The end of another grazing season in the West

Badly managed cattle devastate the most remote public lands-

“Till the cows come home” . . . that phase usually means a long time. That’s how it is on most of public lands of the Western United States.  The cattle are put out before the grass and forbs (perennial flowers) are sturdy and ready for grazing.  They hog the small streams and seeps that could hold wildlife . . . not just the elk, deer and moose; but the small birds, amphibians, lesser carnivores, fish, often rare fish like the Lahontan cutthroat trout. They turn them into mudholes where clear springs would otherwise flow.

When the time comes for the cows to finally come home, it is usually late September or even October.  The land often gets just one autumn month and two springtime months to recover its vegetation.

Most Americans never get a chance to go on a “range tour” with the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. They should. It is rarely a scenic trip, except when you look at the big stuff, such as the cliffs and mountains. It is often biological rubble as Kelley Weston tells in a story he has written about his trip with the Jarbidge Ranger District of the Forest Service and a group of conservationists, mostly from the Western Watersheds Project.

Here is his take on what Americans are missing.   Jarbidge Notes – Travesty at Elk Mountain. This is on the Idaho/Nevada border, a place they don’t think you will look.




  1. Ken Cole Avatar

    I’ve visited several allotments this summer and I’ve seen so many scenes of devastation. Currently there is a situation in the Owyhee Field Office where a rancher’s cows have been trespassing on a closed allotment for nearly two months. The place is devastated and this same rancher is the one who is applying for the permit to graze the allotment once it is reopened. The BLM has done next to nothing to address the issue and the cows are still there.

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    If you haven’t the time to take a Grand Tour of Grazing Abuses here in the West , a really good snapshot can be had by finding a strategic fenceline.

    Barbed wire fences often divide Grazed/Not Grazed lands with great contrast. The difference between sparse, damaged, grassless weed-dominant vegetation and disrupted soil on one side of a fence and the lush contiguous verdant conditions on the other side can be night and day.

    Yet the grazers continue to claim they are doing the land good by mowing it and plowing it, and that the land will bounce back better than before as soon as the Herefords are trailed down the mountain. Domestic sheep grazed on mountain grass must be a God’s own argonomists—Not!

    There is a role for so-called Holistic grazing techniques and I’ve seen examples where it works. But it requires a LOT of manpower to keep the herds moving fairly quickly across the graze , strategically so, and not lingering in the riparian areas any longer than it takes to get a drink twice a day. How many public lands ranchers are devoting the manpower and resources to do that ? Damn few. You can count the Holistic Grazers in all of northwest Wyoming on one hand. The mainstream ranchers just turn ’em out in spring, check ’em once or twice in summer, and round ’em up in fall and trail them down to the house to fill out the compensation paperwork claiming wolves or grizzlies ate all the missing cows.

    That ain’t ranching, and it sure ain’t cowboying.

    Public lands ranching is scandalous, and the insult comes when you realize how few of the nation’s enormous cattle herds actually are grazed on public lands in the West , yet they devour a disproportionate amount of resources and do a hugely disproportionate amount of damage to the public trust, for their private gain. The taxpayer gets maybe ten cents on the dollar in ” rent” on those resources, and wildlife gets stressed or dislocated looking for food. One Hereford cow grazed in the high country in summer eats the grass that would have fed four adult Mule Deer , and the US Treasury got the princely sum of $ 5.40 for that grass, gross, before we start expensing the grazing program itself. At the end of the day , the public loses money AND wildlife.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      It is also an insult that presidential candidates don’t know or care about this. I’m sure Obama and Romney know almost nothing about the public lands in general, except that energy companies want leases there. They know nothing about grazing.

      1. Polly Brewster Avatar
        Polly Brewster

        Obama does know and raised the price of grazing by $1. Romney was asked in Arizona about selling and/or selling the right to hunt in some public forests and he said: “I don’t know what the purpose is” of all this federal land in the West.

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan

          You can bet that the Koch Brother’s-derived front, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), has a whole slew of bills already written and ready to go for the Western state legislatures and friendly governors to try to enact transferring or auctioning off the public lands.

          Regardless of the presidential outcome this will be the most dangerous effort in recent history to grab our national forests, parks, BLM lands, national wildlife refuges.

          Their buzzwords will be state’s rights, local control, local wisdom, energy development, cutting the federal deficit (though the public lands overall generate more revenue than they cost).

          Romney is already tight with them.

        2. Ken Cole Avatar

          Polly, Obama has only proposed a $1 increase in grazing fees. It hasn’t been implemented yet. Personally I think it is just an election year gimmick that is meant to rally people opposed to public lands grazing. I don’t think it will actually happen. Besides, it’s a pittance and doesn’t even make a dent in the true deficit that welfare ranchers cost the US.

          1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
            Ralph Maughan

            After the election, there is probably going to be a huge battle over what folks might have heard called the coming “fiscal cliff.” Actually it is a sequestration (mandatory budget cuts). This particular sequestration is huge and hits defense and non-defense equally. The Republicans and Democrats got themselves into this fix with their posturing over the stupid crisis over raising the debt ceiling back in April 2011.

            Accepting these budget cuts is what they mean by “going over the cliff.” The thought of the defense budget cuts terrifies Republicans and the equal cuts on the non-defense side is a horror to Democrats. The stupidity of this exercise should horrify all Americans.

            The result is they probably won’t want to go over the cliff and there will be lots of negotiations over specific cuts and revenue enhancement (taxes, but don’t call it that).

            Obama, if reelected, could use things like raising grazing fees to bargain with the Republicans. Now the grazing fees are so low that doubling them or even increasing them 10X would not make a dent in the size of what is being called for.

            However, western Republicans in their devotion to welfare ranching, would likely sooner hurl themselves into molten lava than touch the local county squires. Obama could win a lot — save students, seniors, science programs, food inspection, drug inspection, environmental protection, all kinds of domestic programs — by using grazing fees as a bargaining chip.

            Personally, I don’t think he has anyone around him with enough access to tell him this.

            1. CodyCoyote Avatar

              The $ 1.35 per AUM grazing fee is presently the same rate as it was when the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in 1934. Recall that an AUM is graze for one adult cow and her calf, or five sheep , for a month . To the best of my knowledge, the AUM fee has never gone above $ 2.00 in any year. Yet that cow and her calf can put on 150-200 pounds of weight in a month on that good public summer grass in the mountains. Or put another way , the rancher pays the US Treasury the whopping sum of $ 1.35 to ” buy” $ 150 worth of carcass weight…a better than 100-to-1 return on his ” investment ” in a single cow-calf unit , of which he likely has dozen or hundreds. Over the course of the 120-day allotment period, that cow-calf will add 500+ pounds / $ 500 sale ring value of carcass weight and pay $ 5.40 to us.

              Of course, said rancher will talk thru his Stetson about having to manage all those cows and fix fence and do water , but still. He will claim he is ” obligated” to do range maintenance but we never saw any Forest Service range cons or USFS enforcement folk , ever, so top be fair the Forest Service could do more to manage allotments in the public interest if we can get them out from behind their computers and desks to do it.

              The rancher who grazed his 75 head of cows around our family homestead in northwest Wyoming never fixed fence 1; his cows drank from our five springs; crapped all over the place ; besides generally being a nuisance for four months every year and we never saw a cowboy except for the days they were being trailed up the mountain or back home. Never. Our homestead was in prime grizzly habitat and we had two den sites withing 3 miles, and now there are wolves.

              What we did not see was HUMANS taking care of their damn cows. I fixed the fence his cows tore down, after I chased the cows back off the place. But oh what a great deal the taxpayer gave that salty old rancher who hated the ‘fedrull gubbamint’ so…

     other thing. His 75 cows ate the grass that would have fed 150-300 elk. The hunting used to be great up there.

              Until I hear otherwise, I consider my experience to be typical based on my anecdotal library of similar situations.

              The federal grazing fee needs to be skyrocketed to at least reasonably reflect cost of managing it and/or whatever the nearby private graze is worth . Maybe all the way to a whopping $ 10 per AUM.

              What is so unpatriotic or socialist about THAT ?

            2. Barb Rupers Avatar
              Barb Rupers

              $1.35 in 1934 had the same buying power as $23.21 in 2012 so perhaps the federal grazing fee should be increased about 20 times to $27/AUM. If ranchers could afford the $1.35 during the depression why not now with an equivalent amount? Grazing for a four month season for a cow-calf pair would then cost about $108


              This is a fun site. Enter any amount from any year back to 1913 and change it to the buying power it would have in any year up to the present. Or put in a current value and see what it would have been at some time in the past.

          2. Polly Brewster Avatar
            Polly Brewster

            Oh, I thought it went into effect. I apologize. It was only proposed.

            1. Leslie Avatar

              Cody, The rancher that has the allotment near me never fixes fence. She never takes care of her herd. I usually call her 4 times a year to get her to move them out of where they shouldn’t be. The FS in their infinite wisdom seems to like electric fences now. But those fences need to be turned on and maintained by the ranchers, who, of course, don’t. They are filmsy fences and cattle just run through them into the watershed areas that they shouldn’t be.

              There is an area near me that was given to the FS in the 70’s exclusively for the overwintering elk. It was not supposed to be grazed. But in the past few years they are now putting cattle there spring and fall, yet the Sunlight elk herd study specifically showed these elk are nutritionally deficient. Why pay for a study then not heed the results?

    2. Polly Brewster Avatar
      Polly Brewster

      The last time a grazing allotment was retired in Jackson (due to some amazing people buying the grazing permit), volunteers went out to remove the barbed wire. They removed about 60,000 yards.

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        Polly Brewster,

        Was that a National Wildlife Federation buyout in the Mt. Leidy area north of the Gros Ventre River?

        1. Polly Brewster Avatar
          Polly Brewster

          It was an NWF negotiated buyout of an allotment in the Buffalo Valley. There have been a few above the Gros Ventre river, not sure if this is the one.

  3. Nancy Avatar

    My gate was closed this morning so I knew the annual “migration” of a few thousand head of cattle (who made the trip up this spring) were about to make their migration back down from public lands, to local ranches in the area.

    Had to make a quick trip to the post office (open gate, close gate) and when I came back, one rancher was just moving his cattle past my place so I shouted ” done for the day? Yep, he said, although so and so, will be moving their cattle down next Tuesday”

    And then he surprised me by saying “you’ve got some great looking grass”

    I looked over my tiny piece of property, which was pretty dried out and realized oh yeah, there’s still some forage left for the wildlife that also migrate thru the area this time of year after, after spending the summer, competing with thousands of cattle for grazing space on public lands.

  4. Roger Fisher Avatar
    Roger Fisher

    We subsidize the BLM and the rancher, and then taxpayers pick up the balance to hand the land to the public, dried out, eaten down, weed infested, unable to sustain wildlife and toxic to fish. What part of this did I miss?


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