Response to assertions by FWS that livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse recovery

Here is a positive editorial authored by Ted Koch, US Fish and Wildlife Service Nevada Field Supervisor and signed by three other state US Fish and Wildlife Service managers that recently appeared in the Elko Daily Free Press apparently in response to an editorial I wrote about how livestock grazing was harmful to sage grouse recovery. .

The editorial asserts that livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystem recovery. The editorial  appears to be based more on wishful thinking and perhaps political expediency than on valid scientific research.

Basically the authors suggest that good livestock management can benefit sage grouse recovery. While it’s true that there are better and worse ways to graze livestock, it does not follow that livestock grazing is compatible with healthy sagebrush ecosystems any more than it would be correct to imply that smoking cigarettes is healthy. Sure if you are a smoker and reduced your consumption of smokes from three packs of cigarettes a day to one pack a day, most doctors would agree this will improve your health.

But they would be remiss in their responsibility to their patients if they didn’t advise one to eliminate cigarette smoking entirely. Any doctors who did not inform the public that cigarette smoking was damaging one’s health is guilty of omission. The same is true for livestock grazing and sagebrush ecosystems, particularly with regards to recovery of the sage grouse.

For instance, while these state field directors acknowledge that the spread of cheatgrass across the Great Basin has altered fire regimes (cheatgrass is highly flammable), they do not directly connect the dots–its spread is facilitated by livestock grazing.

If you understand the ecology of cheatgrass spread, you recognize that is it virtually impossible to graze the landscape without assisting the spread of this exotic invasive species. Even moderate livestock grazing contributes to the spread of cheatgrass.

Two factors related to livestock production contribute to cheatgrass dominance. The first is the preferential grazing of native perennial grasses by livestock which gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage in the struggle to obtain water, nutrients and space for growth.

When a plant is grazed, it has to replace the loss of photosynthetic material by translocating energy stores from its roots or shifting growth from seed production or root production to replace the loss left area. So when a perennial grass is grazed, it has less energy for these other important aspects of its life cycle.

Since cattle, if given a choice of consuming a perennial grass like blue bunch wheatgrass or cheatgrass, usually choose the perennial grass, this ultimately harms the competitive ability of the native grasses to compete effectively with invasives like cheatgrass.

Second, and perhaps the most important factor contributing to the spread of cheatgrass is soil disturbance, in particular, the destruction of what are termed biocrusts. Trampling of soil crusts expedites the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive plants.

Biocrusts include lichens, algae and mosses that grow on the soil surface in the spaces between the perennial bunchgrasses. Biocrusts, by covering the soil, make it difficult for the seeds of cheatgrass to successfully germinate and grow.

Biocrusts also improve the growth of perennial grasses by reducing competition for water and other nutrients that results when plants like cheatgrass are established in the interspaces between the native bunchgrasses.

Similarly, the authors acknowledge that trampling of wetlands, riparian areas, and springs by cattle harms sage grouse. Sage grouse chicks, in particular, depend on these moist areas for feeding during the first month or so of their lives.

These moist and highly productive places in arid sagebrush landscapes that provide water, shade, and abundant forage are preferentially grazed by cattle. Indeed, in many Great Basin ecosystems, the bulk of all available forage is found in these thin slivers of green.

By grazing these sites, cattle both reduce the hiding cover for sage grouse, and compact soils which reduces its ability to hold moisture, contributing over time to an overall shrinkage of these ecologically important sites.

Yes, it is possible reduce cattle impacts to riparian areas, but this comes with a cost to the ranchers and all solutions have more collateral damage to sage grouse.

First, if you were to fence cows out of these wetlands and riparian areas you are eliminating the most productive grazing sites in the arid Great Basin and ultimately transferring cattle impacts to uplands which are also important to grouse as nesting and feeding habitat.

Second, fencing itself poses a problem for sage grouse because of high mortality due to collisions with fences, and the use of fences by avian predators.

Third, providing alternative water developments like troughs and pipelines also harms sage grouse. The troughs provide breeding habitat for mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus that has in some areas greatly increased sage grouse mortality. Other studies have shown that alternative water sources tend to increase raven populations that prey upon sage grouse.

I have only responded to the specific issues these state directors mentioned in their commentary and could add additional impacts from livestock production that harms sage grouse.

These state directors with their happy talk about “well managed” livestock benefiting sage grouse is more wishful thinking than an accurate description of the real ecological connections and impacts of livestock production on sage grouse.

These state directors would serve the public interest far more if they helped citizens understand that livestock production is not only by contributing to the impoverishment of sage grouse habitat, but negatively affecting many other species as well. In the end, like cigarette smoking, less is better than more, but none is best.

The most efficient way to help recover sage grouse, as well as improve hundreds of millions of acres of western ecosystems, is to remove all livestock production from public lands. This can best be accomplished by permit retirement.

Given the hundreds of millions of dollars we are now wasting on other programs that are marginally effective at best, a west-wide permit retirement program focused on core sage grouse habitat would bring about the most comprehensive and effective sage grouse recover, not to mention improvement for many other species currently impacted by livestock production.






  1. Jim Wiegand Avatar
    Jim Wiegand

    The cow is a decedent of the water buffalo and they did not evolve with the sagebrush ecosystem. I can also testify from firsthand experience with the USFWS, that they routinely rig their research for industry

    Many years ago I had a long discussion with a rancher about his property. I was very familiar with this ranch and had hiked through most if it researching golden eagles.

    He was complaining that there were no more quail and that at one time they were so plentiful on the property that they were even hunted commercially during the California gold rush. I told him it was his cattle. I then took him around and pointed out examples of the impact they were having on the food and cover needed for quail to survive. I told him if you want more to see more quail fence off the best quail habitat areas or start running fewer cattle.

  2. snaildarter Avatar

    I think cattle actually were domesticated versions of several species of wild cattle like the Zebu and the aurochs. They can be hybridized with water buffalo but their offspring are sterile. However your point is well taken they have been bred for meat production they are heavy water guzzling creatures that are very hard on sage brush habitat. They need to go away and be replaced by wild bison.

  3. Scott Strough Avatar
    Scott Strough

    You article is a bit short sighted. Agreed that most current grazing systems are certainly not helpful to grouse. However, that is not the same as categorically stating that no livestock grazing system can be beneficial. Quite the contrary. But the rancher would need to develop a holistic plan that fosters habitat. With increasing habitat comes increasing grouse numbers.

    This link is an example of how, although it is focused on other birds as the plan was made for a state in a different area. The same principle applies though.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Scott, you do realize the main objective here is to raise livestock and make a profit, right?

      Just in my tiny area of the west, Great Granddaddy did it, Granddaddy did it and Dad is doing it now (with heirs in tow) in areas that simply don’t want to be reminded of how their generation of family life, might be effecting the future of the landscape and wildlife.

      And FYI – I’m seeing a decreasing of natural habitat, re: those “good stewards of the land” due to increasing prices of domesticated livestock, not just here but meeting the “needs” in other areas of the world – China comes to mind:

  4. Kyle Avatar

    A decidedly Orwellian feel to the BLM perspective here. An unyielding effort to maintain the status quo which benefits narrow minority, despite completely contradictory and damning evidence to the contrary.

  5. Josh Avatar

    I attended a bird dog field trial in Montana this year. On a working cattle ranch with cows everywhere. Guess what we saw?!? Tons and tons and tons of sage grouse. The Parker mountains in Utah have cows all over, and we see gob loads of sage hens. When training dogs we literally see hundreds each day….

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Curios Josh, what did the landscape, surrounding this ranch property, look like?

      Is the rancher part of this new program?

      1. Josh Avatar

        It looked like typical sage grouse habitat. Lots of sage and rolling hills. I train dogs like crazy on sage hens, and there are cows everywhere and we still see hundreds and hundreds of birds. I firmly believe water and drought plays the largest role. Sage grouse are doing extremely well in all the areas we train dogs.

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Speaking of not much accomplished – counting the minutes until November.

    The report includes a study by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the University of California-Davis on the effects of the noise of oil and gas exploration and wells on the birds.

    Other steps include restoring and protecting sagebrush ecosystems, protecting sage grouse habitat from wildfires and allowing habitat exchanges that let energy companies and others offset damage to sage grouse habitat by financing improvements elsewhere.

    The report had few details about restrictions on energy development and ranching, expected to be the most contested component of the conservation plan.

    And I read high tech satellite tracking of the birds! Wow and big deal, but we already know where they nest, don’t we? Can’t wait for the BLM and UC-Davis report; didn’t see it linked? It also says the effectiveness will be reviewed in 2020. I hope the birds aren’t gone by then. 🙁

    In the latest National Wildlife magazine, the sage grouse is on the cover, looking magnificent.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Forgot to include the link to the WP article quoted above – “Interior Department touts efforts to protect sage grouse”:


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George Wuerthner