Grazing the Spotted Dog Wildlife Area

Recently the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commission voted to permit cattle grazing on the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Approval of livestock grazing on the WMA is based on the theory that a quid pro quo allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public land will reduce animosity towards wildlife that may inhabit their private holdings.  I’m not aware of any study that has substantiated that theory.

As with almost all decisions to allow livestock on a wildlife area, the commission ignored the cumulative impacts of cattle on wildlife (all wildlife) as they are required by law to do, once again demonstrated that politics trumps science.

There is an abundance of studies that demonstrate that cattle diets overlap with elk diet. Depending on the study, cattle forage preferences overlapped with elk anywhere from 30-85%. Of course, every blade of grass going into a cow is that much less for an elk as well as other native herbivores.

MDFWP suggests that livestock grazing enhances forage quality for elk and that elk preferentially graze livestock areas.  However, elk don’t “need” livestock to prosper. Elk survived centuries without the “benefit” of domestic livestock grazing. Elk in places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness or Yellowstone National Park persist quite well in the absence of cattle grazing.

Many other species depend on the forage grasses and forbs (flowers) that livestock consume from ground squirrels to grasshoppers to bees to butterflies. In heavily grazed areas, there is that much less plant life for food as well as hiding cover.

If cattle grazing results in a reduction in their numbers, this affects a lot of other species. Fewer grasshoppers might mean less food for trout. Fewer ground squirrels impacts birds of prey like hawks and eagles. Fewer bees may indicate less pollination of shrubs. Less cover may expose pronghorn or deer fawn to more predation.  Whether these are a problem with the proposed livestock use of Spotted Dog WMA is unknown because there was no review or discussion by MDFWP.

One documented impact, however, is that cattle socially displaces native ungulates like elk and deer. Under a similar grazing system implemented at Fleecer Mountain WMA near Butte 94% of the elk locations were in pastures without cattle, suggesting that if given a choice, elk avoid cattle.

Cattle grazing of riparian areas seeps, and springs are yet another issue. Cattle evolved in moist woodlands. They spend an excessive amount of time in damp areas that are similar to their evolutionary habitat.  Soil compaction that reduces water infiltration, along with bank trampling both reduce the size and effectiveness of wet areas, this negatively impacts water flows and native fish habitat.

Wetlands, seeps, and springs are also critical for native amphibians like Columbia spotted frog, snails, and many songbirds.

Cheatgrass, a highly flammable annual grass that has led to fires which is a significant cause for the loss of sagebrush ecosystems across the West has been documented on over 600 acres of the WMA. Cattle trample soil crusts. Crusts cover the soil and restrict seed establishment of cheatgrass. Cattle preferentially consuming native grasses results in a competitive advantage for cheatgrass, thus exacerbates the spread of exotic grasses.

Few areas in the state are livestock-free. The Spotted Dog WMA should remain one of them.


More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.


June 25, 2019
Rannie Amiri
Instigators of a Persian Gulf Crisis
Patrick Cockburn
Trump May Already be in Too Deep to Avoid War With Iran
Paul Tritschler
Hopeful Things
John Feffer
Deep Fakes: Will AI Swing the 2020 Election?
Binoy Kampmark
Bill Clinton in Kosovo
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Japanese Conjuncture
Edward Hunt
Is Mexico Winding Down or Winding up the Drug War?
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump’s Return to Full-Spectrum Dominance
Steve Kelly
Greed and Politics Should Not Drive Forest Policy
Stephen Carpa
Protecting the Great Burn
Colin Todhunter
‘Modified’: A Film About GMOs and the Corruption of the Food Supply for Profit
Martin Billheimer
The Gothic and the Idea of a ‘Real Elite’
Elliot Sperber
Send ICE to Hanford
June 24, 2019
Jim Kavanagh
Eve of Destruction: Iran Strikes Back
Nino Pagliccia
Sorting Out Reality From Fiction About Venezuela
Jeff Sher
Pickin’ and Choosin’ the Winners and Losers of Climate Change
Howard Lisnoff
“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran”
Robert Fisk
The West’s Disgraceful Silence on the Death of Morsi
Dean Baker
The Old Japan Disaster Horror Story
David Mattson
The Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Tyranny of Ego
George Wuerthner
How Mountain Bikes Threaten Wilderness
Christopher Ketcham
The Journalist as Hemorrhoid
Manuel E. Yepe
Yankee Worship of Bombings and Endless Wars
Mel Gurtov
Iran—Who and Where is The Threat?
Wim Laven
Revisiting Morality in the Age of Dishonesty
Thomas Knapp
Facebook’s Libra Isn’t a “Cryptocurrency”
Weekend Edition
June 21, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Brett Wilkins
A Brief History of US Concentration Camps
Rob Urie
Race, Identity and the Political Economy of Hate
Rev. William Alberts
America’s Respectable War Criminals
Paul Street
“So Happy”: The Trump “Boom,” the Nation’s Despair, and the Decline of Joe Biden
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Ask Your Local Death Squad
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Fake Food, Fake Meat: Big Food’s Desperate Attempt to Further the Industrialisation of Food
Eric Draitser
The Art of Trade War: Is Trump Winning His Trade War against China?
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s Russian Problem
Jonathan Cook
Forget Trump’s Deal of the Century: Israel Was Always on Course to Annexation
Andrew Levine
The Biden Question
Stanley L. Cohen
From Tel Aviv to Tallahassee
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Collapses 70 Years Early
Kenn Orphan
Normalizing Atrocity
Ajamu Baraka
No Dare Call It Austerity
Ron Jacobs
The Redemptive Essence of History
David Rosen
Is Socialism Possible in America?
Dave Lindorff
The US as Rogue Nation Number 1
Joseph Natoli
The Mad King in His Time
David Thorstad
Why I’m Skipping Stonewall 50