The Big, Bad Impact of Livestock on Public Lands

Cow have a greater environment cost in the West than mining or energy industries.

If you’ve ever seen the trampling just a few cows can do to fragile cryptobiotic soil, a slow-growing, living desert crust, a new report on the impact of livestock grazing on public lands in the West will come as no surprise. According to a new study released today by WildEarth Guardians, across the Great Basin and beyond, wildlife is under threat by cattle and sheep farming, which have caused more destruction than mining and energy extraction and, despite grazing fees, cost the federal government millions annually.

Here are some of the key findings of “Western Wildlife Under Hoof”.

• Nearly all of the West’s surface waters have been polluted by livestock waste, mostly in the form of giardia and bacteria.

• Over the last 1,000 years, livestock grazing has had a larger impact on Great Basin lands than any other agenct.

• 99 percent of the West’s sagebrush steppe has been affected by grazing.

• Grazing has contributed to the demise of 22 percent of threatened and endangered species, compared to 12 percent for logging and 11 percent for mining.

• The U.S. Government spends $100 million annually in grazing subsidies.

• In 2004, it spent $144 million managing private grazing on public lands, but collected only $21 million in fees, for a loss of $123 million a year.

• The total cost to BLM and Forest Service (direct and indirect) could be $500 million to $1 billion a year.

• More than 71,000 predators were killed in 2007 by the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to protect livestock. Annual program cost is $5 million to $8 million.

Think all this goes to feed the nation? The United States gets less than 3 percent of its American-grown beef from grazing on public lands. Florida raises more beef than Wyoming. Half of the grazing permit holders are hobbyists who do not rely on ranching for the livelihood.

The 47-page report is a powerful indictment of the farce of public lands grazing and it well worth perusing (read it in PDF here). Unfortunately, it’s long on conclusions—a great start—but short on solutions, with just two pages and two suggestions devoted to stemming the damage. Certainly, increased protecting under the Endangered Species Act will help the trout, falcons, tortoises, prairie dogs, wolves, and other critters under threat. And the retirement of grazing permits has been a successful market-oriented solution. Both more analysis, costs, and an action plan are needed. When do permits retire and who buys them out (sometimes it’s the feds, sometimes its enviro groups)? What are the areas most in need of reclamation? “Western Wildlife Under Hoof” is a great start, but it’s just that—a start.

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal.
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Showing 11 comments
  • Schnitzspahn

    Right on for writing on this! Thanks.

    Check Waste of the West:

    and this is important to remember too:

  • Dan

    Check out High Country New’s story from early April regarding how the Omnibus Lands Act could help retire public land grazing leases:

  • Shari Welsh

    The Dept Of Interior/ BLM/USDA/USWS/USFS should all be held accountable for this damage to our public lands, water and wildlife they are eco-terrorists and need to be prosecuted and fined. Corporations whom have colluded with BLM to destroy our public lands , water and wildlife and steal from the Americans people must be prosecuted and made to pay for ALL the damage they have caused !

  • Ann Lawrence

    The Public Lands belong to the taxpayer. The wildlife on these lands belongs to the taxpayer. BLM etc. are to take care of these lands and animals. I am angered by the way my tax dollar has been used by BLM etc. They are mismanaging land,water and wildlife. Cattle and other domestic animals are not wildlife. They should not have precedence over wild animals–including horses and burros that were named as “wild” in the WFRH&B Act 1971. Their actions on my lands are against the TRUST that Americans pay for and expect from a government agency.

  • Suzanne Moore

    Ann, do you not know that horses ARE native wildlife? They know this even in Reno: More:

    The only reason this DNA proof is being ignored is because the DOI/BLM and other unscrupulous operators have other plans for the land. It’s not just about cattle either. Our water and mineral rights are being sold off to China and others for profit. OUR public lands are in NO way being used for the benefit of US, the true owners. Our public lands are being destroyed for the benefit of corporations – many foreign – in bed with the DOI/BLM and WE are footing the bill with our taxes.

  • Ann Lawrence

    @ Suzanne Yes I know that horses were a native species here–and are now a returned “native”. I am just saying that Congress used that designation in 1971. They did not say feral or estray or any of the other cutsey words–they said WILD and PROTECTED. And BLM is out to get rid of them– and is doing so with my tax dollar–and it makes me crazy to be supporting BLM. AWHPC has 10 points to take care of the herds–do you think any one in BLM/FS/XYZ is going to read and implement them?? NO–they want the horses GONE ! We the people…… sign every petition….

  • Ted Chu

    These horses and burros definitely are not native and they are not wildlife. They are feral livestock. If you want to claim they are native you would then also have to believe that feral cattle are native. The mix and match hodgepodge of horses out there tearing up the range are clearly of domestic origin. If you want to see what wild horses look like Google the Przewalski’s horse – that’s what wild animals of the same species look like, consistent color and shape, same as our elk, deer, pronghorn, etc.

    Congress was misinformed when they passed that act by people who ought to know better. Not the first time by the way since it’s that same Congress that does everything it can to protect livestock grazing. All livestock need to be removed from public lands and that includes the horses and burros. Actually head for head horses are more destructive than cows because they are less efficient digesters requiring more forage and they are out there 24-7-365. At least the cows come in for the winter in most cases and they are often in rest rotations systems which allows the land to rest once and a while. Not so for feral horses.

    Our water is being sold to China? Really?

  • Mara LeGrand

    Fortunately science is an ever-developing field, and with it’s advent is DNA testing using molecular biology that shows that the same equus callibius ( today’s modern horse) also roamed with Dinosaur and Wooly Mammoth. While it is true the wild horses of today are a hybrid, due to human manipulation, their ancestors inhabited this continent before most of ours did. There’s not a horse out there that doesn’t think it’s wild. They were born wild, they live wild, they survive wild. It’s a hard life but the horse is probably the most adaptable creature on earth. There is not one piece of evidence that cows, even Long Horns, existed before the Spanish. The cow has 7 stomachs so eats far more than a horse with it’s one. The cows hang out at water holes, while the horses take turns between herds and then mosey on for more grazing. As wild animals they know not to pull the root of the plant up because they will come back for more later in the season, thus living a life of natural order and “rotation” and over time the wild horses have become browsers, not just grazers. Cows are domestic, bred for meat, and couldn’t survive winters on the range. Hooven animals do cause damage to delicate substructure when the ground is wet – and any fenced in re-productive animal, needs management. There are many more sensible, humane, cost effecient, and forward thinking management strategies for all of nature, including the wild horses and burros. The BLM is fueled to rid horses and burros from the range because they feel and fear the heat on their tail. The travesty of ridding these remarkable, ancestoral inhabitants will one day be judged in history as another infliction of humanity’s greed and refusal to learn from their mistakes. We are supposed to be stewards, not catalysts of destruction. By the way Ted, the Prezwalzki and the modern horse are different by only two chromosomes.

  • Janet Dufresne

    I have been saying this since the start of the roundups of wild horses. When I was a child I went to military schools and we were taught all about the western ranges and the wild and free roaming act and in it were studies of the history of the western lands and the damage that was done to them and how the cattle being ranched had damaged the earth so much that we had a dust storm that burried homes and farms and everything in its path. People were driven out of the areas because it had become inhabitable. Common sense says you take head from history and respect the land or mother nature will give you no other choice she will rear her evil head! And lastly we need to learn from the past when it comes to nature because all of our tampering with it has caused global warming and neumerous other damage as a result of our neglect and disregard of the rescources.

  • Ted Chu

    Mara – To begin with horses did not roam with the dinosaurs in fact there were approximately 50 million years separation. And because there were elephant family members here with and actually much later than the ancient horse was, if some escaped from the circus should they be allowed to become established?

    The four compartment single stomachs of cows allows them to make more, not less efficient use of forage than horses. I totally agree with you on cows and I want them off the delicate arid ranges of our western public lands as much as I want all but a representative sample (as is maintained on the Pryor Mtn Natl Horse Range) of the feral horses and burros gone. Regardless of how much effort is put in to controlling feral horse numbers there will always be some out there – not to worry. Cows most definitely can survive winter on the range without supplements which is evident if you’ve ever spent any time in the west. There also are small feral cow groups in the canyon country (living almost exclusively on greasewood in some seasons) of Utah and perhaps elsewhere. Cows are more likely to browse than are horses but both of them are competitive with native species such as pronghorn and bighorn. Yes cows are bred for meat and dairy just as these domestic feral horses were bred for various uses, including meat and dairy in parts of Eurasia.

    As for genetics, these western feral horses (and Clysdales to miniatures) are all classified as Equus ferus caballus, a supspecies of the only remaing wild horse, Equus ferus, the Przewalski’s. Similarly holsteins, herefords and angus and their now extinct wild ancestor the aurochs are all classified as Bos primigenius. There are some forced hybrids that are considered sub-species. Therefore if some holsteins or herefords escaped in Europe or Asia and were multiplying and spreading their range should they then be anointed “wild or native” and protected as such? Two chomozomes can make a remarkable difference, a Przewalski’s compared to Apaloosa or pinto for example. There is essentially no chromozome difference between a one ton draft horse and a sixty pound miniature. You mentioned there is a two chromosome difference between the Przewalski’s and the feral horse of the Americas. For reference humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes and chimpanzees have 24 pairs, a difference of two chromosomes.

    And to be clear, I grew up with horses, both captive domesticated and feral and had horses for many years. But I think our public lands should be reserved for native species. The original horse of the Americas went extinct approx. 11,000 years ago along with its suite of predators, competitors, climate and plant communities, which is why their populations have no natural controls now in spite of the occasional animal taken by a mountin lion.

    Janet – Tempting as it may be to blame the dust bowl on livestock I don’t think that is accurate – not trying to justify livestock at all, just sayin’. And I agree that messing with mother nature has its consequences, and maintaining unlimited populations of exotic species is clearly an example of something we shouldn’t do. Examples of the folly of humans doing so are numerous.

  • JoAnn Shearer

    Based on my observations if you fenced two half acres side by side and put a cow in one and any kind of horse in the other within 12 hours the cow will have destroyed its water sourse, within a month there would be nothing growing in the cows pen. The horse on the other hand would still have water and growing plants. You can not convince me that horses are as destructive as cows. The wild horses alive today are not domesticated and never have been. Cows are domesticated and have no business on wild lands but they make a small persent of people rich so they have all the rights. I can not express how messed up that is.

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