Puff Piece on Sheep Grazing in Montana’s Gravelly Range
Domestic sheep grazing in the Gravelly Range, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner
A recent article on the Helle family and their domestic sheep grazing operations on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was published In a November Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
The piece was a puff piece on the sheep grazing practices of the Helle family of Dillon who have some of the last remaining domestic sheep grazing allotments covering 40,000 acres on Forest Service lands in the Gravelly Range of Montana.
The Helles maintain that “traditional” livestock grazing helps to maintain open space in Montana and keeps rangelands healthy. I’ll deal with both assertions in a bit. But part of their tradition includes killing wolves and grizzlies.
One of the problem I have with the article is that it romanticizes the Helle’s sheep operations calling it a “lost art” and “tradition” but the author ignores the very real impacts that domestic sheep have on the public’s wildlife.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the Helle Livestock received $1,071,642.03 in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2020. The Rebish & Helle Partnership received payments totaling $1,107,481 from 1995 through 2020. All the while killing public wildlife like wolves and coyotes to improve their bottom line.
The Gravelly Range was once smothered by as many as 200,000 domestic sheep which contributed to serious soil erosion and destruction of plant communities. Today the number is about 15,000 animals.
John Muir called domestic sheep “hooved locust”. Photo George Wuerthner
John Muir’s description of domestic sheep are “hooved locust” are just as accurate today as it was in the 1800s. Domestic sheep shear off vegetation, trample vegetation, compact soils, break up soil crusts, spread weeds, and pollute waterways. And that is only the beginning of the litany of impacts I could list for domestic sheep grazing.
While the reduction of sheep numbers across the West has led to a lessening of grazing impacts, it’s still a significant ecological disaster where it remains.
It’s like punching someone in the face ten times a day and then reducing it to once or twice a day and saying it’s an improvement. The problem is that any domestic sheep grazing in the Gravelly Range or anyplace else has unavoidable ecological impacts which the article glossed over.
For example, the Helles claim they lose 10% of their sheep to predators. People who have studied such claims from ranchers tend to find such large numbers are exaggerations.
Wolves, grizzlies, coyotes, and other predators are regularly killed on public lands to promote domestic livestock production. Photo George Wuerthner
Many domestic animals die from a host of causes, including eating poisonous plants but may then be consumed by a coyote or other predator, which the ranchers naturally attribute to predation when the predator is merely eating the dead animal.
Conflicts with predators are one of the main issues for wildlife advocates. Not only are predators shot, poisoned, and trapped to appease ranchers like the Helles, but the mere presence of domestic livestock also has many other impacts on the public’s wildlife.
Sheep herder wagon on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Nearly all shepherds are from Latin America, in part, because the pay is so poor, ranchers cannot get Americans to do this job. Photo George Wuerthner
For instance, domestic sheep mow down the vegetation leaving behind a mutilated landscape devoid of flowers or grasses. The loss of flowers means fewer insects like butterflies and bees. Likewise, the consumption of grasses that would otherwise support native herbivores like elk or bighorn sheep is eliminated. And even thousands of sheep swarming over the land socially displace many native species like elk.
And the displacement of elk and loss of forage means less food for predators.
Darcie Warden, a conservation coordinator, represents the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) and advocates for “co-existence” with domestic sheep ranchers.
Range riders are hired to scare predators away from domestic livestock on public lands. Why should public wildlife be chased off public lands to make it safe for private livestock? Photo George Wuerthner .
For instance, GYC promotes range riders to scare predators like wolves and bears away from domestic herds. But why should the public’s wildlife be driven from habitat they might otherwise occupy to make the landscape safe for domestic livestock? That is something GYC doesn’t want to discuss.
Who should have priority on public lands, native wildlife like wolves and grizzlies, or some private business using public resources for personal gain? Why do organizations like GYC promote the private exploitation of public resources for private gain? If you are a member of GYC, ask such questions.
Another problem is disease transmission from domestic animals to wildlife. For instance, bighorn sheep are vulnerable to pneumonia transmitted from contact with domestic animals. Major die-offs of wild bighorn herds have occurred throughout the West because of disease from domestic sheep.
Most bighorn sheep populations are too small to be viable over the long run, in part, because of disease transmission from domestic sheep leads to periodic bighorn dieoffs. Photo George Wuerthner
Even if a herd isn’t eliminated by disease, a decline in bighorn herd size can still lead to local extirpation due to genetic inbreeding. Since bighorn sheep are “tournament” breeders, with one ram often doing the majority of breeding in herds, the genetic diversity within small herds Is limited. This loss of gene diversity due to small breeding size means small herds are far more vulnerable to stress, including disease.
A further impact of domestic sheep is that it limits where wild bighorn sheep can be transplanted into their former habitat. In addition, because of the threat of disease from domestic animals, many otherwise suitable sites for bighorn sheep are eliminated from consideration if domestic sheep are residing close by.
In addition, grazing of the best bighorn habitat by the Helles’s domestic animals means native bighorns in the Gravelly Range are relegated to the less suitable and marginal habitat, which again diminishes their ability to maintain viable populations.
In 2016, the Gallatin Wildlife Association sued the Forest Service, seeking an injunction to keep sheep off the federal land used by the Helles. Ultimately, they lost the suit, but that doesn’t mean domestic sheep don’t pose a threat to wildlife. For more on the Helle livestock organization and the dispute over bighorn sheep see this article in RANGE magazine.
Meanwhile, the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest uses the old lame excuse that it’s a multiple-use agency, so it has no choice but to continue livestock grazing.
“Grazing is a part of multiple uses, and (managing it) is an important part of what we do,” said Dale Olson, the Forest Service’s Madison District Ranger. “We try to find a balance to allow the opportunity for all the great uses of Forest Service land.”
However, nothing says the Forest Service must allow destructive uses of public lands by private businesses for personal profit. And that is precisely what domestic sheep grazing in the Gravelly Range is doing. It’s degrading the public’s resources so the Helles can profit.
The article also promotes the old “condos vs. cows” myth which maintains that ranching maintains open space.
First of all, public lands cannot be subdivided. So, tolerating the ecological vandalism of our public lands based on the assumption that it will preclude subdivisions is in error.
Second, if ranching were such a conservation strategy, it is evident that it doesn’t work.
Agriculture, not subdivisions, fragments the Gallatin Valley. Photo George Wuerthner
Third, if ranching were so good at preserving open space, how is it that the Gallatin Valley, the Front Range of Colorado, the Wasatch Front in Utah, and the desert around Phoenix and Las Vegas, which were once all working ranchland are now being filled with subdivisions.
Fourth, open space isn’t necessarily the same as good wildlife habitat in many cases. For example, as previously mentioned, domestic livestock on the Beaverhead Deerlodge NF represents millions of acres of “open space.” Still, it is not necessarily the best habitat if you are a wolf or grizzly.
Even the assumption that a ranch that becomes a housing tract is a “loss” in wildlife habitat can be questioned. For instance, nearly all western ranching operations depend on irrigated hay production on private lands. Most cases, native vegetation has been replaced with exotic grasses like alfalfa for hay production. If you fly over the Gallatin Valley, you will see miles upon miles of hay fields occupying what was once native plant communities.
In addition, hay production uses up the bulk of the West’s scarce water resources draining rivers and wetlands. Even in California, where there are more people than in any other western state, ag hay and pasture uses far more water than all the domestic water used in cities, golf courses, swimming pools, and parks.
Irrigation for hay and other livestock forage production is the major consumer of water removed from streams in Montana, as in the rest of the West. Photo George Wuerthner
In Montana, some 97% of the water removed from the state’s rivers is for agriculture and, in most cases, dominated by livestock forage.
And that is only one of the impacts of continued livestock production in the West.
Both domestic sheep and cattle emit methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. Rather than promoting livestock production, organizations like GYC should be questioning why we allow any livestock production on our public lands when climate warming is accelerating.
If ignoring the actual ecological costs of livestock grazing precludes subdivisions, it’s a poor conservation strategy that needs to be examined.
Another myth promoted in the article is the assertion that domestic livestock “grazing can maintain the plant vigor, vitality, and biodiversity of a landscape.”
Again, such assertions need to be examined.
Ungrazed highway right of way has vigorous grass cover. Photo George Wuerthner
First, there are numerous locations in the West without any grazing. The sides of cliffs, tops of buttes, highway right of ways, and so forth, where numerous studies have documented the presence of healthy plant communities.
Second, the assertion that grazing promotes plant vigor ignores that grazing harms the plant. Grazing a plant results in a loss of leaves necessary for photosynthesis. In reaction, a plant produces more leaves, and this increase in leaves is considered a sign of “plant vigor” by ranching proponents. Since plants would die without leaves, grazed individuals translocate energy from roots to make new leaves. But this increase in leaf area comes at the expense of root systems. Consequently, grazed plants are more vulnerable to mortality during periods of drought.
Claiming that grazing improves plant vigor would be like asserting that poisoning, trapping, and shooting coyotes improve their vigor. Coyotes respond to such abuse by producing more pups. If you count pup production as an indication of “vigor,” you could assert that killing the animals is good for them.
Puff pieces like the Bozeman Chronicle article spread numerous myths about livestock grazing and underestimated the actual costs of grazing. What is worse is when conservation organizations like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) spread the same misinformation.
The real solution to the massive ecological impacts of domestic livestock grazing on public lands is the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement proposal promoted by some conservation organizations. It would pay ranchers like the Helles to take their sheep home and leave our public lands alone so that grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, bighorn sheep, trout, and other public wildlife could flourish.
If you are a member of GYC, you should write them and tell them you want them to get hoofed locust off our public lands and to put public wildlife first. Ask GYC and other groups to promote grazing retirement and the Rewilding of the landscape rather than private ranching of public lands.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
21 Responses to Puff Piece on Sheep Grazing in Montana’s Gravelly Range
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Thanks for this. Years ago, there was a meeting where so called enviros and ranchers supposedly shared the same values. The prominent rancher who had “wolf friendly beef” was a hundred miles from any local pack of wolves. He was put on a pedestal for “saving open space” I had to point out that he was a subdivider of “ranchettes” with access to open space surrounding (which was of course public land).
As far as potential loss of their profit making ranching operations being affected by losses to predators, I always mention they should be required to purchase insurance to cover their losses or accept the losses just like any other business. I imagine an insurance company would want very specific proof of loss to predators.
The once great and mighty GYC is seriously compromised, from the top down. The phrases co-oped, even sold out are now apt descriptors. A crying shame.
A link to a article exemplify this by Todd Wilkinson(Mountain Journal)is included. This incredibly informative article is not a short read, but well worth the effort if you hope to not only understand what is actually happening but how we got here and where it’s all going.
Thanks for this link – I get the Mountain Journal but apparently missed this article. Took me a while to read it all.
Todd Wilkinson is super – tells it like it is.
I’ll pass this along – sadly I think many wont take the time to read it, but frankly, if they just look at John Potter’s true to life cartoons & watch the Outlaw video – it might maybe educate someone.
Thank you. Your brilliant article is no less than a clarion call for action. Now, if only everyone reading your article would heed the words of another great advocate for protecting our earth, as shown in the quote box following your article.
”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.”
~ Edward Abbey
There is no “Fluff Piece” like the two-legged fluff piece that walks around talking big but does little or nothing at all to take a stand.
Absent a spear in the land, the line across the ground is but an idle threat… and everybody knows it.
NOW HEAR THIS!
I have said, “If every wolve in the USA ate a beefsteak and lambchop a day it would not make a blip on the profit margin of any single ranching family or the nation’s entire ranching community.”
Do you have any idea how many wolves live in the entire USA? Of course not. Ranchers hide such numbers. The total number of wolves ranges from 14,780 to 17,780 individuals.
Compare this to hundreds of millions of livestock animals there are in the USA. Now chew on this. Of the 14,780 to 17,780 wolves in the USA the vast majority are found in Alaska and nowhere near a ranch of any kind.
Not only is it mathematically and scientifically impossible for wolves to significantly harm the economics of ranchers but the idiocy of such claims made by ranchers is laughable. Case closed on the false claims of ranchers. Or it should be!
If other businesses cried foul and demanded taxpayers or anyone else to pay for losses due to natural causes, their own negligence, and undetermined causes of death they would be laughed out of Congress… but ranchers are so spoiled and are such welfare-dependent creatures they continue to demand and most often receive payments for livestock losses that have no proven cause identified.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ag-related Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations possess and publish the actual data about proven livestock predation due to wild predators.
If you hate wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions or wildlife in general and feel sorry for ranchers go look at the actual data for yourself.
Frankly, I’m tired of taking my time to spoon-feed facts to grown adults who 1) are too lazy to thoroughly objectively study an issue for themselves and 2) are hellbound to deny any facts that disprove their uneducated opinions no matter how strong the data is.
Duane Short ~ November 15 2022
I agree and will go one step further: Ranchers and their unnatural cattle and domestic sheep shouldn’t even exist. THAT’s the problem, the rest is symptoms.
As an ecological scientist I support what George has analyzed. Thanks you.
My opinion First the land belonged to the Animals first but because Humans are selfish spoiled and greedy they don’t know how to share and that includes Farmers Farmers what the land for their Cattle and their Cattle alone most Farmers will work with the DNR and other Animal Rights organizations but here’s the problem if Humans don’t work together to protect our Animals and land no one will have anything
OK, now it’s time for me to be the bad guy and make a very unpopular statement:
The solution to this problem is for people to stop eating beef and whatever meat comes from domestic sheep. All environmental and ecological problems are caused by overpopulation and overconsumption, the latter including consuming things we should not be like farmed meat. This problem is no exception. Humans only need animal products for vitamin B-12, and we can just eat some eggs once or twice a month to get the small amount of that we need. If we stop consuming this stuff, the problem of grazing goes away. For those of us advocating removal of cattle and domestic sheep from public lands, it is especially important that we don’t eat this stuff.
Agreed, or at least slow down, and make that connection to the environment. The less demand, the less damage.
I haven’t eaten red meat of any kind in at least two decades.
In the argument about whether we need individual changes or large society changes — to clear, we need BOTH — I always say, work on yourself first, and become the change you want to see, as some famous person said. This is what is taught in Buddhism, the eastern mystic disciplines, and even what Jesus said. We’ll never get the large societal changes needed if we don’t also make personal changes.
Wasn’t sure where to post, hope it’s okay here, but surprising:
A step forward but unless it’s established past Nov. 29th – the humans intent on slaughtering wolves by hook or crook (as my granddad used to say) will continue to do so.
The idea of “trappers” being allowed to take twenty (20) wolves? What century do they think they live in?
Barack Obama restarted the war on wolves when he was president. He offered removal of protections under the Endangered Species Act to ranchers & farmers in Montana in exchange for their support of Jon Tester for the Senate. I was furious at Obama for removing the protections, and I’ll never forgive him for that.
Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter. None of them care, or at lease care ENOUGH, about the natural world and the life there, and priorities are everything in politics.
Yes, I was too. I found him to be too conciliatory, and now we’ve got what we have today.
I’m terribly disappointed with the Biden administration and his Interior picks. No better than any who came before them. And an attorney from Jon Tester’s circle as Director of F&W? Give me a break. Crony politics.
Well, beef-loving Americans get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, the Earth and the rest of the life here don’t deserve this.
It’s outrageous, isn’t it. 🙁