Launchbaugh range propaganda

In a March 26th Times News article, Karen Launchbaugh, a University of Idaho range professor, propagandized misleading ideas about livestock grazing. Like nearly all range professor, Ms. Launchbaugh, sees her job as promoting livestock grazing. I know because I studied range management both as an undergraduate and in grad school, so familiar with the emphasis that one gets in such programs.

As is typical of the range “profession”, a term I use loosely, proponents of range management see ranchers as their constituency, not the general public.

So it’s not surprising that Ms. Launchbaugh only tells half of the story about the negative impacts of livestock grazing. Now for the rest of the story.

First, Launchbaugh asserts that “grazing has always been part of sagebrush ecosystems”.  This is a half-truth. Yes, ground squirrels, grasshoppers, jackrabbits and other smaller animals, along with modest herds of deer and pronghorn have always grazed sagebrush ecosystems, but throughout most of the Great Basin including southern Idaho, large herds of grazing bison were rare or absent. As a consequence, native grasses and soils are intolerant of grazing pressure.

Another example of a half-truth is Launchbaugh assertion that livestock can reduce cheatgrass through grazing. It is misleading because of the short time window when livestock will consume cheatgrass.

Livestock will eat cheatgrass early in the season while it is green. This is usually no more than 2-4 weeks. Most ranchers are unwilling to go through the collecting and transport of their cattle out to a site to graze it for such a short time.

Furthermore, since cattle will tend to graze the more desirable native grasses first, if there are any of these plants left on a site, they suffer from overgrazing.

Third, cheatgrass is favored by soil trampling and destruction of soil crusts—something that cannot be avoided, especially if cattle are bunched up to target grazing of cheatgrass.

Then she compounds all her previous flawed assertions by suggesting that grazing can prevent large range fires.  Sure, if you graze a pasture down to a golf course with inch-high stubble, fires are less likely to spread.

However, rangelands that are depleted to stubble provide no hiding cover for wildlife and reduce forage that might support native wildlife. Native plant species suffer and soil is compacted. And any grazing that is that so severe so as to reduce grasses to stubble will invariably trample biocrusts, wetlands and riparian areas.

Plus, again Launchbaugh is misleading when she suggests that the Murphy Fires halted when they reached “grazed pastures.” That is not the same as “sagebrush ecosystems which have more than grass. In a sagebrush ecosystem, the other plants including sagebrush and forbs are still equally flammable.

And what Launchbaugh also fails to mention is that nearly all large range fires like the Murphy and Soda Fires that charged southern Idaho were burning under extreme fire weather conditions of high temperature, low humidity, drought and high winds. Under such conditions, wildfires will burn through, over and around any “fuel reductions.” Under less than extreme conditions, it is relatively easy to suppress wildfires, indeed, many will simply go out without any suppression.

This was acknowledged by some Arizona range researchers (Bruegger et al.) who, like Launchbaugh, were promoting targeted grazing as a means of halting range fires. At the final paragraph of their paper, after they had effectively sold the idea that grazing could be used to alter fires, the authors admitted that grazing basically only worked under less than extreme fire conditions. They concluded: “Although it is a promising tool for altering fire behavior, targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.”

There were many other misleading statements by Launchbaugh. Just remember who she works for. And it’s not the public. She uses public funds, including her salary, to promote the private profits of the livestock industry.



  1. Lonna O'Leary Avatar
    Lonna O’Leary

    George, I wish you were our president! Then maybe we turn conservation and wildlife services around so they actually do care about what’s best for our wildlife and our environment.

  2. Barbara Warner Avatar
    Barbara Warner

    Thank you for this excellent rebuttal.

  3. Grandma Gregg Avatar
    Grandma Gregg

    Private/corporate livestock grazing on public lands has cost the taxpayers $1 Billion over past decade. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported the federal government spends at least $144 million each year managing private livestock grazing on federal public lands, but collects only $21 million in grazing fees—for a net LOSS of at least $123 million per year.

  4. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    I’m not sure the ad hominem stuff is more effective than concentrating on the principles, especially the underlying ones, but there can be no doubt that you do a good job of writing. I especially like short essays of this kind, but I think they could be shorter yet by just leaving personalities out of it. This has the added advantage of keeping the laser off your back.

    I’m especially happy that you mentioned cryptogamic soil crust communities. When I finally started to “get” ecosystem restoration to a point where it was actually working (almost fifty years ago) after making all the conventional mistakes for at least fifteen years, I started recognizing the vital role these communities of tiny organisms play in the restoration of ecosystems, and am only recently more fully recognizing the pivotal role that soil microbiomes play, upon and inside of ecosystems and organisms of all kinds. Out of sight, but into mind. I suspect that this may be the “universal constant,” but that may not be the end of it.

    This fall, I hope to cap my career (I’ve been retired for 18 years) by using microbiome inoculation to restore a hotspot ecosystem.

    The cheatgrass problem is one I have wanted to take on for many decades. I don’t believe that microbiome inoculation is the silver bullet, but it can’t be left out.

    You are also spot-on about the forgotten roles of other organisms in maintaining a truly self-sustaining, self-reproducing/replacing system. There’s a big difference between cow-brute hooves (maybe ok on the tallgrass prairie as long as they can migrate?) and the little pointy dibbles of the pronghorns and deer when it comes to their effects on ecosystems with which they, or a similar critter, did not co-evolve. There’s a good reason why bison didn’t bother with the more arid region from the rain-shadow of the Rockies to the Cascade-Sierra uplift, and cattle don’t belong there either. Or sheep/goats, totally converted-by-culture critters of the rocks (now car-roofs). Very little of The Old West is even close to cow-country, except in the addled minds of picture-show directors.

    The problem with these modern “cowboy/cowgirl” play-actors is that they’ve forgotten their pastoral roots (if they have any), back when the sodbusters ripped the belly out of one of the greatest protein-factories Nature ever “devised,” and replaced it with starchy grains and feed-lots producing sissy-food to swindle us with.

    Well, we’ve got to reclaim our birthright and rip the bloated belly out of the “Nation’s Breadbasket” and restore it to the efficient system of converting of inedible/deadly grass that takes four stomachs to digest, and get US heart-healthy again with four ounces of jerky a day, while sharing the surplus with the wolf-packs, and eating of the fruit of the land and the weeds like mustard like, like humans were meant (designed?) to do.

    I gotta quit or I’ll start a-preachin’. ###

  5. Ted Chu Avatar
    Ted Chu

    Things are rarely as simple as we would like. Bare dirt doesn’t burn and sites dominated by cheatgrass don’t provide significantly better habitat than bare dirt, but cows don’t eat sage unless they’re starving which suggests that under carefully managed conditions cows could be part of restoration since the key is to prevent fires. Don’t get me wrong I want all livestock, managed and feral, removed from arid public lands in the long run but they can’t hurt sites currently dominated by annual grasses and used correctly they could be useful. Such targeted grazing management as pointed out in this piece would not be profitable so that would need to be worked out.


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George Wuerthner