Twin Lakes on the Bridgeport Ranger District. Photo George Wuerthner 

A recent final decision to keep cattle grazing out of vacant allotments on the Bridgeport District Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest is good news for the public and many endangered species. The district lies on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada just east and north of Yosemite National Park.

Bridgeport District Ranger Megan Mullowney did the right thing by her decision to keep four allotments vacant totaling 33,000 acres closed to cattle grazing in the Southwest Rangeland Project. The allotments were once grazed by domestic sheep and have been closed for 15 years, allowing them to recover from past abusive livestock grazing. The allotments lie just south of Twin Lakes, a popular destination on the Bridgeport Ranger District.

Bighorn sheep populations throughout the West have been descimated by diseases introduced by domestic sheep. Photo George Wuerthner 

The issue was whether to convert these domestic sheep allotments to cattle allotments. The district ranger picked the no-action alternative, which maintains the present status quo of no livestock occupancy. These allotments are within the ancestral homeland of the Yosemite toad, sage grouse, Lahontan cutthroat trout, and California bighorn sheep.

Cattle grazing near Bridgeport compacts soils reducing water infilitration and often damages the riparian areas critical habitat for many Sierra Nevada species.  Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the factors listed for the no-action (i.e., no grazing) decision was the potential impact of cattle use on riparian areas. The Bridgeport District correctly recognized that cattle use would lead to greater soil compaction, destruction of stream banks, and loss of riparian vegetation. Riparian areas serve as habitat for 70-80% of western wildlife species. Even though they occupy a small percentage of the landscape, their damage impacts all wildlife, including the Yosemite Toad and Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were decimated by disease transmitted from domestic sheep. At one time, they numbered less than 100 animals in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Fortunately, the bighorn was listed under the Endangered Species Act with more than 400,000 acres of critical habitat designated where domestic sheep grazing has been eliminated. The Sierra Nevada bighorn now numbers up to 600 animals.

Although disease transmission from domestic sheep has been eliminated in this area, cattle grazing can still impact wild bighorns by consuming forage that would otherwise support the sheep.

Another species of concern whose homeland includes these allotments are sage grouse. The sage grouse in this area are part of the Bi-State sage grouse population.

Sage grouse.

In 2002, the Institute for Wildlife Protection, which I served as a board member, petitioned the USFWS to list the “Mono Basin,” later labeled the Bi-State sage grouse as a “distinct population segment.” I wrote part of the petition documenting how livestock grazing impacted sage grouse. At that time, the USFWS declined to list the species suggesting there was no evidence that the Mono Basin population was distinct.

As a result of a citizen petition in 2013, the USFWS proposed listing the Bi-State sage-grouse as Threatened with a 4(d) rule and proposed designated critical habitat for the declining bird. But in 2015, USFWS reversed its decision and withdrew the proposal, refusing to list the Bi-State sage grouse.

Conservation groups challenged the USFWS decision. The court ruled that the “not warranted” finding for the Bi-State sage grouse was not founded in sound science. The proposed listing under the ESA was reinstated.

A recent assessment of the Bi-state population sage grouse population by the United State Geological Survey has documented an 80.7% decline over the past 53 years. Despite mitigation efforts, the grouse are still declining at 2.2-3% a year.

Fences are a significant mortality factor with sage grouse. Low-flying grouse often collide with fences.

Research has established that a minimum of 7 inches and ideally 10 inches of residual grass height should remain after the livestock has grazed an area to provide sufficient cover for grouse. These height limits are seldom met. Cattle consumption of grasses and other vegetation removes the hiding cover for sage grouse nests and chicks, exposing the bird to losses from ravens, coyotes, and other predators.

Cattle have grazed the grass of meadow on the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest down to “golf course” height eliminating hiding cover for sage grouse chicks and  consuming the forbs (flowers) critical to sage grouse survival. Photo George Wuerthner 

Cattle also feed upon forbs (flowers) critical to sage grouse chicks. In addition, early in their life cycle, chicks utilize riparian areas. The riparian regions’ trampling and soil compaction have destroyed this critical habitat throughout the West.

In addition, the Forest Service recognized that water quality and quantity would suffer if cattle grazing were permitted in this area. Given the ongoing drought in the Western United States, the overall aridity of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, and the critical importance of high-elevation meadows play in storing and slowly releasing water in late summer, maintaining the livestock-free status of these allotments is essential.

Part of the allotments were in the Hoover Wilderness, a popular hiking area adjacent to Yosemite National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

Part of these allotments are also within the Hoover Wilderness, so precluding cattle grazing helps maintain the wildland quality of these landscapes.

Conway Summit, Sierra Nevada, CA. Photo George Wuerthner 

Having a Forest Service District Ranger put public values and ecosystem protection ahead of private commercial interests is refreshing.

Ranger Mullowney said she summed up the rationale for maintaining these allotments vacant in her decision: “I have decided the protection of threatened and endangered species populations and habitats as well as water resources provided by NFS lands in the project area is of far greater relative value to the American public than the potential benefits realized from livestock production.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if more agency personnel used the same logic and made the public interest the main thrust of public lands management policies?

Western Watersheds, Center for Biological Diversity and Wilderness Watch all were involved in supporting the Forest Service’s decision to keep these grazing allotments closed to cattle grazing. The district ranger said the numeroous comments generated by alerts from these groups supporting the draft decision to keep the allotments closed to cattle grazing played an important role in her decision.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

18 Responses to Keep the Cattle Out-Final Decision on Bridgeport Ranger District

  1. Ed Loosli says:

    Thanks George, This is wonderful news in a lot of ways: “Having a Forest Service District Ranger put public values and ecosystem protection ahead of private commercial interests is refreshing.

    Ranger Mullowney said she summed up the rationale for maintaining these allotments vacant in her decision: “I have decided the protection of threatened and endangered species populations and habitats as well as water resources provided by NFS lands in the project area is of far greater relative value to the American public than the potential benefits realized from livestock production.”

  2. A win for the Sage Grouse and other species! Thank you Ranger Megan Mullowney for choosing to protect wildlife and vital riparian areas! This is unfortunately too rare these days, so I am jumping for joy…

  3. David Patenaude says:

    Hey George,
    Again I would like to respond somehow to your informative report regarding this appropriate USFS management decision. Would there be any point in contacting this District Ranger and thanking her for doing her job?
    Just curious.

  4. Kathleen Hayden says:

    The article states that Bridgeport District Ranger Megan Mullowney did the right thing by her decision to keep four allotments vacant in the Southwest Rangeland Project totaling 33,000 acres.

    Is this decision to exclude livestock from allotments a prime example of nonconsideration of wild equids from the equation as a protected species? The court in Mt. States v Hodel found that “In structure and purpose, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is nothing more than a land-use regulation enacted by Congress to ensure the survival of a particular species of wildlife.”
    When our Heritage Herds are designed as a native American Historical/Cultural RESOURCE, distinct population segments of a special status species RESOURCE, then amendments to the RESOURCE Management Plans can be amended to provide sufficient habitat…..which includes The Fire BRIGADE.
    Kat

    • Kathleen Hayden says:

      correction When our Heritage Herds are DESIGNATED (not designed)

    • Glenn Monahan says:

      I’m not a wild horse hater. But they are emphatically NOT a native wildlife species. I generally support tolerance for wild horses, but if they are competing with native wildlife, they should receive lower priority. Thanks.

      • Jeff Hoffman says:

        That’s incorrect. Contrary to the accepted science previously, has since been discovered (years or decades ago) that horses and burros evolved in what is now North America. See https://article.sciencepublishinggroup.com. Horses migrated across the land bridge to Asia and eventually Europe. American horses (and burros?) became extinct, probably by the humans that crossed the land bridge from Asia and came to what is now North America. It’s true that the horses that are here now are from horses whose ancestors were from other continents, but it’s the same species, so they ARE native and are thus a natural part of North American ecosystems.

        • Ida Lupine says:

          And they are an important part of our heritage, should not be destroyed and discarded ungratefully in the cruelest possible way because we have no more use for them!

          Also, excellent news on keeping these allotments free of grazing. I can’t believe it was even being considered again.

          Thank you all!

  5. Jeff Hoffman says:

    I nominate Bridgeport District Ranger Megan Mullowney for head of the USFS. If only everyone in that agency had her attitude!

  6. Jerry Thiessen says:

    Thank you. Good news.

  7. Michael Sauber says:

    I just called the office. The ranger’s email is megan.mullowney@usda.gov
    I think we should all spread the word, email her and let her have the documentation needed to continue this honest management. Documenting the support is important to make it easier next time, and for other rangers.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Thanks Michael, I just sent Megan an email thanking her. We know that she will be severely attack for her courageous decision here, and I offered to help in any way that I can, though it’s unlikely that I would be able to do so other than writing letters.

  8. George says:

    You are fools like most of California. It’s going to burn big time because you don’t manage the land. Whether bison, cattle or something else all you will end up with is a massive fire.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      I guess I am one who believes that with a long term drought everything will probably burn regardless of past or present management.

  9. Doug says:

    If you are going to remove bison from the land you need to replace them with something. You are kidding yourself if you think grasslands thrive without animals that graze and trample the plants. Properly managed cattle herds enhance grasslands for wildlife to truely thrive.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Thanks for your comment.
      I know a lot of people who comment here will not agree with you because they believe there are probably other wild animals present nearby that will come in and graze eliminating the need for bison. In my wilderness travels I have seen and have photos for many places where no livestock have ever grazed and the grassland is beautiful, healthy.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      That’s nothing but rancher propaganda. Cattle are NOT NATIVE to anywhere, and do great harm by their mere existence on the land. It”s true that plants evolved with NATIVE ungulates, but that’s not cattle. Cattle provide no benefit whatsoever, just massive harm & destruction.

  10. Kristine Green says:

    Just wanted to point out that the Sierra Club, Range of Light Group, commented on it twice, collaborated with others in pointing out the impacts to the Forest Service, raised awareness of it on social media and our website, and led a field trip to the area.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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