Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Domestic Livestock: Scourge of the West

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 64-67.

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As sheep advance, flowers, vegetation, grass, soil, plenty and poetry vanish.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club (1838-1914)

The most pervasive and insidious threat to the Oregon Desert is domestic livestock grazing. Livestock have done more damage to the Earth than the chainsaw. Bovine bulldozers have impoverished the arid West at the expense of both water quality and quantity, native fish and wildlife, native vegetation and soil. They are an abomination.

The sins of domestic livestock (a.k.a. meadow maggots) in the arid West are countless, but to enumerate a few:

1. Domestic livestock consume forage at the expense of wildlife. When you see domestic livestock on public lands, you are not seeing bighorn sheep, pronghorn, elk, deer or other forage-eating wildlife. In one study, scientists found that domestic livestock grazing consumed 88.8 percent of the available forage (cattle 82.3 percent, feral horses 5.8 percent, sheep 0.7 percent), leaving 11.2 percent to wildlife species (mule deer 10.1 percent, pronghorn 0.9 percent, bighorn sheep 0.1 percent, elk 0.1 percent). [1]

2. Domestic livestock endanger native fish and wildlife. Scientists summarized the percentages of 1,880 species imperiled by habitat loss, alien species, pollution, over exploitation, and disease. In the United States, grazing has contributed to the demise of 22 percent of the species—compared to logging (12 percent) and mining (11 percent). In particular, livestock grazing is especially harmful to plant species, affecting 33 percent of endangered plant species. [2]

3. Domestic livestock destroy streams by degrading both water quality and total water quantity. Cattle devolved from species inhabiting wet meadows in northern Europe and Asia. They love water.

This is well illustrated in one study, which found that a riparian zone in eastern Oregon comprised only 1.9 percent of the allotment, but produced 21 percent of the available forage and 81 percent of the forage consumed by cattle. [3]

Streams of the arid West are more defiled and tragic than wild and scenic. Dr. Joy Belsky (and associates), a world-renowned grasslands ecologist, exhaustively reviewed the scientific literature and found the following:

A large number of studies document that cattle grazing degrades the environment.... Locally, grazing affects:

* Water quality: livestock deposit pathogenic bacteria into streams and increase nutrient content, water turbidity, and water temperatures, all of which harm populations of cold water fish and other species.

* Stream channel morphology: grazing results in stream downcutting and streambank loss, and reduces channel and streambank stability, number and quality of deep pools, and number of stream meanders.

* Hydrology (stream flow patterns): grazing causes an increase in runoff, flood water velocity, number of flood events, and peak flow, while reducing (or stopping) summer flow and lowering the water table.

* Riparian soils: grazing increases the area of bare ground, soil compaction, and erosion, while reducing water infiltration and soil fertility.

* Instream vegetation: grazing causes an increase in algal populations but a decline in submerged higher plants.

* Streambank vegetation: grazing reduces the cover, biomass, and productivity of herbaceous and woody vegetation, and impedes plant succession.

* Aquatic and riparian wildlife: grazing leads to the reduction in diversity, abundance, and productivity of cold-water fish, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates and alters the composition and diversity of birds and mammals.

Consequently, livestock degrade all aspects of local stream and riparian ecology.

At the regional level..., grazing reduces the quality and quantity of water for domestic water supplies, reduces reservoir life and the hydroelectric capacity of reservoirs, increases maintenance costs of irrigation canals, and reduces commercial and recreational fishing opportunities. In addition, grazing fragments riparian corridors used by migratory wildlife, intensifies flood damage, and homogenizes the biotic landscape. [4]

4. Domestic livestock are a hazard to human health. The intestinal bacterium E. coli appears first in streams and then in us. The microscopic fecal parasite Cryptosporidium now contaminates nearly all surface waters that have been tested nationwide. [5] (No more euphemisms. Refuse to use the term cow pies. Pie is good and tasty, and unlike pumpkin pies or berry pies, cow pies aren't filled with cow.)

Eating beef contributes to heart disease. Cattle on open-range highways have more right-of-way than automobiles.

5. Domestic livestock cost the taxpayers money. Taxpayers are subsidizing livestock grazing on the public land to the tune of $10.74 for every $1.00 received. [6] Because of these subsidies, it costs an elite set of ranchers only $1.35 per month to keep a cow and calf on public land. It costs more to feed a house cat. If it ever made sense to grazing the public lands, it certainly does not now.

Don't expect most public land grazing permittees and many government bureaucrats to change their ways. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get someone to understand something when their livelihood, profits or lifestyle depends on not understanding it.

© 2000 by The Larch Company, L.L.C. Text reprinted with permission from Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes by Andy Kerr, published by The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA.


[1] Cited in Robert R. Kindschy, Charles Sundstrom, and James D. Yoakum. Wildlife Habitats in Managed Rangelands—The Great Basin of Southeastern Oregon: Pronghorns. USDA Forest Service and USDI Bureau of Land Management, General Technical Report PNW-145, 1982, 6.

[2] D. S. Wilcove, D. Rothstein, J Dubow, A Phillips, and E. Losos. "Quantifying Threatened to Imperiled Species in the United States: Assessing the Relative Importance of Habitat Destruction, Alien Species, Pollution, Overexploitation and Disease. BioScience 48, no. 8 (August 1, 1998): 607-615

[3] Studies cited in J. Belsky, A Matzke, and S. Uselman. "Survey of Livestock Influences on Stream and Riparian Ecosystems in the Western United States," Journal of Soil and Watershed Conservation 54, no. 1 (1999)): 419-431

[4] Ibid.

[5] E. A. Weiss, M.D. Wilderness 911. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1998, 194.

[6] H. D. Radtke and S. W. Davis, Economic Study of Implementing the Proposed Oregon High Desert Protection Act. Bend, OR: Oregon Natural Desert Association, 1998.