Livestock Grazing In Wilderness Areas

The grazing of livestock, where established prior to the effective

date of this Act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such

reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of


The Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 4(d)(4)(2)

Cattle grazing designaed wilderness in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona. Photo George Wuerthner 

No human activity has more impact on western federal lands than domestic livestock grazing. Grazing occurs on millions of acres of public lands, including lands designated as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness.

Even though the 1964 Wilderness Act requires federal agencies to “preserve its natural conditions” in designated wilderness areas, an exception for livestock grazing is written into the original Act.

The Wilderness Act also requires that federal agencies maintain “primitive character” and “its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Untrammeled means unconfined, but livestock grazing is a domestication of the landscape and the opposite of “untrammeled.”

Domestic livestock and their impact on the land hardly “preserves natural conditions.” Indeed, livestock grazing occurs to some degree on 330 designated wildernesses.

Aldo Leopold, whom many consider one of the “fathers” of the Wilderness movement, wrote a recommendation for protecting what is now the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. At that time, he advocated for a prohibition on roads but did not propose the removal of livestock.

However, grazing after visiting northern Chihuahua in 1936–37 Leopold began to question the viability of livestock in the arid West.

He wrote: “I sometimes wonder whether semi-arid mountains can be grazed at all without ultimate deterioration. I know of no arid region which has ever survived grazing through long periods of time, although I have seen individual ranches which seemed to hold out for shorter periods. The trouble is that where water is unevenly distributed and feed varies in quality, grazing usually means overgrazing.”

Nevertheless, livestock grazing remained a common feature of primitive areas, a designation the Forest Service implemented under Leopold’s guidance, and which was the forerunner of today’s wildernesses.

In writing the original draft of what became the Wilderness Act, Wilderness Society Executive Secretary Howard Zahniser characterized livestock grazing in wilderness as a “nonconforming” use that should be terminated.

Grazing allotment in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner

When the Wilderness Act was being debated in Congress, House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall (D Colorado) would not allow the bill out of committee unless it contained a provision that permitted livestock grazing to continue in designated wilderness areas. Aspinall had effectively stalled the bill in committee from 1960 through 1963.

As a result of Aspinall’s efforts, the Wilderness Act concludes: “The grazing of livestock, where established before the effective date of this Act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture.”

The phrase “shall continue” means that the simple designation as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act cannot be used to justify terminating grazing.

Fences installed to benefit livestock management are ubiguous on public lands, and have numerous impacts, including the entanglement of wildlife as seen here. Photo George Wuerthner 

One additional grazing compromise occurred in 1980 and was attached to the Colorado Wilderness legislation. Known as the Colorado Grazing Language, the Act effectively strengthens the hold of the livestock industry in designated wilderness areas. The Colorado Grazing provisions allow motorized use by ranchers (normally motors are prohibited in the wilderness), construction of new fences, water developments and other features that enhance livestock grazing in designated wilderness.

It’s important to note that livestock can be removed from wilderness areas, as with all federal lands, to meet resource needs like protecting watersheds, soils, and wildlife habitat.

Grazing permits are largely based on historical use and are typically attached to specific ranches. Nevertheless, grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. Managing agencies can terminate a grazing permit at any time—although termination seldom occurs due to the political power of the livestock industry.

Cattle grazing in the Blue Range Wilderness, New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner

Many wilderness areas, particularly in the western United States, still have some level of domestic livestock grazing within their boundaries, including some of our most iconic wildlands like the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Gros Ventre Wilderness and Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, Golden Trout Wilderness and the Marble Mountains Wilderness in California, Anaconda Pintler Wilderness and Red Rock Lakes Wilderness in Montana, the Wenimuche Wilderness in Colorado, the Owyhee Wilderness in Idaho, Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, and many others.

So pervasive is livestock grazing on western federal lands that livestock-free areas are the exception, not the rule. For instance, in New Mexico’s Greater Gila Bioregion nearly 90% (4.2 million acres) of the Forest Service lands permit livestock grazing, including in the Gila Wilderness, Aldo Leopold Wilderness, and Blue Range Wilderness.

The impacts of livestock production fit into several categories.

Fecal material from livestock is one of the primary non-point pollution sources on federal lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

WATER POLLUTION: Numerous studies have shown that the presence of livestock in a drainage often leads to E coli counts that exceed state water quality standards. For instance, one cow will “deposit” between 65-80 pounds of manure per day. By comparison, a human may excrete 1 pound of fecal matter. So a herd of 500 cattle utilizing a drainage is the equivalent of allowing a community of 5000 people to spread their fecal matter across such a landscape.

DISEASE TRANSMISSION: Some of the diseases that native wildlife suffers from come directly from domestic animals. For instance, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was originally transmitted to wild ungulates from a sheep research facility in Colorado CWD is fatal and has spread to many western and mid-western states. Domestic sheep can also transmit pneumonia to wild bighorn sheep. The loss of many bighorn sheep herds is directly attributed to the transmission of the disease from domestic to wild sheep. Other diseases like Pink Eye, and brucellosis are also originally passed on to wildlife from domestic livestock sources.

Native predators are shot, trapped and poisoned on public lands, including in wilderness areas. Photo George Wuerthner 

PREDATOR AND PEST CONTROL: Much of the West is an arid with limited productivity compared to the mid-west and the eastern United States. As a result, livestock must spread across large areas to find sufficient forage. This places them at greater jeopardy from predation than animals grazing the back forty of a mid-west farm.

For decades, ranchers have successfully lobbied the federal government to kill predators on public lands at taxpayer expense. With changes in social values, predators have recovered somewhat from this war on predators.

Nevertheless, predators, including cougar, wolf, bear, and coyote are regularly killed in wilderness areas where natural processes like predators are supposed to be sacrosanct. Indeed, predators can help to control the spread of diseases like CWD.  In some wilderness areas, rodents like prairie dogs may also be poisoned or shot. For more on predator and livestock see Predator Defense.

Riparian areas are the thin, green lines of vegetation along waterways. Cattle are drawn to these areas where they consume vegetation, trample banks, and compact soils. Photo George Wuerthner 

RIPARIAN DAMAGE: Riparian areas are the thin green lines of water-influenced vegetation along streams and lakeshores. In the arid West, 70-80 percent of all species depend on riparian areas for at least some of their food, shelter, and other habitat needs.

Unfortunately, domestic livestock, particularly cows, evolved in moist forests in Eurasia and gravitate towards the habitat that most approximate their evolutionary habitat—the heavily vegetated riparian areas.

Also, in much of the drier parts of the West, most forage is located in the thin green bands of vegetation along stream courses. Therefore, these critical habitats for many species, from trout to songbirds to grizzly bears, are typically degraded by grazing livestock. Livestock tramples and breaks down the streambanks and also consumes the vegetation, eliminating hiding cover and removing forage that would otherwise support native species.

Biocrusts protect soil from wind and water erosion, but are easily damaged by cattle trampling. Photo George Wuerthner 


Most desert areas of the West have algae, lichens, and bacteria that reside on and just below the soil surface collectively known as biocrusts. Livestock hooves trample the biocrusts and compact soil making it difficult for biocrusts to colonized disturbed sites.

Biocrusts hold the soil together with micro-filaments, reducing erosion, as well as capturing atmospheric nitrogen and “fixing” it so it is available to plants. Biocrusts often colonize the surface between bunchgrasses and other plants and prevent the germination of weedy species like cheatgrass.


Livestock is among the most important factors in the spread of weeds in the arid West. They accomplish this in three ways. First, their feces and hides will carry weed seeds to new sites. By destroying biocrusts, they facilitate the establishment and germination of weeds. Finally, by selectively grazing/browsing on native grasses and shrubs, they weaken these desirable plants, making it more difficult for them to compete against the weedy species.


The Wilderness Act permits ranching infrastructure to be built and/or maintained like water troughs, spring developments, line cabins, as well as fences that can block wildlife migrations and of course represents the opposite of an “unconfined” kind of experience.

Fences also impact other wildlife. Sage grouse are poor fliers and often collide with fences. In one study, 29% of all sage grouse died due to fence collisions. Fences also create survey posts for birds of prey that prey on sage grouse.

In addition, some specific wilderness legislation also allows ranchers to use motorized vehicles for access, (can’t expect cowboys to walk or ride a horse), despite the ban on motorized vehicles in a wilderness.


Many wildlife species, like elk avoid areas actively being grazed by domestic livestock. These animals are displaced into other habitats that is likely less suitable. If one assumes that elk or other animals are picking the habitat that is most suitable to their survival, if displaced, that creates an accounted impact on native wildlife.  It may leave wildlife more vulnerable to hunters and/or predators. It may mean less productive forage. It may expose the animals to more severe weather.

It also affects other wildlife. For example, wolves may be harmed when elk are displaced, especially if they have pups at a den and cannot move with the prey.

In many areas, domestic animals consume the majority of all forage, leaving little for native herbivores. Photo George Wuerthner 


Most forage is allotted to private domestic livestock, not wildlife on most public lands. As a result, livestock consume food that would otherwise support native herbivores, from ground squirrels to elk. Every pound of forage going into domestic sheep or cattle is much less food for native species.

Grazing of plants can also impact other wildlife. For instance, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees all depend on flowering plants for food. If sheep or cattle mow down these plants, it indirectly reduces the food for these other species.


Livestock is concentrated and often compact soil with numerous impacts on ecosystems. For one compacted soil decreases infiltration and thus increases water run-off, thus indirectly contributing to erosion and desertification. Livestock compaction also affects other native species. Many native bees, for instance, live in burrows in soil and can be negatively affected by soil compaction. Some desert tortoise, toads, and frogs seek out rodent burrow for shelter. Livestock can collapse burrows and thus limit habitat for these species.


Some authorities think that any domestic livestock grazing is “overgrazing” especially if it occurs in the wilderness. Regardless of your perspective, livestock selectively graze plants, removing the better tasting and palatable plants and leaving behind the less desirable plants. As a result, they change the natural distribution of plants, typically reducing the native grasses and shrubs and contributing to the spread of the weedy species. Beyond that, the removal of significant amounts of vegetation can expose the soil to greater moisture evaporation, and thus contributing to desertification.

Cheatgrass is a highly flammable exotic that is favored by trampling and grazing by domestic livestock. George Wuerthner 


Livestock can have numerous impacts on fire regimes. Wildfire is critical to healthy ecosystems, however, the temporal and spatial scale of fire is important. For instance, in some ecosystems like sagebrush, as well as juniper/pinyon woodlands, typically support major wildfires that occur hundreds of years apart. When livestock promotes cheatgrass, an exotic annual that is highly flammable, it can result in far more frequent wildfire which is outside of the historic frequency. If fires are too frequent, native ecosystems of sagebrush can be converted to cheatgrass.

On the other hand, in other situations like in low elevation dry ponderosa pine forests which historically experienced low severity fire at frequent intervals, livestock grazing by removing the fine fuels of grasses, can give trees a competitive advantage, leading to denser forest stands that may be more vulnerable to higher severity blazes.


Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement can facilitate livestock removal. Under permit retirement, a rancher agrees to remove his livestock and permanently give up access to grazing allotments in exchange for some agreed-upon sum of money.

Private parties usually provide this funding. In recent years, some wilderness legislation has included specific language allowing a permittee to “sell” their permit, which is then “retired” permanently. This option has been used in the legislation creating the Owyhee Wilderness legislation, the Boulder-White Cloud legislation, Steens Mountain legislation, and in the creation of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.

Another measure that could be implemented immediately is the closure of vacant allotments. Throughout the West, over 3 million acres of grazing allotments in designated wilderness are currently ungrazed. Permanently closing these allotments is legal.

Given the obvious contraction of allowing livestock grazing in designated wilderness where natural processes and native species are a valued feature of these landscapes, removing livestock and closing vacant allotments in wilderness areas should be a priority.


  1. lou Avatar

    Bad, very bad that ranchers have such control over wilderness areas. Why should they have rights that no one else has and their cows have such deleterious impacts on land that belongs to every American

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Because in order to get the Wilderness Act passed, they had to compromise by allowing grazing in designated wilderness areas. The only federal land that doesn’t allow grazing is National Parks. Therefore, the only full protection for land in the U.S. is wilderness designation within a National Park.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        I guess dairy farms dont count as on Point Reyes National Seashore. Sounds the same as “grazing” to me – including the pollution!

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          The dairy cattle were there before the park was created. The ranchers sold the land to the government, but the government leased it back to them so they could continue ranching. This was supposed to be very short term, but the ranchers never left.

          We’ve been fighting these jerks for years now. Unfortunately, all the scumbag politicians are on their side, including Congressman Jared Huffman, who touts himself as an environmentalist. It’s an uphill battle to say the least. But there was some really good news lately: the National Park Service said they’re going to take down the fence that’s been trapping the native elk. Ranchers said that if they take the fence down, they’d leave. We can only hope!

          1. Ida Lupine Avatar
            Ida Lupine

            Oh thank goodness, I’m so glad to hear that, the elk won’t be fenced away from water.

            They had even suggested growing crops in this area too.

            1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
              Jeff Hoffman

              I don’t trust any of these people, so I’ll believe it when I see it. It gives us hope at least, this situation was looking very bleak, with a threat of federal legislation that would have made the ranches permanent.

  2. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    Hey George:

    In paragraph #4, you use the word “hardily”; did you mean “hardly”?

  3. Diane Avatar

    I’m curious as to why you omit the impact of private grazing on wild horses and burros? Do you not believe these equines are native? They are rounded up (hunted) and killed just like wolves, bears, coyotes, mountain lions under the excuse of “over population” when there is no population data or “lack of forage” when there is no forage data and then replaced with higher numbers of cattle and/or sheep. Animals that have a specific law, Wild Horse and Burro Act to conserve & protect them are regularly & systematically abused by the BLM and USFS at the demand of private ranchers. Our federal land management agencies have been and continue to manage public lands, including wilderness areas, for the benefit of an elite few ranchers with seemingly unlimited power. I’ve seen my state, WA, kill entire wolf packs because privately owned cows grazing on public land killed a few cows. I’ve argued in vain with USFS grazing managers when cattle aren’t removed according to permit terms and ESA-listed fish reds are trampled. I worked for State F&W, USFS & NMFS for 30+ years and I’m still waiting to see govt agencies, especially federal ones, follow the damn law.

    1. Heidi Hall Avatar
      Heidi Hall

      If you are unable to find evidence of horse and burro overpopulation, lack of forage and the loss of native plants and wildlife due to feral horses and burros it is because you are not looking for it. I’ll leave a few links for you.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        National Horse & Burro Rangeland Management? Seems to be repeating the BLM’s propaganda.

    2. Heidi Hall Avatar
      Heidi Hall

      I think it is also worth pointing out the inaccuracy of your statement; “…..abused by the BLM and USFS at the demand of private ranchers.” I cannot say for certain this never happens but I can say that I have plenty of evidence that many other groups and individuals are horrified by the damage being done by feral horses and are taking action to stop the destruction.

      Here is one example: There are no “ranchers” along the shore of Mono Lake. I also am not a “rancher”(although I have been accused of being a shill because I advocate for native wildlife) am appalled by the damage done by feral horses and want to see them removed from lands that are needed to maintain habitat for migratory and other birds (such as the threatened Sage Grouse) and other native wildlife. I suggest you scroll down on the article about feral horses at Mono Lake to see what they did to a spring along the shore of the lake. This is a desert and the lake itself, three times as salty as the ocean, is not a source of fresh water. There also was a lightning caused wildfire there in 2020 and recovery of habitat for native wildlife has been stymied by the feral horses.

      In addition the BLM has been tearing down Pinyon forests to create habitat for the Sage Grouse and then the Pinyon Jay numbers are plummeting along with the Sage Grouse numbers at the same time that feral horses are destroying Sage Grouse habitat. This is insane and absurd and I would like to think that even the quasi-religious horse advocates could see the broad reaching effects of allowing feral horses to take precedence over native and endangered wildlife. But to be frank – I don’t.

      I don’t need any formal study to know what is happening. I can see this with my own eyes and I respectfully challenge you to seek out information that does not confirm your pre-existing bias.

      1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        You’re illegitimately conflating issues. Ranchers are getting BLM to remove wild horses so their cattle can graze. The rare exceptions you mention are just that. I can’t imagine that anyone here supports killing native plants or animals, or destroying native habitat or ecosystems. But what you fail to acknowledge is that horses are NATIVE to the Americas. These are not some non-native pest like cattle. Sure, the native predators have been killed by the colonizers, and they must be put back in order to keep the native horse populations under control. But targeting horses is pure BS, it’s cattle that are the problem. I’d bet that cattle outnumber horses in the west by, I dunno, 100,000 to 1. So why are you obsessing on horses?

    3. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      I agree with our comment except for the following: Burros are NOT native to the Americas: they’re from Africa.

      As to getting the bureaucrats and political hacks to follow the law, don’t hold your breath. These people don’t give a damn about the land or water, or about the species who live there. Their priority is to further their careers. Not saying there are no good people there, but they’re exceptions, not the rule.

  4. David Marshall Avatar
    David Marshall

    Great article on a pertinent issue. Grazing on public land is still a very real problem in the Big Lost River Range of Idaho today. The cattle tear up the land in and around the trout streams and camping areas. The divots they create around the riparian areas are often filled with their waste and create walking & wading hazards. I once encountered a steer that I thought was going to charge me while fly fishing Copper Basin. Outdoorsmen or recreationalists should not have to put up with encounters with domesticated live stock on public lands for many reasons – chiefly, it denigrates the wilderness experience. I believe permit retirement is probably the most feasible way to stop it as it gives ranchers a financial exit strategy even though ranchers have gotten a pretty sweet deal over the years fattening livestock using the public’s resources for a fraction of what those inputs are worth. Just because there is a history of grazing on public lands does not mean it should be permitted to continue. Cattle, in particular, are highly destructive and ought to be raised on private land even if it raises the cost of beef. Ranchers should not expect subsidies or welfare from the public’s land for their private enterprise & benefit. I believe it is time to buy the permits out and let the land recover for everyone’s use & enjoyment.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Yes! Cattle grazing is now the most, or at least one of the most, destructive things that humans do. It’s worse in arid lands like the western U.S., but it’s bad everywhere, because cattle are not naturally-evolved animals, and thus not native to anywhere. Additionally, they cut down forests to graze the damn cattle! These hooved locusts destroy everything in so many ways that books have been written about this, including George’s.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I wish people would simply stop eating beef, or at least cut down their consumption of it. That would certainly help, if they care about these issues.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Fully agree. It’s totally hypocritical to complain about cattle grazing, then eat beef.

  6. Robert Raven Avatar
    Robert Raven

    Excellent analysis of ranching’s impact on public lands!
    Great pictures, too!


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