Sage Grouse, Livestock Grazing, and the Bovine Curtain

There is a lot in the news about the potential listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Western politicians are using heated rhetoric about how a listing would destroy their economies, and the “western way of life” (read death and destruction to native wildlife). And in good western tradition, they blame the federal government for its failures.

Here’s a representative response from Congressman Mark Amodei in Nevada. “In Nevada, wildland fire and invasive species, such as cheat grass, that follow in its path are responsible for nearly 85 percent of lost sage hen habitat,” said Rep. Mark Amodei. “Rather than putting the onus on local stakeholders through regulatory mechanisms to stop habitat loss, the federal government, as the landlord of approximately 85 percent of the state, needs to focus on preventative fuels management before wildfire strikes and habitat restoration following burn events. Multiple use is not the driver of habitat loss.”

Another recent study put out by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Wyoming listed the major threats to sage grouse as oil and gas and residential development in sage steppe habitat, and not a word about cows.

The response of Amodei and TNC is typical of the denial that one hears throughout the West when discussing the causes contributing to sage grouse declines and sagebrush ecosystem losses. We in the West live behind what I call a Bovine Curtain. Like the so-called Iron Curtain that used to filter information critical of Communism in the old Soviet Block countries, the Bovine Curtain limits what we hear about the detrimental effects of livestock.

Sage Grouse © Ken Cole
Sage Grouse watching for predators from above © Ken Cole

It is true that wildfires are chewing through millions of acres of sagebrush and in many cases creating a type conversion to cheatgrass. But Amodei has it wrong. It is not that cheatgrass follows fires; rather cheatgrass follows livestock which contributes to the flammability of grasslands and results in more frequent wildfires. Wildfires are natural to native grasslands—though not at the frequency created by cheatgrass– and healthy grassland easily recovers after fires. It is only grasslands that have been degraded by livestock grazing that are vulnerable to significant cheatgrass invasion.

If Representative Amodei were true to his words, he would understand that the best “preventative” fuels management would be to eliminate the major cause of cheatgrass spread and establishment in the first place. And that source is livestock production.

Similarly oil and gas development and residential home construction does impact sage grouse habitat, but the area covered by these activities is minor in proportion to the landscape affected by livestock production, whether in Wyoming or anyplace else in the grouse’s range—a fact conveniently ignored or simply unknown by the Wyoming TNC because of the Bovine Curtain that limits public awareness of the connection between cows and sage grouse decline.

It is analogous to noting that people are dying from lung cancer (proximate cause of death), but neglecting to make the connection between smoking cigarettes (ultimate cause) and these deaths.

There are many proximate causes of sage grouse decline. Wildfires. Sagebrush habitat conversion to other uses. Predators. However, if you map out all of these and other factors to the ultimate factor leading to sage grouse decline, you can trace it to livestock production. But you won’t see anyone make the connection. Not the politicians; not the BLM; not even the Fish and Wildlife Service that is responsible for determining the fate of the sage grouse.

First, let’s look at the connection between cows, fire and cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is an annual grass that is highly flammable. If there is sufficient moisture millions of seeds will germinate to create a very thick continuous blanket of highly flammable fuel. In addition, cheatgrass dries out sooner than other grasses, thus contributes to higher fire risk earlier in the season—creating a potentially longer fire season.

By contrast the native grasses that cover much of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem are perennial bunchgrasses. They are called bunchgrasses because they naturally grow in clusters with wide spacing between plants.

In-between the widely spaced bunchgrasses grow bio crusts or various mosses, lichens and cyanobacteria that cover the soil. This coverage of soil by soil crusts creates a largely dense cap that is difficult for the small seeds of annual grasses like cheatgrass to breach, though the larger seeds of native bunchgrasses can occasionally penetrate. Thus intact bio crusts help to preclude cheatgrass invasion by limiting seedling establishment.

However, biological crusts are very vulnerable to trampling and damage from hooves. In most of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, particularly in the Great Basin which includes Nevada, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and much of Utah there were almost no large herds of grazing ungulates (like bison). And even other parts of the sagebrush steppe that includes southwest Montana, parts of western Wyoming and Colorado, were on the fringe of the bison belt which was located to the east on the Great Plains.  So these ecosystems are not very tolerant of livestock grazing. When livestock are let loose on these lands, they destroy the bio crusts which provide the perfect disturbed soil conditions favorable for cheatgrass establishment.

Cow flop, beer cans, and cheatgrass. © Ken Cole
Cow flop, beer cans, and cheatgrass. © Ken Cole

In addition, cows help to transport the seeds of cheatgrass, and by grazing the dominant native bunchgrasses, they also weaken their competitive ability leading to their decline and creating more unoccupied open space for cheatgrass invasion.

This is all well documented in the scientific literature, so why isn’t the FWS, BLM and so on noting this connection? Because they are not allowed to say the word “cow” when one lives behind the Bovine Curtain.

Cows affect sage grouse in many other ways as well. For instance, sage grouse are poor fliers and frequently fly into fences. In addition, fence posts provide perches for avian predators like hawks that prey upon the slow flying grouse. Livestock fences are ubiquitous throughout the West.

Sage grouse nests are vulnerable to predators due to the loss of grasses and forbs. So nest predation is another consequence of livestock grazing reduction in vegetative hiding cover.

Livestock production also affects sage grouse through predator control by changing the abundance of sage grouse predators through mesopredator release. Coyotes can and do prey upon sage grouse. It is well documented that wolves will kill coyotes if given a chance, therefore the presence of wolves can reduce and/or exclude coyotes from areas dominated by wolf activity. Yet one of the major obstacles to the widespread recovery of wolves in the West comes from the livestock industry, thus ensuring a greater coyote population.

In addition, predator control itself can stimulate greater coyote populations by increasing pup production. Again predator control is largely a tax payer funded subsidy to the livestock industry with serious ramifications for sage grouse recovery.

If the sage grouse manage to avoid predators and hatch their eggs, the young chicks, despite their name, rely on insects and forbs during the first few weeks of their lives. They forage in wet meadows and riparian areas where insects are in higher concentrations. Cattle grazing is one of the major factors in the loss of wet meadows and riparian areas due to trampling, soil compaction, and loss of vegetation in these critical areas.

Another major effect of livestock production is the creation of hay fields. Nearly all livestock operations in the arid West rely upon supplemental feed provided by irrigated hay meadows. Almost all hay fields are carved out of native vegetation, both existing wet meadows and riparian areas or sagebrush covered uplands. For instance, a GAP analysis finds that 5.5 millions of Montana (an area nearly equal to the state of Vermont)  is irrigated, mostly hay/alfalfa.  Though not all of this hay land is former sage grouse habitat, across the West, there is no doubt that considerable acreage of the riparian/wet meadow lands formerly used by sage grouse chicks have been converted to livestock production.  It is yet another often ignored impact of cattle ranching upon sage grouse.

An additional way that livestock production contributes to sage grouse decline is the occurrence of livestock water troughs in many parts of the sage grouse’s range. The troughs are perfect habitat and breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus that in some parts of the West has severely impacted sage grouse.

Finally,  cattle avoid sagebrush when foraging and prefer grasses. In response, federal land management agencies like the BLM have sprayed, chained, burned, and otherwise destroyed millions of acres of sagebrush to create more grasslands for cattle.

To suggest as these politicians, land management agencies, and conservation groups like TNC that livestock are a neutral or even as sometimes asserted, a positive force in sage grouse recovery must be viewed with disbelief. It demonstrates how effectively the Bovine Curtain works to deny the public the information it needs to make informed decisions and the overall bias of these agencies towards the handful of welfare ranchers who are destroying public lands for their private profit.


  1. Ellen Avatar

    Why is that all the science in the world can prove beyond a doubt that cattle grazing is destroying wildlife habitat. Wolf killing is destroying an otherwise natural predator control (ie more wolves means less coyotes). yet, all the cattle barons band together and say “it isn’t our fault” “the government needs to do something to fix it”, etc. etc. Why can’t they be FORCED to accept responsibility and forced to fix the problem they have perpetuated????

    1. SaveBears Avatar

      Who is going to FORCE them Ellen? In the states where cattle grazing is prominent, the legislatures are dominated by ranchers, so again, who is going to force them to do anything?

    2. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      In other words Ellen, In Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the cattle industry IS the government.

    3. Mal Adapted Avatar
      Mal Adapted


      Why can’t they be FORCED to accept responsibility and forced to fix the problem they have perpetuated????

      IMO, it’s largely because so many Americans still cherish the myths of the frontier and the cowboy. Ranchers have a fund of sympathy even with conservation-minded voters, that puts facts about the negative impact of the Ranching Way of Life at a disadvantage.

      Of course, as Americans we all enjoy a high material standard of living built by liquidating natural capital while holding the negative impacts external. Doubtless some of the support for ranchers comes from clear-eyed recognition of self-interest.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        The biggest thing IMO is they feed our population, and the majority of our population eat beef. People aren’t going to question that.

        1. Mal Adapted Avatar
          Mal Adapted

          Yeah, beef ad libitum is sort of symbolic of that high material standard of living. I loves me some beef myself. OTOH, I’m aware of external costs like loss of sage grouse habitat, and I’d prefer them to be internalized in the price I pay for my beef.

          As a start, eliminating public-lands grazing (by all livestock, not just cows) would reduce some negative impacts substantially. Beef raised on public lands accounts for about 3% of the beef eaten in the US, and restricting the supply by that much theoretically should cause the price to rise proportionally. I’d consider that progress, but as you suggest, that might be unacceptable to some beef eaters. Unfortunately for the sage grouse, their votes count as much as ours.

          1. Nancy Avatar

            “Unfortunately for the sage grouse, their votes count as much as ours”


            1. Elk375 Avatar


              I read that your neighborhood had winds up 104 MPH on Thursday I hope that your home or property did suffer any damage.

              1. Nancy Avatar

                Elk – thankfully doing better than some neighbors who lost parts of the roofs. Missing some tin & shingles off old outbuildings but my cabin roof weathered thru it. Lots of BIG trees down further up the valley. (The 104 MPH winds were confirmed on my next door neighbor’s weather station)

                A neighbor who was way up on a mountainside, saw the two weather fronts collide and knew it was gonna be ugly.

            2. Mal Adapted Avatar
              Mal Adapted

              Heh. Every good writer needs a good editor 8^}.

  2. LoneWolf25 Avatar

    The cattle industry = death. Death to native grasses, death to wolves and bison and prairie dogs and cougars and so much native wildlife, death to our climate due to methane, death to millions of humans to heart disease and cancer, death to democracy, death to those who go without because tax dollars flow to welfare ranchers. CATTLEMEN = DEATH.

  3. Mark Bailey Avatar

    Fabulous stuff! Would that a majority of Westerners could read this and get it.

  4. Jack Wills Avatar

    Thank you George for such a thorough article on the conflict between sage grouse survival and the defenders of the cattle industry. You point out several factors in the relationship between grazing cattle and the loss of habitat, much of which I did not know. I am not surprised that the cattle industry wants to protect it’s interests, even at the reduction and loss of the sage grouse. What does surprise me is the blatant collusion of the BLM. Multiple use seems to be a euphemism for rape of the public land.

    It is my opinion that this attitude starts from the top and supersedes scientific knowledge in an agency that should be (at least) highly influenced by scientifically sound information. It’s disturbing that the agency that is supposed to be monitoring public land for the good of all the nations people, is cowtowing (intentional) to a small but rich group of “welfare” ranchers. Sounds like government sanctioned welfare fraud.

    I appreciate the fact that the demise of the sage grouse will be difficult to prevent and reverse. The simplest solution: stop eating meat. Yeah, I know, that ain’t gonna happen.

  5. NB Avatar

    As a botanist I am frequently saddened by the number of plants and species of plants eradicated from many original habitats due to being trampled by cattle.
    Many small plants that are necessary to pollinators and as host plants of many invertebrates, and that account for a good percentage biodiversity of an ecosystem, can not persist alongside cattle in the huge numbers that roam our natural lands. How I wish that many sections in grazing lands would be kept protected, that would help birds and any other animals. What we are losing is irreplaceable! Thank you for taking on this issue.

  6. LoneWolf25 Avatar

    George, as usual, brilliant analysis and so well said. Ida, I keep noticing your suck up statements about the cattle industry. I disagree. As more Americans make the connection between what’s on their plate and the destruction of public wildlands, native plants and wildlife, more people will boycott beef. The problem might then be that the earth killing welfare ranchers will export their products of death oversees. George, please keep on keeping on. I will, too.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      It won’t be in the near future.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        But let me clarify, I don’t eat beef myself, and I agree with the post. It’s just that the alternative is even worse, IMO. I wish some of you would have a more realistic viewpoint. Hoping that someday, someway people will see the light isn’t very realistic. You have to work with what we have right now.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine

          My hope is that ranchers and conservationists can work together to create more environmentally sound ranching and farming methods. Our agricultural methods rely too much on chemicals and overuse of land. With our large population, it’s going to take some work. The only thing I disagree on is that oil and gas development, and residential home construction are ten times worse. With home construction, you need roads, schools, shopping, waste disposal, and everything else that goes with population. Lately Western society doesn’t seem to want to dispose of their trash properly anywhere in the world. It is now one of our basic freedoms, I guess. I can’t imagine what would happen to the wildlife when homeowners don’t want them in their backyards, and they are threatened by traffic.

          1. Jarren Avatar

            Ida, you are right on. Collaboration is key. Seeking trust and common interest with ranchers requires much more personal investment and is less gratifying for the ego than trying to legally force people to do what you want. The strong arm approach is a loosing one when dealing with people that have the same rights as you and I.

            Beef production on native rangelands is one of the few ways (when well managed) that we as humans can get food and fiber, while keeping 99% of the species on the landscape. I find it odd that the one commercial industry the pro-diversity folks like myself should be supporting is the one they are trying the hardest to destroy. We are willing to sacrifice the opportunity to sustainably manage the 99% in a misguided attempt to gain back the 1%.

  7. don Avatar

    One correction to an otherwise excellent summation.

    The Great Basin does not include, for instance, southwest Idaho. All streams in the Great Basin are contained within the basin. Steams in southwest Idaho eventually flow into the Snake River and are thus outside the G.B. Colorado is the Colorado River basin and thus cannot be considered part of the G.B. Neither is Wyoming and western Mt. in the G.B.

    1. topher Avatar

      The Bear River.

      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        “The Bear River” is within the Great Basin.

        “The Great Basin’s longest and largest river is the Bear River of 350 mi (560 km)…”

        1. topher Avatar

          I’m assuming he’s referring to the Great Basin ecosystem which varies by definition but usually includes the Snake River Plain.

          1. JEFF E Avatar
            JEFF E

            I don’t think the Snake river plain has ever been considered as part of the Great Basin, simply due to the fact that the Snake river and all of its tributaries flow to the Pacific, whereas none of the great basin watersheds do, at least above ground.
            Regardless, the Bear River stopped flowing into the Snake river, and instead into the great basin some centauries ago.

            1. topher Avatar

              Seems to be a reasonable definition considering the subject

          2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
            Ralph Maughan

            It is clear to me that George is writing of a certain kind of vegetation that is typified by much, but certainly not all of the Great Basin.

            The Great Basin is important to me as a geological concept, but not in this case.

  8. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    George all I have to say is your once again your very hypocritical.
    You leave out the fact that any animal can transport seeds. Also lighting fires are a natural process and sage burns hot.
    I have to ask, do farmers/ranchers raise cheat grass no, correct me if I’m wrong, did it not come from Europe.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. Read the essay again and many others about the subject on this site.

      You do realize that the vast majority of what George refers to as the Great Basin hasn’t had any large herbivores for millennia and the landscape evolved without the impacts of your stinking cattle beating the hell out of the landscape, destroying soil crusts and spreading cheatgrass all over hell.

      The stinking beasts need to be killed, turned into dog food, and never be returned to the desert.

      1. Robert R Avatar
        Robert R

        Ken your doing the same, by always blaming livestock when there are other ways of the natural spread of invasive plants. Game animals and birds and natural occurrences seem to never be brought up.
        If I get what your saying is correct that cheat grass already exist but it only needs animals to spread it.

        1. Ken Cole Avatar

          No, the seeds can be spread by other animals but it is the disturbance of soil crusts by large animals, ie cattle, that gives it the ability to germinate. Other than cattle, there are no large animals that disturb the soil crusts in the the sagebrush steppe. Cattle are the ultimate cause to the spread of cheatgrass. They are to blame.

          1. zach Avatar

            I am aware that horses also do the same kind of damage as cattle do. I am not sure to what to degree, but all feral horses need to go as well. Let us include wild donkeys/burros and feral hogs. I have scene with my own eyes the damage wild done to the Norther Nevada landscape. Vile.

          2. Jim Hammett Avatar
            Jim Hammett

            Soil crusts are important, true. But nothing is uniform about western arid lands. Soil crusts are best formed in the southern basin, less prominent in the northern part. But your point about coevolution and grazing is right on.

            Unfortunately, cheatgrass is present everywhere now, only limited by high-elevation cold in parts of the basin. Cheat is a hellacious competitor, but it needs disturbance to aid it. That can come from fire or livestock.

            As much as BLM deserves blame, their written grazing standards are rarely followed. Their excuse is always lack of personnel to monitor. Personally, I believe the public could make a huge difference by continually sending emails and letters to the BLM manager responsible for the land involved citing specific allotments (with photos). Ranchers need to be held accountable for not meeting standards, yet they rarely are. Many of these new BLM managers could not tell squirreltail from medusahead. They all have hemorrhoids from sitting at their desk.

            Allotment management plans are rarely commented on by the public, but it is a start to point out degraded lands when these plans come up for renewal. A specific comment in an EA has to be addressed.

            In short, get out there, take pictures, monitor to your ability, and make the caretakers accountable for your land.

            1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
              Ralph Maughan

              Jim Hammett,

              You are right, but it is so hard to get people to take pictures and contact officials. Five emails on the subject of grazing to a single local politician seems like a political uprising, and I guess it is. I am retired now and, of course, have quite a few retired friends. I tire of hearing them complain and complain and never lift a finger to help.

          3. Robert R Avatar
            Robert R

            Ken get real!!!
            You and others put the blame on livestock all the time.
            Your telling me large ungulates like elk and moose are not large enough to disturb the soil crust. I keep getting told the elk population is increasing. Any animal in large considerations will disturb the soil crust. Don’t forget about wild horses either.
            I’m not on the side of agriculture/stockgrowers but sometimes there is no common sense.
            So how heavy of an animal does it take to disturb the soil crust?

            To Jim

            In short, get out there, take pictures, monitor to your ability, and make the caretakers accountable for your land.

            We are all care takers of the land we all drive public roads and recreate. So should I say I don’t like the way you use public land to off of the public land, no so don’t put the cart in front of the horse.

            1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
              Ralph Maughan

              Robert R

              Elk and moose certainly are large enough to disturb the soil crust.

              However, the number of elk and especially moose is so small compared to cattle and sheep that pointing the finger at them seems like a joke.

              1. Robert R Avatar
                Robert R

                Ralph it is becoming a joke and a very personal one. I have spent the last month and a half putting in a large stock watering system. The Nature Conservancy footing part of the bill and it makes no sense. My point is that the protected land that allows no grazing has as much cheat grass but had more deer and elk until the water was available. The water has attracted an array of wildlife including sage grouse.

              2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
                Ralph Maughan

                Robert R,

                It sounds like you are doing a good thing with TNC for the elk.

                My comment was really more general because I have seen it a number of times as we stand on a grazed out flat with a herd of cattle that are searching for something to eat.

                The landowner, or more often the Forest Service or BLM says, it’s those damned elk that ate all the grass.

            2. Jim Hammett Avatar
              Jim Hammett

              Can’t remember when I last saw a moose or elk in the true desert. Elk might make it in transition areas if there is a pivot of alfalfa available. There is no question that soil crusts are adversely affected by cattle and no question that antelope and jack rabbits don’t have that great an effect.

              1. Robert R Avatar
                Robert R

                Jim the majority of Montana could be considered desert with ten inches of precipitation or less and it has a large population of elk.
                I guess it depends on what a true desert really is. We are working in what’s called the sand dunes and see antelope, deer, elk and moose. Maybe it’s an exception to the rule.

            3. Jim Hammett Avatar
              Jim Hammett

              Robert, By all means if my use of public land leaves devastation in its wake, you damn sure should be talking to the care takers.

              I am not putting the cart in front of the horse (whatever the hell that means). I am saying that some allotment holders are not adhering to grazing standards, that the BLM is not monitoring to see if that is the case, and when someone sees zero residual, and riparian vegetation that looks buzzcut, they should be letting BLM know.

              And, if you see me devastate the ground with my bird dogs, please, by all means, do the same.


  9. LoneWolf25 Avatar

    Rancbing will disappear from our public lands. It’s just a matter of how much longer they’ll get away with their massive rape. Change is coming. We must find ways to speed it up, including boycotting beef, especially from cows on OUR public lands.

    1. Robert R Avatar
      Robert R

      LW25 you may boycott beef industry but you will never get away from not using beef byproducts even if your a vegetarian.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Lone Wolf25,

      It would be great to know where beef comes from. In fact many beef producers would like to be able to label the country of origin (though I doubt they would want it labelled “from cattle raised in part on public lands”).

      At any rate, USDA (I believe this is the right agency) prohibits this. There are many things people would like to know about what they eat, and which producers would like to (sometimes) tell, but the government stops them.

    3. SaveBears Avatar

      What planet are you from LW25, there is no one posting on this blog that will see the end of public land ranching. people that buy beef, could really care less where it comes fro, and boycotting beef are this time is NEVER going to be a reality.

      You need to join the real world and get out of your fantasy land.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        NEVER is a powerful word SB. But I’d guess many of us (probably more than a few on this blog) have learned – never say never 🙂

        1. SaveBears Avatar

          Nancy, yes it is, and I don’t live in a fantasy world, none of us posting will ever seen the end of public lands ranching.

          1. Nancy Avatar

            But some of us may be seeing the “beginning of the end” of it, SB 🙂

            A ranch that sold near me last year, now has lease cattle on it from another ranch down the road. That’s about 200 (or more) head of cattle that didn’t go to public lands this year. Another ranch close by (which sold a few years ago) now has lease cattle on it from another ranch. Even more cows that didn’t go to public lands. And those are just a couple of examples, there are even more.

            Maybe ranchers are starting to realize the cost of private land grazing (local pasture) verses trailing cattle for miles & mies into forest areas and public lands (not all that suitable for cattle grazing) is worth the price.

            As more and more ranches go on the selling block, I can see a swing in that direction.

      2. zach Avatar


        I would disagree with you that people don’t care where there beef comes from. There is a whole demographic on to themselves in the Portland, Oregon area (for example) who would also disagree with you. They want their beef raised and slaughtered within their state boundaries. They want their (and will pay good money) to get their meat, grains, veggies shipped within a days drive with them. I don’t mean this as a negative post in the slightest, but I would have to politely disagree with you on this point.

        I can verify this because I am one of those people who wants their food as fresh and grown as close to home as you can get it.
        I care where my food comes from because I will pay good money to eat fresh food.

        I don’t want meat being trucked in and frozen. That chicken better come from the down the road, slaughtered yesterday.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine

          I agree with you, there are some people who do care. But this kind of farming can’t keep up with demand. Also, where I am, there are many small organic farms, but weather conditions affect the availability of some things, so if you want ’em, you have to get them from other parts of the country. I see these healthy, beautiful animals being raised on these beautiful seaside farms and eating grass all the time, and no way could I eat them!

          1. Ida Lupine Avatar
            Ida Lupine

            But it’s true, and I would love to see a cultural shift where we go back to old farming and ranching methods, and get rid of the cruel, inhumane, environment-destroying factory farms and methods of raising animals, produce and grains. But with 300 million people (and 73 million dogs!) it can’t keep up with demand.

      3. Ken Cole Avatar

        Yes, listen to Savebears and always accept the status quo. Never ask for change.

        1. SaveBears Avatar


          That is bullshit and you know it, I have worked tirelessly to get rid of public lands ranching with very little success for over 25 years now, one day it will be gone, but not during your or my lifetime.

          I don’t accept the status quo, I work very hard on the causes I believe in and have for a long time now, just because your understand the reality of a situation, does not mean you accept the status quo.

          1. SaveBears Avatar

            No where did I say stop trying to get rid of public lands ranching, I simply said, it is not going away while any of us is alive. As with many things, it is going to take generations to change this and many other things.

          2. Ida Lupine Avatar
            Ida Lupine

            just because your understand the reality of a situation, does not mean you accept the status quo.

            Well said, SB, and accurate.

  10. Barrie Gilbert Avatar
    Barrie Gilbert

    George is right, of course.
    Canada suffers the same curtain. I wrote the following to the Exec. Director of Nature Canada re their misinformed publication on Sage Grouse:

    Dear Mr. Davidson,

    I recently received the Spring/Summer Nature publication that included an article about Alberta’s Sage Grouse. This piece drew my attention because I know their biology rather well having started doctoral research on the behavioural ecology of grouse and I taught the first endangered species course at Utah State University in 1982. In another Wildlife Management and Behaviour course I focused on Sage Grouse to teach the complexities of rearing habitat requirements of this species. On my return to Canada I worked as a wildlife research biologist for Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division in the early ‘70s.

    I do not know who wrote the Sage Grouse piece but it is an egregious example of misinformation bordering on the deceptive. It omits much that we know about causes of Sage Grouse decline by failing to identify the major and persisting negative impacts of livestock grazing and the many negative land treatments (herbicides, chaining, exotic grass planting, fire, exotic weeds) that accompany this agricultural use of public and private lands. Your article suggests Sage Grouse will recover if, among other small adjustments, ranchers are offered incentives to manage their grazing better. Reduced grazing pressure on Forest Service lands in Utah have not stopped the plummeting of this wonderful bird there. It would be listed as endangered except for the intense lobbying of special interests. With the pathetic efforts in Alberta for additional wilderness (see David Shepherds excellent recent book “Why NOT Wilderness) I would encourage Nature Canada engage in a campaign to have Canada implement the largest wilderness area possible in SE Alberta and SW Saskatchewan where our last tall-grass prairie remains.

    If our Canadian nature organizations continue working to the detriment of wildlife conservation, ignoring credible wildlife research and the radical changes necessary, then perhaps you should not tell members that “your membership is a gift of action”. I could find no action that is being implemented, neither in your accompanying letter nor the Newsletter. Conservation activism to me has always been about extending science-based information. I provide some authoritative sources below, which facts are sadly missing in your diversionary piece of propaganda.

    I am saddened and disappointed at what appears to be a misdirection of effort of a major Canadian NGO. It certainly does not encourage me to support the Nature Canada financially. If would like some clarification of your policy as I intend to raise this issue in the media. I can provide scientific documentation that the land-use practices in the 200 year history of grazing in Utah it has been catastrophic for the Sage Grouse species and biodiversity. Alberta and BC have followed a similar trajectory.
    Please note some significant literature from Canada and the USA quoted below.

    1. “Sage-grouse habitat quality and quantity has declined throughout Utah and coincides with declines in sage-grouse numbers. The reasons for habitat loss vary from site to site but include wildfire, urban expansion, development, agricultural conversion, herbicide treatments, rangeland seeding, noxious weeds/invasive species expansion, conifer encroachment, drought, and improper livestock grazing management. ” Utah Greater Sage Grouse Management Plan (2009)
    2. “Threats. Habitat loss and degradation are the most significant threats to the urophasianus subspecies of Greater Sage-Grouse in Canada. The transformation of the habitat of Greater Sage-Grouse into farmland played a major role in its decline. Heavy grazing, particularly over the long term, has detrimental effects on the species. Furthermore, large areas of sagebrush grassland have been converted to the exotic crested wheatgrass for cattle forage. These introduced stands have limited potential in terms of winter forage and shrub and forb cover. “From: Canadian endangered species website (COSEWIC) for Greater Sage Grouse
    3. “Grazing of domestic livestock has affected the entire range of the sage grouse, and grazing with its associated livestock operations is the number one range-wide threat to the continued existence of the species. BLM acknowledges that grazing is the major activity affecting wildlife habitat on its lands (USDI 1994, Draft EIS, p. 25-27). As Dr. Clait Braun, perhaps the single most expert sage grouse scientist, put it: When one considers exotic plants, changed community structure, and changed plant height, the number 1 factor affecting sage grouse has been domestic livestock grazing – and lack of grazing management – have had the most long-term negative impacts on sage grouse abundance (habitat degradation). Braun (2001g). Livestock grazing is clearly linked to sage grouse declines (Patterson 1952c, p. 274) as well as to declines or extinction of other species. Livestock grazing has negatively affected many game birds (Brown 1978) as well as other birds (Brown 1978, p. 483). Grazing is the predominant land use on 70% of the land in the 11 states west of the 100th meridian (Cooperrider1991).”From: a petition to list Sage Grouse
    4. Lesser Prairie Chicken
    Primary Threats
    The major threats to the lesser prairie-chicken in USDA Forest Service Region 2 are the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of habitat on both private and public lands. Conversion of native prairie habitat increasingly isolates populations, elevating the risk of localized extirpations and leading to an erosion of metapopulation viability. Populations throughout the species’ range are vulnerable to land use practices that degrade or eliminate nesting and brood-rearing areas. Some of the fundamental threats to this species include:
    v inappropriate timing and intensity of livestock grazing
    v conversion of native prairie for development and crop production
    v fragmentation of habitat with roads, utility corridors, fences, towers, turbines, and energy developments
    v introduction and expansion of noxious weeds


    Barrie Gilbert, Ph.D.
    Senior Scientist Emeritus
    Department of Wildland Resources
    Utah State University
    Logan, UT 84322-3250

    Barrie Gilbert
    12th Line Road
    Wolfe island ON
    Canda K0H2Y0

    1. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      “Alberta’s Sage Grouse”

      wait, wait, I thought we were talking about the great basin.

      guess I was wrong

  11. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Thank Dr. Gilbert.

    I have certainly noticed the negative political effects, as well as on-the-ground effects of fossil fuel development in Canada, especially Alberta.

    Massive energy developments usually result in government secrecy, the production of disinformation (as here), and attempts to suppress dissent.

  12. LoneWolf25 Avatar

    Thank you, Ken, for speaking the truth so well.

  13. Snaildarter Avatar

    The locally produced food movement has started labeling where beef (actually all meats and veggys) come from and what the animal is fed. I hope this idea will become big enough to force changes in big AGs thinking including their Government cronies in the BLM and USDA.

  14. Jarren Avatar

    Thanks for the time and thought put into this article.

    I studied the impacts of grazing systems on sage-grouse productivity for almost every waking moment for four years and I am still mostly at a loss to provide hard evidence to explain the decline of the species. All of the things you said make logical sense, but developing cause and effect evidence to support them over massive variable landscapes is daunting.

    Large herbivores did exist in much of the sage-grouse range at some level of abundance and season. Buffalo bones and horns still often remain as evidence. In those places it becomes an issue of applying grazing pressure that matches timing, intensity, and duration that the plant community flourished under. Variable large herbivore grazing within historical extremes adds another level of complexity to plant community dynamics, and complexity aids diversity.

    If you spend much time examining exclosures from grazing or those rare areas that historically and currently have no grazing, you will often find a cheatgrass festival and very low plant diversity. Cheatgrass moves and becomes established with cattle for sure….and everything else.

    I personally think most grazed arid ranges would benefit from regular multi-year rest or perhaps just early spring and dormant season grazing. However, complete rest is just as unnatural and damaging as doing the opposite. Managed thoughtful grazing is more complicated than the “no cows” approach, but being less convenient doesn’t make it wrong.

    Lastly, ranchers have ownership of most of the critical wildlife ranges, such as sage-grouse brood habitat or elk winter range. If you want any say concerning how those places are managed it would be extremely foolish to first demand that they give up their livelihood. You and I wouldn’t personally put up with that. Why should they? That strategy would only drive ranchers and conservation organizations far apart. TNC’s strategy in WY pulls them together from what I have seen, and they have accomplished great things for wildlife as a result.

    Again, thanks for the provocative read.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Good post – thank you!

  15. Roger Fisher Avatar
    Roger Fisher

    The BLM controls the majority of sage grouse habitat. It seems that they cannot face the pressure brought on by the cattle industry to even fairly evaluate the pressure put on the sage grouse, and other wild life, by grazing, drought, insecticides, invasive weeds, predation, and development. Common sense dictates that you use the resources wisely and conserve what you have left. Vale Oregon Office of the BLM has proposed that they spend $350,000 in remediation of a wild fire damaged grazing allotment that will allow the rancher to run 4272 AUMs on what was left of a 7800 AUM allotment for two years.
    We are suggesting that the $150,000 that is allocated to building a temporary fence for two years use, be spent to help the rancher totally keep his cattle off of this allotment so it can recover without compromise. 600 acres of this allotment is PRIME SAGE GROUSE HABITAT. The lease fees for using this pasture would come to less than $12,000. for the two year period. Of course the rancher cannot find any pasture for $1.35 per AUM anywhere in the world. And of course the BLM cannot find alternative pasture for this 4272 AUMs because they have kept NOTHING in RESERVE. Out of the box thinking would have us help the rancher, save a bunch of money, help repair the land, and keep the cattle totally off the allotment while some of the money is spent in restoration of habitat.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner