Greater Yellowstone Coalition: Wildlife Friendly or Rancher Friendly?

Stream dried up for irrigation of livestock forage. Photo by George Wuerthner

Recently the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) announced they were working to reduce the wildlife impacts of fences. Not by removing the fences, but by changing the wire on them to facilitate easier wildlife passage. Fences, as GYC, noted hinder wildlife migrations, and in particular, are a barrier to pronghorn which are reluctant to jump a fence.

Ordinarily, I would praise this effort, especially if part of a broader strategy to remove the single biggest environmental problem in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)—namely livestock production.

Back when I worked for the organization in the early 1990s, we talked a lot about cumulative impacts—or the collective environmental degradation of a thousand cuts. You won’t hear GYC talking about cumulative effects, and you won’t see many references to science either. Both are too controversial and would harm their fundraising efforts.

Advocating for better fences is non-controversial. Who isn’t for this? But in the big picture, it will make little difference to the region’s wildlife. That is why GYC supports it. It’s an easy win. The harder work is to educate the public about the multiple ways that livestock production harms the GYE.

What you won’t hear from GYC is that fences, even “wildlife-friendly” fences, still harm many wildlife species. For instance, fence collisions are responsible for up to 30% mortality in sage grouse. And fence poles are used as lookout posts by avian predators like golden eagles which prey on sage grouse.

But that is only the beginning of the litany of livestock impacts on the ecosystem that GYC ignores. Indeed, just about every species that GYC professes to care about are harmed by the livestock industry. Species impacted include bison to grizzly bears to cutthroat trout to sage grouse and wolves.

The root of nearly all environmental impacts and ecosystem degradation in the GYE is a consequence of livestock production.

Livestock is the reason we are shooting bison that wander from Yellowstone.

The slaughter of wolves, grizzlies, and coyotes throughout the ecosystem is to appease the livestock industry. Nor will you hear them mention that even the presence of livestock displaces native herbivores like elk, not to mention that domestic animals are consuming the forage that would support native wildlife like elk, and other ungulates. All this affects the prey for larger predators. Instead, you’ll hear a lot of hype about “predator friendly” ranchers.

Irrigated livestock forage is responsible for the degradation of the GYE aquatic ecosystems.  Livestock is also the biggest source of water pollution throughout the ecosystem. The most significant cause of riparian area ( the green strips of vegetation along streams) destruction is due to trampling by livestock.

The spread of weeds like cheatgrass, which is responsible for range fires, is primarily due to the destruction of soil crusts by livestock, which in turn promotes cheatgrass establishment and spread. Many other species from frogs to snails to prairie dogs to grasshoppers are killed to satisfy the livestock industry.

Livestock is the source of diseases that are a threat to native wildlife from pneumonia that harms bighorn sheep to Chronic Wasting Disease that originally came from domestic livestock.

No, you won’t hear any of this from GYC even though they have a five million dollar budget and certainly could learn these facts if they had any interest in really protecting and enhancing the ecosystem.

GYC has never questioned grazing privileges on public lands. You won’t hear them asking why public wildlife like wolves and grizzlies are killed to subsidize the private profit of ranchers.

The reason GYC has never gone after the root of the problem, instead of promotes “feel good” projects like developing wildlife-friendly fences and bear-proof garbage cans, is simple. Money. Long ago, GYC decided to invite wealthy ranchers on its board of directors. GYC has gone out of its way to avoid hiring anyone with any knowledge of the real impacts of livestock production. Indeed, it barely relies on science for anything anymore.

Their halfway livestock policies will never make much difference in the big picture. It is analogous to a group like the American Medical Association promoting filtered cigarettes under the guise of reducing lung cancer, instead of challenging the tobacco industry itself.

I would like to write something positive about GYC but they don’t give me much to work with these days. Real conservation requires challenging the status quo. If the status quo were working there would be no need for conservation.

GYC is unwilling to ruffle any feathers and in some instances, actually provides greenwashing to destructive activities and policies. I truly believe the ecosystem would be better off if GYC just disappeared.

If you are a member of GYC because you think they are working to protect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, think again. They are primarily working to protect themselves and their funding.


  1. JohnR Avatar

    Hard hitting article! Thank you George.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    There seems to be an older karmic problem, in regard to Yellowstone. Yellowstone Park was “founded” by Columbus Delano who was secretary of interior under U.S. Grant.

    On one hand Delano thought that Yellowstone was worth preservation but on the other he felt that the vast herds of bison (passenger pigeons as well) had to be sacrificed so as to make the plains Indians and northeastern tribes dependent upon the governments cruel system of reservations and rationing. Because of rampant profiteering and corruption in the department of interior, Delano (also a rancher and lawyer) was asked to resign by president Grant. Sound familiar?

    It was during the beginning of Delano’s term in 1870 that the sale of buffalo bones in Kansas brought in 2.5 million dollars. This represents the bodies of approximately 31 million bison. If one laid the bodies of that many bison end to end they would form a line almost 5,000 miles long.

    People just do not know how abundant wildlife really was and how fertile Grandmother Earth was to produce such staggering numbers of critters. The speed and thoroughness of the bloody slaughter and rape of the land was unparalleled in human history. Not something to be proud of.

    People just seem to want to settle for less and go along with corporate capitalism. They call it nature but it has been adulterated and mistreated for so long that they don’t really care any more and can’t tell the difference.

    Just imagine if the world was run by ecologists. That would make the wall street moguls crap in their $1000 suits. They would probably just invest in diaper factories.

  3. Terri Ducay Avatar
    Terri Ducay

    excellent article. one way to fight the cattle ranches who disregard a balanced ecosystem is go vegetarian. Only when the money is removed from ranching will they stop the destruction.

  4. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    And now 60% of mammals on earth are livestock for slaughter, 36% humans still over-populating and so 94% just livestock in a few species and humans who can barely tolerate people who look a little different than their tribe. So 4% are all the WILD mammals left on earth of ALL species – and being erased quickly for ( wait for it ) livestock production and people. We humans are insane – and killing off the wild world to kill off the tame world to kill off ourselves. We will have pandemics with this type of imbalance. The stronger and more diverse the web of life – the better chance we have to survive our cruelty.

  5. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    I attended the founding meetings of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 1983 and it is so unfortunate that they have veered so far from the lofty goals of those early days. Someday, with a new Board of Directors, hopefully, the GYC will get on the right track to help save the wild lands and wildlife that surrounds them – minus all the livestock that they seem to prize these days.

  6. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Conservation is as conservation does.

    GW and the ‘No Compromise’ segment of the environmental movement need to REALLY challenge the status quo and promote preservation as the environmental ethic, moral, instead of also referring to themselves conservationists.

    The semantic matters. Act and propagate media like it does.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      I agree. I call myself a preservationist.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        🙂 I’ve wondered about that too, and choosing to call myself a preservationist is right for me as well.

  7. John Carter Avatar

    Not much more needs to be said except one long as a single “rancher” continues to have a grazing permit on public lands, our National Forests and BLM, those lands will be at risk of being lost. Ranchers and their political allies have tried to steal these lands owned by all the American people since they were exposed by Bernard DeVoto in the 1940’s and it continues today under the guise of “local control” and collaborations who prop up the industry.

  8. Maximilian Werner Avatar
    Maximilian Werner

    Excellent piece, George. I can get pretty far out there in terms of trying to negotiate all the competing interests, but your articles always bring me down to earth and remind me of what’s really going on. I go back and forth between wanting to go for the throat and trying to be all things to all people, which just isn’t possible. Thanks for reminding me of what matters.


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.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner