Targeted Livestock Grazing Won’t Preclude Large Wildfires

Cows trash riparian area, BLM lands, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Senators Steve Daines of Montana and Diane Feinstein of California have once again introduced legislation, the “Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020” that is based upon misguided assumptions that fuel reductions will preclude the large blazes occurring as the West.

Never mind that climate change is the driving force in all these fires as was recently documented in a paper (Jones et al 2020). Though the bulk of the legislation is aimed at increasing the logging of our public lands, there is also a provision for targeted livestock grazing as a panacea for wildfire.

The legislation will reduce the public review process of these logging and grazing proposals through the use of categorical exclusions. Categorical exclusions permit agencies to bypass most environmental analysis and public scrutiny.


The basic idea behind targeted grazing is that livestock will consume grass and other vegetation and thereby reduce the spread of wildfire. There is some rationale to the idea—less fuel under “normal” fire weather conditions can influence fire behavior.

However, almost all large fires—the fires that this legislation is designed to halt–occurs during extreme fire weather conditions (Keyser A. and Westerling, A, 2017). These conditions which include drought, low humidity, high temperatures and high winds overrides the normal influence of fuels.

Furthermore, grazing to the degree where fuels are significantly reduced has collateral damage that is frequently ignored.

There are many studies that document that grazing exclusion leads to ecosystem recovery and health (Dobkin, D.S., A. C. Rich, and W. H. Pyle, 1998; Beschta, R.L., D. L. Donahue, A. DellaSala et al., 2012; Cheng, J. et al. 2011).

A recent meta-analysis found livestock was a major factor in global biodiversity losses (Filazzola, A. et al. 2020).

The idea that heavy grazing can improve ecosystems has been disputed by many studies (Carter, J. et al., 2014)

Severe grazing imposes multiple ecological impacts on the landscape (Fleischner 1992; Wuerthner and Matteson 2002; Wilcove 1998; Freilich et al 2003; Flather, C.H. L.A. Joyce and C.A. Bloomgarden, 1994).

Grazing to the point where fuel reductions will be effective in slowing or halting fires requires cropping vegetation to the level of a manicured golf course.

In achieving such fuel reductions, hiding cover for small mammals, reptiles, and birds is reduced. Forage and pollen for insects is removed. Forage that would otherwise feed native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk is removed. Soils are compacted. Weeds are spread (Belsky, A.J., and J. L. Gelbard, 2000)

The banks along streams are broken down (Kauffman B. and W. C. Krueger. 1984, Belsky, J.A., A. Matzke, and S. Uselman, 1999). Biocrusts (which cover the soil between bunchgrasses and reduces erosion) are destroyed. Water is polluted by livestock feces (Wuerthner and Matteson 2002).

The mere presence of domestic livestock can socially displace native ungulates like elk and deer (Steward, K. 2002, Clegg, Kenneth. 1994).

A further impact of livestock production in the arid West is the consumption of water for irrigation and its impacts on aquatic ecosystems. Irrigated agriculture for livestock forage production is the biggest consumer of water in California as well as much of the West (Reisner, Mark, and Sarah Bates. 1990; Hanson, Brian. 2020). The consumption of water for irrigated forage production is a major factor in the decline of native fish around the West (Minchkley, W.L., and J.E. Deacon. 1991; Richter, B.D. et al., 2020).

Trampling by livestock negatively impacts native mollusks (Freist, Terrence.J. 2002, Denmead, Lisa H., et al., 2015}.

Livestock grazing is also responsible for the killing of native predators (Treves, A. et al., 2019)

Heavy livestock grazing can compact soils (Warren, S.D. et al., 1986) and negatively influence soil carbon stores (Belsky, Joy, and Dana M. Blumenthal. 1997; Bird, S.B. et al. 2002; Fang Fei, Chang Rui-ying, Tang Hai-ping, 2014;  Dingpeng Xionga, Peili Shia, Xianzhou Zhanga, Chris B. Zou. 2016; Ingram L.J. et al., 2008). Grazing contributes to soil carbon losses (Klumpp, K., Fontaine, S., Attard, E., Le Roux, X., Gleixner, G. and Soussana, J.-F., 2009; McSherry, M., and Mark Richie. 2013.).

It is worth noting that much of the terrain under public lands management never had significant grazing pressure from large herbivores like bison (Mack and Thompson 1982, Bailey, James A., 2016) and are often harmed by heavy grazing. For instance, it can take a native grass like bluebunch wheatgrass up to 10 years to recover fully from severe grazing pressure (Anderson, L. 1991).

Despite claims by Allan Savory and others that livestock grazing can reduce greenhouse emissions and sequester carbon (Savory, A., 2013), most researchers conclude that domestic livestock emissions are one of the major factors driving climate change (Myers, Bruce, 2014) which is creating the extreme fire weather conditions driving wildfires.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that livestock contributed to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO, Livestock’s Long Shadow. Environmental Issues and Options (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006), while other studies put livestock contribution to global GHG emissions even higher (Goodland, R Anhang, J, 2009: Ripple, W. et al., 2014). Advocating livestock grazing to preclude wildfires is counterproductive in the long run since it only exacerbates the climatic conditions that favors large fires.

These are only a few of the ecological impacts that result from the severe grazing necessary to significantly alter fire behavior. And we will see later, even this kind of severe grazing usually will not stop a wind-driven fire occurring during extreme fire weather.


Alternatively, and far more critical these days, livestock grazing is one of the major factors in the spread of cheatgrass, an annual exotic, that is extremely flammable (Williamson, Matt. A. et al. 2019, Belsky, A.J. and J. L. Gelbard, 2000).

Therefore, cheatgrass has increased fire frequency in sagebrush ecosystems, causing complete type conversion of sagebrush steppe in many areas (Reisner, Michael D. et al. 2013, Condon Lea and David Pyke. 2018).

The factors that favor cheatgrass spread, including livestock grazing (Bradley BA, Curtis CA, Fusco EJ, Abatzoglou JT, Balch JK, Dadashi S, Tuanmu M-N. 2017). Selective grazing of preferred perennial grasses reduces their competitive abilities, permitting cheatgrass colonization. Besides, biological soil crusts (BSC) found in the interspaces between bunchgrasses inhibits cheatgrass establishment. Cattle trample these BSC (Root, Miller, and Rosentreter.2019).

Maintaining healthy stands of perennial grasses has been shown to inhibit cheatgrass spread (Strand et al. 2017).

Although grazing is often trumpeted as a means of reducing fuels (Bailey, Derek W., et al. 2019) and thus wildfire, especially by “targeted” grazing and fuel reductions. (Diamond, Joel, Christopher A. Call, and Nora Devoe 2009). The claims must be scrutinized closely.

For instance, a study done in Arizona concluded (with modeling) that light utilization (26%) in treated sites, the BehavePlus fire model predicted that herding and supplement reduced fire rate of spread by more than 60% in grass communities and by more than 50% in grass/shrub communities (R.A. Bruegger et al. 2016).

However, the authors go one to conclude: “Although it is a promising tool for altering fire behavior, targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.” The weather factors are significant because nearly all massive wildfires burn under “extreme fire weather conditions.” Under such conditions, targeted grazing, as well as fuel breaks, fail to contain or stop fires (Bruegger et al., 2016)

Another study that looked at fuel breaks created by targeted grazing and other measures like bulldozing native vegetation cautioned that the “cure might be worse than the disease” since the destruction of soil biological crusts and loss of native grasses that occur with targeted grazing, bulldozing. Other fuel reductions create the disturbance habitat that favors the spread of cheatgrass (Shinneman et al 2018).

The authors cautioned: “these projects could also add thousands of kilometers of new fuel breaks to the region over the next decade or two, directly altering hundreds of thousands of hectares through habitat conversion, and indirectly affecting sagebrush plant and animal communities through the creation of new edge effects and habitat fragmentation” (Shinneman et al. 2018).

None of the studies that promote grazing to reduce fuels considers the unavoidable ecological impacts that accompany grazing. These include water pollution, soil compaction, trampling of biological soil crusts, the spread of weeds (as with cheatgrass), the social displacement of wildlife (like elk), and the loss of forage wildlife and insects, and costs.

While targeted grazing and the ecological impacts that result might be acceptable for small areas, say to reduce vegetation around a home or some other limited area, it is not effective or acceptable on a landscape scale. As such, it cannot aid in reducing large wildfires.

Furthermore, the probability that any area “treated” by targeted grazing and other fuel reductions will encounter a blaze when fuel removal is effective is extremely small (Rhodes and Baker 2008). Thus, targeted grazing and further fuel reductions, which have their own set of impacts, occur now, potentially reducing a fire that may or may not come in the future.



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Denmead, Lisa H., et al., 2015. Experimental evidence that even minor livestock trampling has severe effects on land snail communities in forest remnants. Journal of Applied Ecology 2015, 52, 161–1

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  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Shameful that our representatives don’t do this kind of research BEFORE passing a bill that will only make the entire “fuel” problem much worse!
    I assume the whole idea of this bill thrills the livestock industry to pieces.

  2. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Why Senator Diane Feinstein has not been challenged in the California primaries is a big mystery to me. She is a Democrat-lite and a half-hearted supporter of a better environment. Senator Feinstein even is supporting the ranchers in their quest to have native Tule Elk shot because they are eating grass that the ranchers say belong to them – even though the cattle and elk are grazing INSIDE PT. REYES NAT. SEASHORE north of San Francisco, which is supposed to be protected by the National Park Service.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      There’s a story about it that was written here at TWN. I wish that the ranchers would be better ‘tenants’ and neighbors!:

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      In her last senatorial primacy she did have an opponent. Many pundits commented that her opponent did surprisingly well in the general election, though, of course he didn’t win. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León challenged her in California’s jungle primary. De Leon did well in general election against here. De Leon running as a Democrat too (there was no Republican candidate) got 46% of the vote. Feinstein got 54%. De Leon entered the race less than a month before the general election and had little money or name identification.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        At 87, it would seem to be time for Ms. Feinstein to retire & allow someone else a chance to get something done. Not impressed with her support of ranchers – certainly not at Point Reyes!

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine


    “In its final environmental review of the park’s general management plan amendment, the National Park Service’s preferred option is to extend leases for private ranchers from five-year terms to up to 20-year-terms. The 24 ranching families in the park and neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area would also be able to diversify their livestock beyond cows on a case-by-case basis to include other animals such as goats, chickens and pigs.”

    How in the world is bringing in even more livestock going to help the environment? Absolutely outrageous.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    And here, according from the Center for Biological Diversity:

    “The plan allows the Park Service to shoot native Tule elk to appease ranchers and drive elk away from designated ranch lands. It sets an arbitrary population cap of 120 elk for the Drakes Beach herd, currently estimated at 138 elk, to be maintained by killing the animals. The Park Service can shoot any free-roaming elk that attempt to create new herds in the park, which is the only national park with Tule elk.

    The plan also allows conversion of park grasslands and wildlife habitat to artichoke farms and other row crops, as well as the expansion of commercial livestock farming to introduce sheep, goats, pigs or chickens. This will inevitably lead to conflicts with other native wildlife in the park and could result in ranchers calling for killing of coyotes, bobcats, foxes and numerous birds.

    Artichoke farms plural? Where is the water going to come from?

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I hope they can be sued from here to Kingdom Come.

  6. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Despite all the talk about targeted grazing and/or timbering, I never see comments that many of the California fires are primarily brush fires.

  7. Megan Avatar

    What about, say, keeping five small goats on a two-acre, rural-residential-zoned property, or some such similar approach? It seems to me that this article should be more clear (e.g., from the title on forward) as to what type of farming the author is seeking to examine. Obviously too many big creatures is only a detriment to the planet — see what we humans have done, for example — but it seems not very well thought-out to list all the ways in which cattle, and only cattle, are exacerbating and contributing to our drought crisis here out West.

  8. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Megan… Maybe the article was not clear enough, but the author is talking about the many problems caused by domestic livestock on our PUBLIC LANDS – he was not talking about private property. Cattle and sheep have no place in our PUBLIC LANDS, because they eat the grasses and flowers that should be reserved fir native wildlife and insects to flourish. The Government even allows the killing of native wild bison to protect land for cattle once the bison roam out of Yellowstone NP and set foot in the State of Montana. Elk are being proposed to be killed inside Pt. Reyes Nat. Seashore north of San Francisco, because the Nat. Park Service says they are eating the grass that tenant cattle owners want for their cows.

    Cattle trample PUBLIC STREAM BEDS, thus further endangering species like bull-trout and salmon. To make matters worse, the cattle owners who are allowed to graze on our PUBLIC LANDS are heavily subsidized by the US Taxpayers.

    And, as the author points out quite clearly, “targeted livestock grazing” will not stop a high-wind driven, dry season wild fire.


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