Public Lands Ranching

Public lands ranching is the most ubiquitous use of public lands in the country, occurring on over 250,000,000 acres of land, an area roughly the size of the states of California and Texas combined.

Whether you’re a public lands advocate, a wolf supporter, a bighorn sheep enthusiast, an angler or hunter, a Yellowstone buffalo activist, a recreationist or in any way interested in public lands – the wholesale abuse of a quarter billion acres of your public land affects you.

Permit and lease renewal of grazing permits may not seem like the sexiest issue, but it’s where the rubber hits the road on a myriad of habitat and wildlife conservation issues. Public lands ranching is the source of habitat and wildlife conflict and every ten years the administrative permit/lease renewal process is one of a few opportunities the public and advocacy groups like WildLands Defense has a voice, and often actionable hook, to weigh in on management in favor of wolves, bighorns, fish, buffalo, pygmy rabbits, mountain springs and streams, etc. etc. etc. and where federal land managers are legally obliged to listen and consider the public’s concern.

The conditions of public lands on the ground are disastrous across the West.

Federal agencies’ administration of public lands across the west has failed to meet very basic environmental standards as directed by Congress in the agencies’ respective organic acts1 and as established by other environmental statutes and direction. This failure to lawfully administer grazing on federal public lands is ubiquitous across the western landscape2.

Researchers have suggested livestock grazing is “the most severe and insidious of the impacts on the rangeland” and that grazing is the “most insidious and pervasive threat to biodiversity on rangelands.”3 Wildlife and species populations have declined as direct conflict with livestock and shared habitats sustain a myriad of ongoing impacts from public lands ranching.  Direct impacts associated with livestock includes the widespread pollution of water,4the removal of vegetation – i.e. direct competition with wildlife for food,5 the alteration of complex habitat structures and composition including the most significant contributor to desertification of the western landscape,6 the physical impairment of stream-bank (riparian) habitats7 that a majority of wildlife depend on for survival in the semi-arid and arid west, soil disturbances which allow for displacement of native vegetation with exotic weeds,8 the introduction and continued exposure of disease and a host of additional direct impacts.

Public Lands Ranching

Unnamed creek, ESA listed Bull trout habitat impacted by livestock grazing – Pass Creek Allotment, Lost River Ranger District – Challis National Forest. (Photo: Dr. John Carter)

A. Water Quality

Mismanagement of public lands ranching has resulted in the diminished quality and quantity of water originating from mountain springs and streams, many of which once ran clear and clean enough to drink from directly, a western American pastime.  On several public land allotments in Wyoming, the Bighorn National Forest conducted water quality testing on streams running through permitted allotments and found levels of E coli so high that the water was unsafe to touch with exposed skin, let alone drink from as is the intent of state standards promulgated by Congress as established by the Clean Water Act.  In 2010, the Journal of Water and Health published the results of an independent study that was conducted in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, a chief source of drinking water for over 40 million American citizens.9 Researchers found livestock grazing on public lands to be the primary source of fecal coliform and E. coli contamination of drinking water.  In addition, researchers found that livestock may be depositing enough Giardia-transmitting protozoa to infect the entire city of Los Angeles each day.  The Forest Service refuses to appropriately respond by reducing livestock impact to California’s drinking water supply.

On a vast majority of waters originating on public lands grazed by livestock, agencies refuse to test, let alone adequately consider water quality impacts in their environmental reviews of permit.

B. Infrastructure

In addition, livestock grazing infrastructure, commonly bought and paid for by the American tax-payer, has quite literally tamed the once wild West.  Hundreds of thousands of miles of fencing on public lands have obstructed natural wildlife movement and migration, and water developments built to facilitate livestock use of public lands have dewatered springs, seeps, and streams which serve as critical habitats for a variety of wildlife across the West.

In administering public land ranching, agencies have subjected public lands to widespread habitat alteration projects.  One example took place on public lands just outside of Yellowstone National Park, a renowned public landscape celebrated by a majority of Americans for its wildlife attraction and breathtaking beauty.

On one grazed public landscape near the Antelope Basin/Elk Lake area of Madison Valley over 50 square miles of open, mountain sagebrush grassland habitat was subject to aggressive habitat manipulation, managers prescribed herbicide eradication of sagebrush and forbs, multiple prescribed burnings, and other impacts significantly diminishing wildlife habitat to provide more forage for livestock use of the public land.  This type habitat manipulation to maintain and increase livestock use has occurred, and continues to occur, on millions of acres of western public lands that once teemed with wildlife and championed other recreational opportunities impaired by livestock that the Department of Interior recently found contribute an order of magnitude greater economic value to local economies than public lands ranching.10

Livestock infrastructure destroys wildlife

Livestock infrastructure destroys wildlife (Photo: Katie Fite)

C. Species and Habitat

As a direct consequence of agencies’ continued prioritization of livestock use on public lands and the widespread failure of management to make “significant progress” toward improving public lands habitat conditions on the ground on a significant number of permits throughout the west, species endangerment continues to escalate at an alarming rate.  Livestock grazing is a contributing factor to more than 175 threatened and endangered species,11 twenty one percent of imperiled species considered for listing on the Endangered Species Act, an amount roughly equal to logging and mining combined.12

Federal agencies have been unable or unwilling to adequately respond by reducing the duration of livestock use or the number of livestock permitted in order to curtail impact.13  Political pressure ensures that livestock is always the unchanged factor in management decisions and managers spend reams of bureaucratic resources and time justifying status quo levels of use despite the conspicuous impact on the ground.  As habitat continues to diminish, species continue to decline and the administrative burden in response to clear Congressional intent to prevent species extinction, make significant progress toward habitat improvement, and protect environmental values continues to mount.

Public Lands Ranching

Cottonwood creek – Owyhee Field Office, Idaho BLM. Monitoring cage illustrates typical degree of forage removed by livestock that would otherwise stabilize stream-banks, purify water, and be available to wildlife. (Photo: Brian Ertz)

Conclusion: Public Land Grazing Is a Revocable Privilege.  It’s Time To Revoke the Privilege Where Wildland and Wildlife Values Are Irretrievably Offended.

Grazing permits are a privilege, not a right. They can be withdrawn at any time. This was the intent of the Taylor Grazing Act (43 U.S.C. § 315b), has been articulated in agency regulations (e.g. 36 C.F.R. 222.3(b)), and upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2000.14 The stability of a livestock operation comes from the operators’ conformance with the applicable laws and regulations; if a grazing operation is in compliance with management parameters, the permit will be renewed. Current grazing operations have priority to renew on the allotment, and in many cases, multiple generations of the same family have held onto the same allotment. We know of very, very few cases where grazing privileges have been revoked, and those instances involved long-term trespass or other legal violations.

Public lands ranchers are tenants. Public lands belong to all Americans. If you irretrievably trashed your landlord’s rental time and time again would you be entitled to a renewal of lease as a matter of course ? No.

It’s time to make the irretrievable destruction of wildlife communities and other environmental values immediate cause for agencies’ revocation of permit.

Public Grass for Public Wildlife

Member of WildLands Defense enjoying the public grasses made available to wildlife on the too few western public lands spared the impact of public lands ranching (photo: Brian Ertz)


  1. Federal Land Policy Management Act, National Forest Management Act, etc.
  2. GAO. 1993. Rangeland Management: BLM’s Range Improvement Project Data Base Is Incomplete and Inaccurate. RCED-93-92. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC.  GAO; GAO. 1992. Rangeland Management: Interior’s Monitoring Has Fallen Short of Agency Requirements. RCED-92-51. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC.  GAO;  GAO. 1990.Public Rangelands: BLM Efforts to Prevent Unauthorized Livestock Grazing Need Strengthening.RCED-91-17. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC.  GAO;  GAO. 1988. Public Rangelands: some riparian areas restored but widespread improvement will be slow. RCED-88-105. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC;  GAO. 1988. Public Rangelands: More Emphasis Needed on Declining and Overstocked Grazing Allotments. RCED-88-80. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC.
  3. Fleischner. 1994. Ecological Costs of Livestock Grazing in Western North AmericaConservation Biology 629;  Noss and Cooperrider. 1994. Saving Nature’s Legacy, Island Press. 221, 230, 258. See also generally Lauenroth et al.,  “Effects of Grazing on Ecosystems,” 69.
  4. Nearly all surface waters in the West are fouled with livestock wastes that produce harmful waterborne bacteria and protozoa such as Giardia. Suk, T., J. L. Riggs, B. C. Nelson. 1986. Water contamination with giardia in backcountry areas in Proc. of the National Wilderness Conference. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-212. USDA-Forest Service, Intermountain Res. Stn. Ogden, UT: 237-239. Livestock grazing is the single largest contributor to non-point source pollution in New Mexico, accounting for approximately 15 percent of the water quality impairments statewide. J. Rankin. Plan to take better care of water quality is earning accolades; conservationists disagree. Albuquerque Journal (May 15, 2005).
  5. In one study, scientists found that domestic livestock grazing consumed 88.8 percent of the available forage (cattle and [domesticated] horses 82.3 percent, free-roaming horses 5.8 percent, sheep 0.7 percent), leaving 11.2 percent to wildlife species(mule deer 10.1 percent, pronghorn 0.9 percent, bighorn sheep 0.1 percent, elk 0.1 percent). Cited in R. R. Kindschy, C. Sundstrom, and J. D. Yoakum, 1982, Wildlife habitats in managed rangelands-the Great Basin of southeastern Oregon: pronghorns, Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW 145, USDA-Forest Service; USDI-BLM, Portland, OR: 6.
  6. Improvident grazing…has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage [affecting 225 million acres or 351,562 square miles], within the United States.” Chaney, E., W. Elmore, W. S. Platts. 1993. Livestock grazing on western riparian areas. Northwest Resource Information Center. Eagle, ID: 5 (fourth printing; produced for the Environmental Protection Agency).  Council on Environmental Quality. 1980. The global 2000 report to the president of the United States: entering the twenty-first century. Pergamon Press. New York, NY.
  7. Livestock grazing has damaged 80 percent of the streams and riparian ecosystems in the arid West. Belsky, A. J., A. Matzke, S. Uselman. 1999. Survey of livestock influences on stream and riparian ecosystems in the western United States. J. Soil & Water Conserv. 54(1): 419 (citations omitted). “Extensive field observations in the late 1980s suggest riparian areas throughout much of the West were in the worst condition in history.” Chaney, E., W. Elmore, W. S. Platts. 1993. Livestock grazing on western riparian areas. Northwest Resource Information Center. Eagle, ID: 5 (fourth printing; published by the Environmental Protection Agency).  In 1988 the General Accounting Office concluded that “poorly managed livestock grazing is the major cause of degraded riparian habitat on federal rangelands.”GAO. 1988. Public Rangelands: some riparian areas restored but widespread improvement will be slow. RCED-88-105. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC: 11
  8. “At the community scale, livestock may be the major factor causing weed invasions.”Livestock cause weed invasion by grazing and trampling native plants; clearing vegetation, destroying the soil crust and preparing weed seedbeds through hoof action; and transporting and dispersing seeds on their coats and through their digestive tracks. Belsky, A. J. and J. L. Gelbard. 2000. Livestock grazing and weed invasions in the arid west. Oregon Natural Desert Association. Bend, OR (citations omitted).
  9. Derlet, R.W., C.R. Goldman, and M.J. Connor. 2010. Reducing the impact of summer cattle grazing on water quality in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Journal of Water and Health. 8(2): 326-333.
  10. DOI Report: The Department of Interior’s Economic Contributions – June 21, 2011
  11. USDI-BLM, USDA-Forest Service. 1995. Rangeland Reform ’94 Final Environmental Impact Statement. USDI-BLM. Washington, DC: 26. See also B. Czech, P. R. Krausman, P.K. Devers. 2000. Economic associations among causes of species endangerment in the United States. BioSci. 50(7): 594 (table 1) (reporting that authors’ analysis of several studies suggests that 182 species are endangered by livestock grazing) and USDA-NRCS. 1997. America’s private land: a geography of hope. Program Aid 1548. USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service: 154 (stating that grazing is a contributing factor in the decline of 26 percent or 161 species on the federal threatened and endangered list).
  12. Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J Dubow, A Phillips, E. Losos. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States: assessing the relative importance of habitat destruction, alien species, pollution, over-exploitation and disease. BioScience 48(8): 610.
  13. Candidate Species List – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  14. See Public Lands Council v. Babbitt, 529 U.S. 728, 741 (2000)e