The Emperor Has No Clothes when it comes to cows and cheatgrass

Recently Nevada Bureau of Land Management (BLM) State  Director Jon Raby suggested that the agency will try “targeted grazing” among other methods to reduce wildfires in the sagebrush ecosystem. Raby says the BLM is implementing this action “because of the threat of annual invasive grasses, specifically cheatgrass, play in altering fire regime conditions that intensify wildland fire frequency, duration, and size.”

The BLM’s response to cheatgrass has an analogy in the Hans Christian Anderson story about the Emperor new clothes. Only a small child is willing to say the obvious—the Emperor is naked.

We have a similar situation with regards to cheatgrass spread and livestock grazing. No one in the BLM is willing to admit the obvious– that livestock grazing is largely responsible for the spread of cheatgrass.

The reason the BLM is closed mouth about the relationship between cheatgrass spread and livestock is political, not due a lack of scientific information.

Throughout the arid West, biological soil crusts (BSC) consisting of moss, algae, lichens, and cyanobacteria cover the soil between native bunchgrasses. These crusts are very fragile and easily broken up by trampling from livestock hooves. As livestock destroy soil crusts, cheatgrass seeds can establish on the bare soil.

A second way that livestock promotes cheatgrass is by selectively grazing native bunchgrasses. Native bunchgrasses in the Great Basin evolved without large herds of grazing animals like bison.  Therefore, they have few adaptations for resisting grazing pressure and are slow to recover from grazing.  By selectively and preferentially grazing the native grasses, livestock gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology looked at 75 Great Basin sites invaded by cheatgrass found that greater grazing intensity promoted the alien’s spread. As the researchers concluded:” Evidence suggests abundant bunchgrasses limit invasions by limiting the size and connectivity of gaps between vegetation, and BSCs (biological soil crusts) appear to limit invasions within gaps.

The study goes on to conclude: “Results also suggest that cattle grazing reduces invasion resistance by decreasing bunchgrass abundance, shifting bunchgrass composition, and thereby increasing connectivity of gaps between perennial plants while trampling further reduces resistance by reducing BSC.”

However, you won’t hear anything about this and other studies from the BLM. Just as the EPA is not allowed to mention climate change, the BLM is not permitted to say anything that could be conceived as negative about ranching.

Another ruse used by the BLM is “targeted grazing” is the idea that eliminating grasses, can reduce the spread of wildfires.

Again, the BLM’s Emperor has no clothes. What is never mentioned is that climate/weather conditions primarily drive large wildfires. Extreme fire weather with low humidity, high temperatures, extended drought, and most importantly, high winds are the primary driver of large blazes. Under such conditions, windblown embers easily cross any “fuel break” created by targeted grazing.

In a widely cited paper,  Targeted Grazing in Southern Arizona: Using Cattle to Reduce Fine Fuel Loads, the researchers noted in the next to last paragraph: Although it (targeted grazing)  is a promising tool for altering fire behavior, targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.” In other words, livestock grazing doesn’t work under extreme fire weather conditions.

Why is this important? Because all the large fires that we seek to control or suppress only occur under extreme fire weather conditions. In other words, the very fires that all this manipulation, livestock grazing, and so forth are supposed to control are ineffective under extreme fire weather conditions.

This conclusion was recently reiterated in a recent paper on fuel breaks with the title: “The ecological uncertainty of wildfire fuel breaks: examples from the sagebrush steppe.” In that paper, the authors warn that fuel breaks are of unproven effectiveness in the face of extreme fire weather.

The BLM is hamstrung by livestock interests when it comes to protecting our natural resources. The Emperor has no clothes, but you won’t hear it from the agency.



  1. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    “Targeted Grazing”= they give all the cows .22’s and tell them to shoot all the other animals.

    Last year Nevada lost an estimated 1,038,490 acres of sage grouse habitat to fire. Or should I say cow habitat. One source says that 39 leks were destroyed. And possibly the largest grazing allotment on public land “managed” by BLM in Nevada was said to be totally destroyed by fire in 2018. Thus I suspect that the ranching block lobbied the crap out their congress people who put pressure on the BLM. The allotment owners family even started a website at The website states among other things that livestock grazing is “the best and most natural way to reduce fuel loads on the range”. They also say that grazing is so good for the soil and vegetation that ranchers should be paid to graze their cows on public lands. With logic like the above the sage grouse are going extinct for sure.

    So you can lead a rancher or a congressman for that matter, to the trough of ecological knowledge but you cannot make them drink.

    I would guess that in Nevada the vegetation that comes back after the fire will be mostly annual grasses and rabbit brush. In my experience cows don’t even like cheat grass that much and if the BLM really wanted to do something positive they would get their butts out there and replant sage and keep cows off the burned land for at least four or five years. If the BLM does plant something it would most likely be crested wheat. That of course is not for the sage grouse.

    I have heard the argument many, many times that livestock grazing is wonderful for public land. If that really were the case then there should be billions of sage hens out there. No?


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