Cattle Grazing On Montana’s Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area

Recently the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commission voted to permit cattle grazing on the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Approval of livestock grazing on the WMA is based on the theory that a quid pro quo allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public land will reduce animosity towards wildlife that may inhabit their private holdings.  I’m not aware of any study that has substantiated that theory.

As with almost all decisions to allow livestock on a wildlife area, the commission ignored the cumulative impacts of cattle on wildlife (all wildlife) as they are required by law to do, and once again demonstrated that politics trumps science.

There is an abundance of studies that demonstrate that cattle diets overlap with elk diet. Depending on the study, cattle forage preferences overlapped with elk anywhere from 30-85%. Of course, every blade of grass going into a cow is that much less for an elk as well as other native herbivores.

MDFWP suggests that livestock grazing enhances forage quality for elk and that elk preferentially graze livestock areas. However, in many cases where elk appear to prefer private lands with cattle grazing, they may be responding more to hunting pressure than forage quality.

Nevertheless, elk don’t “need” livestock to prosper. Elk survived centuries without the “benefit” of domestic livestock grazing. Elk in places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness or Yellowstone National Park persist quite well in the absence of cattle grazing.

Many other species depend on the forage grasses and forbs (flowers) that livestock consumes from ground squirrels to grasshoppers to bees to butterflies. In heavily grazed areas, there is that much less plant life for food as well as hiding cover.

If cattle grazing results in a reduction in their numbers, this affects a lot of other species. Fewer grasshoppers might mean less food for trout. Fewer ground squirrels impacts birds of prey like hawks and eagles. Fewer bees may indicate less pollination of shrubs. Less cover may expose pronghorn or deer fawn to more predation.  Whether these are a problem with the proposed livestock use of Spotted Dog WMA are unknown because there was no review or discussion by MDFWP.

One documented impact, however, is that cattle socially displaces native ungulates like elk and deer. Under a similar grazing system implemented at Fleecer Mountain WMA near Butte 94% of the elk locations were in pastures without cattle, suggesting that if given a choice, elk avoid cattle.

Cattle grazing of riparian areas seeps, and springs are yet another issue. Cattle evolved in moist woodlands. They spend an excessive amount of time in damp areas that are similar to their evolutionary habitat.  Soil compaction that reduces water infiltration, along with bank trampling both reduce the size and effectiveness of wet areas, this negatively impacts water flows and native fish habitat.

Wetlands, seeps, and springs are also critical for native amphibians like Columbia spotted frog, snails, and many songbirds.

Cheatgrass, a highly flammable annual grass that has led to fires which is a significant cause for the loss of sagebrush ecosystems across the West has been documented on over 600 acres of the WMA. Cattle trample soil crusts. Crusts cover the soil and restrict seed establishment of cheatgrass. Cattle preferentially consuming native grasses results in a competitive advantage for cheatgrass, thus exacerbates the spread of exotic grasses.

Few areas in the state are livestock-free. The Spotted Dog WMA should remain one of them.


  1. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    The Spotted Dog wildlife management area is 37,877 acres in size and is inside Powell county which is just east of Missoula county. There is a management plan of sorts which one can access online. The plan mentions 22 species of invasive plant species. As George has mentioned many times if managers want to get rid of invasive weedy species-cattle grazing is not the way. Cows only set back succession more and invasive species increase.

    This was probably more of a political and economic decision by the state which charges between $10 and $11 dollars per AUM. Much more than the feds charge.

    Agencies like to provide a “cover” for livestock grazing with verbose plans, a lot of strange acronyms and in making the current over grazed appearance of land seem normal.

    I remember a survey I did many years ago on a heavily grazed ranch. There was an old holding corral on the place which had the gates closed and had not been used for years. The grasses grew up on the inside over 4 foot high and the soil was deep and fertile. This was an embarrassment to the rancher because the grass was maybe 2 inches high on the outside and I could not even stick a pin flag into the ground it was so compacted by cow hoofs.

    The land is treated like a slave-beaten down so that it can never recover. I can only think that with this land abuse that fires, floods and diseases will become much more common.

  2. HoofHugs Avatar

    The horse, including wild horses, is the one of the longest lived species in N. America. Beginning between 55 to 60 mil. yrs. ago through the present time, the horse and its ancestors have lived in N. America w/ perhaps an 8,10,000 yr. absence after the last last major glacier period. They returned to NA around 1500 when Spanish conquistadors likely got stuck shallow water during low tide in NC’s OBX. Horses are good complimentary grazers for cattle. The horse has more right to grazing land than almost any species you could mention.

    1. idaursine Avatar

      Thank you for posting. I wish that we would stop clinging to outdated ideas and accept the latest science about our wildlife, as in the instances of wolves and wild horses, and admit we don’t know it all. It causes such needless destruction to do otherwise.


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