Cows graze on the north fork of the Powder River in the Bighorn National Forest. (Mia & Steve Mestdagh/FlickrCC)

In the debate over grazing in the West, there’s a trend toward magical thinking. In “If you like fish and birds, hug a cow,” ranchers Pat and Sharon O’Toole indulge in unscientific flights of fantasy, claiming that irrigation and livestock are beneficial for native fish and wildlife.

Unlike cows, native wildlife in the West don’t need arid lands flooded with water to be productive. Prior to the agricultural colonization of the West (and its displacement of Indigenous peoples and wildlife that made it possible), sage grouse flocked together by the thousands and streams teemed with trout and salmon. America’s natural wealth of fish and wildlife hasn’t been sustained by the plague of cattle, sheep and irrigated hayfields — it’s been decimated by them.

Cattle are ecological misfits in the arid West, so dependent are they on water. Huddling along streams and riverbanks, trampling and gorging on streamside vegetation, cattle cause a massive influx of sediment into formerly crystalline waters. 

In fact, livestock are a leading cause of stream degradation and trout population losses in the West. Trout reproduce by spawning in loose gravel and burying their eggs to protect them from scavengers. The eggs depend on a constant flow of oxygen-rich water to survive, and when livestock-related sedimentation smothers the nests with silt, the eggs die. This widespread problem is only made worse by cattle wallowing in shallow streams and rivers, crushing the eggs themselves.

The Colorado River system from which the O’Toole operation draws water has four species of endangered fishes: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the bonytail and the humpback chub. Their survival hangs by a thread because of the damaging water withdrawals of irrigators, and because overgrazing by cattle and sheep denudes the land, allowing salty sediment to wash into the water that remains. 

Thanks largely to excessive irrigation withdrawals, the Colorado River doesn’t reach the sea anymore, leaving its once-biodiverse delta estuaries at the edge of the Sea of Cortez an arid wasteland. Yet the O’Tooles dismiss recent studies showing the devastating impact of irrigation on Western rivers like the Colorado without offering a scientifically valid rebuttal. 

The O’Tooles’ ranch runs domestic sheep in the wilderness, where their domestic sheep can transmit disease to the native bighorn sheep in the imperiled Encampment Herd. The O’Tooles also run cattle on BLM grazing leases in areas with the worst cheatgrass infestations in the Red Desert.

And the damage goes beyond drought exacerbated by water withdrawals and streamside habitat destruction. The scientific community has called for a significant reduction in American livestock production to meet climate mitigation goals. In addition to methane emissions, grazing has a significant impact on the planet, causing desertification, spreading flammable invasive weeds, devastating rich streamside oases, polluting streams with fecal coliform and wiping out native wildlife with deadly livestock diseases.

As professional wildlife conservationists, we are concerned.

We need to produce food in a genuinely sustainable way, not greenwash environmental degradation. Food production doesn’t have to rely on river-draining, habitat destroying irrigation. Nor is food security enhanced by unsustainable production. We need better regulation over our public lands instead of allowing private industry to act with impunity by skirting ecological protections. 

If it were up to the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, the O’Tooles write, these public lands would become urban sprawl. Presenting this tired claim — that vital wildlife habitat on public lands would become urban sprawl if it weren’t for livestock operators — ignores the reality that much of the West is public land, not subject to urban development. 

Let’s be clear that if it was up to Western Watersheds and the Center, western public lands would be conserved for wildlife and natural habitats as they are entitled to be under the law. Natural habitats would heal, native wildlife would repopulate and trout streams would recover with the heavy-handed impacts of livestock removed.

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Only 1.9% of the U.S. beef supply comes from public lands cattle. Yet the damage cattle bring to these lands is catastrophic. The idea that invasive cattle hold Western landscapes together is a fairy tale. The real story is that western livestock producers need subsidies, handouts at taxpayer expense and irrigated water to turn a profit — and wildlife and natural habitats pay the price.

It’s time to stop indulging harmful livestock production and protect the wild spaces and native biodiversity of the West.

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  1. I know I’m late to this party, but I’d like to mention a couple of points missed so far, as well thank the authors for starting this conversation & James Zollin for his insightful response. If I had the money, or the lucky inheritance, I’d spend it on land and the cowboy life too, but I’d sure try and dodge building fence and the industrial/mechanical nightmare that has become growing hay!
    The reasons that wouldn’t work are the points that I’d like to briefly bring up:

    1. Via public land leases to graze cattle or sheep smallish private holdings can magically become big and valuable both in the estimation of banks which will loan good money on that free collateral and the eventual sale price of that smallish private holding as well as side-income from hunting access. This is the MAGIC of the magical cows & the real source of such resistance to rational public land management in the west.

    2. Putting aside the food production arguments, because really all those yearlings calves head to feedlots elsewhere to make them profitable sources of food, heart disease & water pollution; that those cows occupy all that high country (and BLM land too) & are fed alfalfa from all that irrigated low country means that we no longer have buffalo in those places! All the “holistic” grazing in the world will not change the fact that there is a species better adapted than cows to this part of the world, does not spend so much time in the waterways, does not need a damn feedlot plus can get by without alfalfa. And that, folks, is the real tragedy and the greatest impact of cows on our public lands.

  2. Oh god, another “conservationist.” We need to regenerate degraded landscapes, not “conserve” them.

    Also, blaming cows for environmental degradation is like blaming a hammer for a murder. People (mis)manage cattle and landscapes, with or without livestock (and a murder can and will be committed with or without a hammer). When managed appropriately, cattle and other livestock are an inextricable part of ecological regeneration and regenerative food production. They help enhance and protect habitat.

    This sort of regressive and divisive thinking in this article needs to stop. Cows aren’t the problem. Willful ignorance and naivety such as that contained in this article is. That includes “conservationists” as well as old-school ranchers who can’t break out of their ideological frames.

    When managed according to the predator prey dynamic, livestock can absolutely help sequester carbon, improve the water cycle, increase biodiversity and restore and improve wildlife habitat.

    And “Plant based diets” are not inherently “healthier” nor are they inherently more “environmentally friendly.” The “diet for a small planet” mythology also needs to die. The goal is not to support the maximum number of humans, but bring humans into balanced and regenerative interaction with our landscapes.

  3. We are an upstate NY family farm surrounded by agribusiness farms who do rape the land and spray poison. Our cattle are pastured year around on glacial gravel unsuitable for hay or crops. They are rotated in good weather so the grass stays good then go in the winter pasture with barns for shelter and feeding hay we grow on the good meadows. This provides a manure pile that is spread on the hayfields after 2nd cut.. Everything is organic. We have a few TB racehorses using a small part of the 300 acres. This can be done on any scale and is, in several areas in the west. There needs to be more encouragement from all agencies, government and private to help it happen.
    BTW, our rural area is a bulls eye for pancreatic cancer, auto immune diseases like ALS, etc. due to poisons sprayed on the corn and other crops with the federal government encouragement. When big ag comes to town the trees and brush lines that keep the land healthy are bulldozed, land drained, manure spread on frozen ground, etc. with the major lake between 2 states being polluted despite millions spent on trying to deal with it. How smart is our food/living policy on all levels?

  4. Hi,

    If the dead grass stalks are not removed by grazing or rotting, then the oxydizing grass will choke any new growth. Eventually the perenial grass will die and be replaced by cheat grass which has no absolute need for grazing. We need to practice what can be called “herd grazing” or “intensive grazing”. Concentrating a herd of Bison or Cows in one area so they disturb the soil, remove any dead plant material, and give the perenial grasses more sunlight, then the grass land will flourish. The cow droppings, urine and footprint all carry something essensial to a grassland. The droppings will introduce or reinforce the biological life of the soil, the urine carries an instant supply of nitrogen and the footprint creates the perfect planting pot by making a dent in the dirt so water collects and seeds can sprout. Since we no longer have magnificent herds of Bison, the next best option is to replace them with cows. Even if there were still many buffalo on our prairies and grasslands, using cows on the grass would make no difference as long as we follow the natural life of the ecosystem. It is not impossible. Grasses evolved over the ages to adapt to being grazed by animals. So they must still be grazed as so, else we will only make a desert where there could be a regenerative grassland.

    Many ranchers are coming to realize the importance of holistic management of our rangelands and even farmlands. Some are behind the bandwagon and we must help and encourage them to begin changing their grazing habits, if they happen to be negligent. We must also realize that they are afraid of change because change is a risk and they want to minimize their risk as much as possible because most of them struggle financially.

    I am a cowboy from Eastern Oregon and currently work on a holistically managed ranch. Our grasslands are beginning to recover under our management and our riparian areas are now flourishing with beavers (annoying as they may be for irrigating) and willows, for example.

    I hope this helps open up a fruitful conversation.

    I had time to get on the internet today because I’m laid up with a broken toe.

    God bless America!

  5. The authors discount the value of open space, especially in riparian zones. Riparian zones are permanently destroyed by real estate development. When a rancher sells, subdivision follows with permanent loss of habitat along streams. Poor ranch management causes reversible degradation whereas subdivision and development are forever. Conservation easements are designed to preserve open space in critical riparian zones. The Nature Conservancy and other nonprofit organizations realize the importance of keeping ranches viable to preserve open spaces for fish and wildlife. They require sustainable management Of course the authors can purchase the ranches and manage riparian zones as they see fit. The North Platte River flows through miles if irrigated meadows and is one of the best trout streams in Wyoming. Wildlife do not avoid ranches, they congregate there, until development drives them out. It is laughable to blame cattle for public land destruction when one observes rampant clear cutting and public abusive practices. Driving machines through streams is a classic example. Certain forest roads should be closed to reduce habitat destruction. Public land management is far more complicated than cattle grazing. The authors have a bad case of tunnel vision.

  6. Good points in this article. I love the canned responses from ranchers about if they disappeared you wouldn’t eat when any criticism is leveled at them. They are a sensitive bunch. The cattle producer doesn’t seem to realize that if they quit someone else will take their place and do it. Wyoming’s contribution to agriculture is very small, the only people who would miss them is the local dealership selling the rancher a new 80 thousand dollar truck every other year. Nice stuff for an industry that supposedly doesn’t make much profit. A beef tastes just as good on a private ranch down in Tejas as it does destroying a national forest.

  7. It is interesting that well fed folks so often criticize those who provide their food and energy. One solution might be to self produce every bite they take in. That would help reduce the need for food producers. Certainly reducing the food intake will reduce the need for producing it, same for energy. The very first step is to reduce the need for food and energy, and who better to lead the way than those who do not want it available.

    1. So if food consumption is reduced by the population, would the producers still need the government subsidies?

      If an industry isn’t able to turn a profit without a handout from the federal government, shouldn’t they find other careers?

  8. Your article is thin. You note that ranchers make statements without backing them up. You state “We need to produce food in a genuinely sustainable way….” How do you propose to do this? It is an easy statement to make. The details that follow are the crux of the problem. There are national, and global, populations to feed. How do you propose accomplishing that objective?

    1. I have fundamental questions about the viability of the business model that puts eternally thirsty bovines onto ranges above 4500 feet elevation in a semi-arid climate zone with less than ideal vegetative diversity. Public lands ranching has never penciled out in Wyoming without massive taxpayer assistance that is seldom repaid , because of the massive gap in what livestock producers pay for public resources like grass, water, and roads set against the true cost of providing those resources. Even with generous subsidies and tax breaks, cattle and sheep are still costly. Try to imagine the Wyoming livestock industry if it were forced to do business only on private land and pasture and pay full market prices for grass water land and infrastructure – at 30 below zero in February. Oh by the way … Tennessee , Arkansas, and Florida all run more cattle than Wyoming with nearly zero public land.

      Which brings me to my next point. If every cow and sheep on the range across Wyoming disappeared one dark night, the rest of the world and the livestock market would hardly notice the loss a month or a sale quarter down the road. There are 105 million beef cows in America at any given time. Less than one percent are in Wyoming. But we do lead the nation in all manner of wildlife numbers and diversities, in spite of surrendering so much open gorund to avaricious Stockgrowers who still think it is 1891 and Wyoming belongs to them…

    2. First off, I’d like to say that I am skeptical that the reason that anyone becomes a rancher is that they want to feed the nation and the globe. Anyways…

      I have a hard time with the idea of anyone making private monetary profits from public lands. But isn’t the truth that both ranchers and non-ranchers want to profit from public lands- just in different ways? Isn’t it true that both ranchers and non-ranchers have negative effects on public lands, just in different areas and at different rates? You may have heard of the term animal unit month (AUM) in ranching. How many tourist unit months is equivalent to 1 AUM? How can one be their own judge of how their earthly impacts measure up against those of another’s?

      Most people have no clue how to identify grazing impacts and their severity on the landscape, . I have been trained to identify such impacts, and now I can’t go anywhere on rangelands without noticing those impacts- particularly upon riparian areas and streams. Places I hunt. Places I fish. Places that are falling far short of their potential, and I know how to fix them, but I can’t. It is unsettling and makes you feel all kinds of feelings you don’t want to feel- especially in a place you chose to go to because of it’s natural beauty. But hell, I’d become a rancher if it meant I could make a living running cows on a big chunk of land in a beautiful place. And if the gov’t told me it was okay for me to run cows on public lands and their rate was more than reasonable, I’d probably do that too. I might try harder to follow the science to prevent ecological impacts, but I’d still run cows. You caught me- I’m a hypocrite too.

      There are probably some places that can sustain grazing with manageable effects to flora and fauna and there are definitely many places I’ve been to that can’t. And maybe some ranchers just aren’t as good at ranching and preventing impacts to the land as others. Maybe some just don’t care. But surely some do. Just like lawyers. Or baseball players. Or CEOs. So maybe some ranchers do need some outside help to reduce their impacts than others. Keep in mind though, most people don’t take kindly to someone else telling them what they ought to do. A person has to convince themselves that something needs to change or they are naturally going to resist. It don’t matter if you’re right, if you go about it wrong. Don’t dehumanize.

      We know we can do better with our public lands management. But it should be obvious by now that the enmity among ranchers and enviros hasn’t borne fruit so far and it never will. It’s just blowing off steam. There are more effective ways to make things better. And it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. That’s usually not how life works. It doesn’t have to be that a rancher is run out of business next Tuesday because some people like bluebirds. Maybe they like bluebirds too. Maybe they know more about bluebirds than you do. But maybe they’ve grown up ranching and they like ranching and get offended when someone tells them that they need to quit because of bluebirds. Maybe you would too. Maybe they get mad at the mountain bikers and hikers spreading noxious weeds all over the place. Or spreading box stores all over the land. Or any number of other bad things people do that they aren’t necessarily aware of. Maybe those ranchers are trying their dangedest to support their family just like city folk are. And why should they care about your struggles in your city if you don’t care about their struggles or don’t care about the real risks to their family if they suddenly had to change how they went about making a living? And a rancher could just as easily come to your community and point out countless ways that things could be better, should be better, if only you and your neighbors would accept change. If their way of life doesn’t matter, then neither does yours.

      So we need to get smarter and try harder. More empathy, more imagination, better ideas. Less talk about others and more talk with them. Time to act like it’s the 21st century. Rather than placing your views and values in the nucleus, place them in orbit around the nucleus along with the views and values of others (see, you don’t like being told what to do either).

      1. James, I’d like to use your comment as a post on The Smokey Wire, could I have your permission? Thank you.

  9. People in Wyoming identify with the rugged cowboy persona so much that it will take much destruction before changes will be made. This is an excellent article and it makes my heart hurt for the wildlife and fish that used to abound in the west. There are things people could do starting with relying more on the healthier plant-based diet.