Voluntary Grazing Retirement Could Reduce Wildfire In The West

Livestock is one of the major factors in cheatgrass invasion across the West. Photo George Wuerthner 

Wildfire is a big issue in Western states. As climate warming has increased temperatures, created severe drought, and increased winds, wildfire has become more challenging to control, and the annual acreage burned is growing over the recent past ( but does not exceed the historical past).

One of the main factors contributing to the spread of wildfire on rangeland is the widespread increase in cheatgrass, a highly flammable exotic (from Asia) annual promoted by livestock grazing.

One fifth of the Great Basin is now dominated by cheatgrass. Photo George Wuerthner 

Due to its annual nature and the ability of seeds to survive wildfire in the soil, a land dominated by cheatgrass may burn as frequently as every 1-3 years. Frequent burns favor the domination of rangelands by cheatgrass.

Most native grasses and shrubs have few adaptations to frequent fires. In the past, sagebrush ecosystems burned at much longer  intervals of 50-400 years. These frequent fires destroy the sagebrush ecosystems and threaten wildlife like the sage grouse, which depends on mature sagebrush plants for survival.

Cheatgrass now dominates one-fifth of the Great Basin.

Numerous studies have documented that livestock grazing is one of the significant factors contributing to the spread of cheatgrass.

Biocrusts cover the soil reducing the establishment of cheatgrass, but biocrusts are destroyed by livestock hooves.

First, by disturbing the soil biocrust with their hooves, livestock creates an ideal habitat for cheatgrass establishment. Second, biocrusts cover the ground surface in between native grasses and tend to inhibit cheatgrass establishment. Third, there is an inverse relationship between biocrust cover and cheatgrass, and livestock grazing was found to be the primary variable.

As the authors of one study explained: “biocrusts increase site resistance to invasion at a landscape scale and mediate the effects of disturbance.” And the researchers go on to conclude: “maintaining biocrust communities with high cover, species richness, and cover of short mosses can increase resistance to invasion.”

Secondarily, by selectively grazing native grasses, livestock can put indigenous plants at a competitive disadvantage against cheatgrass, which livestock tend to avoid eating for a short period after greening up.

Cheatgrass greens up earlier than native grasses, and can use up soil moisture needed by native grasses. Photo George Wuerthner 

Cheatgrass greens up early can often outcompete native grasses for soil moisture, thus putting native species at a competitive disadvantage for growth.

Plus, when grasses are cropped by livestock grazing, plants must mobilize stored energy resources towards regrowing new leaf material at the expense of roots so that the grazed plant is disadvantaged.

And since it dries out quickly, it lengthens the fire season by providing suitable fuel for early-season blazes.

This area was “treated” to create a “fuel break” and became dominated by cheatgrass. Photo George Wuerthner 

Third, much of federal agencies’ fire prevention management strategy, like creating fuel “breaks” or “targeted grazing,” tends to enhance cheatgrass establishment and spread. Fuel breaks, for instance, by removing all native vegetation with bulldozers and other means, often become linear cheatgrass corridors.

In addition, it is questionable whether fuel breaks even work under the extreme fire weather conditions that drive large rangeland fires.

Much of the justification for fuel breaks is to protect livestock grazing opportunities that might be eliminated by wildfire. Without livestock. Less reason for fuel breaks.

Fourth, even after a wildfire, there is a strong bias towards restocking burnt ranges as soon as possible, often just 2-3 years after a fire. Yet many native bunch grasses may require up to 10 years to recover from fire events.

Sagebrush has no adaptations to wildfire and burns at infrequent intervals of 50-400 years. Cheatgrass can increase fire such that sagebrush can never recover. Photo George Wuerthner

It’s important to note that in rangelands already dominated by cheatgrass, even with the removal of livestock may take years to recover. But on rangelands with significant native plant cover, livestock removal may substantially reduce wildfire spread.

Therefore, one of the ways we could reduce the spread of cheatgrass and the resultant wildfires is to reduce livestock grazing on public lands. One mechanism for eliminating domestic grazing is implementing the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act.

Under the terms of the Act, the federal agencies must:

  1. Accept and terminate, on a first-come, first-served basis, the permit or lease;
  2. Refrain from issuing any new grazing permit or lease within the grazing allotment covered by the permit or lease; and
  3. Ensure a permanent end to livestock grazing on the allotment covered by the permit or lease.

The one current deficiency of the Act is that it limits the permit retirement to no more than 100 allotments a year across the 16 western states. The Act needs to be revised such that there is no limit on permit retirements, but for the time being, that may be too steep a political hill to push up.

It’s important to note that grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a “right.” The federal government can terminate a grazing allotment at any time for any reason. However, given the influence of Western ranchers over public lands management, such terminations seldom happen even when it is obviously in the public interest.

Under the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act, a rancher would volunteer to give up grazing privileges in exchange for some predetermined financial compensation. Under the terms of the Act, the federal government would then close the allotment and forever ban grazing by domestic livestock in the future.

This is a critical feature of the Act because in the past, even after agreements between ranchers, and funders of the allotment retirement, some federal agencies have just reissued the permit to another rancher, neglecting any benefits to the public.

In addition to reducing livestock-induced spread of cheatgrass, eliminating domestic livestock grazing would have numerous other benefits for the public lands and taxpayers.

Termination of livestock grazing on federal lands would help riparian areas like Freighter Springs on the Challis National Forest to recover from trampling, soil compaction and water pollution. Photo George Wuerthner 

Removal of domestic livestock would reduce soil compaction, reduce riparian damage, reduce water pollution, reduce the need for fences (which block wildlife migration), reduce calls for predator and pest “control,” reduce forage competition between native wildlife and domestic animals, reduce disease transmission from domestic animals to wildlife, and reduce the social displacement of native species that occurs when domestic animals are released on grazing allotments.

The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act has been introduced in Congress in previous years. It has yet to pass, but it could be one of the most effective means of reducing wildfire on rangelands by eliminating one of the significant factors in the spread of flammable exotic plants like cheatgrass.


  1. David Avatar

    Hello George,
    I was really hoping you would include something specific in your article the reader could do themselves in response to the Voluntary Grazing Retirement idea.

    1. Josh Osher Avatar
      Josh Osher

      Hi David,

      The bill is set to be reintroduced by Reps. Smith and Huffman in late July or August. The biggest thing people can do right now in support is to reach out to Members of Congress and encourage them to become an original cosponsor of the legislation. Of course, Senate support would also be helpful. Another thing to do is to try and build support with non-traditional allies such as local chambers of commerce, recreation groups, hunters and anglers, etc.

  2. Jerry Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry Thiessen

    Amen. Livestock grazing on semi-arid western ranges going back 150 years set the stage for cheatgrass invasion. Fires followed at shorter and shorter intervals until now its just a few years on average and will only get worse over time with climate trending toward hotter and dryer. There is no stopping the spread but livestock removal will mitigate somewhat. Voluntarily giving up grazing permits with compensation is a good step but time will tell how effective it will be in the long run. I suggest that conservation groups unite and augment government payments to sweeten the pot and incentives for ranchers. Money well spent.
    George mentioned the plight of sage grouse cased by cheatgrass fires but equally troubling is the loss of mule deer habitat. Mule deer numbers have been trending down across the west for decades. There are many contributing factors but the loss of winter range and hiding cover to fires eliminating sage brush ecosystems is a major contributor. This a long term problem that won’t go away anytime soon regardless of government intervention.

  3. Nancy Orr Avatar
    Nancy Orr

    Thank you for promoting the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act.

  4. Maryk Avatar

    It’s time to require phasing out of cattle ranching on public lands. Most don’t know about Cheat Grass, but it’s easy for anyone to see this practice represents free and subsidized water and vegetation for private industry– courtesy of the taxpayer, whose public lands are being degraded, whose water is being taken.

    In this time of drought, we must immediately address water conservation and preservation of native plants and animals– or they will quickly disappear.

    1. Rambling Dave Avatar
      Rambling Dave

      Exactly. It’s time for public lands ranching to end. I don’t recall the exact figure, but the beef produced on public lands is something like 2-3% of the national supply, an insignificant amount. The vast majority of beef comes from private feedlots. If public lands ranching were to stop tomorrow the loss of supply would be lost in the normal seasonal price fluctuation. Hardly anyone would notice.

  5. Rambling Dave Avatar
    Rambling Dave

    Cheatgrass is an interesting species. It’s clearly better adapted to certain types of sites than native species as once it’s introduced it vigorously and aggressively out-competes them. Not just here in the Intermountain West, but everywhere around the world. From reading the literature it seems like it’s pretty much unstoppable. You can slow it down at great expense but eventually it’s going to do what it’s going to do. Time, human stupidity, and climate change are on its side. You do have to give it a kind of begrudging respect.

    I went looking for information on its native ranges (Eurasia and northern Africa) and was surprised to find very little available. Apparently cheatgrass is not a problem there. Anyone who’s spent time in the agricultural areas of western Mediterranean or north Africa (or better google skills than I) have any thoughts?

  6. Rambling Dave Avatar
    Rambling Dave

    And one last comment for me today and then I’ll shut up:

    Clicking through, it looks like this bill died without a vote back in the 117th congress. Probably not much chance of it going anywhere in this congress, but I guess we can hope.

    Talk of grazing lease buyouts and voluntary retirement goes way back. George’s post reminded me of an article way back in 2014 in High Country News on potential lease buyouts to help Mexican wolf reintroduction in Arizona/New Mexico’s Gila country. One of the ranchers who wanted to cut a deal admitted that he’d not earned a profit on his lease since the 1990s, yet he’d continued to run the cows for years, trashing the extensive meadows and wetlands atop Aldo Leopold’s iconic Escudilla Mountain and stringing barbwire all over to hell and back. He’d made all his money stripping the Apache National Forest of its old growth trees so the cows must’ve been just a money-losing family tradition. But now that the logging thing had petered out and he was old and none of his 10 kids were interested in continuing the cowboy thing he wanted to get paid for giving up the lease. It’s not like the guy suddenly became a conservationist or wanted to help wolf reintroduction or felt bad about what he’d done to Escudilla Mountain. It was all about the money.

    Anyway, my point is that none of these guys will give up their leases as long as there’s money to be made from them. Rather than waiting them out or asking them to voluntarily stop trashing the West they should be forced off the land by making it uneconomical. That means making them pay market rates for the grass and water. You do that and public lands ranching in the West will quickly dry up.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Dave, I hear you and thanks, you hit the nail, squarely on the head! Sadly though, more years will continue to fly by before environmental concerns, will actually trump the negative money, flowing in, hoping to stop those concerns.

      Lobbyists could care less because money “talks” when it comes to getting elected or re elected in politics in this day and age.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        How sad is it that we, taxpayers, make up the difference between what producers do pay (or not) and the actual cost of this losing program! Thats a little piece of info that should be headlined. I’m darn sure very few taxpayers realize that the good old cowboy life is something they are paying for.
        I’m also sure there are some small livestock producers that use the allotments & care for them as they should. But its the big corporate entities that take advantage of this program.