Cheatgrass and the Bovine Curtain

The Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies released a report declaring that invasive plants, especially cheatgrass, is an enormous threat to the sagebrush ecosystem and sage grouse. Ironically the report emphasized that invasive weeds are a threat to the livestock industry as well.

The reason it is ironic is that across the West livestock production is the primary cause of invasive plant establishment and spread as well as the demise of the sage grouse.

However, we in the western United States live behind a “Bovine Curtain” that filters out all negative news about ranching. There are many scientists funded by the government or from range departments who will extoll the benefits of livestock for sage-grouse and sagebrush ecosystems, but they fail to take a holistic ecological perspective.

Livestock production has a significant negative impact on sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems. For instance, livestock consume the forbs which SG chicks feed upon. Cattle trampling and soil compaction is one of the causes of wetlands loss and damaged riparian areas utilized by grouse chicks. Livestock fencing has been shown to be a major cause of sage grouse mortality due to collisions. The presence of livestock has caused an increase in avian predators like ravens.

However, perhaps the biggest role that livestock plays in the extinction of sage grouse has to do with its role in the establishment and spread of cheatgrass and other annuals which increases wildfires that are consuming sagebrush landscapes.

Cheatgrass as an annual can experience a fire every year and remain viable on the site.

On the other hand, most dominant sagebrush ecosystem plants like sagebrush and many native perennial grasses historically burned infrequently, often many decades to hundreds of years between blazes.  They cannot tolerate frequent blazes. With more fires, you get more acres of cheatgrass which in turn favors more fires.

Here’s what the government agencies (controlled by the livestock industry just as the tobacco industry controlled the government health agencies for years) fails to tell the public.

First, a basic tenet of “invasive” plants is that they thrive on disturbance, particularly unnatural disturbance. In the case of livestock, much of the arid West never had large herds of grazing animals such as bison which were abundant on the plains, but rare west of the Continental Divide.

As a result, the native grasses and shrubs are intolerant of livestock trampling, heavy grazing, and soil compaction.

Throughout much of this region which includes the Great Basin and Southwest deserts, the soil is typically encrusted with bacteria, algae, lichens, and mosses collectively called “biocrusts”.d

Biocrusts live on the surface of the soil between the native bunchgrasses. Not only do they preclude wind and water erosion, but they also fix nitrogen from the air and release it into the soil to enrich the growth of other plants. Biocrusts also act as a soil cover that is largely impenetrable to the seeds of invasive plants like cheatgrass, thus hinder the establishment and germination of invasives.

Biocrusts are fragile and very susceptible to tramping and soil compaction. Cattle and large herds of domestic sheep can break up and destroy these crusts.

In addition to the destruction of soil crusts, domestic livestock consume native perennial grasses. Since most of the sagebrush ecosystem evolved without heavy grazing pressure, the native grasses are easily weakened by repeated cropping from domestic animals. This can eliminate them from a site, or at the least reduce their vigor so they are less competitive against invasive plants.

An honest appraisal of the real threats to our sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse would articulate the multiple ways that livestock and ranching contribute to the degradation of this landscape. In particular, we would hear about the livestock-biocrust-cheatgrass-wildfire linkage. But until we can tear down the Bovine Curtain, there may only be an occasional radio-free West broadcast or editorial like this that makes it through the censorship of the livestock oligarchy.



  1. Hiker Avatar

    Here we go again! Your comments are starting to make me laugh. Anyone who has read George’s articles knows his agenda, it’s as clear as day. He wants public lands in the west managed fairly. You know, of course, that ranchers get a great deal on grazing fees for public lands. Yet they bear almost none of the costs. That means we as tax payers bear those costs. Ranchers on public lands are some of the biggest welfare recipients in this country! Does that seem fair to you. And do you honestly believe the states would do better? At least with the Feds everyone in the country is a stakeholder in these decision, because, after all, these decisions affect us all. If you have nothing to say but the same tired nonsense do us all a favor and stop.

  2. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    What a ridiculous comment! Anyone who READS knows that eating animals is destroying the climate ( 51% cause by World Watch Institute studies – 18% and more than all transportation according to the United Nations ) – and that eating meat is toxic and dairy even more toxic to human bodies. Even Winston Churchill predicted that by the 1980’s, animals as food would be replaced by plant – based foods that taste and are just like the animal without the suffering, wildlife destruction, aquifer depletion, wetland wipe-out and animal and human suffering suffering suffering. Slaughterhouses are not just slaughtering innocent animals but if you are eating animals, you are also responsible for wiping out cougars, wolves, bears, foxes, wolverines, bobcats and lynx, all the way to prairie dogs and insects poisoned to serve this stupid food system that only benefits cattle ranchers at the expense of our public lands and so-called “Commons” ruled by special interest trophy killers and cow killers.
    From Tyson to Bill Gates to Leonardo di Caprio to anyone sane, there is huge investment being made in a two-track system to replace slaughterhouses and animal carcasses and their toxic legacy – cloning from the cells of animals, and simple healthy plant based foods like BEYOND MEAT.
    I suggest that the human race needs to stop breeding and cut human population down to about half – and as Pulitzer Prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson has proposed – Give half of the planet back to the other less arrogant 99.9999999% of species.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “… there may only be an occasional radio-free West broadcast or editorial like this that makes it through the censorship of the livestock oligarchy.”

    Ha! 🙂

  4. HoofHugs Avatar

    With regard to grazing animals historic presence on the Western Range, it is important to understand that today’s modern horse, the ones we ride, originated in N. America around two million years ago. The first members of Equus that include the asses and zebras appeared about 5 million years ago. E. caballus is the correct species and this was once a well established fact until after the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. During much of the Pleistocene period horses were the most dominant animal on the continent (around 23,000 – 24,000 ybp). They shared this land w. mammoths, mastodons, musk oxen, and most recently, the Buffalo. Sage grass did not originate in the West, but was brought here by Europeans. SG appear to be a native species, but the grouse family migrated here from the the Euro-Asian Steppe.

    With regard to cheat grass and America’s wild horses, the horse’s teeth for which the species was named have specially designed upper and lower molars that help the horse eat both soft grass as well as dry, sticky grass such as sage grass and many of the grasses that grow in coastal areas. It is these teeth that helped them survive the dramatic changes in climate which meant, of course, that the forage would change as well. The spores of plants found in areas w/ horse fossils has helped scientists studying evolutionary biology determine more about the climate and the types of forage available to horses and other animals that once existed here for millions of years such as camels. The horse survive in the Americas for the better part of 55 million yrs, and they co-evolved with every species of plant and animal that still live here today. The appear to have migrated across the Berengia sometime around the end of the Pleistocene or after a period of abrupt, rapid warming followed once again by a mini ice age of a few thousand yrs. Horses did not disappear here due to the cold weather, but rather stayed along the coast and lived in the coastal grasslands, but by the time the second ice age came to an end, humans had arrived, and there is some speculation that humans probably inhabited areas that horses had relied on. This plasticity of the species is seen when one understands that modern horse fossils are found all over the state of FL through the Yukon areas of Canada (misnamed as Equus lambei for Canadian paleontologist Dr. Lamb by the Canadian geological society, but they are genetically Equus caballus.

    Horses survived here in the coldest of temperatures. They used they single sharp hoof to break ice for water and forage, thus, helping provide a supply of water for wildlife and access to food otherwise unavailable under the frozen snow.

    Unfortunately,there were powers greater than cattle ranchers who wanted western lands, and they hit DC in 76. After FWS was unsuccessful getting rule changes passed in the Federal Register, POTUS 39 signed EO 11987 The Exotic Organisms Act. President Carter said he did not want this law to apply to species already acclimated to US, but to prevent future exotics from coming in. Of course, he was ignored. We know this because the NPS wrote the Gov. of NC notifying him that they intended to remove all feral livestock and horses from the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The NCDepartment of Natural Resources and Environment said that the horses were native because they had been present before any Europeans had tried to settle the Outer Banks. There’s much more to this. I have done much research including pamphlets on state’s history of what species were present in prehistoric times according to the strata and the other species found together in the same area. These species are identified as Equus caballus.

    Horses with their upper and lower molars have the ability to cut grass off near the ground or bite it off further up the stem. They would eat the cheat grass just as their ancestors have done before them. Congress never repealed the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act. They have lost their land because those affiliated with the UN understood what was lying beneath the feet of these magnificent animals–because they co-evolved w/ the plants that later became peat and then coal or oil if salt water were present as you must surely know was the case for millions of years. That is what Dr. T. H. Huxley explained in his 1876 lecture series in NYC and the east coast. Paleontologists were among the most knowledgeable about the premodern conditions that shaped this land and everything in it. Land is far more productive when it is grazed, particularly by complementary grazers such as cattle and horses or horses and sheep. These species are grazed either together or on a rotating basis to make sure all parts of an area are grazed.

    Horses do not bother birds. If a bird wants to pose on the back of a horse, the horse is fine w/ it. I have not had the chance to observe horses w/ birds that next in the grass except when the Canadian geese fly through and decide to light in the horse’s pasture. For the health of the land, it would be a great help to allow the horse to live as wildlife on only homeland their ancestors every really knew.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Thank you for this post.

    2. rork Avatar

      You forgot to mention that wild horses became extinct thousands of years ago in N America and the feral ones we have now are from domesticated Eurasian animals. We also have millions of human owned horses, so the need for a few wild one, from ecologic point of view, is difficult. Near me (MI) horses are erosion creating, invasive plant producing machines, and there are way too many of them. It’s why they are only allowed on public land where posted open to such onslaught, that mostly exist because horse-owner money talks.

  5. rork Avatar

    The public lands that State and local governments get to manage are those they have created.
    We have city, township, county, water-shed area, and state lands for this where I live (MI). We admit to benefiting from local National forests, parks, and wilderness, but we don’t always agree they have been the best stewards (with benefit of hindsight partly). We cut trees in some of it, but graze it nowhere.

  6. Kathleen Avatar

    “Officials: Efforts failing to save U.S. West sagebrush land”

    Excerpt: “Public lands managers are losing a battle against a devastating combination of invasive plant species and wildfires in the vast sagebrush habitats in the U.S. West that support cattle ranching and recreation and are home to an imperiled bird, officials said.

    “The Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies in a 58-page report released this month says invasive plants on nearly 160,000 square miles of public and private lands have reached enormous levels and are spreading.”

  7. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Cheat grass along with the most of the other European/Eurasian annual grasses that where imported to North America, exemplify the metaphor of invasion. They have shallow but very dense roots that sap the resources/nutrients away from indigenous species that have deeper roots, driving the latter to isolation and to extinction.

    The European human colonizers were similar. Their own roots were very shallow here. They did not understand North America. They just took and multiplied, gobbling up resource after resource pushing Native Americans, native plants and animals farther and farther away.

    Our illustrious government agencies like the BLM helped the colonizers. They destroyed thousands of acres of sage and pinyon juniper habitat by chaining, discing, spraying and burning to set back succession and then planted these giant empty fields with crested wheat ( at our expense) pushing sage hens and other species closer to extermination all to help subsidize a few cattle and sheep ranchers that produced scarcely 2% of the meat products in the U.S. .

    Yes, efforts to save sage habitat are failing. That is because agencies are not really trying and doing what is necessary to save it. They will talk a lot and sound good-but they will not actually do the work on the
    ground. They are there to save an entrenched aspect of capitalism. They do that job much better than real ecological restoration.

    As the writer Don Marquis wrote in 1935 in a conversation with an ant-

    “it wont be long now it wont be long
    man is making deserts of the earth
    it wont be long now before man will have used it up
    so that nothing be ants and centipedes and scorpions
    cant find a living on it
    man has oppressed us for a million years
    but he goes on steadily cutting the ground from
    under his own feet making deserts deserts deserts”

    Punctuation is imperfect as this was said to be typed by
    Archy the cockroach whose feet could reach the right keys on a type writer.

    AND as Frank Herbert said “Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely; absolute power attracts the corruptible”.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      Bruce Bowen, don’t know who you are but today you are my hero. We need more people to grasp what you expressed. Some people think I’m against capitalism. I’m not. I want people to be able to earn an income and be comfortable. I am against unlimited capitalism at the expense of everything and everyone (my everyone includes non-humans) else. We cannot sustain the trajectory we are on without loss of a swath of species and ecosystem damage. I suspect, because of the global scale, it’s a slow process but it is gaining momentum.

      Non-humans will be the first to lose. We are witnessing this now. It’s happening on every continent and on every major system. Humans will also pay a dire price for colonizing every planet pushing an unsustainable level of capitalism. We Americans are fairly buffered, so many don’t notice. They will. It will eventually catch up to us, too.

      The planet will correct herself and there is nothing humans can do to stop it or engineer a way out of it.

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