Greater Yellowstone Coalition Shills For Livestock Industry

Black Butte, Gravelly Range, Montana photo by George Wuerthner

The commentary by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in the October 10th Bozeman Chronicle “Together we can tackle the fire issue” was another example of how the organization sees its role as a shill of the livestock industry.

The misinformation presented on sagebrush, juniper, and Doug fir “invasion” in southwest Montana lacks critical scientific expertise and merely mouths the livestock industry’s propaganda.

GYC continues to promote the livestock industry’s assertion that “low severity” and frequent” fires and fuel reductions via grazing or logging can preclude the “mega” fires that we see now. What is driving large fires is drought, warmer temperatures, and high winds–all exacerbated by climate change.

Mouthing the party line that juniper has “expanded” and “invaded” many parts of southwest Montana due to fire suppression,  GYC supports the Gravelly Range “Collaborative” plan to log native species like juniper and Doug fir, along with prescribed burning of sagebrush to promote a “healthy” ecosystem.

I’m always amazed that anyone is so gullible that they accept that the best way to create healthy ecosystems is to log or graze them, which happens, by happy coincidence, to benefit the timber and livestock industries.

Even if juniper is expanding its range, is it unnatural? For instance, geologist Jen Pierce at Boise State found that juniper was still expanding northward due to a more favorable climate for its growth. Ecosystems and plants are not static. They move to respond to the weather/climate.

Other scientists document that juniper does not frequently burn, often with a fire rotation of 400 years or more, but when it does, it tends to burn at high severity—just the kind of fire that GYC is suggesting is “unnatural.”

Cattle grazing riparian area in Gravelly Range, Montana Photo by George Wuerthner

Furthermore, juniper takes a long time to “recover” after stand replacement blazes. Some livestock proponents, including GYC, call “invasion” some scientists suggest that in many areas is merely recolonization after a significant fire.

Other non-range scientists suggest it is merely regrowth after major high severity fires. Some researchers also question low severity fires restricted junipers as implied by the livestock industry and GYC.

The suggestion that Douglas fir is unnaturally dense is based primarily on two studies done in Southwest Montana. That one can extrapolate to the entire national forest based on two localized reviews is problematic at best. Still, beyond this issue, the methodologies of the studies have been criticized as well. Emily Heyerdahl et al. did the study most often cited by the livestock industry and federal agencies.

The researchers put out plots to locate fire-scarred trees, but they could only find 17 fire-scarred trees within plots, so they added in 50 additional trees from outside of parcels. Talk about a bias sample size!

Remember that every time you add in a tree with a scar in any year, you shorten the fire interval. Thus, a single tree or group of a few scarred trees that perhaps was scarred by a lightning strike would be counted as a “fire year,” which tends to shorten the fire interval. Since nearly all fires are small, burning less than a few acres, the idea that every fire scar indicates some massive fire that influences the entire landscape is unlikely. I discuss these biases in this article.

Finally, burning sagebrush through prescribed fire is yet another problematic proposal. Sagebrush, particularly mountain big sage, which dominates the area, also has long fire rotations of hundreds of years to fully recover from a blaze. If you ask any of the sagebrush experts (not range professors), purposefully burning any sagebrush today is just about a criminal act given how much has already been destroyed by various other treatments. This is especially true since cheatgrass, a highly flammable exotic annual grass, is often expanded as a result.

Finally, GYC is implicitly hawking the livestock industry (and timber industry) narrative that large fires are due to “too much fuel” when all the research suggests that extreme fire weather conditions drive all large blazes.

Unless you have the right weather/climate conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds, most fires remain small and do not burn much terrain regardless of the “fuels.” Only when you have the “right” weather conditions, do you get a large blaze. When these conditions exist, there is no stopping the fires. And increasingly, climate change is creating the ideal conditions for large blazes.

If GYC were concerned about ecosystem “health,” it would advocate removing livestock from the public land instead of hawking livestock propaganda.

Sheep grazing Eureka Basin Gravelly Range, Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, Montana Photo by George Wuerthner

What you won’t hear from GYC is that domestic sheep and cattle are destroying riparian areas, transmitting disease to wildlife (as with domestic sheep to wild bighorns), killing predators from wolves to grizzlies, polluting water, compacting soils, spreading weeds, dewatering our rivers for irrigated hay production and pasture, consuming the vegetation that would otherwise support native wildlife from grasshoppers to elk, contributing methane to climate change, as well as identified as the single most significant factor in species endangerment in the West and biodiversity losses globally.





  1. Oakley Taylor Avatar

    I fear that the forest and the animals are sadly at the mercy of too many people that are driven by big money interests. I hope we can continue pushing against the regime and do what is best for the earth and it’s creatures.

  2. Doug Gledhill Avatar
    Doug Gledhill

    I am very grateful to have found The Wildlife News web site and the insights provided by George. I hope your efforts will garner greater attention and appreciation for the science of ecology, and will result in fundamental changes in ideology and action that will arrest the current trajectories and enhance ecosystem’s prospects in the future.

  3. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Considering the lack of Yellowstone care for the buffalo – since they only seem to “care” while buffalo are within the Park boundaries. The moment they cross the line – its a free-for-all in “hunting” season. I agree – KEEP PUSHING & make every attempt to do the best for ALL our species and our planet. How sad that Mr. Wuerthner’s knowledge isnt made use of by our government agencies – you know, the ones that are supposedly “managing” our Wilderness, Parks, Monuments and, oh yes, our public lands – OUR public lands!

  4. Beeline Avatar

    In my experience councils like GYC have been made up of business conscious people and not ecologically conscious people. They usually tend to believe in the capitalistic paradigm even though capitalism, especially in its present corporate form is failing. It is like an old rusty bucket that has holes and is leaking. So far the answer has been to pour more water in the bucket rather than fix it or get a new bucket. So I see that Gallatin County folks are bragging about economic growth. And my sources inform me that several movie star/producer types are investing in their county. Pouring more money into the “rusty bucket” so to speak. It is ironic that they are the leaders in Covid infections in Montana. An interesting metaphor.

    The current economic system works quite well for the feudal lords of corporate capitalism in this country. So, this top 2% of the super rich do not want to change. They stick with the old paradigm inherited from a system founded on the abuse of nature and lower classes of people etc.. They are the kings and queens and we are the surfs. Money has power and biological information has very little standing in the current system.

    The Haudenosaunee confederated tribes (Iraquois to most people) have a history of reminding the Anglo-Centric society that if you go against natural law you will always fail. We can see this in the increase of violent storms, the melting of the ice caps, the ongoing pollution of the air and water and the disappearance of so many species of plants and animals in a relatively short time.

    So yeah, I hope that Donny Trump is defeated in November but keep in mind that Mr. Biden and his crew still believe in the old system of capitalism. Nature is hitting us with a wake up two by four. We need to get them on board with ecological action and real democracy or get them out.

  5. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    How sad is it that the last two (I’m sure there are more) elections for president have been “vote for the least evil”?
    Yes I am well aware that few of the current “batch” of politicians is not pushing that agenda.
    As if current affairs arent depressing enough – I’m pushing through “A People’s History of the US” by Howard Zinn. AS if I dont get frustrated enough – this makes clear (if I was in any doubt) that the current mindset has shifted only slightly from 1600! But then there is Mr. Wuerthner and more & more people who have opened their eyes to facts. I do hope its not too late. I have grandchildren & great grandchildren!!!

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Even if juniper is expanding its range, is it unnatural?

    Not in my opinion it isn’t. It’s a native species, and as you mentioned, ‘Ecosystems and plants are not static. They move to respond to the weather/climate’. 🙁

    But no, or not enough, concern about invasive cheatgrass!

  7. STG Avatar

    Amen! Many so called environmental groups have been co-opted by agricultural, business or recreational interests. Multiple use/abuse prevails. I live in Beaverhead County and I am appalled at the condition of the public land(WSA, BLM and FS) (e.g., forests, meadows, grasslands, streams etc.) as a result of poor grazing practice and ATV damage. I suspect the local forest service employees are under tremendous social and political pressure to ignore or capitulate to the local cattle industry. Wildlife and vegetation are only seen as utilitarian commodities.


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