Livestock’s impact on wilderness

“The grazing of livestock, where established prior to the effective

date of this Act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such

reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of


The Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 4(d)(4)(2)

Livestock grazing occurs on some 260 million acres of federal lands, including lands administered by the Forest Service (FS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges (FWS) and even some national parks (NPS) and continues in many designated wilderness areas. For perspective, this is equal to the collective acreage of the entire East Coast states from Florida to Maine with Missouri thrown in.

Approximately 90% of all BLM lands and 69% of FS lands outside of Alaska are leased for livestock grazing. Grazing permits are largely based on historic use and typically attached to specific ranches. Grazing on public lands is, however, a privilege, not a right. And managing agencies can terminate a grazing permit at any time—although termination seldom occurs due to the political power of the livestock industry.

Many wilderness areas, particularly in the western United States still have some level of domestic livestock grazing within their boundaries, including some of our most iconic wildlands like the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Gros Ventre Wilderness and Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, the Death Valley Wilderness, Golden Trout Wilderness and the Marble Mountains Wilderness in California, Anaconda Pintler Wilderness and Red Rock Lakes Wilderness in Montana, the Wenimuche Wilderness in Colorado, the Owyhee Wilderness in Idaho, Gila Wilderness in New Mexico and many others.

So pervasive is livestock grazing on western federal lands, that livestock-free areas are the exception, not the rule. For instance, in New Mexico’s Greater Gila Bioregion nearly 90% (4.2 million acres) of the Forest Service lands permit livestock grazing including in the Gila Wilderness, Aldo Leopold Wilderness, and Blue Range Wilderness.

 Some 54 wilderness bills did not have any livestock production at the time of designation. Almost all of these wilderness areas are in the eastern United States, Alaska, and/or in national parks like Glacier Bay where no livestock grazing ever occurred or had been terminated long before the existence of the Wilderness Act.

There is probably no activity that does more damage to our public lands, and in particular, degrades our wilderness areas, than livestock production. From the destruction of riparian areas, pollution of water, spread of weeds, killing of predators, social displacement of native ungulates, soil compaction, trampling of biocrusts, transmission of disease to wildlife, as well as forage competition with native herbivores, fencing that blocks wildlife migration, and so forth. Nothing has a greater negative ecological impact than livestock production.

These are all real costs of livestock production which western livestock operators have successfully transferred unto the land and/or taxpayer. Without these economic and ecological subsidies, livestock grazing in the arid West would not be profitable.

It is even more egregious when these same impacts occur in lands that are supposed to be protected in wilderness areas where the Wilderness Act requires that federal agencies maintain “primitive character” and “its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Untrammeled means unconfined, but livestock grazing is a domestication of the landscape and opposite of “untrammeled.”

Domestic livestock in wilderness may seem like an oxymoron after all the goal of the Wilderness Act is to preserve “natural” conditions. But this exception was written into the Act as a compromise to get then-Congressman Wayne Aspinall to release the wilderness legislation out of his committee.

Basically, the phrase “shall continue” means that the simple designation as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act cannot be used as a justification to terminate grazing. However, a federal management agency can reduce or otherwise terminate grazing in wilderness if there is resource damage or other compelling reasons just as it can on any other federal lands.

The impacts of livestock production fit into a number of categories.

WATER POLLUTION: Numerous studies have shown that the presence of livestock in a drainage often leads to E coli counts that exceed state water quality standards. For instance, one cow will “deposit” between 75 and 100 pounds of manure per day. By comparison, a human may excrete 1 pound of fecal matter. So a herd of 500 cattle utilizing a drainage is the equivalent of allowing a community of 5000 people to spread their fecal matter across such a landscape.

DISEASE TRANSMISSION: Some of the diseases that native wildlife suffers from come directly from domestic animals. For instance, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was originally transmitted to wild ungulates from a sheep research facility in Colorado. CWD is fatal and has spread to many western and mid-western states. Domestic sheep can also transmit pneumonia to wild bighorn sheep. The loss of many bighorn sheep herds is directly attributed to the transmission of the disease from domestic to wild sheep. Other diseases like Pink Eye, and brucellosis are also originally passed on to wildlife from domestic livestock sources.

PREDATOR AND PEST CONTROL: Much of the West is an arid with limited productivity compared to the mid-west and the eastern United States. As a result, livestock must spread across large areas to find sufficient forage. This places them at greater jeopardy from predation than animals grazing the back forty of a mid-west farm. For decades, ranchers have successfully lobbied the federal government to kill predators on public lands at taxpayer expense. With changes in social values, predators have in some cases recovered somewhat from this war on predators. Nevertheless, predators including cougar, wolf, bear, and coyote are regularly killed in wilderness areas where natural processes like predators are supposed to be sacrosanct. Indeed, predators can help to control the spread of diseases like CWD.  In some wilderness areas, rodents like prairie dogs may be poisoned or shot as well.

RIPARIAN DAMAGE: Riparian areas are the thin green lines of water influenced vegetation found along streams and lakeshores. In the arid West, 70-80 percent of all species depend on riparian areas for at least some of their food, shelter, and other habitat needs. Unfortunately, domestic livestock particularly cows evolved in moist forests in Eurasia and gravitate towards the habitat that most approximates their evolutionary habitat—the heavily vegetated riparian areas. Also, in much of the drier parts of the West, the majority of all forage is located in the thin green bands of vegetation along stream courses. Therefore, these critical habitats for many species from trout to songbirds to grizzly bears are typically degraded by the presence of grazing livestock. Livestock tramples and break down the streambanks, and also consume the vegetation, eliminating hiding cover, and removing forage that would otherwise support native species.


Most desert areas of the West have algae, lichens, and bacteria that reside on and just below the soil surface collectively known as biocrusts. Livestock hooves trample the biocrusts and compact soil making it difficult for biocrusts to colonized disturbed sites.

Biocrusts hold the soil together with micro-filaments, reducing erosion, as well as capturing atmospheric nitrogen and “fixing” it so it is available to plants. Biocrusts often colonize the surface between bunchgrasses and other plants and prevent the germination of weedy species like cheatgrass.


Livestock is among the most important factor in the spread of weeds in the arid West. They accomplish this in three ways. First, their feces and hides will carry weed seeds to new sites. By destroying biocrusts, they facilitate the establishment and germination of weeds. Finally, by selectively grazing/browsing on native grasses and shrubs, they weaken these desirable plants, making it more difficult for them to compete against the weedy species.


The Wilderness Act permits ranching infrastructure to be built and/or maintained like water troughs, spring developments, line cabins, as well as fences that can block wildlife migrations and of course represents the opposite of an “unconfined” kind of experience.

Fences also impact other wildlife. Sage grouse are poor fliers and often collide with fences. In one study, 29% of all sage grouse died due to fence collisions. Fences also create survey posts for birds of prey that prey on sage grouse.

In addition, some specific wilderness legislation also allows ranchers to use motorized vehicles for access, (can’t expect cowboys to walk or ride a horse), despite the ban on motorized vehicles in a wilderness.


Many wildlife species like elk avoid areas actively being grazed by domestic livestock. These animals are displaced into other habitats, that is likely less suitable. If one assumes that elk or other animals are picking the habitat that is most suitable to their survival, if displaced, that creates an accounted impact on native wildlife.  It may leave wildlife more vulnerable to hunters and/or predators. It may mean less productive forage. It may expose the animals to more severe weather.

It also has an effect on other wildlife. For example, wolves may be harmed when elk are displaced, especially if they have pups at a den and cannot move with the prey.


On most public lands, the majority of forage is allotted to private domestic livestock, not wildlife. As a result, livestock are consuming food that would otherwise support native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. Every pound of forage going into a domestic sheep or cattle is that much less food for native species.

Grazing of plants can also impact other wildlife. For instance, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees all depend on flowering plants for food. If sheep or cattle mow down these plants, it indirectly reduces the food for these other species.


Livestock is concentrated and often compact soil with numerous impacts on ecosystems. For one compacted soil decreases infiltration and thus increases water run-off, thus indirectly contributing to erosion and desertification. Livestock compaction also affects other native species. Many native bees, for instance, live in burrows in soil and can be negatively affected by soil compaction. Some desert tortoise, toads, and frogs seek out rodent burrow for shelter. Livestock can collapse burrows and thus limit habitat for these species.


Some authorities think that any domestic livestock grazing is “overgrazing” especially if it occurs in the wilderness. Regardless of your perspective, livestock selectively graze plants, removing the better tasting and palatable plants and leaving behind the less desirable plants. As a result, they change the natural distribution of plants, typically reducing the native grasses and shrubs and contributing to the spread of the weedy species. Beyond that, the removal of significant amounts of vegetation can expose the soil to greater moisture evaporation, and thus contributing to desertification.


Livestock can have numerous impacts on fire regimes. Wildfire is critical to healthy ecosystems, however, the temporal and spatial scale of fire is important. For instance, in some ecosystems like sagebrush, as well as juniper/pinyon woodlands, typically support major wildfires that occur hundreds of years apart. When livestock promotes cheatgrass, an exotic annual that is highly flammable, it can result in far more frequent wildfire which is outside of the historic frequency. If fires are too frequent, native ecosystems of sagebrush can be converted to cheatgrass.

On the other hand, in other situations like in low elevation dry ponderosa pine forests which historically experienced low severity fire at frequent intervals, livestock grazing by removing the fine fuels of grasses, can give trees a competitive advantage leading to denser forest stands that may be more vulnerable to higher severity blazes.


Livestock grazing by ranchers and corporations for private businesses at public costs is permitted, even in designated wilderness. One of the options used to “retire” gazing privileges is permit buyout. In recent years, some wilderness legislation has included specific language allowing a permittee to “sell” their permit which is then “retired” permanently. This option has been used in the legislation creating the Owyhee Wilderness legislation, the Boulder-White Cloud legislation, Steens Mountain legislation and in the creation of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. For an overview of permit buyouts, see


  1. snaildarter Avatar

    Also, I think it would be easier to allow Bison to migrate out of YNP if cattlemen would chill and take a more reasonable approach to them. Elk carries brucellosis too, no one cares about them because they don’t compete directly with cattle.

  2. E. August Allen Avatar

    Wonderful post. Thankyou!

  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    George did an excellent job of reviewing the impacts of domestic livestock grazing. Now if somehow, people would get with it and give up their fantasies about the “Old West” and embrace basic ecological principles and the reality of what was and is currently being done to public land.

    The frontier economy is long gone. The rich resource base was pretty much used up very quickly, but still there are loud, arrogant, raucous, selfish, voices crying out for more exploitation. They usually carefully disguise their real intent of rabid economic self interest by using the same old champion of the working class rhetoric, old west stories and “isms”- such as ‘if you don’t graze it down to almost bare ground it will surely burn up’.

    History should not be a mystery clouded in the romantic cover stories from the past.

    Witness the extermination of the passenger pigeon. Some American writers from the past favored the business class and made up excuses for this species disappearance. They wrote stuff like- the birds that once numbered in the millions mysteriously disappeared as if god favored their extinction. Some even said that the bird must being so stupid that it went extinct as if it didn’t deserve to live anymore.

    If you do your research and find out the truth you would discover that passenger pigeons were killed in any way imaginable which included gassing them with sulfur fumes and dynamiting their roost trees. Squabs were killed by the million on the nesting grounds using crudes methods such as crushing their necks with nippers etc.. Literally wholesale slaughter. Pig farmers in the south eastern states liked to blow up roosts and then let their hogs clean up the dead carcasses of thousands of pigeons. This of course was done with the blessing of the federal government because killing passenger pigeons would make more native Americans dependent upon the feds reservation programs.

    Maybe the question is-are there any people left that have the courage to look at the real history of the founding of this nation and then talk about it as loudly as those who to use it up for profit? Or will they just live in a posturing fantasy world until what little natural heritage is left is totally compromised and destroyed.

    1. JanWindsong Avatar

      That is the question. Each citizen will (or should) look deeply into their sense and role in the fabric of history, ethics and make a decision. Our lands and the resources are (and have been) converted to personal profit. Our beautiful Vistas are clouded with attendent title. The freedom we speak to will soon echo as an empty boast. Please think about this. This article is repeated over and over under the pen of hundreds of scientific writers, concerned advocates, and protectors of the wildlife. There is a common thread: bureaucrats installed in the government are and will continue to allow unimpeded conversion of our children’s future. That is not America – it is corruption on the level of every spent and poor 3rd world country in the world. We have a chance.

  4. […] The Wildlife News, Livestock’s Impact on Wilderness Livestock grazing occurs on some 260 million acres of federal lands, including lands administered […]


Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner