Ground-Breaking Study Shows Why Public Lands are Overgrazed: Case in Point, the High Uintas Wilderness

In the early 1970s Yellowstone to Uintas founder and staff ecologist, Dr. John Carter began backpacking in the Uinta Wilderness in northeastern Utah where one of his friends got giardia from drinking untreated water in a sheep grazing area. This caused him concern as he was also leading trips for youth from all over the country into wilderness areas. That pollution continues today unabated by any action from the Forest Service. This early recognition of the damage occurring from domestic livestock use and the resulting water pollution began a decades-long effort of involvement in Forest issues.

The Uinta Wilderness covers 453,860 acres with 272,768 acres currently being grazed by domestic sheep and cattle. There is a total of 30 active grazing allotments with over 10,000 cattle and 45,000 domestic sheep. These allotments are grazed during the summer annually.

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By the 1990s Dr. Carter’s trips became more data collection and survey trips and he began opposing renewals of grazing permits in the Wilderness. With the founding of Yellowstone to Uintas Connection in 2012, this effort is to formally oppose Forest Service grazing permit renewals and livestock trespass in the Uinta Wilderness has accelerated. Currently, the Forest Service is in the final stages of renewing domestic sheep grazing permits on 164,000 acres in the wilderness with their Record of Decision to be released at any time.

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Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, is a 501(c)3, public interest organization working to protect the integrity of habitat for native fish and wildlife in this region. In 2018 we organized a coalition to address the 10 domestic sheep grazing allotments in the Wilderness that are up for permit renewal. We have submitted comments on the negative ecological impacts that domestic sheep grazing has on wildlife habitat for Canada lynx and bighorn sheep, forage capacity and wilderness values. The result is accelerated erosion, loss of vegetation production and damage to native fish, wildlife, streams and lakes, and water pollution. These are all also negative impacts to the Wilderness values and the intent of the Wilderness Act.

We have also commented on the ethical integrity of the Forest Service, which continues to authorize the grazing. As we continue to receive requests from the Forest Service for clarifications on the ethics side of things these requests have given us the opportunity expand the record by providing them with references such as Chris Ketcham’s new book, “This Land, How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West”. The book is about federal land management agency corruption and how these agencies have been captured by the very people and corporations, e.g. ranching, mining, and timber interests that they are supposed to regulate.

Dr. Carter worked with his colleagues Allison Jones and Emanuel Vasquez to publish a paper in March of this year in the Journal of Geographic Information Systems, “Spatial analysis of livestock grazing and Forest Service management in the High Uintas Wilderness, Utah”. The article describes a spatially explicit forage capacity model showing how much forage there is for native species and livestock to consume and provides an analysis for the High Uintas Wilderness

Their paper tells the story of the lack of capacity of the land to support domestic sheep. The Uinta Wilderness does not have the capacity, that is, the capability for grazing livestock due to the risk of erosion, steep slopes, limited forage, and arid climate. The Forest Service knew this in the 1960s but have since ignored their own Range Conservationist, Mont Lewis who pointed this out in his report on conditions and suitability for grazing domestic sheep here in 1970. He determined then that these lands were mostly not suitable for grazing.

The current paper provides an approach using spatial analysis and aerial imagery combined with field data collection and current Forest Service criteria to evaluate the lands capable of being grazed. It demonstrates how to determine correct stocking rates, that is, how many livestock should be allowed to graze a particular location based on field surveys and current Forest Service criteria.

This is an approach that can be used throughout the west on National Forests, Wildlife Refuges, BLM and State-managed public lands as well as on private ranches. It reflects basic concepts covered in most range management textbooks that are often ignored today. The model and analysis demonstrate that the Forest Service does not apply its own criteria for setting livestock stocking rates, which were originally established in the 1960s.

This has led to the Forest Service overestimating the amount of land and the number of sheep that can be supported. When the model outputs and current forage production were used to determine stocking rates for these 10 allotments in the High Uintas Wilderness, it showed the need for at least a 90% reduction in numbers of sheep. Applying this approach would protect not only High Uinta wilderness lands and values but would do so if applied to most grazed lands in the western United States.

Dr. Carter, Allison Jones, and Emanuel Vasquez used these cutting-edge GIS techniques to clearly show that all agencies managing public lands should be doing these calculations and revising stocking rates now. This would assist with carbon storage and restoring degraded landscapes and wildlife habitat to buffer against climate change effects.

Please join Yellowstone to Uintas Connection in opposing grazing permits in the Uintas and throughout the west until the land management agencies produce a science-based data analysis and grazing system design that restores these degraded lands, water sources, and wildlife habitat, while maximizing carbon storage for mitigation against climate change. For more information regarding our work on this issue please see here.

Jason Christensen is the Director Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.