Putting Livestock First in Montana’s Gravelly Range

Gravelly Range has extensive uplands. Photo by Ralph Maughan

The Greenhorn Vegetation Managment plan calls for logging and burning thousands of acres in the spectacular Gravelly Range of Montana, primarily to benefit the local ranchers. The Gravellies occupy the western edge of what is typically recognized as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest administrates it. Vast rolling uplands characterize it with extensive meadow areas, with pockets of trees primarily found in the wetter valley bottoms.

The mountain range lies west of Ennis, Montana, and marks the west side of the famous Madison River valley. Domestic sheep have historically grazed the uplands, though some ranchers have switched to cattle in recent years.

It has been a popular area for elk hunting, and the Ruby River, which drains the western slope, is a well-known trout stream. In part, due to the open nature of the terrain, hiding and thermal cover for elk has been a concern.

The Madison Ranger District of the Beaverhead Deer Lodge National Forest in Montana proposes a 17,000 acre plus degradation of the national forest with logging and burning to “fix” the land by decreasing the cover—i.e., by logging.

Like almost all Forest Service proposals today, the agency uses a “vegetation management” euphemism for logging and other deforestation actions.

And as is expected, they use the same justifications you see almost everywhere today. The forests are “too dense” due to “fire suppression.” And if nothing is done to thin them, by golly, they will die a horrific death from bark beetles, drought, wildfire, or disease as they have done for millions of years. The underlying problem is that such assertions are based on misinterpreation of past fire history using fire scars.

So, of course, the solution is to kill them with chainsaw medicine.

This is analogous to declaring most people over 60 years of age will die from a heart attack or cancer, so the solution is to line them up and shoot them so they won’t die from a natural process.

Of course, just like humans with disease, one can’t predict who will die from, say cancer or heart attack, and when. In addition, some people live to a hundred years of age, and it is difficult to predict this in advance.

The same applies to forests. Some trees have a natural resistance to say bark beetles or drought.

Forests are typically on north facing slopes and valley bottoms. Photo George Wuerthner 

In “restoring” forest and vegetation community health, the Forest Service is degrading ecosystem resistance. For example, among lodgepole pine, some individuals are resistant to drought, resistant bark beetles, and cold. None of these adaptations can be detected from the simple visional examination. So when the Forest Service thins or logs the forest, it can remove the trees with a genetic adaptation to one or more of the above selective factors.

Aspen tend to regenerate after a high mortality blaze, the very kind of fires the Forest Service is seeking to preclude or reduce. Photo George Wuerthner

Another problem with the illogic of the proposal has to do with aspen. Aspen sprouts vigorously after high severity blazes. However, the goal of the Forest Service is to reduce high severity blazes by logging the forest. The Forest Service asserts that aspen vigor is declining in the area. Rather than encourage high mortality wildfires, the Forest Service attempts to prevent such events.

And it acknowledges that all forest communities in the Gravelly Range have a fire rotation of up to 200 years, yet it claims “fire suppression” has led to dense stands and encroachment of meadows. When you have a two-hundred-year fire rotation and, at best, maybe 50 years of real suppression (which is questionable for a host of reasons), historic fire behavior and conditions have not been modified. Yet the agency ignores its documentation and suggests “unnaturally” dense forest stands.

Of course, the agency intends to ensure that these “dense” stands are not thinned by natural agents like disease, drought, beetles, or wildfire. That would be outrageous.

Sagebrush species tend to have 50-200 or more year fire rotations. They cannot tolerate frequent burning. Photo George Wuerthner

The agency further demonstrates its lack of scientific honesty by proposing to burn more than 3000 acres of sagebrush. Sagebrush has no particular adaptations to wildfire. It takes decades to hundreds of years to fully recover when you burn it. Given that sagebrush ecosystems are declining nearly everywhere due to wildfire, it is questionable whether burning sagebrush will enhance sagebrush ecosystems, not to mention the harm that burning will do to sagebrush-dependent species like sage grouse.

The real reason for this proposal is to increase forage for livestock producers.

The sad situation with the Gravelly Range Collaborative, like most collaboratives, is that the original goals and assumptions predetermine the outcome. I attended several meetings of the Gravelly Range Collaborative.

At the first meeting, I suggested that the purpose and goals were biased towards logging and livestock grazing. I posed the question to the collaborative that we should discuss whether this land should be grazed by livestock at all. Of course, the collaborative, run by The Wilderness Society (TWS) and Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), ruled that no grazing was not a reasonable goal.

I also wanted to discuss wilderness protection for the Gravelly Range—again; my idea was vetoed as “inappropriate” for discussion. I hasten to point out that this opposition came from the employees working for the anti-environmental groups.

Grizzly bears have recolonized the area in the past 30 years or so. The presence of livestock is a threat to their existance. Photo George Wuerthner

To add insult to injury, these groups refuse to join in a lawsuit to protect grizzlies and bighorn sheep. The Gravelly Range is part of a significant grizzly expansion and a travel corridor. Livestock, particularly domestic sheep, is a major threat to the bear’s recovery. The anti-environmental groups characterize the situation as a problem for the grizzly. The bears must “avoid” conflict with ranchers. An obvious solution is to remove the livestock, but this is a solution that GYC and other anti-environmental groups will never advocate.

Rather than advocate for the bears, GYC and other groups support range riders to scare bears away from livestock. Now think about this. The Gravelly Range is the natural territory of bears, but bears must be removed or frightened away from using the habitat they need so domestic livestock can prevail. Is this the kind of advocacy for wildlife you want?

Bighorn sheep suffer from diseases transmitted by domestic sheep. Photo George Wuerthner

Likewise, bighorn sheep in the Gravelly Range are declining, in part, due to disease transmitted from domestic sheep to their wild cousins. Indeed, the Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to restore bighorn sheep to the Gravelly Range, agreed to a proposal that requires them to shoot bighorns who contract any diseases from domestic sheep; Instead of removing domestic sheep, the wild sheep are penalized with a death sentence.

There are also wolves in the Gravelly Range, and of course, any depredation by wolves results in their slaughter to protect domestic animals.

Domestic livestock has also jeopardized the restoration of the Arctic Grayling in the Ruby River. It is well established that livestock trample vegetation, break down banks and widen streams, pollute water, consume vegetation that would otherwise support native herbivores from bighorn sheep to elk.

These impacts are supported by the Big Green anti-environmental groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Wild Montana (AKA Montana Wilderness Association).

Making matters worse, groups like GYC and other groups actively support the continuation of livestock grazing and are enamored with the ranching lifestyle. These weak-kneed environmentalists regularly attend love fests with the ranchers and play at cowboying by giving a hand with sheep shearing and other activities.

Cows laying around a campground on the Upper Ruby River in the Gravelly Range. Photo George Wuerthner

The anti-environmental group employees likely do not even know the conservation history of the Gravelly Range. Back in the 1980s, there was a significant conflict over livestock grazing in the Upper Ruby drainage. The controversy even made the New York Times. The district ranger and his range con did an excellent EIS on livestock grazing that found that livestock negatively impacted every single resource value, including water quality, plant communities, elk, fisheries, soils, and even the local economy because elk and fish were more important to the local economy than cows. But the district ranger was hung in effigy, his son was beaten up in the local high school, and he continuously harangued in the local community. The major anti-environmental groups like GYC did not support the district ranger, and he eventually had to leave. There was no removal of livestock from the Upper Ruby.

Further problems with the Greenhorn proposal are that Forest Service only offers up two alternatives. One continuation of the present management and the second being the proposal to log and burn thousands of acres. No third alternative that would remove livestock grazing is offered, even though livestock grazing is one of the most significant impacts on the landscape.

I can forgive the Forest Service for its capitulation to the livestock industry in this part of Montana. It takes real courage to stand up to ranchers. But it is unforgivable for the anti-environmental groups to provide greenwashing and coverage for environmental degradation from forestry and logging.

I suspect part of the problem other than their romance of the cowboy is that most of the people working at these organizations have no ecological training. They are also ignorant of the conservation history of the area.

If you wish to comment the FS will accept comments until March 14 https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=51053 




  1. Mrs Gayle Walsh Avatar

    I agree completely with George Weurthner’s assessment of the unbelievably bad management of the forest and especially the wildlife by the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. These entities are to protect and humanely all wildlife, wild horses and burros. To protect and properly manage our resources, forests and public lands.

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    I could never comprehend the necessity of livestock grazing in our National Refuges, National Forests, and National Monuments – but the livestock lobby has very large pockets & a very large influence on our representatives in Congress. Plus the “romance” of cowboys! Then there is the logging lobby – same large pockets.
    Frustrating to see over and over the loss of so many Wilderness Study Areas too.

  3. Jannett Heckert Avatar
    Jannett Heckert

    Thank you for bring this to our attention. It doesn’t seem like people are for saving the wilderness anymore. Let’s build every square inch of land and destroy all our natural environments. I thought the forest service was to protect not destroy. How do you stop these monsters.

  4. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Just read some of the 2022 “fiscal spending package”. Check out what the “riders” to this bill include – ALL of which are necessary! How can we allow this crap to continue? Very little true “green” issues and these:
    Other riders include:
    Restrictions on issuing new rules on the sage grouse.
    Promoting biomass as carbon neutral.
    Restrictions on new rules for livestock emissions and manure management.
    Prohibiting regulations on lead ammunition and fish tackle.

  5. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    I thought by law, official “Wilderness Study Areas” were required to be managed exactly like they would be, if they were actual Wilderness Areas that have been approved by Congress under the Wilderness Act. This protection of “Wilderness Study Areas” was to preserve their natural resources in place, so they would always be eligible to become official Wilderness Areas at some later date.

    Where are the lawyers who are going to go to court to end this illegal madness against “Wilderness Study Areas??

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      It seems nothing nor nowhere is sacred anymore.

  6. Beeline Avatar

    Life in America has been defined by corporate business organizations that believe in hard. cold,capitalism. Congress pretty much goes along with them because they have the money ,the lawyers, the lobbyists, and thus the power. The individual citizen is more of a nuisance than anything else.

    In my past years of actually working on public land I have seen a lot of damage but most of my descriptions and or complaints fell on deaf ears both within and outside of the government.
    The general public including some of my own relatives could not believe that government agencies could be so hypocritical in their function.

    When the Reagan administration flushed what was left of regulatory authority down the political toilet, corporate developers had a clear path to take resources from public lands. Some of the “environmental” laws sounded good but they were never enforced according to the spirit of the law. In fact “suits” came from D.C. to instruct us ( intimidate really) on why we must always act ‘objectively’ and never let our personal feelings get in the way of processing drilling permits and so forth. We were even asked what we would do if our supervisors violated the law.

    It became an exercise in futility, working in the “cold, icy, unfeeling darkness” of bureaucracy. There was an exodus of public employees that wanted to retain their integrity which left those in the government that did not care about integrity and did the bidding of the corporate masters. That’s about where we are today.

    Public lands, the vegetation and the animals suffered while the rich got richer. I think it is really a losing game that is being played, but then again I was trained as an ecologist and just about nobody in this country believes ecologists.


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