Category Archives: Public lands

Cow Crud

Journalist and Torrey House Press author Jonathan Thompson publishes The Land Desk, a superb commentary on the West. You should subscribe. Even though I am familiar with the ongoing, nonsensical destruction of our public lands by private cow, I am still dismayed when I see the facts and the magnitude of this existential farce as Jonathan presents below.

Read on:

Data Dump: Cows, cows, cows…
… on the aridifying public lands

“The vast San Juan ranges, with a plentiful supply of choice feed, were not to remain such for many years. Like everything else that goes uncontrolled or without supervision these ranges were used selfishly with the present only in mind [leaving them] in an almost irreparable condition.”

—Franklin D. Day, “The Cattle Industry of San Juan County, Utah, 1875-1900”

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A couple of years ago, my wife Wendy and I traveled to Lake Kerkini, a reservoir on the Struma River in Greece near the Bulgarian border, known for the abundance of migratory birds. It wasn’t until we arrived that we found out it was known for something else, too: water buffalo. Everywhere we went people were selling buffalo milk, cheese, ice cream, and even meat, all of which were delicious. 

Finally, while trying to get a gander at a flock of flamingoes on the reservoir, we encountered a herd of the buffalo meandering up a canal, murky water up to their haunches, chomping away on thick forage along the water’s edge. They looked like fat, four-legged, breathing hunks of obsidian. And while I’m no reader of bovine minds, they also looked pretty damned happy. 

I didn’t think about those buffalo and their happiness again until this spring, as I drove through a dust event on the drought-addled Great Sage Plain in southeastern Utah. Not far from the road a herd of cattle stood in the hot sun, eating what appeared to be a lunch of fine dirt seasoned with a pinch of cheat grass. The landscape around them, having been grazed year after year for decades without rest, was thrashed. And it occurred to me then that these critters were something like cousins to those Greek buffaloes that got to spend their days wallowing in water and mud and feasting on actual grass and I thought, Damn, maybe these cows don’t belong out here in the desert? 

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Yet, lest someone wants to frame me as a cattle-mutilator, let me be clear: I’m no cow-hater. Not even close. I like a juicy burger as much as the next person, my grandparents were dairy farmers in the Animas Valley, my cousins run a slaughterhouse and meat market, and seeing a few cows lazing around in a tall-grass pasture makes me happy. 

But on the public lands of the arid West there really are no such pastures, in part because it’s dry, but also because a century-and-a-half of relentless livestock grazing has denuded the landscape of its native grasses. When you combine that with the aridification of vast swaths of the West, you get an ecosystem in peril and a bunch of cows that appear to be yearning to take a trip to a lake in Greece, or at least to some grassy field in Iowa. And if they can’t find that they’ll be drawn to the closest simulation of that: a sensitive desert riparian system, to which they will quickly lay waste. 

I’ll let you wrangle over whether we should stop eating beef altogether or whether livestock grazing should be banned from all public lands, some public lands, or just managed in a more sustainable fashion. But to help inform your wrangling, the Land Desk has rounded up a herd of statistics and crowded them into the data corral so that you can throw your mental lasso around the ones you like. 

AUM = Animal Unit Month = one cow and her calf for one month

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1,000 pounds: The weight of an average beef cow. Some ranchers in the Southwest prefer smaller breeds more suited to the desert, such as corrientes or criollos, which weigh around 800 pounds. 

80: Percentage of a cow’s body weight the cow will eat in one month. This can increase in desert environments in which a cow must walk further to reach forage.

20 million: Number of cattle and calves (of all breeds) in the 11 Western states. 

4.4 billion: Pounds of methane emitted by all of those cows each year.

$2.5 billion: Total amount of livestock subsidies paid by the federal government to ranchers and farmers in the 11 Western states between 1995 and 2020. 

8.07 million: Number of AUMs for cattle authorized by the Bureau of Land Management for Western states in 2019. This does not include grazing on Forest Service lands or non-cattle livestock. 

$1.35 per AUM: Current grazing fee for federal lands and the minimum possible under federal law. In other words, that’s how much it costs a rancher to put one cow and calf out on public lands for a month, during which they will eat between 600 and 900 pounds of forage. 

$6.10; $4.85; $20.10: Minimum fee per AUM for grazing on Utah state land; New Mexico state land; and non-irrigated private land (estimated average), respectively. 

$15.9 million: Revenues to the BLM from grazing fees (for all livestock categories) in 2020.

$105.9 million: Amount budgeted to the Department of Interior for rangeland management in 2020, meaning the taxpayers are subsidizing grazing operations to the tune of $90 million per year. 

15,300: Number of cattle, including calves, in San Juan County, Utah, at the beginning of this year. 

15,308: Number of people living in San Juan County, Utah, as of July 2019. 

106,645: Number of AUMs in effect within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument when it was established in 1996.

106,202: Number in effect 20 years later. 

50,469: Number of AUMs in effect across 20 separate grazing allotments in Bears Ears National Monument when it was established in 2016. The monument proclamation not only grandfathered in all existing grazing leases, but also left the door open to new ones. 

15,000: Acres of public land in Harney County, Oregon, that will be sprayed by air with diflubenzuron, a pesticide, to kill mormon crickets and grasshoppers to improve livestock grazing—on the taxpayer’s tab.

62,537: Number of coyotes killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Program in 2020, often because the coyotes threatened livestock. 

11,732: Number of “events” recorded by Wildlife Services in which wildlife threatened beef cattle and calves in 2020—usually resulting in the death of said wildlife, such as: Badgers, Bats, Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Beavers, Blackbirds, Bobcats, Feral cats, Coyotes, Crows, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Foxes, Mountain Lions, Porcupines, Skunks, Feral Swines, Gray/Timber Wolves, and Mexican Gray Wolves. 

25,400 beavers; 685 bobcats; 276 mountain lions; 381 Timber/gray wolves; 5 Mexican gray wolves: Number of each species killed by the Wildlife Services Program in 2020 for all reasons.  

943: Number of feral chickens killed. 

Oh, yeah, and then there’s that alfalfa in the drying Colorado River Basin problem to consider.

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Flummoxed by the dark

From a recent letter to a conservationist friend:

Our recent time with you in the cow trashed wilds has me thinking. All the time. I have tied myself into a knot.

I am working on writing some short pieces on economics and on the cowboy myth for a grazing coalition’s new website. I piled up and reread many of my sources on the subjects, particularly economics, going all the way back to Bernard DeVoto in Harper’s from the 30’s. I have discovered nothing new, but I am feeling paralyzed by the absurdities. Economically, nobody directly involved wins on public lands livestock grazing. Not even the rancher. And economically public lands livestock grazing is utterly unnecessary to the nation. But reading all the material has vividly brought home that despite the absurdity, nothing has changed in 25 years, not even in 75 years. In fact, it is getting worse. The extractors have gained power.

Look what the cowboy has done to our land. Makes me wonder appreciatively what people are doing to the cows.

Looking at this fight from a distance, I would not want to be in the ranchers’ place. They produce nothing of significance. They require immense subsidy. They do much more damage than good. They are a puny minority working against the interests of the vast majority, a majority whom they depend on to subsidize their absurdity. And yet they prevail with an ever-tighter iron fist.

From our point of view, we need to reconcile to the fact that it is the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.

We must do something different. I don’t know what it is.

Not that I know what to do about it, but it is slowly becoming clearer to me that, as in so many other areas, the hidden, unseen problem is the amount of power we have ceded to corporations in the last 100 years. In this case, it is the extractors powered by the likes of the Kochs, and the rural banks using escrow waivers dubiously based on public lands grazing permits to shore up their balance sheets (as you point out). I feel a little like astronomers must have when they realized there is something big out there that we are not seeing. They called it “dark.”

Shit, man.

Mark Bailey

The Impacts of Livestock Grazing on Biological Soil Crusts (and Climate Change)

Degradation of the original coastal prairies in California. Pen and ink illustration of the impacts of cattle grazing and trampling on Biological Soil Crust. Copyright Laura Cunningham 2020.

The former lush bunchgrass prairies along the Pacific coastal mountains in central California, once home to herds of tule elk, wide-roaming grizzlies, and salmon-filled streams, carefully managed for thousands of years by Miwok and many other tribes, are now mostly grazed instead by herds of cattle. Mediterranean weeds cover the grazed pastures where coastal prairies once grew. Most of the central Coast Range mountains are in private hands and inaccessible to the public. Point Reyes National Seashore is a rare public park established to restore and protect these California plant and animal species and habitats. Continue reading The Impacts of Livestock Grazing on Biological Soil Crusts (and Climate Change)

Up Shit Creek

biohazard 2

In every state in America, it is illegal to deposit human feces in a surface water.  Poop in a creek, empty your RV sewage tank or outfall the sewage line from your cabin into a water body and hopefully you will be facing criminal charges.  The reason for these laws is simple, feces of warm blooded animals harbor disease causing organisms, lots of them.  Norovirus of cruise ship fame, Giardia, the beaver fever, the scourge of backpackers are among the more notorious examples.  Rather than test for each and every one of these nasties, the standard test is for the fecal coliform bacteria Escherichia coli, commonly called E. coli.  E. coli is used as an indicator, if it is present, the other germs are likely present as well.  The lab test for fecal coliform is fairly simple and does not require a large sample size.  Basically the test involves infecting a petri dish with water in question.  The petri dish is incubated at human body temperature for 24 hours.  Once out of the incubator the number of bacteria colonies growing in the dish are counted.  The number of colonies allowed in drinking water is zero.   The limit for water used for swimming or wading is 200 colonies. Continue reading Up Shit Creek

Public Participation Problems With Point Reyes National Seashore Ranching Plan

Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Matthew Polvorosa Kline, used with permission.

POINT REYES, California— The National Park Service closed its public comment period on a proposed planto shoot native tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore to make room not only for beef and dairy cattle, but for new expanded uses that will include sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens, and row crops in the Seashore.  This is a very bad precedent for all of our national parks and monuments.

Numerous conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, Resource Renewal Institute, For Elk, Conservation Congress, Wilderness Watch, Sequoia ForestKeeper, White Shark Video/Shame of Point Reyes, John Muir Project, and Ban Single Use Plastics, as well as many concerned former National Park Service employees and individuals, are opposing the Park’s current preferred alternative, which would extend Ranchers’ lease-permits for decades. Extensive comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) were sent in by the groups asking for Alternative F—the No Ranching alternative that would restore native tule elk to more of the Seashore.

Yet questions of how many members of the public are actually being heard has arisen.

Since Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962, the efforts to gradually remove cattle from the park have been ongoing, although at times so prolonged that park visitors have become used to seeing herds of dairy and beef cattle graze on the fog-shrouded grasslands.

But the original intent of Congress was to restore these coastal cliffs and ridges back to a natural state for the enjoyment of the public. Ranch-leases were supposed to be monitored to make sure livestock grazing did not impair the natural resources of this special place–and we have recently found much impairment.

Barbara Moritsch, ecologist, author, and former botanist for the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore explains, “Neither Point Reyes National Seashore nor the northern district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area were preserved as national parks to perpetuate cattle grazing and dairying. The ranches were purchased by the government and the ranchers were given more than adequate time to move elsewhere. The National Park Service now has an unprecedented opportunity to end ranching on our public lands in these parks–doing anything else would be a grave disservice to the American people, as well as to the incredible diversity of native plants and wildlife that actually belong on these lands.”

The proposed park management plan allows destructive levels of livestock grazing, silage growing and mowing of native vegetation to continue on 28,000 acres of national park lands in this treasured Pacific Coast landscape, despite the myriad known adverse impacts grazing has on coastal prairie, riparian systems, springs, wetlands, and coastal dune vegetation.

disk harrow
Tillage and dairy cattle–industrial levels of private commercial agriculture are being allowed on our public lands at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: Anonymous.

The 1916 Organic Act that formed the National Park Service mandated that natural resources on park lands shall not be impaired. The Point Reyes National Seashore legislation specifically mandates that this special coastline be “protected” and “restored.”  Damaging livestock grazing, however, has been allowed to persist for decades, and the damage to the high-value resources of the Seashore has been ongoing and worsening.

“I have seen coho salmon streams eroded from heavy trampling by the hooves of beef cattle, native bunchgrasses grazed out of existence, and noxious weeds spread across this once lush park,” said Laura Cunningham, California Director of Western Watersheds Project. “This could be the Yellowstone of the Pacific Coast with elk and wildlife roaming freely, instead of more beef and dairy cattle.” Cunningham grew up in the Bay Area and has hiked and watched the elk since the 1980s at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Coho salmon stream in a beef ranch on Golden Gate National Recreation Area, degraded and impaired. April 2019, photo by Laura Cunningham.

In contrast to the vast herds of cattle, there are only 124 free-roaming native tule elk in the Drake’s Beach herd. Elk migrate into cattle ranches, tangle with barbed wire fences, and sometimes become injured. Yet instead of reducing the livestock or eliminating them completely, the park is proposing to haze elk out of the cattle pastures or even “lethally removing them.”

That’s when San Francisco resident Diana Oppenheim made her move. “It’s shocking to me that the park would kill elk, and so many cows would be allowed in this beautiful national seashore.”


Documentary filmmaker Skyler Thomas agreed. “What I witnessed didn’t belong anywhere in a compassionate universe, but it certainly had no place within a national seashore renowned for its beauty, scenery, and wildlife.  It was like taking a black marker and scribbling all over the Mona Lisa. The natural wonders of the seashore are rare.  Humans exploiting animals and the planet for profit is not. Recognition of this fact is the very reason this seashore was created.”

Skyler Thomas is making films about Point Reyes National Seashore problems. You need to watch this.

Oppenheim, who had been a park volunteer helping to restore native dune rare plants at Point Reyes National Seashore, formed a grassroots group For Elk in order to get the public more involved. Thomas, of White Shark Video, teamed up to start making documentary videos filming the cattle damage in the park, including a longer documentary: The Shame of Point Reyes. The groups actively volunteered for months to engage the wider public and educate them about this elk controversy, hosting film screenings, tables at food festivals, panel discussions, and protests at public meetings. The educational push was a success, and many more Bay Area people became aware of the plight of the tule elk at Point Reyes. For Elk volunteers garnered nearly 700 signed comment forms from people who often added personalized hand-written sentences to their comments. Oppenheim collected the 700 comments and handed them in a large box in person at the park headquarters.

Yet the park service refused to accept these comments, causing consternation among elk advocates.

Questions abound about how far the National Park Service can use its discretion to limit public comments under the National Environmental Policy Act. For instance, other federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will accept “bulk” comment forms collected by a group, and at least count them as one similar comment. But the form comments are counted. The park service refused to do even this.

The groups and individuals who signed the comment letter demanded that conservation values must be placed first. The proposed General Management Plan amendment being analyzed fails to protect and restore Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

“The National Park Service should be managing the National Seashore for the benefit of wildlife and the natural ecology. Emphasizing livestock ranching while subsidizing welfare ranchers is a takings of public land. Livestock don’t belong on public lands in general and certainly not in a Seashore where fecal matter can get into the ocean. This disastrous plan must be stopped,” said Denise Boggs, Director of Conservation Congress.

Ara Marderosian, Director of Sequoia ForestKeeper, said, “the agency had thirty years to figure out that the National Park should protect tule elk, but instead the Service proposes to be part of the global climate crisis by enabling more livestock grazing on public lands to continue to produce methane and other toxic waste that will foul the water and air of the National Seashore where children play.”

The conservation community seeks to bring back the coastal prairies that once clothed the peninsula and ridgelines, and take down the fences that currently confine the elk.  A Final Environmental Impact Statement is due out most likely in November 2019. Oppenheim, Thomas, and the groups Western Watersheds Project and For Elk vowed to keep pushing the park to accept all public comments, and finally end ranching at the Seashore.

April 2019 field trip to the small relict ungrazed rare coastal prairie near the Marshall Beach Trailhead. We brought members of the California Native Plant Society and local Bay Area artists to this remnant bunchgrassland to show them that no cows have trampled or grazed down these deep-rooted perennial grasses. California buttercups and other wildflowers were in abundance here. Photo by Laura Cunningham.

Or we could continue with this in our national seashore: dairy cattle feedlot with trucked-in alfalfa hay. Photo by Laura Cunningham.

Point Reyes National Seashore–modern industrial agriculture and for-profit dairies, virtually privatized land that was bought to create the Seashore decades ago and yet for-profit operations remain. Public access and wildlife are severely limited here. This is not an “historic” farm. Thousands of acres of private dairy and beef farms exist in Marin and Sonoma Counties outside of these park lands, why can’t the public have a small national park open to recreation and native wildlife? Photo by Laura Cunningham.

Continue reading Public Participation Problems With Point Reyes National Seashore Ranching Plan

Growing up with cowboys

Contributed by Chip Ward, author of Stony Mesa Sagas, Torrey House Press (2017). This essay was originally published on Chip’s personal Facebook page.

Chip Ward

Like most American kids in the fifties I grew up with cowboys, not the real ones who limp and spit but the heroes on television. Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hicock and other television characters too numerous to name taught me that the world had good guys and bad guys. In my developing childhood brain complexity was dismissed and the binary circuit that divides the world into us and them, the righteous and the damned, was built.

The good guys won with guns. Guns were ubiquitous and although lots of guys got shot there was no blood pooling on the floor or spattered across the wall. Messy agony was also absent. Good guys got shoulder wounds and bad guys died dramatically but without screaming. Bystanders never got hit because collateral damage, after all, might muddy the clear divide between good and evil. Likewise, the inevitable gunfights between cowboys and Indians never involved women and children and the savages always started the fight. And the Indians who showed up on screen were mostly indistinguishable from each other and rode in whooping packs like wolves except for Tonto who had seen the light and became a good guy helper. All of this, of course, was pure bullshit. The themes and worldview of those programs had less to do with actual American history and were more about Cold War fears and ideology. A nation traumatized by a Great Depression and a Second World War was threatened by new unfathomably lethal nuclear weapons and so we retreated into a mythic past that was reassuring and inspiring.
Continue reading Growing up with cowboys

Point Reyes National Seashore Proposes to Kill Native Elk and Keep Cows

Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by wildlife photographer Matthew Polvorosa Kline. Used with permission.

Point Reyes, CA – Today, the National Park Service released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to amend the General Management Plan for the popular Bay Area parks Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Despite public opposition to the ongoing agricultural impacts to wildlife and waterways, the draft EIS indicates the agency will manage beef and dairy cows as “integral” to the parks. This includes lethally removing any of the native tule elk that interfere with ranching operations. Continue reading Point Reyes National Seashore Proposes to Kill Native Elk and Keep Cows

Always Cows in the Campground

To escape the heat of late July my wife Kirsten and I hopped in the camper and headed for the Swift Creek Campground on the Yellowstone River which flows down the south slope of the Uinta Mountains directly south of Kings Peak. We drove from our home in Salt Lake City up I-80 over Parley’s Summit, past Park City to Highway 40 then over to Kamas and Francis and over the shoulder of the Uintas on UT-35, the road rising up to nearly 10,000 feet elevation.

The dirt road into Swift Creek Campground ends where Swift Creek flows into the Yellowstone River at the border of the High Uintas Wilderness in the Ashley National Forest at just over 8,000 feet altitude.

Kirsten at edge of High Uintas Wilderness

Except for some background Forest Service Rangers and Conservation Corps crew passing through to work on the hiking trails, we had the camp to ourselves. I had been here over 30 years ago to backpack with my brother up the Yellowstone drainage and back down the Swift Creek side. The place had not changed much and I was surprised and grateful to see it was not much busier.

Not much busier that is, except for the damned cows. Continue reading Always Cows in the Campground

A Brief History of the Cattle – Sheep Wars and Why Sheep Are Better Than You Think

History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon? – Dan Brown

Recently I have seen comments on blogs expressing horror at the prospects of sheep grazing on public lands. Comments about little wooly range maggots, ripping up plants by the roots and trampling the range to dust. These well-meaning folks get their information from tainted sources.

There really was a war between the cattlemen and sheep raisers in the very late 19th and early 20th century. It was social, political and too frequently violent. The violence most often perpetrated by team bovine. The sheep raisers lost, the cattlemen won and went onto write the history which was later popularized in our love affair with the Hollywood western movie genre.

The cattlemen were typically tied to a ranch headquarters that raised hay and had facilities to handle cows. This was prior to grazing regulations on public domain, so a cattle rancher would simply lay claim to large areas of public land they wished to graze but had no actual rights to. They protected their domain through water rights claims and intimidation and violence as needed. Continue reading A Brief History of the Cattle – Sheep Wars and Why Sheep Are Better Than You Think

A Primer on Rangeland Management

Welcome to Rangeland Management 101

Welcome class. In this course you will learn the basics of rangeland management:

1. Rangelands are defined as largely native landscapes that are not timber producing and not used for farming. Their chief value is for the raising of livestock, producing food and fiber for human consumption. Like western water law, only uses directly benefiting humans and putting money in a pocket are valuable. Ecological services and things we merely like such as scenery, clean water, wildlife, fisheries, endangered species are not really values.

2. Ecological habitat types have an innate ecological productivity. This is the amount of vegetation they will grow in a year, typically expressed in pounds/acre/year on typical western landscapes. In more productive habitats the metric is more like tons/acre/year. Nature produces more vegetation than is needed to maintain healthy plants. This excess production is a harvestable surplus of vegetation that can be utilized by wildlife and livestock as forage.

3. Livestock and native plant eaters are divided into grazers and browsers. Grazers prefer herbaceous vegetation like grasses and forbs while browsers prefer shrub species. This may vary seasonally, but deer and sheep are generally browsers and cattle are primarily grazers.

4. There are two kinds of grazing animals. Nonselective grazers tend to eat whatever vegetation is in front of them, they are not particular about the species of plants they eat. Selective grazers show strong preferences for certain species of grass and forbs and will eat those selectively until they are gone before moving onto less desired species. American bison is an example of a nonselective grazer. Cattle are highly selective grazers. The cattle’s most preferred plants are the first to show grazing impact and the first to decline in abundance or disappear from the plant community entirely. Continue reading A Primer on Rangeland Management