Horse News

Livestock’s Impact on Wilderness

by George Wuerthner as published on The Wildlife News

“There is probably no activity that does more damage to our public lands, and in particular, degrades our wilderness areas, than livestock production…”

Private Cattle being moved on Antelope Complex while the BLM was removing wild horses ~ photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation

Livestock grazing occurs on some 260 million acres of federal lands, including lands administered by the Forest Service (FS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges (FWS) and even some national parks (NPS) and continues in many designated wilderness areas. For perspective, this is equal to the collective acreage of the entire East Coast states from Florida to Maine with Missouri thrown in.

Approximately 90% of all BLM lands and 69% of FS lands outside of Alaska are leased for livestock grazing. Grazing permits are largely based on historic use and typically attached to specific ranches. Grazing on public lands is, however, a privilege, not a right. And managing agencies can terminate a grazing permit at any time—although termination seldom occurs due to the political power of the livestock industry.

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, the Death Valley Wilderness, 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 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.

Some 54 wilderness bills did not have any livestock production at the time of designation. Almost all of these wilderness areas are in the eastern United States, Alaska, and/or in national parks like Glacier Bay where no livestock grazing ever occurred or had been terminated long before the existence of the Wilderness Act.

There is probably no activity that does more damage to our public lands, and in particular, degrades our wilderness areas, than livestock production. From the destruction of riparian areas, pollution of water, spread of weeds, killing of predators, social displacement of native ungulates, soil compaction, trampling of biocrusts, transmission of disease to wildlife, as well as forage competition with native herbivores, fencing that blocks wildlife migration, and so forth. Nothing has a greater negative ecological impact than livestock production.

These are all real costs of livestock production which western livestock operators have successfully transferred unto the land and/or taxpayer. Without these economic and ecological subsidies, livestock grazing in the arid West would not be profitable.

It is even more egregious when these same impacts occur in lands that are supposed to be protected in wilderness areas where the Wilderness Act 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 opposite of “untrammeled.”

Domestic livestock in wilderness may seem like an oxymoron after all the goal of the Wilderness Act is to preserve “natural” conditions. But this exception was written into the Act as a compromise to get then-Congressman Wayne Aspinall to release the wilderness legislation out of his committee.

Basically, the phrase “shall continue” means that the simple designation as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act cannot be used as a justification to terminate grazing. However, a federal management agency can reduce or otherwise terminate grazing in wilderness if there is resource damage or other compelling reasons just as it can on any other federal lands.

The impacts of livestock production fit into a number of categories.

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 75 and 100 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.

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 in some cases 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 be poisoned or shot as well.

RIPARIAN DAMAGE: Riparian areas are the thin green lines of water influenced vegetation found 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 approximates their evolutionary habitat—the heavily vegetated riparian areas. Also, in much of the drier parts of the West, the majority of all 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 the presence of grazing livestock. Livestock tramples and break down the streambanks, and also consume the vegetation, eliminating hiding cover, and removing forage that would otherwise support native species.


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 factor 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 has an effect on 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.


On most public lands, the majority of forage is allotted to private domestic livestock, not wildlife. As a result, livestock are consuming food that would otherwise support native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. Every pound of forage going into a domestic sheep or cattle is that 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.


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.


Livestock grazing by ranchers and corporations for private businesses at public costs is permitted, even in designated wilderness. One of the options used to “retire” gazing privileges is permit buyout. 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. For an overview of permit buyouts, see

6 replies »

  1. These are the facts. Yet year after year cattle and livestock destroy these designated areas. Not to mention removing the Wild horses and Burros by the hundreds. These lands belong to all of us. Yet a select few feel they are entitled to do what ever they want with the land. I called once to inquire how to lease this land and NEVER.received a return call! The face of Washington and the West must change! And until such as everyone speaks up very LOUDLY this will not change. The viotile atmosphere in Washington has caused one to consider what country are we in. Why isnt the media eexposing this to the American people? Its a sad day in America when a select few are allowed to destroy all of this. We just have to keep fighting for what we feel is right!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Achieving justice for our wild horses and burros and public lands and wildlife depends on BLM officials exercising their authority to legally reduce private, usually corporate, domestic livestock grazing in the wild horse and burros’ legal areas, whether on BLM or USFS lands. Such exercise would be legally covered under 43 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) 4710.3-2 and 43 C.F.R 4710.5(a). In particular, 43 C.F.R. 4710.5 clearly states that the Bureau of Land Management can legally reduce livestock grazing in order “to provide habitat for wild horses or burros.”
    § 4710.5 Closure to livestock grazing.
    (a) If necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros from disease, harassment or injury, the authorized officer may close appropriate areas of the public lands to grazing use by all or a particular kind of livestock.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. From AWHC

    RED ALERT: California Wild Horses to be Sold for Slaughter
    Photo above by Linda Hay

    Beginning as early as next week, the U.S. Forest Service intends to round up and remove 1,000 wild horses from California’s largest federally-protected habitat area – the 233,000-acre Devils Garden Wild Horse Territory in the Modoc National Forest near Alturas. The intent of the removal is to reduce the horse population so that ranchers who hold grazing permits in the Forest can turn out their cattle again on the public lands.
    Hundreds of these federally-protected wild horses could be sold for slaughter.

    The Forest Service is working with the Modoc County Farm Bureau and the University of California Extension Service to send an estimated 300 Devils Garden mustangs, aged 10 and over, to temporary holding pens on the Modoc Forest. (Younger horses will be sent to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) holding corrals for adoption.) The older horses will be “processed” (vaccinated, wormed, gelded and microchipped) and offered for “sale with limitation” at $25 a piece (24 horses per buyer per day) for 30 days. During this period, horses could not be directly sold for slaughter but could be sold for use in rodeos as “bucking stock.” After 30 days, they will be sold “without limitation” on slaughter by the truckload ( a maximum of 36 horses per week).
    Kill buyers will be allowed to purchase our American wild horses by the truckload and transport them across the border for brutal slaughter for human consumption in foreign countries.

    In previous Administrations, the Forest Service abided by the Congressional restriction protecting wild horses under BLM jurisdiction from slaughter. However, the current Administration is radically changing that policy.
    This is unacceptable… 80 percent of Americans want our wild horses protected, not slaughtered, and this action is happening in California, a state that has banned the cruel practice of horse slaughter since the 1990’s! This is California’s largest and most significant wild horse population, and we must demand that these American icons be protected and humanely managed, not sold for slaughter.
    What You Can Do

    1. Call the Modoc National Forest today at (530) 233-5811. Please be polite and respectful but let them know that you strongly oppose their plan to allow federally-protected wild horses to be sold for slaughter. Tell them the action is against the wishes of the American public, the citizens of California and the intent of Congress to protect these national icons from this brutal fate. Demand that the Forest Service implement a humane management plan for the Devils Garden horses that protects them as Congress intended and the American people want.

    2. Send the below email to Modoc National Forest Supervisor Amanda McAdams and to your Congressperson and Senators and follow up that email with a call to their offices (202-224-3121).

    It’s time to speak out before it’s too late… the roundup starts on October 9, so time is of the essence – please act today!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. From AWHC

    Feds Gear Up to Sell California Wild Horses for Slaughter

    Alturas, CA (October 3, 2018) . . .The American Wild Horse Campaign is calling foul on a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to round up 1,000 federally-protected wild horses from the Devils Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory in the Modoc National Forest and sell hundreds of the captured horses into the slaughter pipeline.

    The roundup is scheduled to start on October 9. For years, Congress has banned the sale of federally-protected wild horses and burros for commercial slaughter, but the Forest Service is exploiting a legal loophole to sell an estimated 300 wild horses “without restriction,” allowing kill buyers to purchase a truckload of 36 horses once a week until they are gone. The kill buyers will then ship the horses to Canada, where they will be sold to slaughter plants to produce horsemeat for foreign consumption.

    “It’s a sad irony that the first federally protected wild horses in decades to be purposefully sold by the government for slaughter will come from California – a state where the cruel practice of horse slaughter has been banned since the 1990’s,” said Suzanne Roy, Executive Director of the American Wild Horse Campaign.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Don’t even START complaining about “non-native invasive species” like coyotes, starlings, or feral cats until you acknowledge and address the most destructive of all–livestock. Then we can talk.

    Liked by 1 person

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