Dr. Naugle’s biased testimony on livestock impacts

I wrote this letter to Dr. Naugle more than 10 days ago and have not received a response. It is worth noting that Dr. Naugle has gotten more than $4.5 million in grants to study sage grouse in the past few years. Could this influence his testimony?

Dear Dr. Naugle:

I just read your July 12th testimony before the House Resource Committee regarding livestock grazing and ranching.  https://naturalresources.house.gov/uploadedfiles/7.12_testimony_naugle.pdf

I have read many of your papers so familiar with your sage grouse research work. I appreciate the insights into Sage Grouse ecology your research has provided.

I learned some new things about Sage Grouse today in your testimony before the House Resources Committee that I did not know like how the 7-inch stubble height standard for Sage Grouse may not be as critical as previously thought.

While I don’t doubt you were limited in your time, so could not mention everything related to livestock and SG, it appears that you focused on things that serve to put a positive spin on livestock grazing while failing to note the many negative impacts. At least that is the impression I got from reading your testimony.

Dr. Naugle, a science advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sage Grouse Initiative, said livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse conservation. He said grouse populations are affected mainly by severe weather events, and studies have found little difference in nest survival between managed and unmanaged rangeland. Moreover, he said, a study at Montana State University found that periodic disturbance by grazing increases the number of insects, which are eaten by grouse chicks.

Here are the main themes that came from your testimony as reported in a number of papers. For instance, the quote below is from the Idaho Mountain Express.

“Naugle said the solution for declining sage grouse numbers in the Great Basin is to reduce wildfires, cheatgrass and invading junipers. He said livestock grazing slows wildfire spread by reducing fuels.”

In general, it appears you neglected or overlooked many impacts of livestock upon sage grouse. I do not know if that is because you want to maintain your funding which amounts to over $4,545,255 over the past few years (https://naturalresources.house.gov/uploadedfiles/7.12_disclosure_naugle.pdf), or you’re just ignorant of the many impacts of livestock grazing. In either case, I do not think your testimony was very balanced.

While it’s true as you note in your testimony, there may be “bigger” threats to Sage Grouse than livestock grazing in some areas like conversion of grazing lands to row crops and energy development, across its entire range, nothing compares to livestock production in the overall impact on SG, especially if you consider the multiple impacts.

While any of these impacts in and of itself might not pose a problem for Sage Grouse, collectively they can be significant.

I wouldn’t mind getting some responses to my comments below. If I have an incorrect view of these things in terms of their effect on SG, please let me know.

You mentioned, for instance, that one of the threats in the Great Basin is wildfire and cheatgrass invasion. Surely you are aware that trampling of biocrusts which enhances cheatgrass establishment, along with the fact that cattle preferentially graze on native perennials reducing their competitive fitness is one of the major factors in cheatgrass spread.

You also mention juniper control, and I have read your paper on this topic. At least what I have seen in many areas is that the removal of juniper serves to increase cheatgrass invasion because of soil disturbance. So juniper control may, in the long, prove counterproductive to SG if my observations are correct, even if initially it may increase SG nesting success.

Additionally, at least in some areas, fences are a major source of mortality from the collision. And the abundance of fences on our public rangelands is due to the presence of cattle.

Some also speculate that fences provide perches for avian predators on Sage Grouse. Again why are there so many fences—to facilitate livestock grazing.

Cattle are also the major factor in riparian losses around much of our public lands. Cattle trample wet meadows and riparian areas that are critical to young Sage Grouse chicks. The loss of these riparian areas, of course, impacts many other species beyond just Sage Grouse.

There is the research that suggests that ravens increase around cattle grazed areas and thus pose a threat to SG by predation.

Another area that you mentioned but did not elaborate on is the grazing of forbs. There are certain forbs that SG prefer and in most range management, there is little attention to protecting or reducing grazing on these forbs favored by Sage Grouse.

You didn’t mention West Nile Virus, even though you’re one of the people who has done much of the research on how this negatively impacts SG. Certainly, cattle watering troughs and ponds create the perfect habitat for the mosquitoes that transmit the disease.

You acknowledged the value of dense sagebrush, but also did not mention that cattle also often trample sagebrush and many range managers often destroy sagebrush with prescribed fires that destroy these dense stands. To give you one example, the BTNF in its new management plan for the Upper Green River in Wyoming suggests sagebrush is “too dense” and should be burned.

You also did not discuss how the creation of pastures (hay) in former bottomlands that in the past may have extensively been used by Sage Grouse has harmed the birds. And as I recall Sage Grouse are reluctant to fly across extensive hay areas, and thus these pastures may be contributing to habitat fragmentation across the West.

These are only some of the impacts from livestock production on Sage Grouse.

I know Sage Grouse is your specialty, but it is also regretful that you did not mention the numerous other impacts on our ecosystems from livestock presence.

For instance, the spread of disease from domestic animals to wildlife (as with bighorn sheep), forage competition between native ungulates and livestock.  Social displacement of native ungulates by livestock. The spread of weeds, water pollution, and numerous other impacts. I would think as a wildlife biologist you would at least be familiar with these impacts, if not an expert. And neglecting to mention them seems to be a serious omission.

Did I mention the contribution of livestock production to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions? And that climate warming is affecting the upward movement of cheatgrass in other elevation zones, as well as the fire regime in the Great Basin.

It seems a more balanced testimony from someone intimately as familiar with SG research as yourself is in order. I would appreciate a response and let me know if I am overstating the impact of some of the above, or if you are aware of research that counters my assertions. Thanks in advance.


Geo. Wuerthner

See a good testimony here’s a link to Erik Molver’s comments to the same committee. https://www.thewildlifenews.com/2018/07/13/testimony-of-erik-molvar-federal-lands-subcommittee-hearing-u-s-house-of-representatives-july-12-2018/


  1. Kirk C Robinson Avatar
    Kirk C Robinson

    Dear George,

    I suspect that the following three propositions are true and explain why you have not (and will not) receive a reply from Dr. Naugle:

    1. You are right and you don’t hesitate to rub it in
    2. You do not have millions of $ in grants to offer
    3. He doesn’t feel kindly toward you

    Of course, I could be wrong. I don’t know Dr. Naugle personally. Maybe he’s working up a thorough response.

  2. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    I asked my cousin, who farms corn and hay in Wisconsin 0- for livestock producers, whether he has mowed or disc mowed over wildlife. He said, “Regularly. You cannot see a fawn in the tall crops – so ‘bump, bump” dead fawn” He said he tried to comfort himself that the fawn was probably an orphan but then saw the mother looking for her fawn. He said that turkeys will not leave their nests even with the mower a foot from them…so I am sure that is the same for sage grouse…
    He also said that his discer is 9 feet wide but that 36 foot wide equipment kills off everything in its path.

    1. Erik Molvar Avatar
      Erik Molvar

      Sorry to report, your lone fawns are probably not orphans. Fawns are born without scent, and does stash their fawns in tall cover so they can go out and forage (the nutritional strain of lactation is severe) without drawing the attention of predators to their vulnerable young. Eventually, when the fawns get big enough, they join their dam full-time.

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Oh how awful. Everyone knows that a doe leaves her fawn where she thinks it is safe for them, until she can return. What has worked for millennia is no match for humans and their machines.

      And then, farmers request more killing of wildlife by government wildlife services on top of it all!

  3. Donald J. Kaleta Avatar

    In response to the stated question with answer. “Again why are there so many fences–to facilitate livestock grazing”, is not complete; as wire or cordage barrier fencing does also intend to exclude trespass for protected areas from wild Ungulates as well as livestock. Fencing also does define property boundaries to exclude the same, as in some instances burn areas. Wire fencing,especially Barbed wire(The Devil’s Rope)has long been problematic for all wildlife (on legs or wing), Livestock & Humans with impact strikes (ATV’s). Economics of cost & labor are a deciding factor for the choice. A more VISIBLE and SAFER barrier fence to all who might otherwise impact is identified at http://WWW.FENCE-FLAG.COM. Simply put, MOTION detection especially White in darkness will mitigate unintended fence strikes to Sage Grouse & all Ungulates. What is key to all barrier fencing is competent responsible maintenance once installed.

    1. rork Avatar

      Is that soliciting?
      You should have at least gave a conflict of interest statement.

  4. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I think George was being polite. In my experience the BLM for example, altered and destroyed thousands of acres of sage grouse habitat expressly for livestock grazing and then asked its biological cronies how to ‘save’ sage hens and still permit grazing. Such actions caused other problems such as invasions of cheat grass etc. but this just gave other departments in the system such as the fire suppression boys a reason to get more funding. So they keep this anti-ecological loop going.

    This seems to be the theme that gets passed along from administration to administration. Damage the habitat for some form of capitalism and then find some confidants to BS a decision making body into permitting grazing and other forms of resource extraction over and over again and by the way-we need more funds.

    The most accurate way I could phrase the governments conduct relative to ecology is that it is stuck in FUBAR mode to please the gods of capitalism.

    So get mean-vote green—-


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