Livestock Grazing Impacts To Canyon of the Ancients National Monument

Lowery Ruins, part of the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. Photo George Wuerthner 

Livestock grazing threatens the integrity of Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. Located in SW Colorado near Cortez,  President Clinton established the 176,000 acre Monument in 2000 to protect one of the highest concentrations of archeological sites in the West representing the Archaic to the Pueblo periods. These archeological resources include cliff dwellings, rock art, and other evidence of past human occupation. More than 5000 archeological sites have been recorded, and undoubtedly there are thousands more to uncover.

The Monument also contains four wilderness study areas and is listed on the National List of Historic Places.


Paleo-Indians occasionally used the area up to 7,500 BC. The following six thousand years was the Archaic period when hunters and gatherers dominated the Canyons of the Ancients area.

Then starting around 1500 BC, the Basketmakers began to move into the area to be followed by the Pueblo people around 750 AD, who resided in the area until about 1300 AD.

The Pueblo people brought agricultural practices, likely from the south in Mexico. With agriculture, a more sedentary year-round occupation was possible. During this period, the famous cliff houses scattered around the Four Corners area came into existence.

The last phase of the Pueblo 111 era (1150-1300 AD) is when large multi-story and room houses were established like those seen at nearby Mesa Verde National Park.

One of the many archeological sites within the monument. Photo George Wuerthner

However, agriculture led to population increases, which forced Pueblo people to colonize increasingly marginal habitat. In addition, the overcutting of trees for firewood and structures, combined with soil depletion, eventually led to greater conflicts.

Starting in the 11th century, there began to be evidence of violent deaths likely related to internal struggles. By the 13th century, there was evidence of warfare.

For instance, at Castle Rock, there is evidence of a massacre of at least 41 people and possible cannibalism within the Monument.

The final straw to break the proverbial camel’s back was a severe decades-long drought. The Pueblo people were forced to abandon their canyon homes and migrated to year-round reliable water sources like the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, where their descendants still live.

The area is also home to unusual and relatively rare species like the Mesa Verde night snake, long-nosed leopard lizard, and twin-spotted spiny lizard in the area north of Yellow Jacket Canyon.


Like many BLM national monuments,  the designation language permits livestock grazing to continue. However, grazing can not impact the primary purposes of the Monument, which in this case is the protection of archeological sites.

Cattle grazing in this arid canyon country is impossible to do without significant damage to other public values including soils, plants, wildlife and archeological treasures. Photo George Wuerthner

What place does cattle grazing have with national and international archeological riches? If there is even the slightest chance that livestock will damage sites, cattle grazing should be prohibited. I have personally witnessed cattle knocking over ancient walls, trampling pottery, and damaging these irreplaceable treasures.

There are 23 grazing allotments in the Monument, and 90% of the Monument is under grazing pressure. Since 2005, two allotments–the Yellow Jacket and Flodine Grazing Allotments-have been vacant and since 2015 the BLM has considered, but has not authorized restocking these allotments. The BLM planned to reissue the grazing permits five years ago, but opposition from environmental and tribal interests resulted in a new analysis.

It’s another example of where federal agencies appear to promote grazing by reopening vacant allotments to renewed grazing.

In 2015 Advocates for the West filed a protest on behalf of environmental groups against the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed decision to issue new 10-year grazing permits. The groups opposing the restoration of livestock grazing include Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Wildlands Defense, Grand Canyon Trust, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Biocrust covers the soil surface and is easily destroyed by livestock trampling. Photo George Wuerthner

The issue of grazing entails more than just damage to archeological sites. Biocrusts are common in the sandy soils of the Monument. A study of grazing impacts on biological soil crusts found that crusts were recovering in portions of the Monument where livestock grazing was excluded. Some biocrusts have tiny root-like filaments that hold soils together and reduce erosion. They can also trap atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the soils.

One of the many beautiful canyons in the monument. Photo George Wuerthner

Other impacts attributed to livestock grazing noted were an increase in cheatgrass, an exotic annual that is highly flammable, and one of the factors contributing to the loss of native plants. Also noted was knapweed, another alien whose spread is facilitated by livestock trampling.

Yellow Jacket Creek is one of the perennial streams in the Monument home to rare fish species and can be impacted by livestock grazing.

Ute Mountain view, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado. Photo George Wuerthner 

Given the incredible archeological values of the area and its natural values, continued livestock grazing in this sensitive area amounts to legalized vandalism.

Currently, the BLM is proposing to buy a 647-acre private inholding. The county is opposed to the purchase based on the usual hatred of government acquirement of private property. Support for this acquisition should be made by January 17th.


  1. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Surely something can be done to protect this location?

  2. Michael Anthony Avatar
    Michael Anthony

    The new Blm director is useless……… no changes, doesn’t even speak out, just another “bought off” politician, what a waste of a position!!!

  3. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    There didnt seem to be anyplace to comment regarding the grazing allotment change, but I did do so regarding the sale of the private parcel.

  4. laurie Avatar

    Because the BLM functions as a blatant welfare agency for ranchers and trophy hunters,it needs to have a powerful public-interest watchdog commission with big teeth ruling on every transaction it does for these special interests.

  5. Mary McAllister Avatar

    If this land were given to indigenous people to manage, would they evict grazing animals? if the grazing animals belong to indigenous people, would they choose to eliminate grazing?

    It seems ironic to me that the organizations advocating for the elimination of grazing are unlikely to be representatives of the indigenous people whose archeological treasures they say they are trying to protect. Maybe indigenous people would say, “Don’t do us any favors.” Let the indigenous people make this decision.

    Furthermore, the impacts of grazing are a mixed bag and are not well established. Stories of walls in the monument being damaged are anecdotal. This article does not make the case, in my opinion.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      The impacts of grazing are NOT a mixed bag – this particular article refers to one specific area – this Monument with many sites that should be preserved. The general grazing impact is very destructive, cows hang & graze in riparian areas (creeks/streams) polluting the water. do some research on this – not just by reading the material by Savory. Turning out cattle in arid parts of the country – areas not practical for domestic livestock.

      1. Mary McAllister Avatar

        Here are excerpts from the abstract of a meta-analysis of studies of the impact of grazing on wildlife. It’s a mixed bag: “More than a quarter of earth’s land surface is used for grazing domestic livestock. Livestock grazing is generally assumed to negatively affect wildlife, however, a number of studies have found positive impacts as well…A total of 807 sources were included in the final list…We found that livestock change vegetation structure and cover in ways important to small mammals, while ungulates may be affected more by interference competition and changes in forage quantity and quality. Community-level total abundance of small mammals typically declines with grazing. Species richness of small mammals either declines or stays the same, as many studies found a change in species composition from ungrazed to grazed sites while the number of species remained similar. Individual species responses of small mammals vary. Voles, harvest mice, cotton rats, and shrews show consistently negative responses to grazing while deer mice, kangaroo rats, ground squirrels, and lagomorphs show positive or variable responses. In general, species adapted to open habitats are often positively affected by grazing, while species needing denser cover are negatively affected…For a number of species, responses varied by season. We find a strong need for additional research on ungulates of varying diets and body sizes, especially in the developing world, and across longer time scales to examine possible tradeoffs between competition and facilitation from livestock.”

        1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
          Maggie Frazier

          Very mixed bag.

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