In Nevada, Cattle and Sheep are the Real Ecological Catastrophe

Photograph Source: Jesus Solana – CC BY 2.0

In recent news stories, Nevada state senator Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) characterized wild horses as “an ecological catastrophe,” lobbying for accelerated roundups and removals from public lands. But the ecological footprint of wild horses in Nevada is negligible compared to the damage to lands and wildlife habitats by domestic cattle and sheep.

Wild horses are vastly outnumbered by cattle and sheep, both in Nevada and across the western public lands. According to the 2023 Bureau of Land Management estimate, there are currently 44,786 wild horses in Nevada, a seven percent increase from last year’s estimate. The current federal statistics for Nevada show that there are 265,000 beef and dairy cattle plus 165,000 calves, for a total of 430,000 cattle, as well as 58,000 domestic sheep, grazing on all lands in Nevada. In effect, today’s wild horse populations are so dwarfed by the burgeoning overpopulation of cattle and sheep that their ecological impacts are negligible in comparison.

While Sen. Hansen claimed in an interview that wild horse numbers are “significantly out of control,” this is apparently based on federal Appropriate Management Level targets, which are intentionally set low based on political considerations, rather than the carrying capacity of the range. The current nationwide population is 68,928 horses, according to Bureau of Land Management figures. When Lewis and Clark made their initial westward exploration, there were 2 to 7 million wild horses roaming North America, according to a scientific report. At that time, land health was infinitely better and wildlife were significantly more abundant than they are today. For example, out of an estimated 16 million sage grouse present nationwide at the time of Lewis and Clark, perhaps only 200,000 remain.

There are indeed multiple ecological catastrophes underway on Nevada public lands involving overgrazing, but cattle and sheep are the culprits. An analysis of federal land health monitoring shows that 50% of federal public lands that were assessed are failing to meet even the most basic land health standards nationwide, and cattle and sheep were cited as a cause on 72% of these lands. In Nevada, percentage of assessed lands in failing status balloons to 83%. On these failing Nevada lands, wild horses are not implicated (even as a contributing factor) on 72% of the failing lands. Cattle and sheep, on the other hand, are considered by the Bureau as a contributing cause for 76% of the Nevada public lands, spanning 15.4 million acres, that are failing land health standards.

The invasive weed cheatgrass, an annual grass, moved into Nevada in the 1890s in the wake of cattle and sheep introductions, and now has replaced native plant communities across millions of acres of the state. In addition to destroying the land’s value as wildlife habitat, cheatgrass dies after it sets seed, becoming dry and brittle, and fuels the unnaturally frequent range fires that have burned across much of Nevada. Heavy overgrazing by cattle and sheep, both in the past and during the present day, has beaten down the native perennial bunchgrasses and destroyed fragile soil crusts, opening the way for cheatgrass to invade and take over.

Millions of acres of sagebrush habitats have been converted to another invasive weed, crested wheatgrass, which was intentionally cultivated in vast plantings as livestock fodder from the 1950s through 1970s, and still is used for seeding of burned areas today. Crested wheatgrass destroys the habitat value of the land for sage grouse and other wildlife.

The Lahontan cutthroat trout has become so rare that it is now a threatened species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Livestock operations have dammed and diverted springs and streams, filed for water rights to remove the water that the rare fish need to survive, and allowed their cattle to concentrate along lush streamsides  destroying both the streams themselves and the streamside vegetation that would otherwise shade them.

Wild horses don’t get any opportunity to overgraze the land, because cattle and sheep pre-emptively take  the majority of the grass. On those lands where wild horses are allowed to occur, and also where wild horses are absent, federal agencies permit ranchers to consume 50 to 65 percent of the total forage production for the entire year. Wild horses, other wild herbivores, and the plants themselves have to survive on what is left over after the cattle and sheep take  the majority.

There are certainly members of the public who like seeing wild horses on public lands. But what, if anything, does the American public get for private livestock grazing, besides the degraded land health? Federal agencies rent out public lands for livestock grazing at a rate of $1.35 per month for each cow and calf (or 5 sheep). That’s far less than the $23.60 per month that ranchers pay to lease the same grazing on private lands, on average, and the rents collected total far less than it costs federal agencies to run their commercial grazing programs.

According to the Farm Bureau, public land livestock grazing in Nevada produces only $95.45 million annually in economic outputs, which sounds like a lot but is only a measly four-one-thousandths of one percent of the $215.9 billion (with a “b”) Nevada state Gross Domestic Product. So even from a broader economic standpoint, it makes a pretty weak case for continuing to rent out public lands for livestock grazing.

There is a real ecological catastrophe on Nevada’s public lands, and the cause is rampant and chronic overgrazing by public lands ranching operations. In the final analysis, while Sen. Hansen’s public rant about wild horses demonstrates a very poor understanding of what’s really happening on Nevada public lands, it does call valuable attention to the serious ecological problems they face as a result of federally authorized commercial livestock. Let’s get serious about restoring ecologically healthy lands and wildlife in Nevada. The most important first step is to stop scapegoating wild horses, and start addressing the root cause of the problem, which is reining in the excesses of the cattle and sheep industries.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.