Cows Got You Down–Who You Gonna Call? Western Watersheds Project!

Western Watershed Project is the only non-profit whose primary mission is reducing livestock impacts on public lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

When fighting the abuse of livestock production on public resources, no group has done more to educate the public, hold agencies accountable, and work continuously to improve public lands’ ecological integrity than the Western Watersheds Project.

Other groups work on livestock issues, such as the Predator Project, Center for Biodiversity, WildEarth Guardians, and the Sierra Club, as well as smaller regional organizations such as the Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others. I do not want to dismiss their contributions. They are all, in one way or another, helping to improve the wildlands and ecosystems of the West.

However, these organizations work on a diversity of issues. At the same time, the Western Watershed Project’s primary mission is to focus on livestock and its multiple impacts on western public lands.


Western Watersheds Project was the brainchild of Jon Marvel, a Hailey Idaho architect who grew tired of the numerous examples of land degradation, particularly the livestock destruction of riparian areas and the thin green lines of vegetation along streams. Riparian areas are critical habitats for 70-80 percent of the West’s wildlife, thus key to their survival.

Jon Marvel on the right in green shirt, founded the Idaho Watersheds Project, later renamed Western Watersheds Project. Photo George Wuerthner 

 Marvel discovered that ranchers had to bid on leases to graze their animals on state rangelands. For pennies on the dollar, they got to graze state lands. So, in 1993 he founded the Idaho Watersheds Project to bid on a state grazing lease on Lake Creek near the East Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho. Lake Creek was a critical habitat for spawning salmon and bull trout.

Marvel successfully outbid an Idaho rancher who had traditionally grazed the allotment. The livestock industry tried to argue that Marvel had no right to bid since he was not a rancher, and worst, from their perspective, he intended to kick off the cows and allow the stream to recover. Western Watersheds Project continues this strategy of bidding on important state leases

Rancher opposition to Marvel’s attempt to lease state land began a lengthy legal process. The livestock industry and their allies in the Idaho legislature attempted to kick Marvel off the state lease. In the end, Idaho Watersheds Project prevailed, and their ability to bid on leases was confirmed. Just this past year, WWP was the successful bidder on a state lease in the Sawtooth Valley of Idaho.

Marvel eventually became one of the most experienced, knowledgeable, and some would say outspoken advocates for public lands in the West. No one can match Marvel for his encyclopedic comprehension of the historical, legal, and political aspects of public lands livestock grazing.

Marvel retired as Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project in 2014.

Today WWP carries on with biologist Erik Molvar at the helm. Among western conservationists, Molvar can better articulate the multiple ways livestock impacts the landscape. Furthermore, he was a freelance writer who explored much of the West in another lifetime, which means he can discuss the West’s geography from first-hand knowledge. As a result, Molvar has few rivals regarding comprehensive expertise in western livestock issues.

From its humble beginnings show, when Jon Marvel was the lone employee, WWP has grown to a staff of 16 with offices in most western states. The staff includes lawyers, ecologists, and grazing activists.


Cattle congregrated on a Bureau of Land Management riprian areas in Nevada. Photo George Wuerthner

Livestock production is the second greatest factor in the decline in biodiversity across the West. More species are linked to livestock than any other cause of species endangerment. Livestock is also a significant contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions and climate warming. Most water withdrawals from western rivers are for hay and alfalfa production fed to domestic animals. Predators like wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions are continuously harassed and slaughtered to make the West safe for domestic livestock. The litany of livestock impacts on ecological integrity is much longer, but one can read a short explanation here.

Yet despite these and other impacts, few environmental groups address or are willing to challenge the hegemony of the livestock industry when it comes to the degradation of public lands (and private as well).


The image of the cowboy as self reliant and masculine man is used to sell everything from cigarettes to cars. 

There are numerous reasons for this reluctance to defy the livestock industry. First, there is a general admiration for the cowboy and rancher in American culture. Ranchers are seen favorably because they represent the “yeoman” farmer, self-reliance, and independents. Some view the ranchers as the ultimate “masculine” stereotype.

The livestock industry also continuously reminds the public that they are “feeding” the Nation, which is, at best, a clever distraction since much of the best agricultural land in the Nation is used to grow crops like feeder corn, ultimately fed to domestic animals. These lands, if devoted to growing crops consumed directly by humans, would significantly reduce human hunger worldwide.

So what has the Western Watersheds Project managed to do?


Dairy cows are far more abundant than native Tule elk at the Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo George Wuerthner

In the past few years, WWP has successfully challenged the livestock dominance of Point Reyes National Seashore, sought to obtain greater protections for sage grouse, worked to stop the persecution of prairie dogs, and successfully sued the BLM to remove livestock from the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area,  successfully halted a plan to lease oil and gas in the range of the Gunnison Sage Grouse in Colorado, is defending grizzlies from livestock in the Upper Green River of Wyoming, is working to protect wolves and other predators from indiscriminate slaughter, seeking to protect the Pando aspen clone, one of the largest single organism in the world threatened by livestock grazing on the Dixie National Forest, is seeking to preserve Montana grayling and leads the effort to recover bighorn sheep across the West.

Grass cropped to golf course putting green height on the Upper Green Grazing Allotment. Photo George Wuerthner 

There is no organization with more expertise to successfully confront the west-wide destruction of western public lands by the livestock industry than the Western Watersheds Project. If you care about the ecological integrity of the West, consider joining the effort and donating to the organization.






  1. rastadoggie Avatar

    I think I heard a story about Marvel tossing a bunch of pink pacifiers on the table at a meeting with irate welfare ranchers – love that! Thanks for everything, Jon Marvel.

  2. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    No mention of the Ruby sellout nor how WWP is kept afloat with Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund monies. Molvar says that was a success.

    Sweet propaganda, the second piece in two years.

  3. laurie Avatar

    Great information–thank you!! I wonder how the “regenerative agriculture” way of ranching differs from the grazing of the typical rancher. If you could inform us on that, I would really appreciate it!
    These ranchers are just like spoiled, entitled, brats who constantly demand their “candy.” And the BLM is their candy store, which just loves to indulge all their brats.

  4. Mike sauber Avatar
    Mike sauber

    Entering Grant County, NM the big sign says “Cattle Country” and all say this is a mining and raching based economy. One could just as easily say a mining and thrift shop economy. Statistics from the regional Ag. university shows ranching as low as 0.24% of income is derived from all of agriculture. recently I’ve seen 3%, but it’s not much.

  5. Robert Goldman Avatar
    Robert Goldman

    Unlike the myth of the cowboy which today in reality is a federal welfare rancher who is served like a baby by a handful of corrupted, native wildlife-killing federal agencies the cattle industry has hijacked, Jon Marvel is the real thing. He’s a genuine hero of the West and cannot be honored or thanked enough. Jon stood up to the welfare ranchers in his own backyard and called them out for fraudulently claiming to be so anti-guv’mint but in reality being the biggest, wild nature-destroying, federal welfare recipients in the country’s history. Their vast theft from us federal tax payers is exceeded only by the persecution and mass death they perpetrate, with the federal army of agencies they hold captive. First they came for the native people and bison, and then and today wolves, coyotes, wild horses and burros, mountain lions, bears, sage grouse, prairie dogs, beavers, basically everything that moves on our public lands, that isn’t a private cow. All the while, destroying native grasses, plants and trees, and contaminating rivers and streams, while depriving native wildlife of the water and nourishment they need to live, in favor of the welfare ranchers’ private cows. All to continue a “way of life” that contributes a tiny percent of the nation’s beef (not healthy for people or the planet) and from which relatively few benefit. Basically perpetrating massive fraud, destruction, death and endless heartbreak for animals who want only to live in their homeland and wild nature lovers who want them to live in peace in the country that is our shared, beautiful homeland. Jon Marvel witnessed all this and bravely stepped forward for the true West, for everything that makes the West a heaven on earth. All of us would be wise to follow Jon’s example, to act bravely, to stick to the mission at hand and do it better and better, without compromise or distraction. Stick to the mission and get it done.
    (I’m a supporter of the Western Watersheds Project.)


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