Impacts of Livestock Production on our Public Lands: Ecological Impacts
LaBarge Creek, WY.
Livestock Grazing Pollutes Water
Western federal lands were originally set aside to protect their watershed values. Public lands are critical to the water supplies for many western communities, yet commercial livestock production is an on-going threat to water quality.
Livestock impact "riparian" areas (zones of lush vegetation along streambanks) by:
trampling stream banks and causing sedimentation;
eating the streamside vegetation that holds streambanks together;
defecating near or directly in streams and lakes; and
spreading numerous highly infectious water-borne diseases to water supplies.
In addition to riparian area impacts, livestock eat vegetation and compact soil in upland areas. This reduces water infiltration into the ground, which leads to additional watershed degradation with greater flooding and stream channel destruction.
Livestock are the major source of non-point pollution in the West.
Livestock Production Can De-Water Streams
Numerous rivers, lakes, streams, springs, and seeps are piped and diverted for livestock. Much more is diverted to irrigate hay, alfalfa and other crops for livestock feed. Although only a small amount of irrigation for livestock feed occurs on public lands, much of it affects rivers and streams that cross public lands.
The construction of water storage reservoirs and dams, often for livestock purposes, changes water quality and quantity on our public lands and can act as a barrier to fish movement. All of these water developments rob native species of precious water and water-dependent habitat.
This dry lake in the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada is emblematic of de-watering for livestock production in the arid West. The water is diverted for irrigation of livestock forage.
Livestock Grazing Can Kill Fish
The same reasons that livestock grazing pollutes water and de-waters streams are also the reasons livestock grazing kills fish. In addition, loss of riparian vegetation and the breakage of stream channels by livestock hooves change streams into wide, sediment-filled waterways that have much higher water temperatures. This makes them less attractive or even uninhabitable to many native fish species.
More than four-fifths of the West's native fish populations are either listed or candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. This includes well-known and highly prized species like Montana grayling, Bonneville cutthroat trout, Gila trout, Colorado cutthroat trout, redband rainbow trout, California golden trout, steelhead, and Chinook salmon as well as lesser-known fish like the Colorado pike minnow, bony-tailed chub, and many other species. Livestock production is implicated in the decline of all these species as a consequence of the direct destruction of riparian and spawning habitat and the indirect affects resulting from water developments.
Livestock Grazing Can Destroy Wildlife Habitat
Livestock-impacted wet meadow in Domeland Wilderness, CA.
In the West's arid climate, water and associated riparian areas are critical for native species. These riparian areas provide essential habitat for up to 75-80% of all western species. Seeps and springs are vital habitat for everything from amphibians to mollusks. Unfortunately, most livestock types seek out these same pockets of lush vegetation and water. This magnifies livestock's negative impacts on the landscape and native wildlife.
Wet meadows are extremely important for a host of wildlife, yet this meadow – like many – lacks any residual cover (vegetation left after a season of grazing). The compacted soils tend to reduce the ability to soak up and hold moisture. In some locations, this may lead to desertification.
Pole Creek, Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho.
Even apparently "healthy" streams as the one above show evidence of livestock impacts. The sequence above is the same stream. The first photo shows an area that has been grazed by livestock for 100 years. Note that the stream is wide and relatively shallow. In the middle photo, the stream enters a fenced exclosure where no livestock have grazed (except for occasional trespass livestock) for 100 years.
Note that the stream narrows considerably as soon as it passes under the fence. In the final photo, the same stream (100 feet inside the fence) is so deep and narrow that the channel is no longer visible. This keeps the water temperature cool and the channel deep – essential conditions for a host of fish and wildlife species.
left: Ungrazed native bunchgrass at Hart Mountain, OR
right: The Red Canyon Ranch
The loss of hiding cover resulting from livestock use has harmed multiple species from water voles to sharptail grouse. Tall ungrazed plants provide hiding cover for small rodents, insects, and nesting birds. In heavily grazed areas, this hiding cover is reduced or eliminated.
Livestock Grazing Displaces Wildlife
Livestock consume the vast majority of forage on public lands. On most public lands in the West, more vegetation is "allocated" to livestock than to all native wildlife species combined. This level of livestock grazing on our public lands removes much of the vegetation that otherwise would be available for wildlife, such as this elk.
The mere presence of livestock can negatively impact wildlife. Many species from elk to pronghorn antelope have been shown to avoid areas with livestock. This avoidance relegates native species to less suitable habitat where they potentially suffer lower numbers and survival.
Livestock Production Reduces Bird Populations
Loss of riparian habitat as a result of hay production and trampling of riparian habitat has dramatically reduced native songbird habitat. Trampling and browsing prevent the growth of willows, cottonwoods and other trees preferred by songbirds.
Livestock Can Spread Disease to Wildlife
Livestock can also transmit diseases to native species. Lungworm from domestic sheep has devastated bighorn sheep herds throughout the West.
Livestock Can Disrupt the Food Chain
Across the Great Plains, livestock have replaced the millions of bison that once lived and died here. The phenomenal amount of food from bison carcasses fed untold numbers of carnivores. These carnivores in return had important effects on the rest of the food chain. Today, the livestock that have replaced the bison are raised and then removed from the landscape. Thus, the food chain is broken.
Livestock Production Leads to the Killing of both Predators and Prey
Besides the massive loss of predators due to loss of native food sources such as bison, hundreds of thousands of predators are killed each year in the name of livestock protection. Besides unlimited and unregulated killing of predators on public lands by private individuals, about 100,000 predators are killed each year by the USDA Wildlife Services program for livestock protection—with taxpayers' money.
Even threatened or endangered predators such as wolves and grizzly bears often take second place to livestock on public lands. Where conflicts exist, most often the bear or wolf is relocated or shot.
Important and once-abundant prey species are also eliminated in the name of livestock production. Most notably, prairie dogs are shot and—until 1998—poisoned on public lands. A temporary ban on poisoning on public lands is now in effect, but needed restoration has yet to occur; the main issue preventing prairie dog restoration is opposition from livestock grazing interests.
Livestock Require Fences
Miles of fences clutter our public lands for livestock production. Fences have incredible negative impacts on wildlife, killing wildlife directly and disrupting migration patterns. Fences make convenient perches for avian predators leading to greater predation on vulnerable birds like sage grouse, which avoid fenced areas due to predators.
Livestock Can Cause Erosion
In arid environments, soils between bunchgrasses are typically covered with biocrusts. Biological soil crusts are formed by living organisms and their by-products, creating a crust of soil particles
bound together by organic materials. These crusts hinder the establishment of weedy annual species like cheatgrass by making it difficult for their small seeds to gain a foothold. Livestock destroy these crusts.
Livestock Can Spread Weeds
Livestock are among the greatest source for the spread of exotic weeds throughout the West. The growing spread of exotic weeds converts native plant communities to weed patches, destroys watershed integrity, reduces food and often cover for native wildlife, and may even increase fire danger (as with the spread of highly flammable cheatgrass). Livestock aid the spread of weeds in several ways.
First domestic animals transport seeds in their feces and/or on their hides. Many weedy species are also favored by overgrazing or just the soil disturbance resulting from cattle and sheep hooves. Since they wander far from roads, they help to disseminate weeds into remote locations where control measures are far less effective and more costly.
Livestock Grazing Can Lead to Desertification in Arid Climates
The natural geographical features of steep terrain and aridity that make the West's scenery so inspirational and its climate so invigorating are the same factors that make livestock production a marginal economic enterprise at best, and a highly destructive land use. They also make any mitigation costs higher and less effective for those using arid western lands than producers in more favorable climatic regions.
The Dugout Ranch in Utah
In particular the West's arid landscapes exacerbate the impacts associated with livestock production. Most western public lands utilized for commercial livestock production are classified as arid or semi-arid lands. Because forage production is directly linked to precipitation, overall productivity of western public lands is very low.
In the arid West, a cow may require more than 250 acres of land to sustain itself for a year, while in the moist Midwest or eastern U.S. an acre or two may be all that is required. This is one reason why despite the huge acreage of land devoted to livestock production, western federal lands only provide 2-3% of the nation's livestock forage.
Livestock grazing contributes to desertification. Notice the nearly complete absence of any vegetation on the inside side of the fence as a consequence of livestock grazing. The darker exposed soil absorbs more heat than the adjacent grass-covered highway right of way. This increases effective temperature at the ground and increases evaporation of scarce soil moisture. Also, livestock hooves compact soils and destroy the soil biocrusts that are abundant outside of the fence in the ungrazed highway right of way.
Sadly, taxpayers subsidize this habitat and wildlife destruction.
Each year we spend as much as $500 million annually to run a
livestock grazing program that brings in only $7 million annually in
income. This program benefits less than three percent of all
livestock producers in the United States-only 22,000 individual
permittees. Even in the West (the eleven western states), only one in
five livestock operators have federal grazing permits/leases.
Livestock Grazing is a Significant Hurdle to Successful Wildlife Restoration
Effective restoration of the wolf as a top down predator that shapes ecosystems is effectively stymied over most of the West due to industry misconceptions of predator threats to livestock. The ecological benefits of wolves are absent on most public lands of the West.
Photo courtesy George Wuerthner; used with permission.