Targeted Grazing–The Latest Magical Solution To Improve Rangeland Health


No chance of fires here–remove all vegetation and your problem with wildfire is solved. Photo George Wuerthner 

A recent article in the Capitol Press titled: “New game plan: How targeted grazing on public lands is changing” describes how targeted grazing can fix any problems on public lands. Not unlike how logging is often described as the fix for everything from bark beetles to wildfires, targeted grazing is the new rage in grazing circles.

I have previously warned almost all the “evidence” for the value of grazing to reduce wildfires comes from university range departments or government apologists with connections to the livestock industry. And this is the case with the recent action to implement “targeted grazing” on public lands.

As is the case across the West, range department researchers’ primary mission is to find excuses to continue livestock grazing on public lands. Our tax dollars support these efforts on behalf of private businesses.

Targeted grazing differs from traditional grazing where forage consumption is designed to fatten livestock. Photo George Wuerthner 

Targeted means that livestock is used for a specific purpose other than consuming forage to fatten ranchers’ profits. Advocates of targeted grazing suggest it can be helpful for weed removal and reducing large wildfires by removing fuel.

Livestock, including cattle, sheep, or goats, are confined to a specific area, so they have no choice but to consume “ targeted “ vegetation heavily.

Some suggest that ranchers should be paid to graze public lands when providing a “service” such as allegedly reducing range advocates wildfires. The BLM has eight “test” experiments on-going on public lands.

The problem with all this happy talk is in the details.

With targeted grazing livestock must be herded in small areas either by range riders or new virtual fencing. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the problems with targeted grazing is controlling the livestock, so they eat only the target area. In the past, this was done mainly by range riders. However it is getting increasingly difficult to find cowboys who actually know how to ride a horse, not to mention the expense of paying riders to monitor livestock is an additional cost.

An invention that is gaining popularity with targeted grazing advocates is “virtual fencing.” Virtual fencing acts like electronic devices that train pet dogs not to leave a yard. Cattle or other animals are fitted with collars. If they stray beyond the target area, they receive an electronic shock.

Such a device and the necessity of collaring livestock means it is only practicable for a few animals. The average ranches is not going to collar 500 steers to graze a targeted area.

The second problem is that the amount of forage provided, even if it is “free,” is typically insufficient to warrant trucking livestock to the target site.

Shipping livestock to graze a small “target area” has significant costs to a rancher. Even if the forage is “free”, the costs of implementing a targeted grazing program includes the transportation of livestock, herders, and small amount of forage that is available. Photo George Wuerthner 

I attended a BLM workshop on targeted grazing in southern Idaho a few years ago. Several ranchers were among the people there to listen to the BLM outline its plan to use targeted grazing to create a fire break.

Not one rancher volunteered to bring his animals to the site when asked if they would participate. As one explained, the cost of trucking cattle to get a minimal amount of “free” feed doesn’t pencil out.

A third issue is that targeted grazing only works on tiny areas. Thus it might work if you wanted to reduce the fuel around a structure. But its usefulness across the landscape is questionable.

Even if you could target a small area to reduce fuels for fire, there is a lot of both anecdotal and even research that shows targeted grazing doesn’t work under extreme fire weather conditions. High winds that define “extreme fire weather” blow embers over, around, and past any targeted “fuel break.”

For example, a much-cited research paper on targeted grazing admitted as much in its next to the last paragraph (after ballyhooing for pages about how effective targeted grazing was).

“Targeted grazing treatment did influence fire behavior in grass/shrub communities, but its effects were limited. Although it is a promising tool for altering fire behavior, targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.”

As I’ve noted in many previous discussions of fire issues, the only fires that agencies, politicians, and the public are concerned about are the large blazes driven by extreme fire weather. Though these fires account for less than 1% of all ignitions, they are responsible for most of the acreage burned.

As noted in the study mentioned above, targeted grazing only works under “moderate” fire weather conditions. Under moderate fire weather conditions, most blazes are easily controlled and often self-extinguish without any fire suppression action.

However, targeted grazing has significant collateral ecological damage ignored by livestock promoters.

Biocrusts cover the soil surface inbetween sagebrush in this ungrazed plot on BLM lands in Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner 

For example, confined grazing animals will trample biological crusts which are critical to rangeland ecosystems and can contribute to the spread of undesirable species like cheatgrass.

In a recent critique of fuel breaks (created by targeted grazing or mechanical treatment such as bulldozing vegetation), Eight BLM scientists declared that the agency’s proposed Tri-State Fuel Break (TSFB) was flawed and will endanger sagebrush ecosystems.

The scientists contend the BLM ‘s proposal will likely fail to contain large fires, and the collateral damage will result in: “(1) fragment large areas of intact sagebrush ecosystems; (2) facilitate the invasion of exotics due to the disturbance created by the breaks; (3) supplant native communities with exotic dominants; and (4) destroy or degrade biological soil crusts and any native species in the sites.”

While targeted grazing has minimal application in site-specific situations, its utility on a landscape scale is questionable. The economic and ecological costs of targeted grazing are high, and the benefits to society and wildlife are suspect. The only real target is the public fund for “research” and putting more public money into the pockets of ranchers.



  1. Charles Fox Avatar
    Charles Fox

    More cows to solve the problem of too many cows. These guys really know their stuff. Why not just call it ‘targeted desertification’ or ‘targeted ecocide’?

  2. Beeline Avatar

    I hear that the BLM is going to drill wells to supply the grazing leases on public lands in Utah with water at our expense. These cows must be beyond sacred to get such special treatment.

    I used to make jokes about the Marx brothers running the Department of Interior. Maybe that was not such a bad idea after all.

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Environmental New Network (ENN.COM) is even carrying this article;

      At some point, someone HAS to point out the flaws in this logic.

  3. KK Avatar

    Please note that we the public can all comment on this proposed project of targeted grazing – get some facts inserted – assert our power!
    Official documents and the process are available at
    I think the deadline is July 15.


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