Ranching compromises Yellowstone Economic Values

Recently it was reported in the Livingston Enterprise that visitors to Yellowstone National Park contributed $493.6 million in spending in communities near the park. That spending supported 7,737 jobs.

And this research does not include all the jobs and income resulting from those with footloose businesses and/or retirement that they bring to communities like Livingston, in part, because people want to live near protected lands like Yellowstone.

This should raise some questions in people’s minds about how livestock production harms and compromises the natural and economic values that Yellowstone National Park sustains. .

For instance, we know that wolves are killed outside of Yellowstone, in part, due to pressure from the livestock community to limit predators. Yet one of the attractions for many visitors of Yellowstone are wolves. A recent scientific paper released in the past week showed that killing wolves outside of the park resulted in a 45% reduction on wolf sightings in the park. Similar killings of grizzly bears to protect livestock interests also compromises grizzly recovery.

The Yellowstone River’s premier status as a trout fisheries is largely due to the fact that the water that flows past Livingston comes pouring out of the park, while most of the river’s tributaries in Paradise Valley are sucked dry by irrigators growing hay for livestock. I can easily make the economic argument that water that stays in the streams growing trout is far more valuable than producing hay.

Another attraction of Yellowstone are sightings of bighorn sheep. But domestic sheep transmit disease to wild bighorns. A major die off of wild bighorns near Gardiner was a direct result of contact between domestic animals and wild bighorns.

And as bison are set to become the national animal, we continue to kill bison that migrate from the park. This is appalling because the park’s bison are genetically unique as the only sizeable population of continuously wild bison in the country. Yet we continue to kill them and prevent them from migrating out of the park, even on to other public lands—again to appease ranching interests.

Elk and elk viewing and hunting are a big part of the economy of south central Montana, yet studies demonstrate that when cattle are present, they socially displace elk into less favorable habitat, thereby compromising their ability to thrive, not to mention the bulk of forage on public lands is allotted to domestic animals, reducing what is available to wildlife like elk.

I haven’t even gotten into how cattle compact soils, trash riparian areas, spread weeds, pollute the water, and many other impacts associated with their presence but are regularly “externalized” to the land and other citizens.

A true cost accounting would demonstrate that ranching is a major liability for the regional economy, harming many other natural attributes that are the basis for our growing economy—based on quality of life attributes associated with places like Yellowstone.

Given the growing contribution of natural values to the economic vitality of the region, it would be wise to reconsider whether continued livestock grazing on public lands makes any sense at all. Certainly it is not sensible from an ecological perspective, but it could easily be argued that allowing livestock production to continue on our public lands degrades other important values that are the main drivers of our regional economy.


Bio: George Wuerthner is a Park County property owner, and an ecologist who has published 38 books. He is on the board of the Western Watersheds Project, among other organizations.









  1. Patrick Avatar

    I think there have been efforts to offer long term easements to retire cattle ranching and provide access to these lands, or outright buying these ranches by conservation-minded foundations. Can these efforts be amplified somehow to accelerate this process?

  2. Scott Strough Avatar
    Scott Strough

    So you change the way you ranch. By force if necessary. None of those problems are necessarily the fault of the domestic animals, but rather the ranchers themselves in the way they manage the livestock.

    If a rancher refuses to manage his livestock on public land in an ecologically friendly manner, then I would accept that he shouldn’t be allowed to renew his lease.

    However, both legally and morally this needs to be done on a case by case basis, so as not to penalise the ranchers making that extra effort.

  3. Kevin Jamison Avatar
    Kevin Jamison

    Thanks Mr. Wuerthner for your profound and insightful analysis and comment. Very powerful broadside aimed directly where it needs to go, the cow dung propaganda of the livestock industry. Let’s stop beating around the bush here and force Congress to address the biggest economic drivers and constituencies. Those factors are what they really consider the most, but it must be forced on them. Mr. Congressman, follow the REAL money.
    Time to kill the Marlboro Man Myth.

  4. Kevin Jamison Avatar
    Kevin Jamison

    To clarify: That is, what Congress considers and gives the greatest weight to. The larger economic driver and constituency is not industrial agriculture. It is tourism in these areas. It also could be tourism again in the Loservilles as described by you in an earlier post.
    All this doesn’t begin to describe the ecological havoc wrought by livestock production on the massive scale as is now being wreaked on the planet.

  5. snaildarter Avatar

    Yellowstone and all of our National Parks have been big economic drivers though out their history. Now that we understand the importance of protecting the eco-systems around our Parks, we really need to re-think live stock on our public lands especially in critical wildlife habitat. But this effort should be focused so you can draw board based support and not linked to any grand effort to get people to stop eating meat globally. That is an important but separate issue.

  6. don smith Avatar
    don smith

    Ecotourism is highly consumptive and carbon-based. Making economic arguments in an attempt to look credible can fall prey to the ecosystems services outlook promulgated by the New Conservationists.


    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Great post and link. I’ve been thinking about this lately. The link reminds me of barara Boxer’s ‘war bonds’ idea for Americans who ‘want to help control climate change but don’t know how’.

      We’re going to have to face up to the fact that if we truly value wild places and wildlife who live there (and it is the ethical thing to do to maintain habitat for their life as well as our own) we are going to have to make big lifestyle changes, across the demographic boards. I don’t think we want to. Can we put our needs beneath the preservation of other life on earth? Some our ‘needs’ are trivial in comparison:


    2. Kathleen Avatar

      “Ecotourism is highly consumptive and carbon-based.” *Any* kind of tourism economy relies on people who have to eat somewhere (or buy groceries) and sleep somewhere. It’s no secret that national parks attract people who come with money to spend–the economic benefits of that fact is a credible argument, especially in otherwise isolated places like Gardiner.

      “…the economic benefits of national parks extend beyond tourism. In today’s economy, the greatest value of natural amenities and recreation opportunities often lies in the ability of protected lands to attract and retain people, entrepreneurs, their businesses, and the growing number of retirees who locate for quality of life reasons.”

      That comes from a 2015 analysis of the economic impacts for *every* unit of the National Park System. Start here, where you’ll find a link to the list of parks and their graphs: http://headwaterseconomics.org/public-lands/protected-lands/economic-impact-of-national-parks/

      Yes, eco-tourism is carbon-based when tourists drive their individual cars. Many come in large tour buses, however, and Zion, for example, has eliminated cars from Zion Canyon April to Oct. and implements free shuttle services instead. On our best ever mileage day in Yellowstone, our Prius got 69.9 mpg what with the slow speeds, constant starting & stopping, and the ideal temperature (no heat or a/c). So yes, people drive to nat’l parks and burn fossil fuels to get there. But the livestock industry, by comparison, emits more greenhouse gasses than all of transportation.

      But the dilemma for nonhuman animals persists: the national parks *need* people to love them and visit them for their financial survival, but our species is loving them to death and putting pressure on wildlife. All the more reason to get livestock off of public lands surrounding wildlife-rich parks so animals have an escape valve.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        Not to mention air travel, which is getting more cumbersome by the minute! Prius drivers are not the majority. I’m seriously considering going back to trains, now that I am not on any kind of speed based schedule anymore. There’s a lot to be said for slowing down and admiring the view, and for the most part, the rails are already established.

        There are a lot of places that are walking only, whether due to protecting the landscape or their ruggedness or location, such as Cinque Terre in Italy.

        But, I wish we’d take the longer view of decreasing our dependence/parasitism of cattle. In the future, I see a world of people and cattle and other ‘food’ animals (I hate that term) only. The Realistically, it’s unavoidable. The oceans are polluted and approaching empty already.

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          I had to laugh when a friend of mine recently visited her family in Florida and all the trials and tribulations she had to go through to get their by air – several security checks, lost stuff, etc.!

          Plus, I don’t want birds to be killed because I have to get to a meeting on the West Coast or something.

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            Oops, ‘their’ should be ‘there’. I guess the point I’m making is that while of course we should be getting the cattle off public lands, it doesn’t end there. We need to eat less meat entirely – how in the world are we going to combat climate change with an increasing population of humans with its increasing population of cattle? Carving our initials into the national monuments has to stop as well.

            Of course, I have to figure out how I’m going to get to Cinque Terre without air travel – either swim or sprout a pair of Icarus wings, I guess. 🙂

            1. Kathleen Avatar

              Well, if it’s the latter, don’t fly too close to the sun!

            2. Nancy Avatar

              Unfortunately cattle ranching in the west isn’t going away anytime soon Ida:

              “China May Purchase U.S. Beef in 2016 After 12-Year Ban”

              “Any increase in export demand would probably boost cattle prices, and the Chinese market may be “substantial,” Mayer said. “It would surely give a boost to the market.”


              I mentioned in another post that I’ve seen a big increase in cattle herds around my area. Ranches are being snatched up not so much by the rich & famous as by ranchers looking to add acreage to their expanding herds. Elk may know more about that.

              1. skyrim Avatar

                How ’bout we export all bovines to China, let them deal with the issues and we can import their beef. If we couldn’t afford it, that would be a boon for our heart health and that of future generations.. :-))
                Relax Cowboys……..

  7. KyleG Avatar

    “True cost accounting” wherein no costs of livestock operations can be externalized for free – what a concept and so true George! Now if we also remove the overly generous subsidies for the livestock industry (and all other extractive industries) and force full cost accounting into the cost of good sold, the problem would likely be solved.


    1. Scott Strough Avatar
      Scott Strough

      You touched on an important point. We in the US subsidize and manipulate the market to maintain an “ever full granary” policy, and bad livestock management practises are a direct result of that failed agricultural policy. It is an extractive policy, and agriculture doesn’t need to be extractive. It is now, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

      If anyone ever tried to fatten a cow to choice grade or better without cheap subsidized grain from the “ever full granary”, they would know you absolutely must manage the grassland/savanna land you are grazing in a MUCH better way. You simply can’t do it by overgrazing and degrading the resource.

      So solving the first problem, the “ever full granary” subsidies, would make the other problem solve itself simply by making it unprofitable. Either they would stop grazing marginal land altogether, or they would need to do so in a way that regenerates the resource, to make it profitable.


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