The Overlook: Understanding Livestock Grazing in Wilderness Areas
Dec 15, 2020 at 8:42 am #3689118Backpacking LightAdmin
@backpackinglightLocale: Rocky Mountains
BPL columnist Ben Kilbourne uses a close encounter to examine the practice of livestock grazing on public land.
We understand this issue might be contentious. The point of The Overlook is to foster conversation, but we ask you to remember this from BPL’s forum guidelines:
“GUIDELINES FOR DISCUSSION OF POLITICS, RELIGION, AND OTHER IDENTITY-BASED SUBJECTS
Focus on issues – policies and positions – not on people, personalities, or identity groups.
Be specific; steer clear of generalizations and stereotyping.”
-BPLDec 15, 2020 at 10:27 am #3689149
BLM is part of the Department of the Interior. USFS is part of the Department of Agriculture. The different but often overlapping missions of the two agencies dates back their origins and (not to mention political competition as agencies) during the great Western expansion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I am not sure what the problem statement in this essay is. Is it the adverse impact of cattle grazing on land protected by the Wilderness Act? Or is a more broad claim about the adverse impact of cattle on range lands leased from BLM or USFS or all of the above.
Some of what you are seeing might well be the impact of the hollowing out of the local presence of US Govt, the push from Washington not to enforce procedural rules and regulations on the books, not to mention the roll back of landmark environmental protections including those passed under Republican adminsitrations such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Many US government agencies that deliver basic services and protect and serve (US Weather Service and CDC just to name two) over the last four years have been diminished and decimated (see Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy).Dec 15, 2020 at 11:19 am #3689160Ben CBPL Member
I grew up working cattle regularly. I think the fear is probably a little overdrawn. I suspect almost all of the deaths are caused on farms instead of on trails. While they merit respect, a little common sense will keep us out of most possible harm. I don’t love them on recreational land, as they tear up the land wherever they go – worse than humans almost.Dec 15, 2020 at 11:55 am #3689171Dave @ OwareBPL Member
@bivysack-comLocale: East Washington
“Within a half-mile (800 m), we saw the first giant black cow standing like a disgruntled and erratic bus. The mechanisms and the pilot behind those giant white eyes were unpredictable, and the tension between that unpredictability and the very certain weight of the thing was terrifying. “
Now that’s some hyperbole.(mod edit: no, just a description of lived experience and professed emotion; hyperbole = exaggerated statements or claims not to be interpreted literally)
“Due to this livestock inclusion, exceptions are often made for ORVs, fences, the poisoning of prairie dogs “
Link to that? I haven’t seen a wilderness yet that allowed ORV’s, certainly not “often”. More hyperbole.
“Then I see the damage they’re doing — cowpies in springs and wet meadows, riparian vegetation devastated. I start to ask, “what are they doing here?”
That is the biggest problem in my mind with grazing is poorly managed grazing, Keep them below tree line, out of water sources, moved frequently to prevent over grazing etc.
“If they had to pay market value for their product, there would instantly be no livestock industry at all on these rangelands!”
Market value for poor grazing is tiny. Market value isn’t the term to use here. They are paying market value. Subsidies is a better word.
I like to eat local free range beef, I like to support the local rancher who is one of the only people in the rural county that pays property taxes on his lands that his cattle graze the rest of the year.
No property taxes come in from the huge amounts of Federal land to support schools, hospitals, county roads etc.
And for those that say, let em learn to code, they could use some broadband first.Dec 15, 2020 at 12:25 pm #3689181Paul WagnerBPL Member
@balzaccomLocale: Wine Country
Most of these contracts for range cattle in wilderness areas have been grandfathered in. The contracts are not open to open bidding. In fact, if a group of hikers came together to crowd-fund one of them, they would not be allowed to bid, because they do not already have a history of running cattle on these lands.
And there is a reason for the subsidies–running cattle on these lands is a money-losing proposition. The cattle ranchers don’t do it because it is cost effective, they do it because if they stopped doing it, they would lost their opportunity to bid on future contracts. So they continue to run cattle, lose money, and get subsidized as a way of maintaining something they have done for generations–even though it costs them money.
Expensive habit, in many ways.Dec 15, 2020 at 12:46 pm #3689185Dondo .BPL Member
@dondoLocale: Colorado Rockies
Ben, as always, I enjoyed your article and your perspectives on the issues. I wrote about a similar trip here.
As far as the issue of grazing on public lands, well, I’m just not going to step into that cow pie.Dec 15, 2020 at 2:06 pm #3689197DanBPL Member
The stories are getting more and more farfetched. First there’s a crazy guy yelling at you for wearing a mask, now the vicious cows are driving you off the trail. C’mon man, they’re cows. The main danger I face from livestock on public lands involves the semi-feral Great Pyrenees dogs intermingled with the sheep. We’ve had some close calls with them.
But seriously, I don’t enjoy having the livestock in wilderness areas, they are super messy and cause a lot of damage. So I generally try to avoid areas where they are grazing. Not always 100% possible, but I have a pretty good sense of where to find them at this point.
Other than that, try writing your senators and congresspeople.Dec 15, 2020 at 3:14 pm #3689206Dan YBPL Member
Again, I thought of the 21,000 livestock operators whose identities are linked to this way of life. That’s 21,000 people who I’m asking to change in order to maintain ecological intactness on public lands in the west. It’s a big ask, no doubt. I can hear their response, too — “What do you want me to do instead?” Undeniably, no one deserves to have the rug ripped out from under them like that. But the government subsidies are already so huge that it makes a lot of sense to just use that same money for establishing new ways of life for these people.
Yes, then we can import our beef from Australia.Dec 15, 2020 at 3:38 pm #3689210MojoRisenBPL Member
@mojorisenLocale: I’m a pilot. Almost anywhere!
”western livestock operators can’t make a living without government subsidies”
That right there sums it up. An example are the Ruby’s of NV. They are completely surrounded by private ranching with most of the decent trailheads not assessable. Unless you know who to get in touch with for gate codes through their land. Most of them don’t even live there, ranches are tax right offs. But, as I have hiked some of these trails that are hard to get to, cows are up in the high wilderness areas. Many of the stream banks are broken down due to cows, as well as the vegetation. I have come across a few forest service on horseback that questioned me about cows and their locations, very eager to move them. But this is in areas that they themself have trailhead access. Not to many government employees welcomed through private land for some reason.
I agree with the article that the few places left are becoming fewer. This year had to be the toughest for getting private moments in the farthest reaches in the mountains. Cows, COVID and to many people posting YouTube locations of places better left in our memories.
Great article!Dec 15, 2020 at 3:43 pm #3689213MojoRisenBPL Member
@mojorisenLocale: I’m a pilot. Almost anywhere!
Just as we imported cows to America. A little less beef can maybe change the dynamics. I for one have changed my consumption. Just doing my part to leave no trace.Dec 15, 2020 at 4:22 pm #3689220Kenneth KnightBPL Member
@kenknightLocale: SE Michigan
There was an interesting podcast recently that dives into this general area of land use and management. It’s complicated, multi-faceted, and steeped in history all of which making decisions challenging. The podcast is called GrouseDec 15, 2020 at 8:24 pm #3689260KarenBPL Member
We don’t need beef. We just don’t. I’m not opposed to eating beef, but it’s not a need, it’s a want. More of our 8 billion and growing can be fed on legumes than on red meat.
I get that people who have ranched for generations love their tradition, their family story, etc. Most of them also love the land. Times and the climate are changing and that affects us all. I’d prefer if ranchers would consider conservation easements as a way out, rather than be put out of business by subsidies being cut and economic ruin for people living a lifestyle they love. It no longer makes sense to run cattle in the desert. It never has.
It’s not really about backpacking.Dec 15, 2020 at 9:20 pm #3689268
Dave O wrote:
Link to that? I haven’t seen a wilderness yet that allowed ORV’s, certainly not “often”. More hyperbole.
You can do the googling. There are existing “travel corridors” for example in Wrangell-St. Elias NP, in designated Wilderness, that allow ORV travel. I saw it myself, and at the time, was shocked. It was NPS staff riding the ORVs.Dec 15, 2020 at 9:30 pm #3689269
I’ve been charged by cows in MT and WY while backpacking. The experiences forever changed how wide of a berth I give to them. My heart rate goes up when I see them. Like covid, there’s a high chance you’re going to be ok. But the consequences of a bad encounter can probably be pretty bad. In one encounter, when the cow charged from more than 50 ft away (protecting her calf), I stumbled backward, hit my head on a rock. I thought it was over. Of course, when I fell down she stopped. Threat neutralized I guess.
Throughout the west, there’s a handful of rogue ranchers who illegally graze on public lands because they feel it’s their right. For example, I’ve run into illegal bulls on at least half a dozen occasions. Once in Montana, the bull charged and sent my dad and I scrambling over a barbed wire fence to get away from it. Terrifying experience. The County Sherrif’s advice: “I wouldn’t go hiking when bulls are around, son.” There were explicit regulations in place prohibiting the grazing of bulls on public lands in this area.
I once stumbled onto a pod of cows parked under a big tree, sleeping, on a March snowshoe trip in the Uintas, at night. We spooked them, and all of us (cows and people) went scrambling all different directions. Lots of screaming, mooing, hikers falling, total panic. Looking back, it makes a great campfire story but at the time, it was terrifying.
I appreciate the focus on policies and key questions here:
- Grazing impacts on the environment?
- Extent and appropriateness of subsidies for grazing.
- The cow-hiker relationship and how to manage it.
I also appreciate all that I’ve learned from those ranchers who do have a meaningful relationship with their land, and their desire to be good stewards of it.Dec 16, 2020 at 2:34 am #3689285Roger CaffinBPL Member
@rcaffinLocale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
We were at Annie Rowan Creek, well inside the huge and very rough Wollemi NP. Huge cliffs around a flat grassy creek junction. It used to be grazed and fenced, but not now, and the cattle are meant to be gone.
So there we were on the flat grass with the tent up cooking dinner, when a stroppy young bull turned up. On the assumption “He’s just a stray bovine” we ignored him, but then he started pawing the ground, lowering his head, and making loud noises. Um …
Blowed if I am going to be harassed by a cow (or bull). So I picked up a big stick and charged him. That slowed him down a bit, but what made him turn tail and run for cover was my yelling, very loudly, “Scotch Fillet” several times at him.
When I got back to the tent Sue’s was laughing her head off.
CheersDec 16, 2020 at 8:39 am #3689316Jerry AdamsBPL Member
@retiredjerryLocale: Oregon and Washington
I hike in Mill Creek Wilderness in Central Oregon. There are grazing cows all over. When I’ve gotten near I mostly ignore them, maybe walk around them a bit, they do about the same.
Cow pies are aesthetically displeasing, but I ignore.
I camped at a place with cows so I sort of barricaded myself with a few branches so they wouldn’t walk on me during the night
I was hiking on the Deschutes River and there were three herds of big horn sheep, 100+ total. I was a bit fearful they would stampede me, but they stampeded in a different direction.Dec 16, 2020 at 9:34 am #3689331Ben CBPL Member
I feel much safer seeing cows than either dogs or horses. Horses are just so hyper and unpredictable. Dogs have a strong instinct to protect and people regularly let them loose on the trail. Dogs kill a lot more people than cows. I always feel much safer around cows.
As a kid, I grew up working livestock and caring for dogs. My dad was a rural vet. My dad always let me walk among cows, even when I was little. I was taught to give wide berth to bulls, who are a little more aggressive. I could be around horses, but there were always serious cautions. That’s what 50 years of vet experience from my dad taught me, and it has seemed right ever since.Dec 16, 2020 at 3:05 pm #3689399Ray JBPL Member
I hike regularly on some of the LBJ National Grasslands. Which is NFS managed, not BLM. We have a small part of one area mapped for an Orienteering event. There are several maintained horse trails. To my knowledge, there is a yearly “Runners” event. I ran into three out on a “50 mile training” run just last weekend. There is also a Mormon reenactment out there with a few hundred people who camp, wear 1800’s clothes while pushing carts on very sandy trails. A few weeks ago there were 40 Airstream trailers parked on one of the plateau’s that the NFS has prepared for primitive camping. During Texas deer hunting season, there are crossbow hunters, bow hunters and shotgun hunters (no blinds, no deer feeders allowed). There are also controlled burns (none happened this year as conditions were not right). They also run cattle in there on the grasslands. This past spring there were 450 placed on the one area I hike. I’ve made an acquaintance of a NFS Volunteer whose ranch is just off one of the closed roads next to the Grasslands. Picture Sam Elliot and you have this guy! He rides his horses around but also runs an ATV to put out smoldering camp fires and such. So this past spring with all the cattle, when I’d hike near them, they got up and ran off. I was surprised to even find them down in some heavily forested areas. The volunteer was laughing as he was telling me how the rancher who PAID to put them in there, didn’t “get the mix right”. Too many “young” cows which have a tendency to wander and wander far. The volunteer was laughing about how in the world that rancher was ever going to get some of those cows out of the canyons! The NFS redid the water troughs for the animals. When the cows were in there, the area right around the troughs was torn up, but it recovered quickly (a month or two, I park at one of them).
So, lots of equestrians, hikers, trail runners, campers, bow hunters during deer season and yes every few years, a few hundred cows on the piece I hike on. Here is an example of NFS land being used by a lot of different groups, cows included.Dec 16, 2020 at 6:19 pm #3689425Ray JBPL Member
I should have also pointed out about the cattle, it is for a short period of time. Like 4 or 5 months. Then they are out. If they get a controlled burn, then no cattle on that section for something like a year. The NFS has also gone in and removed invasive plants, namely cedar trees. They cut them, pile them up and let them sit for a few months drying. Then they get the brush fire trucks out there and light a match on the piles. They are attempting to replicate nature.Dec 16, 2020 at 6:55 pm #3689432Dave @ OwareBPL Member
@bivysack-comLocale: East Washington
“You can do the googling. There are existing “travel corridors” for example in Wrangell-St. Elias NP, in designated Wilderness, that allow ORV travel. I saw it myself, and at the time, was shocked. It was NPS staff riding the ORVs.”
I googled a bit. The first things that comes up is this BPL article. There may be some inholdings that require vehicle access, but you still haven’t show that ORV’s are Often in wilderness areas. Even the trail maintenance crews carry crosscut saws instead of chain saws. You can get a ticket for building a 3 rock cairn.
I have no quarrel with requiring grazing permittees to clean up their act. There is one locally that is troubled greatly by the wolves moving back in and loses dozens of cattle per year, which is followed by several wolves being killed in response. I would like to see the agencies find that ranch other grazing opportunities away from the difficult to manage roadless wolf country.
Multiple use lands are, well, multiple use. A higher beneficial use of public lands was seen as one that could support people’s survival- feed and cloth them. Recreation was a good thing too, but not at the expense of peoples making a living. National Parks were for that sort of thing.Dec 16, 2020 at 7:04 pm #3689434
St. Elias NP, in designated Wilderness,
If it is inside the National Park, it is not under the jurisdiction of the Wildnerness Act nor it it managed by the USFS is it???Dec 16, 2020 at 7:07 pm #3689437
Good question Bruce, there are a number of designated Wilderness areas inside National Parks that are designated and managed as Wilderness under the land management jurisdiction of the NPS.
An example “down here” is the Olympic Wilderness inside Olympic National Park.
The Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness, I think, is the largest designated Wilderness in the US (10M acres), and if I recall, exists entirely inside the NP.
Of course, there are non-Wilderness portions of these parks as well – this is where the road and building infrastructure exists.Dec 16, 2020 at 8:00 pm #3689445rubmybelly!BPL Member
@sleepingLocale: The Cascades
“Extent and appropriateness of subsidies for grazing.”
I think we need to look at subsidies broadly, including this one, and rethink them with the benefit of the general population as the guiding principle instead of the benefit of corporations and other business interests.Dec 16, 2020 at 8:32 pm #3689448
@ Ryan, I would think if it is in the NP, then it is not under the Wilderness Act and the Dept of Interior and NPS and motorized vehicles might not be prohibited.
@ Doug, Yup. I would not put subsidies for grazing on marginal land at the top of my list of things to fix. The dirt cheap oil leases on land that have not changed for 40 or 50 years would be near the top. Next would probably be the subsidization of water for agro-business or increased urbanization, like Las Vegas going after aquifiers near Great Basin NP, or the extended Cal Water project building new canals to send northern Sierra water to water the SoCal desert towns.
CheersDec 16, 2020 at 8:36 pm #3689449
@btolley the way I understand it is that the Wilderness Act authorizes any land management agency to manage designated Wilderness, as long as they do so according to the guidelines and principles of the Act. Thus, BLM/NPS/USFS can be the land manager of designated Wilderness if the Wilderness lands fall under their management jurisdiction.
I wonder what would happen if a private landowner (like Ted Turner) got some of their land approved to be designated as Wilderness?
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