A Bunch of Bull: Grazing on Our Public Lands

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Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Fragmented, degraded and top-browsed willow wetland, Big Meadows, June 2014

Fragmented, degraded and top-browsed willow wetland, Big Meadows, June 2014

Wilderness areas are those left “untrammeled by man;” but what about cows? This past summer, whenever wildfires permitted, EPIC was in the field to monitor the impacts of destructive cattle on our public lands. In its fifth year of existence, EPIC’s Project to Reform Public Land Grazing in Northern California is dedicated to reforming grazing in wilderness areas through documenting its harmful effects and advocating for better industry management.

Documenting the Destruction

At 5,600 feet, Felice Pace scans the meadows of Buns Basin on the north side of Medicine Mountain in the Marble Mountain Wilderness. He likes what he sees—thickly growing willows, which provide habitat for the endangered Willow flycatcher, bear and Roosevelt elk tracks, and clear alpine ponds and streams. He also likes what he doesn’t see: cows. You see, cattle grazing results in the fragmentation of willow habitat and degradation of watersheds.

One of the most significant negative impacts of poorly managed national forest grazing that EPIC’s Project to Reform Grazing has documented is the degradation, fragmentation and drying out of willow wetlands. Fragmentation is mainly the result of grazing cattle pushing into and through willow stands in order to access the tender grasses and sedges below. As the stands become fragmented, bovines also browse within them further exacerbating fragmentation. As the interior of willow stands become progressively more accessible, top browsing further degrades individual willows and the stands. In the most severe cases, willow wetlands are being converted into grasslands.

In many grazing allotments that the Project has monitored, EPIC has seen the deleterious impacts of cattle on watersheds. Without active management, there’s nothing stopping cattle from trampling banks, springs, and wetlands, and defecating in the water. As a result, once crystal clear alpine streams quickly turn into a quagmire, complete with blue green algae, fecal coliform bacteria, and high sediment loads.

And we citizens are paying for this destruction too. Through below-cost fees, grazing programs on federal lands receive almost $445 million in annual subsidies. While private rangeland typically rents for around $11.90 per cow and calf per month, public lands can only charge $1.35 per cow and calf per month (a price which has only gone up by 12 cents since 1966). According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, just to break even the Forest Service and BLM would need to charge between $7.64 and $12.26 monthly.

Working Towards a Solution

Ending grazing is no easy task since grazing is “grandfathered in” to our wilderness and other public land laws. As a result, efforts to end grazing in the West have been met with limited success. That’s why we’ve decided to try a different strategy: to encourage decision-makers to require active management.

EPIC, together with coalition partners Klamath Forest Alliance and Wilderness Watch, advocates that National Forest managers require grazing permit holders to ride the range on a regular basis in order to move their cattle from preferred to un-grazed locations and to keep them from trashing springs, stream banks and willow wetlands. While theoretically required, regular herding rarely takes place.

You Can Help

We encourage EPIC members and others to get involved. Grazing allotments are spread across Northern California public lands; citizens who use those lands are urged to visit local grazing allotment and take photos documenting cattle trashed springs, streams and wetlands. Then send us the photos at tom@wildcalifornia.org  along with location information and we’ll use them to pressure federal and state officials to require real changes in how public land grazing is managed.