No Right Way To Do The Wrong Thing

The article “Rancher Promotes ‘New Paradigm’ On The Rangeland” appeared in the May 10 Mountain Express.

The views expressed by rancher Glen Elzinga deserves some perspective. I acknowledge that rancher Glenn Elzinga is trying his best to improve his livestock grazing through intensive management of his cattle herd.

However, there is no right way to do the wrong thing. And raising water-loving, slow-moving animals in the desert among wildlife that need that land more than his cows is doing the wrong thing.

Elzinga operates a private business on 46,000 acres of our public lands for his private profit. And even under the best management, his cattle are still degrading our property in multiple ways that Elzinga conveniently failed to mention.

His cattle are consuming grass and forbs that would otherwise support native herbivores from grasshoppers to sage grouse chicks to elk. His cows are compacting soils reducing water infiltration increasing the desertification of an already arid landscape. His cows are tramping soil crusts that inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass. His cows are spreading weeds. His cows are polluting our waterways. His cows are socially displacing native wildlife like elk and pronghorn, forcing them to utilize less suitable habitat. His cows are consuming forage that would support those elk and other wildlife that in turn would support our predators like wolves and cougars. His cows are trampling seeps and wetlands that are critical habitat for frogs, snails and vital water sources for wildlife. And those are just the impacts on the public land.

Furthermore, Elzinga promotes the false dichotomy that if his cows were not out degrading our public lands, he and other ranchers would have no choice but to subdivide their lands.

If ranching were such a good way to preclude subdivisions, there would be none anyplace in the West, since nearly all of them are on former Ag lands. Most of the Wood River Valley, as well as the cities and towns around the West, were ranches or farms at one time—and it sure didn’t preclude housing tracts. If allowing ranchers to degrade our public lands is a conservation strategy, it’s not a very effective one.

Keep in mind that ranchers don’t have to sell their property to subdividers either. They can opt to put their property into conservation easements.

Plus subdivisions aren’t covering every mountain valley in the West because people want certain amenities. The reason the Pahsimeroi Valley is largely uninhabited is not that there are ranchers out there trashing our public lands preventing subdivisions; instead it is because few people who want to live there.

Most people want to have things like cafes, hospitals, theaters, breweries, food stores, schools, universities, ski runs, and the rest nearby. Despite the high cost of real estate people flock to the Wood River Valley to live where there are amenities.

Oregon has statewide zoning that precludes subdivisions of agricultural and ranchlands outside of urban growth boundaries. If ranchers like Elzinga were genuinely concerned about subdivisions, they would be advocating land use planning and zoning.

Custer County is 95% public land. Removal of livestock from those millions of acres of public property would easily improve the ecological health of far more than any losses that might occur if some private ranchland were subdivided.

In the end, even the best livestock management can’t compensate for trying to do the wrong thing in the wrong place.






  1. Pamela Williams Avatar
    Pamela Williams

    I learn so much from George Weurthner. I am deeply appreciative for the stellar education in rangelands/wildlife matters.

  2. N.Pierce Avatar

    Just so expertly and kindly put. Mr Weurthner posts are always remarkable, his arguments always well supported. This one is particularly comprehensive at detailing all the serious and wide spread destruction caused by cattle running rampant in public lands. As a botanist I despair when in the field trying to find plants that should be there and all I find are holes in the dirt made by hooves. Something has to be done to protect what biodiversity we have left!

  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    The article that George is talking about mentions that the Nature Conservancy is backing the operation. One thing they fail to mention is that the rancher gets about a 90% plus discount on grazing fees from the BLM. If the lessee had to pay fair market value for the forage could the operation sustain itself? I doubt it.

    I worked as a sub-contractor doing animal surveys for TNC many years ago. I can understand making arrangements to back different types of grazing strategies on private land. But hey- we the tax payers are mostly footing the bill on public land. This kind of stuff is not really justifiable economically or ecologically. We should not have to pay for others resource extraction projects on public land. This is just welfare ranching spruced up a little bit.

  4. STG Avatar

    I moved to Beaverhead County MT from Gallatin County Mt in 2017. Last fall I hiked in a WSA area in the West Pioneer Mt (off of Pioneer Scenic Byway). I was shocked to see the destruction of the landscape (trail, creeks, meadows) as a result of livestock grazing. I suspect that the forest service looks the other way or ignores the situation because agricultural interests have all the power in this county. This is one of he worst examples I have ever seen of habitat destruction/abuse of public land as a result of allowing cattle to overgraze and stay in one place too long.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Howdy STG, you moved to my neck of the woods and I totally agree, its shocking to see the destruction to the landscape in what should be pristine, mountainous areas.

      10 thousand head of cattle won’t be moving back in to those areas until the end of June, so enjoy it while you can….

      1. STG Avatar

        Hi Nancy,

        Do you live in Beaverhead County? If so, where? I live just outside of Dillon. I am a development refugee from Bozeman (30 plus years resident).

        I will not be hiking off of the Pioneer Scenic Byway until August or September. I think one of the reason the area is so damaged, is because cattle were allowed to graze when the meadows were saturated and the trails were also wet. There has been damage from human and horse traffic too. Going on the trails too early and not paying attention to the conditions, causes damage to the landscape. I wish public land users would be aware of the problem.

        1. Nancy Avatar

          Yep, we are neighbors STG so I will try and touch base with you through the moderators of TWN website. Because you don’t want to be putting your personal info out there for the f**king trolls, who so often frequent this site 🙂

          Harley comes to mind for those that remember her innocently posting her email address, a few years ago?

          1. STG Avatar

            Sounds good Nancy!


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