Wilderness and Cows

Cattle grazing in the Mohave National Preserve. Photo by George Wuerthner

The 1964 Wilderness Act requires federal agencies to protect and manage designated wilderness areas “to preserve its natural conditions.” Given that all domestic livestock are exotic alien animals and hardly contribute to “natural conditions,” one might assume that livestock production would be prohibited in designated wilderness.

However, livestock production occurs in 330 designated wildernesses in the lower 48 states covering approximately 10 million acres. To put this into perspective, Yellowstone National Park, one of the largest protected areas outside of Alaska, is 2.2 million acres in size.

Unfortunately, when the Wilderness Act was being debated in Congress, House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee Chairman Wayne Aspinall (D Colorado) would not allow the bill out of committee unless it contained a provision that permitted livestock grazing to continue in designated wilderness areas. Aspinall had effectively stalled the bill in committee from 1960 through 1963.

Correctly, the Wilderness Act concludes: “the grazing of livestock, where established before the effective date of this Act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture.” Federal agencies managing wilderness have interpreted this to mean that livestock activities are permitted in any designated wilderness. And agencies have determined that curtailing or restricting livestock grazing in a wilderness is prohibited simply because the area is designated wilderness, though livestock can be removed as with all federal lands to meet resource needs like protecting watersheds, soils, and wildlife habitat.

As a result, ranchers are permitted to install fences, stock tanks, create stock ponds, destroy springs with development, and even use motorized equipment and vehicles in designated wilderness. In addition, activities like predator control, poisoning of prairie dogs and other rodents, and associated activities can occur. Don’t let the image of the cowboy on horseback fool you; most ranchers are far more comfortable riding the range in a pick-up or ATV.


It is important to note that livestock production harms all public lands, not just wilderness. But, by definition, our wilderness areas are supposed to be managed to maintain natural conditions and to be “substantially unmodified by humans.”

One analysis concluded that more native western wildlife are endangered as a result of livestock production compared to any other source of human activity.  This analysis included both public and private lands, but the point is clear.

Given the overall aridity of the West, grazing by a slow-moving, water-loving, and some would say dim-witted animals, in a land with predators, limited water sources, and low productivity is the definition of insanity. Because of aridity and other factors, there is no way to grazing livestock without harming the ecological integrity of the land. Anyone who claims that “well managed” livestock has limited impacts fails to do a full accounting.

Livestock pollute water. Western Watersheds Project tested the water of streams passing through actively grazed lands and found excessive levels of E coli in nearly all waterways with cows.

Livestock compact soils, reducing the infiltration of water, making lands already arid, even more desert-like.

Livestock consumes forage that would otherwise support native wildlife. There is only so much vegetation available for animals to eat, and if 50-90% of it is going into the gut of a cow, there is that much less for everything from grasshoppers to elk.

Livestock transfer disease to wild species. For instance, it is well established that domestic sheep can transfer pneumonia to wild bighorns, which is one of the significant causes of bighorn declines around the West.

Livestock trample riparian areas. These are the green line of vegetation found along streams. Riparian areas have a disproportional value to wildlife in the arid West. Some 70-80% of all wildlife will use these areas at some point in their life cycle, yet livestock by consuming the vegetation, breaking down banks, and compacting soils degrade these essential habitats.

Livestock damage tends to widen streams, which reduces their hydrological function and allows water to heat, reducing their suitability for cold-water fish species like trout and salmon.

Livestock by their mere presence can socially displace native species like elk and deer. Presumably, if an elk is using some habitat and is forced to move to another area, it leaves the best habitat for the second-best terrain.

Livestock fences and other developments can harm native species. For instance, fences can block wildlife migrations, in particular, pronghorn, which are reluctant to jump fences, while sage grouse have suffered as high as 30% mortality due to collisions with fences.

Livestock spread weeds, in particular, the spread of cheatgrass, which is considered the biggest threat to sagebrush ecosystems, is facilitated by livestock grazing.

Development of springs for water and grazing of wet meadows can harm amphibians like frogs and native snails, which depend on these areas for survival. For example, the grazing of wet meadows on the Fremont National Forest is associated with the decline of the Oregon Spotted Frog.

Native predators are regularly killed to protect private domestic animals using public lands. For instance, in the Upper Green River area of Wyoming, 38 grizzlies have been killed to protect domestic animals grazing there. In contrast, the Endangered Mexican Wolf has been killed in designated wilderness in New Mexico to protect cattle.


As previously mentioned, one cannot remove livestock simply because an area is designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act. However, livestock removal can be facilitated by Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement. Under permit retirement, a rancher agrees to remove his livestock and to permanently give up access to grazing allotments in exchange for some agreed-upon sum of money. Private parties usually provide this funding.

It’s important to note that grazing on public lands is a privilege and can be terminated at any time. However, given the political stranglehold that the livestock industry has over western public areas, permit retirement is the most efficient means of eliminating livestock impacts.

Other measures that could be implemented immediately is the closure of vacant allotments. Throughout the West, there are over 3 million acres of grazing allotments in designated wilderness, which are currently ungrazed. Permanently closing these allotments is legal.

Whether designated wilderness or other public lands, livestock production is easily the greatest threat to native biodiversity. It’s time to reclaim our lands and send the cows home.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy