Juniper and grasslands–How Cattle Grazing Impacts Ecosystems

Ungrazed juniper and grass in Sutton Mountain Proposed Wilderness, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the most common assertions from the livestock industry and range managers is that juniper is “invading” landscapes, sucking up water that would sustain grasses, and harming wildlife. Of course, these assertions are seldom challenged. Given that grass seems absent from the understory of juniper, it might be a logical conclusion that juniper is eliminating grasses or reducing water flow.

Wildflowers are abundant among ungrazed portion of Owyhee Mountains, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner

Absence of grass among juniper in this cattle grazed Blue Range Wilderness, New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

Yet soil compaction from cattle hooves, which reduces water infiltration or increases damage to riparian zones, is the biggest influence on water availability.

Cattle impact riparian area, eliminating most vegetation, widening channel and decreasing depth of the stream. New Mexico Photo George Wuerthner 

The quote below is typical of the livestock perspective:

“Over the past 15 years, the Fulstone family has embarked on several habitat restoration projects, including removing pinion and juniper trees. This strategic move has raised the water table, allowing more grasses and shrubs to thrive.”

Juniper removal in eastern Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

In response, government agencies have embarked on massive juniper removal efforts.

Abundant grasslands among juniper woodlands, ungrazed BLM lands Marston Area. Photo George Wuerthner

However, most agency-range officials and ranchers seldom see ungrazed lands. The reason there is less grass around the juniper is more likely due to livestock grazing than anything to do with the juniper’s presence. Climate change is also influencing the present of juniper. What is termed “invasion” may be natural colonization.

The following images are from ungrazed landscapes, including state parks, steep canyons, and other locations where livestock grazing is absent.

Grass and juniper at ungrazed Pilot Butte State Park, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Juniper and bunchgrass on ungrazed Pilot Butte State Park, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Ungrazed bunchgrasses and junper, Pilot Butte State Park, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Grass and juniper at ungrazed Pilot Butte State Park, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Notably, most of these lands are still grazed by native herbivores, from grasshoppers to elk and deer, so the only difference is the lack of livestock impacts.

Absent of cattle grazing contributes to abundant grass cover, Sutton Mountain Proposed Wilderness, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Ungrazed juniper grasslands Alder Springs Proposed Wilderness, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Bunchgrass and juniper in Steelhead Falls Proposed Wilderness, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Ungrazed lands along Lake Stimulas, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Grass beneath juniper. Ungrazed Marston BLM Area, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 





  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    To sum this up – ranchers & most BLM reps dont get a chance to SEE ungrazed lands? Well, that explains why they cant comprehend the damage done by livestock, doesnt it?

  2. Ajaxgrac Avatar

    Thank you for this piece.

  3. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    Having grown up near Hereford, OR, I can attest to the effects of cattle grazing on juniper/grass habitats – all negative. I’ve been wondering why the BLM was/is promoting the removal of junipers…now I know. It’s a horrible way of dealing with a non-problem! STOP IT IMMEDIATELY!!!!

  4. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Thanks George! These photos are certainly worth thousands of words – and the BLM should take notice – and so should the politicians blindly supporting these non-science based habitat damaging manipulations.

    Junipers are NATIVE PLANTS and very important to the West’s natural juniper/grassland ecosystems.

  5. MK Ray Avatar
    MK Ray

    Taking out the trees removes shade which further dries out the parched land and further compromises the survival of the understory. And you would think land managers would know this by now. Do they never go back and recheck their projects where this has been done to see the futility of it.

  6. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Cattle grazing has become one of the major harms that humans do to the Earth and all the other life here. What else is there to say about this?

  7. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    Two D-9’s and giant ship-anchor chains. Been going on since at least the forties . . . maybe longer.

    “Range” = grass (whether or not it’s a grassland ecosystem)

    Range mangler.

    They do it to pinones too. Don’t they know stock need shade?

    Linear thinking.


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