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June 2001
Our Federal Public Lands: Wildlife Habitat or Cattle Pasture?

By Mike Hudak


Livestock production has turned much of our western lands into degraded vestiges of their past glory. Some of that land is private and its owners are under no obligation to change their use of it. But much of the West is federal public land, and the grazed portion of it constitutes a region larger than eight times the area of New York state—roughly 260 million acres. As U.S. citizens we have a voice in how these lands are managed. Yet, the voices of the 26,300 ranchers who hold the grazing permits on these lands are heard above all others.

These ranchers’ political clout brings them roughly $500 million annually in taxpayer subsidies, allowing them to off-load many of their business expenses, such as providing water, protection and forage for their livestock. But the real tragedy of their enterprise is the suffering and death that it brings to millions of animals. Cattle are certainly the most obvious victims—roughly 3.2 million each year whose short, often unpleasant, lives in deserts or other hostile landscapes lead only to foul feedlots and, ultimately, to slaughter. But the greatest harm of the public lands ranching industry is visited upon the native wildlife of numerous species: fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Some, like the coyote and mountain lion are targeted by the livestock industry’s “hired guns,” the government agency known as Wildlife Services. At taxpayer expense, roughly 300 mountain lions, 1,700 bobcats, 85,000 coyotes and several thousand other animals are shot, trapped or poisoned every year to make our public lands “safe” for the livestock industry.

As bad as this sounds—and it does sound a lot like murder, what happens to many other wildlife species looks more like genocide. Not necessarily intentional genocide, or more accurately “speciescide,” but its de facto equivalent resulting from habitat degradation stemming from practices of the livestock industry. Whether it is the diversion of waters that deplete streams, the construction of fences that thwart migration, the manipulation of forage that removes a natural food source or the many other actions that make livestock production profitable on public lands, the livestock industry is at the root of actions that kill wildlife.

One significant measure of livestock industry impacts are the number of wildlife species on public lands that have been listed as Threatened, Endangered or proposed for listing and that are known, or suspected, to be harmed by practices of the livestock industry. In Montana: it is 17 species, Utah: 19, Colorado: 20, Idaho: 23, Oregon: 38, New Mexico: 66, California: 71, Nevada: 75, and in Arizona: 86.

In Arizona, bird species such as the southwestern population of the bald eagle are harmed by the suppression of cottonwood regeneration and the resultant loss of nesting trees. The Southwest willow flycatcher, a neotropical migratory dependent upon healthy stream-side (riparian) vegetation, has also suffered as these areas are degraded.

Mammals aren’t immune to the effects of heavy livestock grazing: in Colorado, the riparian-dependent Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, which inhabits dense riparian vegetation, is one of the many small mammals that has seen a dramatic decline in population.

Although one may think of deserts as wastelands devoid of life, they each have their own unique ecosystems with dependent wildlife. In Arizona, the Sonoran pronghorn has declined as livestock have removed sparse desert vegetation. And the desert tortoise, a species that has been around for about three million years, is now listed as Threatened in California, Nevada and Utah.

In Nevada, Lahontan cutthroat trout, as well as more than two dozen unique desert fish species of dace, springfish and chub are also imperiled as riparian areas are degraded. In addition, at least six different invertebrate species have likely declined as sediment from grazing-trampled streambanks chokes streams. Even public lands in the Northwest are affected: in Oregon, shrubsteppe/grassland-dependent birds, such as the Western sage grouse and the Colombian sharp-tailed grouse, have declined as a result of heavy grazing pressure.

Throughout the West several species, including the masked bobwhite, desert pupfish and black-footed ferret, would already be extinct except for the intervention of captive breeding programs. And the future is not bright: unless the activities of the livestock industry are significantly curtailed on public lands, within the next couple of decades other species, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, will likely disappear.

Preventive Measures

Toward preventing this tragedy, a national campaign to end the federal grazing program is currently being organized. One aspect of the campaign is litigation. Although the agencies managing our federal public lands should be protecting endangered species from the livestock industry, they usually don’t because of political pressure to protect the interests of ranchers. Consequently, the principle method of insuring that the agencies act on behalf of wildlife is to sue them under the Endangered Species Act. Such litigation has typically been initiated by Western regional environmental organizations, such as Forest Guardians or the Center for Biological Diversity. The amount of litigation is expected to increase in coming years as the campaign gains strength.

Another aspect of the campaign will be legislative action to prevent Wildlife Services from engaging in lethal predator control on behalf of the livestock industry. As the campaign develops there will be additional legislative efforts to curtail or end large segments of the federal grazing program.

Public education underlies all facets of this campaign. As one part of that effort I have assembled a Livestock Photo Gallery online at Consisting of images selected from my travels throughout the West, the gallery provides an excellent visual introduction to many of the issues raised in this article.

Mike Hudak, PhD, is Director of Public Lands Without Livestock, a project of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs. To learn more about these issues and activities, visit the Rangebiome website:


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