Wyoming ranchers asked to leave water for wildlife

They now have access to fragile CRP lands, but will they help wildlife in return-

Farmers and ranchers have been allowed into the Conservation Reserve Program lands (CRP) because of the drought.  This unfortunate decision is hardly unique. As George Wuerthner wrote today in The Wildlife News, “. . . Conservation Reserve Program lands are supposed to be, among other things, left un-grazed to provide wildlife [forage and] cover. But in a drought, the government typically relaxes that restriction—at a time when wildlife most needs the grass to remain un-grazed for both food and cover to hide from predators.”

Because of the great drought that now covers the large majority of America, cattle operators are moving their cattle from their dusty and grazed out private pastures, and also from national forests and BLM lands to a degree, onto the fragile CRP lands.  In addition, many are going to market early, temporarily driving down the price of beef.

When cattle are removed from the dry Western lands, watering facilities are left behind. Some are on private land and some on public.  Water in them might be gone, but others do retain water if they remain hooked up to windmills and other sources of water.  Over the years, these watering facilities have changed or distorted watering patterns of not only large animals, e.g., “big game,” but birds and smaller mammals.  For wildlife this dependence on  livestock developments for water is often a bad thing overall, but suddenly cutting the water off can be worse.

As a result, Wyoming Game and Fish is “urging ranchers and other landowners to consider leaving water in their tanks to help wildlife in the current drought even after they move their livestock off the land.”  It will be interesting to see if the ranchers give back to wildlife a bit even as they are being allowed into the ungrazed CRP lands, which are supposed to be, among other things, a habitat refuge for wildlife. See brief AP story on this.




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  1. ramses09 Avatar

    Doubt it –

  2. Rancher Bob Avatar
    Rancher Bob

    Around here we leave tanks full because in drought years a 1000 gallon tank can go a long way to refill fire fighting trucks. Then we don’t have any CRP land.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Rancher Bob,

      That is the sort of thing Wyoming Game and Fish is asking. It’s doubtful fire fighting trucks will use livestock water facilities to fillup (not enough water and too slow). They use fire retardant slurry and water scooped up in giant buckets by helicopters from lakes and reservoirs.

  3. timz Avatar

    Asking welfare ranchers to give something up? Funny…

  4. RobertR Avatar

    This is a double edge sword. In one sence it makes animals dependent on a man made water source and in another it may be survival.
    What would be worse, no water source and animals dying or congregating in fields or riparian areas.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      You are right, and this issue comes up every time the BLM or some other agency develops livestock water facilities on otherwise dry land so that they can move cattle onto it.

      They (the agency) often takes seeps over an area of an acre or so which would never keep a cow alive but does support deer, pronghorn, maybe elk. They use bulldozers and other equipment to channel the seeps into stock ponds or pipes that feed watering troughs. The result is cattle for the first time eating the native vegetation and often a muddy, stinking pond that wildlife use only after cattle have been elsewhere for a while.

  5. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Here’s a link to the classic set of photos taken by a ” Trail Cam” set up next to a Texas stock tank during a drought there.


    I have NO idea what that critter in frames 5-6 might be…black face mask , no tail , body like a Wolverine. The last photo is hilarious.

    By the way , what Star Trek alternate universe did this story come from that suggests Wyoming ranchers would share water and grass with wildlife during a drought ? Not on this planet….

  6. Hungry Helper Avatar
    Hungry Helper

    So does protecting the birds from prey include protecting them from hunters? Seems a bit hypocritical to want to protect the birds from their natural prey just so someone can take them out with a shotgun.

    Damn the ranchers and the cattle they raise to help feed the nation – who cares about food prices, right? Just so long as I can go hunting, I’m happy.

  7. DB Avatar

    I thought tank troughs were death traps for many kinds of birds.

    1. mikepost Avatar

      Throughout the west you will see ranchers installing “climb out” boards or branches in these tanks. Some are even built with ramps at one end. For their own self serving reasons they do not want dead decomposing critters in their scare water so it is very prevalent. What usually happens is some city knucklehead comes by and thinks that the board or the tree limb is not suppossed to be there so they take it out…to “help” the animals…

  8. WM Avatar

    In this and other discussions, it is important that people know what the Conservation Reserve Program is. Many people do not, especially when there are constant references to “welfare” ranchers.

    Lets begin with the idea behind CRP. The farmer or rancher OWNS the land outright. They can pretty do whatever they want with it as long as it does not violate clean water and air laws (state or federal). Much of the land is marginal for crop production, subject to water and wind erosion. Some of it is riparian or has other attributes valuable for wildlife, but nonetheless it is privately owned land.

    CRP is a cost share program generally to stabilize these lands and improve them for wildlife. Subject to certain qualifying critria farmers get a rental fee from the federal government to keep these lands out of crop production, and in many cases the fee is nominal in lands in the West like $30-40/acre/year. An acre, of course, is 43,460 sq. ft, or the land area of about 208 ft x 208 ft.

    In the Midwest, say Nebraska, ohio or Missouri, or highly productive lands, get upwards of $150/acre/yr. to stay out of production.

    By allowing livestock access to these otherwise protected CRP lands, or otherwise TEMPORARILY relaxing the rules on these lands, used by wildlife for a limited period, the effort is to try to ease the economic burden from the drought on farmers AND consumers of farm products.

    Yes, it is tough on wildlife and that is hugely unfortunate. But, the government, for good or for bad has made an economic decision that livestock take priority over wildlife. It will keep the cost of beef, lamb, pork down, where if not implemented prices would go up. It is another form of economic disaster relief.

    We may not all agree with it, but at least you have a general idea of the reasoning behind it.

    Read more about CRP here, and for a description of the program criteria look below the news releases:


    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      As you say, it is important for people to know that CRP lands are private lands and can be withdrawn from the program.

      However, as Wuerthner argues the private landowner is paid well to engage in this voluntary withdrawal of his or her land from cultivation and grazing. I don’t think you mentioned that.

      1. WM Avatar


        Indeed you are correct. I spoke earlier this week with a MT rancher who had a section of dry land good only for winter wheat and maybe some sunflowers (soil/deep moisture improver crop). The south 80-100 acres was marginal land he could have grown a crop on (maybe even hay in a good wet year), but he voluntarily kept it in native/introduced grasses for wildlife. We even discussed whether he should/would apply for CRP in coming years. He said keeping it unused was the right thing to do, with no federal money, though had he participated the prior year he could have had $3,000 in additional revenue to augment his meager 28 bushel/acre yield from the drought on the balance of his property. Yields in decent years are 38-40 bushels. This is a tough year and most ag counties across the country are designated on a national disaster list.

    2. elk275 Avatar


      You are wrong. An acre is 43,560 square feet. You are right, the land is private and if the price of crops and livestock increase a farmer/rancher has a right to with draw from the program and utilize the land as they see fit.

      1. CodyCoyote Avatar

        Mostly correct-o , Elk . I was a land surveyor for ~ 10 years. An acre , if square, is precisely 208 ft 8.4 inches on a side. Don’t forget about that 8 inches. That’s where the rancher puts the line of steel spadefoot fenceposts with the 4 strands of bad-ass barbed wire on them …

      2. WM Avatar


        Thanks for catching the typo, 43,560 sq.ft. it is! Know how many feet are in a chain, and how many chains to a mile, or better yet how to re-coil and care for a 2 chain tape? I bet most of the folks have never even heard of that surveyor’s instrument. I spent part of a summer looking for geodedic survey monuments in timber and volcanic boulder fields, that had not been located in over a hundred years. That is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

        Being a land guy as you are, I thought you might appreciate that.

        1. DB Avatar

          66 ft, 80/mi (three summers as head chainman cruising timber in western Washington)

          1. WM Avatar



            Then you know the joys of digging Devil’s Club thorns out of your hands, thighs and backside, from red, pus filled welts, a week after they stick you, or maybe putting your foot into a baldface hornet nest in a punky log on a hot day, and then attempting an escape as they swarm your head while stinging you senseless.

            I have a new level of respect for you Daniel.

            1. DB Avatar

              Sometimes we wore rain gear even in dry weather because of Devil’s Club. But it usually rained so lunch breaks were often by a pitch and old growth D-fir fire. Section corners were usually rotted away so often we chopped way into the wood of big trees to verify bearing trees. And the country was steep so we often needed the entire trailer to get horizontal distance. Fond memories.


  9. RobertR Avatar

    On the other side of livestock people is wildlife agencies and sportsman and private hunting groups, who instal water guzzlers specifically for wildlife.
    Where does one really draw the line so wildlife is not dependent on artificial sources of water.

    Ralph I can see your point about the native grasses but what is worse the native grass or destroying the riparian.


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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