How Livestock Differs From Wildlife

Cattle grazing in the Mojave Desert, California. Photo by George Wuerthner

Livestock advocates often state that cattle and sheep have merely “replaced” the native herbivores. And since plants are “adapted” to herbivory from native grazers, then “obviously” livestock grazing is compatible with ecosystem preservation. Some even go so far to claim that plants “need” to be grazed.


There are several things wrong with these assumptions.


First, plants do not “need” to be grazed anymore than most of us “need” our skin to be exposed to large amounts of sunshine. Yes, we have adaptations such as tanning that offer us some protection from harmful sun rays, but most doctors would tell you that the less unprotected sun exposure you have, the better your skin. Too much sun exposure eventually leads to skin cancer.


Most plants react to herbivory as we do to sun exposure—they have adaptations that allow them to “tolerate” and defend themselves against the worse damage.  Most plants expend vast amounts of energy, protecting themselves from herbivory. Thorns, prickles, chemical inhibitors, thick bark, and other adaptations are all mechanisms used to cope with herbivory. That is, there is a “cost” to herbivory for plants.


The energy they are expending on chemical inhibitors, thorns, or other protections means less left for basis plant function and survival, whether that is the development of a greater root system or more seeds.

Many plants expend energy growing thorns, chemical inhibitors to protect them from herbivores.  Photo by George Wuerthner

Plants exposed to a long history of herbivory pressure, like some grasses on the Great Plains, have evolved adaptive strategies that permit them to survive herbivory pressure. Still, it is a stretch to claim they “need” to be grazed, except to say that they have a competitive advantage in the face of adversity just as darker-skinned people can tolerate greater sun exposure before they suffer skin damage.


If a plant is grazed during the growing season it reacts something like we do when we are in shock or suffering from hypothermia. It translocates resources from other parts of the plant to maintain vital organs—in the plant’s case—green photosynthetic material—i.e., leaves but with a potential loss of function in other body parts.


But constructing leaves means there is less energy left for other plant functions like building roots or seed production. So over time, a plant that is repeatedly cropped during the growing season is at a competitive disadvantage with other plants because it is sacrificing root development or seed production. So let’s say there’s a drought, the cropped plant may die due to water stress. That is how overgrazing occurs—one bite at a time.


Secondly, livestock uses the landscape differently than native herbivores. Native herbivores tend to be widely distributed over the landscape during the growing season. The chances that a plant cropped by an elk or bison will be regrazed again in any year, much less for years, is remote. Hence individual plants suffer no long-term harm from native herbivores. Herbivores are concentrated in winter by snow and weather, however, plants are dormant and are less impacted by herbivory.  Plus regulatory processes like starvation, predation, etc. that helps keep native wildlife numbers in balance with available food sources.


Bison Yellowstone NP, WY Photo by George Wuerthner

Livestock tends to graze plants repeatedly often during the growing season for several reasons. Unlike native herbivores, livestock are usually concentrated by fences or herding and are often forced to regraze plants. Livestock prefers green plants that are higher in nutrients and protein. Many native grass plants take up to 10 years to fully recover from one grazing event, and there are few pastures rested for that kind of period.


Livestock are also just less mobile than wildlife, so they cannot utilize steeper terrain and other areas that are available to native herbivores, which helps native wildlife reduce pressure on any one plant.


Furthermore, native herbivores all seek out different plants. Bison tend to graze the coarser grasses, elk the regrown grass that follows bison, antelope seek out the forbs (flowers), and deer tend to eat shrubs. When you have a full suite of native herbivores, no one group of plants is overly affected by herbivory.


And let us not forget there are many other herbivores out there, from ground squirrels and prairie dogs to grasshoppers and sage grouse. All of these animals have different influences on native plants, and their collective effects are within the ecosystem’s tolerances.

Prairie dog, Badlands National Park, South Dakota Photo by George Wuerthner

Livestock, on the other hand, tends to focus on one group of plants. If grazed by cattle, the grasses are removed first, and there are more “forbs.” Sheep ignore the grasses and focus on forbs. But that means one kind of plant group tends to dominate sites grazed repeatedly by one livestock group.


Livestock (cattle), which evolved in moist woodlands in Eurasia, seek out habitat similar to their evolutionary past—i.e., they congregate in riparian areas. Riparian areas are critically important to the West’s wildlife since 75-80 percent of all species rely on riparian areas for food or shelter.

Cow-trashed riparian area, Upper Green River, Bridger Teton NF, Wyoming. Photo by George Wuerthner

Riparian areas are also giant sponges that slow flooding and help maintain stream flows in low water times of late summer. Cattle destroy riparian areas by trampling plants, breaking down banks, compacting soils, and eating vegetation. Native herbivores like bison tend to avoid riparian areas or, like elk and deer, utilize them primarily in winter when plants are dormant, and the damage is negligible.


Finally, wildlife numbers are determined by natural factors from drought, harsh winters, predation, disease, and other factors. These tend to confine herbivores to certain population levels dictated by available forage and water. On the other hand, livestock numbers are subsidized by additional feed, water, predator protection, and other measures designed to ensure livestock survival even in the face of adverse natural conditions. As a consequence, livestock are often maintained at excessive numbers that can damage rangeland ecosystems.


For these and other reasons, the idea that livestock merely “replaced” native wildlife is an exaggeration.




  1. David Neils Avatar

    George, these are all great points to ponder, share and act on. It would be great, in a future article, to share success stories of fencing cattle out of riparian areas such as what happened on the Big Hole River, primarily as a result of the Big Hole River Foundation.

    Of great concern is the damage cattle and other livestock inflict on public land, damage that is basically subsidized by the taxpayer. Grazing cattle on public land for pennies on the dollar compared to grazing on private land, ranchers rarely check for damage to riparian areas and never spend time addressing that damage. This needs to change.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      AND – we the taxpayer make up the difference between the pittance livestock producers actually pay and the cost of this program, PLUS the cost of the subsidies we, the taxpayers, provide to this industry!
      I would like to see some success stories, too. I’m sure there are many – we see & understand the damage done but seeing what CAN be accomplished would be uplifting!

  2. Mathieu Federspiel Avatar
    Mathieu Federspiel

    In addition, native grazers were moved about before the extirpation of top predators and did not overgraze any single area. Cattle have little reason to move until the food is gone.

    And consider how livestock grazing differs from the effects of low-intensity fire. See:

    Of course you could also get into mismanagement of grazing permits and other problems with the current system.

  3. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    How can fencing be considered a success when removing cattle from public lands is the goal?

    The above comments illustrate the public disconnect.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Good point Chris!

    2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      True, Chris –
      To most of us here – its pretty obvious exactly how much damage is done by confining grazing animals to a specific area.
      In order to actually succeed in removing livestock from public lands & our forests & National Monuments the general public has to be made aware & made to CARE!
      Considering the seeming lack of caring about the number of species – animal & plant that are being eradicated daily its feeling like a pretty steep hill to climb!
      Sorry to be so depressing – one of those days!

    3. David Neils Avatar

      Follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall who works with all key stakeholders for the benefit of wildlife. Organizations and individuals who waive the banners of protecting, saving and preserving typically operate in isolation and are often antagonistic toward the very stakeholders they need to work with to be successful.

      Successful wildlife conservation, on the other hand, requires ALL stakeholders to be at the table and working together for the benefit of wildlife. I know many organizations that won’t work with state wildlife agencies because they support hunting. Foolish. If you are in the United States and choose not to work successfully with state wildlife agencies, you’re basically impotent when it comes to making a difference for wildlife.

      Successful wildlife conservation requires working in the grey areas. Nothing is black and white. It’s like attending a family reunion where you hope certain relatives don’t show up and when you get there they are all there and drunk. Once they sober up you get to work.

  4. James A Bailey Avatar

    Natural habitats are dynamic and diverse – mosaics of many different patch sizes. The diversity is created and maintained by several disturbance factors that vary in time and space: fire, drought, wind, flooding and wildlife foraging. — However, the wildlife foraging becomes less variable in time and space as we develop more habitat and more barriers to animal movements. Also, the paradigm of game management is the stable population. Thus, the impacts of large grazing wildlife become less variable as we concentrate a more stable number of animals in less space/time. — In contrast, the paradigm of livestock management is maximum, stable production of hamburger. ALL of the ranch should be used (grazed) at the same maximum-production level. This tends to monotonize the habitat. Then, there are all the wildlife species that are not welcome on the ranch (predators and competitors). Their functions no longer contribute to habitat diversity. And this is for GOOD livestock management. Of course, some habitats are overgrazed, further degrading overall habitat, especially in riparian areas. JAB

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      This article would be a great read for any of our Congress people! Doesnt appear they do any research other than listen to the BLM & ranching lobby.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        The facts have been out there for awhile Maggie. I seem to recall a copy of this book was presented to those back in Washington who could make a difference if they cared.

        The book is still available on Amazon.

        I have a copy of the book but don’t need to reference it because I live it, here in cattle country where abuses to the landscape and wildlife are routinely swept under the rug/guise/excuse? of “good stewards of the land”


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George Wuerthner