d care to enlighten us all.

      1. Tom Page Avatar
        Tom Page

        See my response to your other comment for answers to your question, Brian.

        Hopefully, we’ll be able to look at the larger picture in 2025 to accurately evaluate my “grandiose promises” of 2012. Right now, I like the direction we’re headed, though. I found small mahogany plants out in the sage flats last week, along Big Creek, for one small indication. Our wintering bird/animal populations were way up from two years ago, for another. And it looks like there’s going to be more legally protected water in the streams come 2013 or 2014, but we’ll have to see how that plays out.

        You are as skeptical as the Pahsimeroi locals, which gives me faith that I’m doing something right…

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      I think there is a political aspect in the determination by some that bull trout are not native to the Little Lost River drainage. I, frankly, don’t believe it. It certainly has not been definitively determined by any stretch, but it is certainly something that the ranchers of the area promote and like to hear.

      I’ve even heard ranchers claim that slickspot peppergrass isn’t native. Some wild eyed ranchers even like to claim that sagebrush isn’t even native. Helen Chenoweth even made the wild claim that grizzly bears weren’t native to Idaho, even though my great grandfather saw some and Bob Limbert photographed one in Craters of the Moon in the 1920’s. Not to mention, there are grizzly bears presently in Idaho.

      Back to bull trout though. Headwater transfer, where a stream changes course over time, is certainly a well known phenomenon that could clearly have happened naturally between the Little Lost River and Pahsimeroi.

      I don’t trust the person who has made the determination either. They have a history which certainly makes me question this call.

  10. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    Brian I agree there exceptions to the rule and cattle do damage the riparian. I live in one of Montana’s biggest counties and work for company that does a lot of work for private land owners repairing stream banks. The majority of these land owners do not have any livestock and I have seen erosion identical to the pictures on these properties.
    Point in case just today we were doing a job up big sheep creek and there are huge stretches of the creek cordoned off by fence and it still has bad erosion. I have live on the big hole river for fifty plus years and seen it change drastically in stretches where there are no cattle.
    You cannot put the blame entirely on livestock.I have seen the big hole river change more in the winter than any time during high water because when the ice that attaches to the banks caves off it takes with it trees, grass and rocks.
    You cannot stop what nature does to streams but you can alter the impact livestock has on steams.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Robert R – here’s an interesting site to check out when you have time:

      1. Nancy Avatar

        Realized that link may not come up try this one and then click on Montana, then enter Big Hole.

    2. Brian Ertz Avatar


      These riparian habitats/systems co-evolved for over 12,000 years (since the last ice age) with natural stochastic events – including cloud bursts, dramatic runoff events, etc.

      Are we to say, as you suggest, that this sort of damage generally occurs as a result of natural events beyond the introduction of some additional stressor to the environment ?

      I don’t think we can say that. Look at the depth of the soil in the photograph, that’s at least 15 feet of soil that built over centuries. The water table was much much higher previous to this damage occurring.

      Somehow, over the course of those centuries – this stream was able to endure the cloud bursts, runoff events, etc. and still hold the water-table and build that soil. The reason for that is the resilience of the system that occurs when the natural – and functionally determinative – riparian habitats – again co-evolving over thousands of years – are allowed to persist without the introduction of some other stressor that is significant enough to tip that system over the edge.

      We know that the most pervasive stressor that has the potential to diminish the functional resilience of the stream against stochastic events on Basin Creek, and throughout the West, is livestock. But yes, there are others – roads, mining impacts, etc. etc. etc. that may stress those systems as well.

      As cattle remove the vegetation that stabilizes the stream-bank and as their hooves directly trample and sheer the stream-banks, the system is left without the functional resilience that it had previously enjoyed over thousands of years of development.

      Once this happens – the additional stressor has had its influence on the system – and those streams are left relatively naked to the elements – and that head-cut starts making its way up the stream, etc. etc. then yes, stochastic events such as cloud bursts, heavy runoff, etc. will contribute dramatic impact.

      That said – blaming the stochastic events that occurred for thousands of years in tandem with stream-systems for impacts such as we see here is not an accurate.

      1. Tom Page Avatar
        Tom Page

        One stressor I believe will become more apparent (and has been underestimated to this point) is that we live in a much warmer and drier climate than the recent past. I read a lot of historical accounts of Idaho, when I can find them, and it’s very clear that there was more water, more snow, and colder temps…particularly before about 1925. So I suspect a reduced water table has more causes than livestock grazing. It’s my increasing belief that this stressor is a significant (but not the only) reason why we’ve seen declines in sage-steppe species, and particularly the forbs.

        1. Ken Cole Avatar

          That stressor is accelerated by livestock grazing, not just through greenhouse gas emissions, but by the removal of ground covering vegetation, microbiotic soil crusts, and other features that make shade and hold moisture in the ground.

          It makes it dryer and hotter.

          Water developments intended to keep livestock dispersed also cause dewatering of streams, springs, and seeps.

          Livestock grazing has a well known desertification effect on a landscape, especially one that is already arid such as this area.

        2. Brian Ertz Avatar

          This is common tendency of livestock apologists — it’s always something else — you’ve got this direct impact removing vegetation, beating the soil, etc. etc. etc. — but it must be something else ~ usually beyond manager’s ability to do anything.

        3. Brian Ertz Avatar

          “Improvident grazing…has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage [affecting 225 million acres or 351,562 square miles], within the United States.” Chaney, E., W. Elmore, W. S. Platts. 1993. Livestock grazing on western riparian areas. Northwest Resource Information Center. Eagle, ID: 5 (fourth printing; produced for the Environmental Protection Agency). Council on Environmental Quality. 1980. The global 2000 report to the president of the United States: entering the twenty-first century. Pergamon Press. New York, NY.

  11. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    Nancy something is wrong with the web address, it says it cannot be accessed. Would like to look at the site.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Robert R – curious, were you able to get the site up?

      Thinking about you and your line of work today while listening to the heavy equipment working their “magic” on the creek, on the ranch next door.

      Stood outside earlier and could hear (and see) this big mechanical arm, going up and down, as it ripped its way thru stand after stand of willows along the creekbank.

      It was sad to watch, because just about a month ago, I could hear Sandhills, Ducks, Geese, Snipes, Kurlews, Magpies, Crows and Ravens, announcing… loudly… that its springtime and they were back again, establishing nesting sites in those willows and along that creekbank.


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