Wilderness and Cows-Time to Send the Cows Home


Cattle grazing in designated wilderness at the Mojave National Preserve, California. Photo George Wuerthner 

Cows in designated wilderness areas? Does that seem like an oxymoron? Wilderness Areas are supposed to be places where natural processes and native species are given priority. With the election of the Biden administration, it may be time to reconsider grazing in designated wilderness, especially in light of the 30 x 30 goal of protecting 30 percent of the U.S. by 2030.

The problem of cows (and sheep) in the wilderness goes back to the original debate around enacting the Wilderness Act. House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall (D Colorado) was a staunch proponent of the livestock industry and would not allow the legislation to pass out of committee for a vote unless some accommodation was made for continued grazing of livestock.

Even more egregious is that, unlike other public lands, termination of livestock grazing in wilderness areas is more challenging than non-wilderness lands. Livestock grazing can only be eliminated if it has significant impacts on other resource values, and wildlands values are not one of those resources.

Many proponents of the Wilderness Act felt without this compromise, the legislation would never see the light of day. But given changing understanding of the full ecological impacts of livestock production, combined with changing social values about nature, it is appropriate for Congress and the Biden administration to reconsider livestock production within designated wilderness areas.

Unlike other compromises incorporated in the original 1964 wilderness that banned all mineral exploration after a twenty-year grace period, there was no ultimate termination date for livestock grazing.

Therefore, some 13 million acres of designated wilderness on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges, and even National Park Service lands have some domestic livestock production.

To put this into perspective, this is more than double the size of 6-million-acre Vermont.  Yet this wilderness acreage only provides one-tenth of one percent of all livestock forage consumed by domestic animals in the United States.


There are both ecological and philosophical reasons why domestic livestock production is inappropriate in wilderness areas.

First, our wilderness areas are the best scientific control we have to compare lands with minimum human impacts with manipulated landscapes.  Manipulated landscapes are “domesticated” lands where we favor specific species over others.

Putting a significant amount of forage (native vegetation) into an exotic animal removed from the ecosystem has multiple ecological consequences for nutrient flow and food (carrion) for native wildlife.

Domestic animals by consuming vegetation that might otherwise support native species from grasshoppers to elk reduce the overall carrying capacity for native wildlife.

Forage going into domestic livestock is that much less available for native herbivores. Upper Green River Grazing Allotment, Wyoming Photo George Wuerthner

Domestic animals also spread weeds, compact soils, and destroy biological crusts, critical to reducing soil erosion.

Livestock is also protected from predators, and even in designated wilderness, native wildlife like wolves and bears are killed to protect domestic animals.

Cattle tend to congregate near water sources, trampling the vegetation, breaking down the banks, and polluting the water. Photo George Wuerthner

Since much of the western public lands grazed by livestock are arid, domestic animals tend to congregate near water sources such as streams and spring, destroying vegetation, polluting water sources, and trampling banks and soil. Since these thin, green riparian areas are critical to 70-80 percent of western livestock, the degradation of these areas can significantly impact native species.

Prairie dogs are regularly poisoned on public lands to assuage ranchers who believe the rodents complete with their cattle for food, even in areas where the endangered black-footed ferret is being reintroduced. Photo George Wuerthner

Numerous studies have documented that livestock production is a major cause of species endangerment and listing under the Endangered Species Act. For example, research has demonstrated that one of the main obstacles to the recovery of the black-footed ferret is the poisoning of prairie dogs which are the main food source. While dams constructed for water storage reservoirs have impacted water quality to the detriment of native fish like the humpbacked chub in the Colorado River where it flows through the Grand Canyon.

Deer caught in fence that died. Photo George Wuerthner

Infrastructure built to accommodate livestock production like fences and water developments also harm native species. For example, sage grouse can suffer mortality up to 29% due to collision with fences and can be a barrier to movement of other species like deer or pronghorn. While removing water from natural springs and seeps for distribution by pipelines or filling water troughs has been shown to harm native amphibians, mollusks (snails), and birds.

Even where livestock is managed to ensure that grazed grasses and other plants are not harmed, it can still impact native wildlife. For instance, it is common to have regulations requiring that 4-6 inches of “stubble” height be left after the grazing season to ensure that plants have sufficient reserves. Yet, many species from voles to grouse to pronghorn antelope fawns require much taller grass for cover to hide from predators.

Loss of hiding cover as a consequence of heavy grazing making native species vulnerable to predatores can impact many species from voles to deer fawn. Photo George Wuerthner

Domestic animals can also transmit disease to native species. For instance, domestic sheep can transfer pneumonia to wild bighorns. Once infected, many bighorn herds suffer massive population declines.

While the number of domestic cattle using wilderness areas and even public lands, in general, is small, domestic livestock are still are a significant contributor to Greenhouse Gases. Given the need to reduce all GHG emissions sources, it makes sense to focus livestock reductions on designated wilderness if the reduction on any public lands is to be made.

The philosophical problem of livestock production is that it is a domestication of the land that is supposed to be “self-willed” and dominated by natural forces.

Also, there is the public perception issue as well. In many wilderness areas, campers are asked to bury their human waste and camp far from water sources. Such decrees seem foolish when cattle or sheep can poop anyplace and trample the streams and lakes’ shoreline.


It is important to note, despite the frequent reference to “grazing rights,” all livestock production on public lands is a privilege. There is no “right” to public forage. The federal government has the legal authority to terminate livestock production at any time. Termination of livestock grazing privileges has always been difficult due to the livestock industry’s political influence over federal agencies.

Grazing on public lands is managed by “range conservationists” who have financial incentives to maintain grazing because, without domestic livestock operations, there would be no need for range conservationists. No cows. No job.

Despite the obstacles, several measures could be enacted to reduce livestock production impacts on our wildlands.

The most straightforward and most immediate response is to cancel vacant allotments. Currently, there are approximately three million acres that are no longer in use by ranchers, yet in many instances, they remain available for other ranchers to utilize. Permanent closure of these vacant allotments should be relatively easy to accomplish.

Second, more direct instruction and discretion to managing agencies to terminate livestock grazing where significant ecological impacts are documented. Where there is degradation to water quality, harm to native plant communities, conflicts with native wildlife (like predators), and damage to ecosystem function, termination of grazing privileges should be an option.

Third, in many wilderness areas, it is entirely permissible to use pickup trucks, ATVs, and other motorized access to manage livestock or fix infrastructure. Put the cowboy back into ranching by placing stronger constraints on the use of motorized access and equipment in designated wilderness, so it conforms to the limitations imposed on all other wilderness activities.

Finally, enact legislation that would allow voluntary permanent grazing permit retirement. This proposal would pay ranchers who waive their grazing “privileges” back to the government, which would then be required to retire the permit permanently from any future grazing.  Here is the test for recently introduced legislation. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5737/text

Ultimately, it would be advantageous to pass legislation that would terminate livestock grazing in all wilderness areas as was done for mineral exploration. An termination date of ten years would be reasonable and give ranchers enough time to make other arrangements for their livestock production.



  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    These allotment users having the ability to use their permit as collateral on bank loans might cause some hesitancy on retiring their permits. I agree that there should be NO livestock grazing in Wilderness Areas. But quite honestly, the benefit to taxpayers – even the ones who continue to eat beef – of having livestock on our public or forested lands escapes me. The fact that we, as taxpayers, are forced to subsidize these livestock permitees because they do not even pay current rates for grazing is also escaping me! The damage being done to not just riparian areas, but the predator slaughter, the invasive grasses planted just for cattle is beyond ridiculous, for 3% of the beef raised in this country?

    1. Mark Gall Avatar
      Mark Gall

      I’m retired from BLM and NPS law enforcement, and my background is in biology. I agree 100% with your statement. Having backpacked in several wilderness areas, domestic animals other than horses/dogs/llamas etc that are there only temporarily should banned. This country continues to waste valuable tax dollars by managing these activities and and land also suffers.

  2. Jyoti Josahentara Avatar
    Jyoti Josahentara

    Thank you for this article. I’m a nomad-steward (retired teacher living in a vehicle and camping on BLM and national forest areas). Along with all the concerns rightly noted in the article, I have seen perfectly great designated recreational areas overrun by cows. Some of my favorite places to camp on BLM land has been totally ruined by cows as well – unless of course, you don’t mind stepping over stinky cow pies every two feet across every camp site available. I have the same land use concerns about ATVs and big rigs. Some people with these huge RVs are happy to drag them anywhere and create deep holes in muddy dirt roads – so big that you can’t use the road anymore. Other people come by and create a new road – and then you get a wider and wider area that’s just a road around a road you can’t drive on anymore. If you are a nature lover and a nomad steward – then – it’s difficult to find places to camp that isn’t either cow-ravaged, road worn, or full of people shooting guns. I’m an advocate for there to be more designated areas for people to shoot guns and for people to camp. They do not belong together. Cows don’t belong in the wilderness, but neither do ATVs, big rigs, or people shooting guns where people can camp and hike.

  3. Craig Lacy Avatar
    Craig Lacy

    Cows should be excluded from our Wild and Scenic Rivers as well. In many cases they destroy the outstandingly remarkable values that qualified the rivers to gain that status.

  4. Michael Kellett Avatar

    This is another reason to expand our national parks. Livestock is banned from full-fledged national parks and most other National Park System areas.

    If, for example, Yellowstone National Park were expanded to include surrounding national forest and BLM lands, it would not only ban livestock grazing, but also logging and other resource extraction. In addition, lands in the expanded park would prohibit trophy hunting for wolves, bison, and potentially grizzly bears, which is driven largely by the livestock industry.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Michael Kellett:: Your suggestion makes way too much sense for our “bought and paid for” Congress men and women. And why aren’t the big national wildlife conservation groups putting forth your exact proposal?? I haven’t a clue.

  5. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Is ANY progress being made with the new admin ? Who is running DOI ? I also heard on a recent Advocates for the West Zoom meeting that the new head of BLM is formerly of The Audubon Society. Now we need to address in the environmental threat and cost of industrial scale renewable infrastructure; the “grid of the future” gotta “rewire the West” This is a Public Land multi-stakeholder issue. If we keep demonizing each other with a can’t see the forest for the trees strategy we’re all going to lose because the really big threat is on the horizon swapping O&G development for large scale renewables. What about give the independent livestock producers a financial incentive to transition their operations toward “meaningful” conservation by restructuring the LWCF / Conservation Easements? There is definitely room for improvement in that program.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      I agree that there should be improvement as to where these wind & solar farms are built. Seems to me we shouldnt go from the destruction of fossil fuel to more destruction of our wild places! There should be a common sense way of siting these projects taking wildlife & its habitat instead of ignoring them as they have been.

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I believe it is, until the Interior Secretary is confirmed, Martha Williams, former Director of FW&P for the state Montana! I think she is going to remain after the Interior Secretary is confirmed.

    Nada Culver, Denver-based Vice President of Public Lands and Senior Policy Counsel for the National Audubon Society is temporarily heading up the BLM. I know that Audubon is a supporter of industrial wind and solar, so I don’t know what to think yet. I am a member of Audubon myself.

    I hope it doesn’t turn into a case of lockhorns, and I do believe it is a first to have anyone with an environmental background leading one of these divisions?

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Audubon previously has not concerned itself with livestock grazing, but considers wild horses to be “feral” & therefore not native! I think that Rep.Deb Haaland either is or will be confirmed as Secretary of DOI. She should be a good steward of our public lands, forests & wilderness areas. I sure hope the new head of the BLM turns out to be someone who will examine the Wild Horse & Burro “program”. They need someone who believes in another way of overseeing them rather than this continuous roundup & warehousing.

      1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
        Lyn McCormick

        The BLM WH&B program budget needs to be transitioned to On the range management. Contracts should be awarded to the stakeholder group, whichever is the best candidate for that particular HMA (or HA), just like they dole out contracts for Off range management. The permits should be 10 yr. terms, and should strive to achieve a less than 10% population growth rate, or whatever is genetically necessary for that particular herd and for optimal range health. The current BLM / ASPCA “path forward” plan asks for a ten year timeframe to achieve AML. However, it includes expensive surgery to surgically sterilize mares and other ridiculous “pork” research projects to “allegedly” lower the population. The budget (last time I did the math) could pay $1-$2 per head / per day. The rate BLM pays for private pasture Off range is just over $2/head/day. For some stakeholder / livestock operators that could be a windfall just like it is for the OFF range contractors. I think the current “path forward” needed $10 million more dollars to save $4 million – makes NO sense.

      2. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Hmmm – I wasn’t aware of that. I hope now with more information that they will be considered native wildlife. And it is no reason to be cruel to them, and to ‘get rid’ of them, in any case. It’s shameful. The entire thing needs to be looked at.

  7. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    We’re monitoring the raptor nests and Sage Grouse right now hoping to get some consideration on stopping or re-routing the massive transmission line projects from WY wind farms taking energy to Las Vegas and So. CA. BLM permitted them after the Sage Grouse didn’t get listed. The USFS just published in the Federal Register 2021-02667 for a public comment period to have the Trump admin regs deadline extended for the Migratory Bird Protection Act.
    And WY Fish & Game: New Game and Fish guidelines aim to reduce renewable energy impact
    Also, since the Texas grid crisis there is a company EMROD out of NZ with wireless tower technology looking for a market in the US. https://www.optimistdaily.com/2020/08/a-startup-is-realizing-nikola-teslas-dream-of-wireless-power-transmission/
    For what its worth, just getting the word out. Thanks

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      That’s wonderful! I know that Audubon will put the safety and welfare of the birds as an important condition, not support just coming in and tearing up an area, booting out the wildlife inhabitants, and call it green.

    2. Rich Avatar

      If Las Vegas would just turn off some of the wasteful lighting running 24/7/365 days a year that is wrapped around the casinos and replace it with solar panels and batteries the massive transmission lines would not be needed. Siting renewable power where it is needed is the solution waiting to happen especially in the sunbaked southern regions of the US.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        Las Vegas sounds like a prime site for solar, instead of bulldozing another desert area.

        Wastefulness has got to be reexamined, I agree.

  8. Beeline Avatar

    A brief history of grazing law pertaining to public lands can be found at:



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