©2002 Cascadia Times
The Big Dry
Cows plus drought equals misery
for rivers in the West
The Bear. The Salmon. The Gila. The John Day.
The Owyhee. The Sweetwater. The Little Humboldt.
The Big Hole. The Yampa. The Kern.
For these rivers in the West, and many others
too, 2002 has been a year of epic drought in 11
western states. All summer long, rivers have been
running at record lows. While media attention has
focused on drought, news reports have missed one
key fact: The millions of cows that run through
the West's publicly owned deserts, mountains, canyons,
plateaus and valleys have made the effects of drought
"Some of the range is so dry there's not enough
for a chigger to eat, much less a cow," says
Denise Boggs of the Utah Environmental Congress.
"I am no great fan of livestock but I don't
think they should be tortured. That's how bad the
shape is of some of this land they graze."
Water is scarce from the inland Northwest to Texas,
yet cattle pollute and dewater almost every river,
lake, spring and wetlands. Centuries ago, the landscape
could always store enough water to keep most rivers
running all year long. Today livestock production
has reshaped the water cycle. Cattle pound the soil
hard - reducing its ability to store water when
it rains, and reducing its ability to give up water
when it's hot. The result is rivers that run shallower
and stagnant and dirty in summer, when there's any
water in them at all.
When the amount of water in a river goes down,
the concentration of pollution goes up.
Cows do their greatest damage in the rich green
riparian zones along streams. These areas provide
habitat for 80 percent of all plant, fish and wildlife
in the inland West, yet cows chew them to the nub
while dumping their waste in the same location.
Cows erode soils and remove streamside shade, causing
stream temperatures to sizzle.. Water quality violations
occur everywhere, yet are enforced almost nowhere.
Many fish have gone or are going extinct. Alien
weeds are invading.
In some river basins cows have been fenced out
of riparian areas along the main tributaries. They
have been moved to upland areas where they trammel
springs and wetlands and smaller streams instead.
By no means is grazing the only resource extraction
industry to threaten these rivers. What distinguishes
ranching from the others is that ranchers don't
have to treat their pollution, don't need permits
to destroy wetlands and don't have to meet state
water quality standards that are supposed to protect
a river from high temperatures, pollution, sedimentation
and loss of oxygen. Ranching has successfully fought
off every effort to bring it into compliance with
the nation's primary water-protection law, the Clean
Water Act. Other industries must comply with this
law. Ranchers are allowed to block rivers, kill
fish and siphon off every last drop of water from
rivers with impunity - actions that no gold mine,
pulp mill or subdivision could ever get away with.
Instead, they get to foist the cost of repairing
their environmental damage onto others, usually
the taxpayer, and they get to collect public subsidies
of up to $500 million a year, also from the hapless
Today there are 23,000 federal grazing permits
held by banks, large corporations, grazing associations,
individuals, and small family operations. Though
the majority are the small operators, often known
as "hobby ranchers," the most land and
cows are run by the wealthy - like J.R. Simplot,
Barron Hilton, Les Schwab, Anheuser-Busch Inc. and
Mary Hewlett Jaffe, daughter of Silicon Valley billionaire
Curiously, ranchers are hailed in the media by
scientists and some conservationists. They are "ranching
for ecology," as a recent headline in the Denver
Post said. Ranchers are "the last best hope
for preserving habitat for many native species,"
according to an article by Jon Christensen in the
New York Times. Christensen quotes James H. Brown,
a professor of biology at the University of New
Mexico and an expert on the ecology of the Southwest
as saying the notion that ranching is bad is "demonstrably
wrong." But Christensen all but dismisses ranching's
damage to rivers and streams, which represent most
of the habitat out West. "Studies have found
damage from grazing in and around streams in the
desert West, for instance," he writes, without
going into any details about it.
In this issue of Cascadia Times, we investigate
these important details. We look at the impacts
of livestock production on not just rivers and streams,
but on water in the West - on the entire web of
water-dependent life under the cow's hoof. It's
the face of the trout, the spikedace, the loach
minnow, the jaguar, the wolf, the salmon. It's water
for nature and people. It's a river.
Salmon, as in fertilizer
Consider the profile of the typical western ranch:
It occupies private land on a river bottom where
it diverts water to grow hay and alfalfa for livestock.
The typical irrigation diversion is a wood or rock
structure a century old that channels all the water
into a leaky ditch that runs for miles, and then
flood irrigates a field of hay or alfalfa. The cows
graze on public land at higher elevations for as
much of the year as they can, and for the remainder
of the year come down to the private land or go
off to a feedlot someplace else.
In rivers throughout the West, ranchers build countless
"push up" dams: temporary dirt and gravel
diversions that they construct in rivers with bulldozers.
Very often, the material for the dam is scraped
from the river channel itself, and includes the
eggs of protected fish. A single ranch may require
several such dams to irrigate different fields.
These temporary dams don't damage stream habitat
just once; they may wash out several times each
year, releasing sediment downstream and requiring
replacement dams that multiply the damage. Diversions
have to be big enough to account for large losses
from leaking and evaporation. Most rivers lack gauges
to measure flow in these diversions, so there is
no way to hold ranchers to their appropriated water
right. Nor are there state employees assigned to
monitoring a rancher's use.
All too often an endangered trout or salmon gets
a ride to the field. The federal government has
spent $3 billion in the last few years saving salmon
in the Columbia River Basin, but many end up as
fertilizer. "In each of these diversions where
fish go off into the field, is there an incidental
take permit as required by the Endangered Species
Act? No," says Kaz Thea, executive director
of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and a former
federal fisheries biologist. "This is a huge
The West's system of dividing water among various
users is called the "doctrine of prior appropriation."
It means whoever got there first is first in line
to get the water. When water is abundant, everyone
with a valid water right gets a share. But in normal
years like there's not enough to satisfy every legal
claim to the water, and much less in a drought.
The more junior water rights are shut off. And while
fish clearly got there first, in many places they
have no rights to water at all. The system is absurdly
out of balance. Almost any river can get sucked
dry by irrigators without any regard to impacts
on fish. In a few areas ranchers conserve water
to boost flows for fish, but in most places this
is pointless because conserved water is simply taken
out of the stream by the next water user down the
line. State laws to protect river flows for fish
are weak or don't exist.
Cows in the Gila
Livestock production in the headwaters of the Gila
Basin of New Mexico and Arizona has been going on
for more than 400 years. The Gila has always been
one of the driest basins in the West. Only in the
1990s, however, have steps been taken to protect
sensitive riparian areas, and now some of those
areas are improving. The biggest step came in 1998,
when a lawsuit brought by Forest Guardians and the
Center for Biological Diversity forced the Forest
Service to remove 15,000 cows off 230 miles of riparian
zones along the major rivers in the basin. Congress
spent $400,000 in taxpayer money to pay for fences
along riparian zones, and for new watering stations
for cows moved up to higher ground.
These projects are intended to protect 22 listed
species and another 47 species that are candidates
for listing. Some say they see significant progress.
Today, three years later, river banks along the
Gila and some of its tributaries are thick with
grasses and willows.
But the changes may come too late for the Gila
chub, a fish devastated by grazing impacts. On August
9, 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the
chub as an endangered species. The Gila River in
fact is the only U.S. river basin with all of its
freshwater fish species extinct, on the Endangered
Species List, or recommended for listing. In almost
every instance, livestock grazing is a major factor.
Fences and water projects add to the cost of ranching's
public welfare, yet are not practical as a solution
to the problem of grazing across the entire western
landscape. Fencing every inch of riparian area in
the West from cows would be impractical and costly.
The idea of closing off every rivers with a fence
seems destructive to the natural values that are
being protected. But even at that, there's no evidence
fences can effectively prevent damage to rivers.
They break down, aren't maintained, and aren't monitored
in many parts of the West, says Martin Taylor of
the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. Fences
also entangle wildlife while trying to gain access
But Taylor says his biggest concern about fence
and water projects in the Gila is that they shift
cows to upland areas, where they destroy springs
and wetlands. Fences and water projects, however,
aren't the only tool in the toolbox. An abundance
of scientific evidence shows the most effective
remedy for a cow-bombed river is to remove the cows
from the land. Bret Maetzke, an ecologist with California
Trout, says a grazing damaged river like the Kern
needs 50 years free of cattle to recover.
The late desert ecologist Joy Belsky, who researched
grazing impacts for universities, government and
the Oregon Natural Desert Association, cites 19
sources showing that livestock have damaged at least
80 percent of all riparian areas on the western
range. Some proponents of ranching claim livestock
actually benefit desert ecosystems, but Belsky found
no scientific evidence to support that claim.
"Cattle cause more damage to riparian zones
than their often small numbers would suggest,"
she wrote in 1999. "Cattle tend to avoid hot,
dry environments and congregate in wet areas for
water and forage, which is more succulent and abundant
than in uplands. They are also attracted to the
shade and lower temperatures near streams, most
likely because their species evolved in cool, wet
meadows of northern Europe and Asia."
When livestock get into riparian areas, they damage
habitat for plant species, cold-water fish, and
wildlife, causing many native species to decline
in number or go locally extinct. The changes ripple
throughout adjacent and downstream ecosystems, including
people. The city of Laramie Wyo., which normally
draws its water from the Laramie River, this summer
tapped an aquifer after the river ran dry. The river
was lost to drought and livestock production.
The practice of grazing and dewatering rivers has
caused many native species to decline in number
or go locally extinct throughout the West. A 1997
study by the federal Western Water Policy Advisory
Committee said that of 170 native freshwater fishes
west of the Rocky Mountains, and another 40 occurring
on both sides of the Continental Divide, 20 have
gone extinct in the last century, and another 100
are considered imperiled. Loss of all these would
mean destruction of 70 percent of all fish species
native to the lands west of the Rockies. In almost
every case, livestock grazing has been and continues
to be a critical problem for salmon, trout, minnows,
chubs and spikedace. Birds, like the Mexican spotted
owl, sage grouse and Southwest willow flycatcher,
are also squeezed out. Even such carnivores as the
wolf and coyote are impacted by cattle damage to
In the Gila, ranchers have not been blind to their
environmental impacts, and in many areas actively
search for solutions that do not drive endangered
species or their business into oblivion. The Santa
Fe-based Quivira Coalition formed in the 1990s to
promote the "new ranch" or "holistic
resource management" concepts where a number
of steps are taken to reduce impacts on riparian
and upland areas. They believe that poor land management,
not cattle, causes ecological damage. Allan Savory
of the Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque
insists that grazing, when properly planned, can
"benefit the whole environment." Many
environmentalists, eager to see their friends and
neighbors keep their ranches, have joined this quest
for a kinder, gentler - and, they are quick to emphasize,
still profitable - way of grazing.
Yet Belsky's research demonstrates that even light
and moderate grazing results in significant soil
compaction and erosion, resulting in more flooding,
and less recharge of the water table. In a drought,
the loss of this water and increased evaporation
between rainstorms reduces river flows even further.
Moving 'em out
Ranchers, and the government agencies that regulate
them, are trying to halt criticism of these impacts
by making some modest changes, yet resist evidence
that a healthy ecosystem simply cannot support the
number of cows now out on the range. In 1995, Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt determined that the ranchers'
old ways of grazing the West needed to be reformed.
The livestock production industry sued to stop a
suite of new regulations, but lost in a landmark
case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, in case
after case, the courts are forcing ranching to lighten
the cow's impact on the land and its rivers, sometimes
going so far as to tell the rancher to head 'em
up and move 'em out.
Ranchers are looking to the Bush administration
to roll back Babbitt's reforms. Kathleen Clarke,
the new BLM chief, is working with the National
Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Public Lands Council
and other pro-ranching organizations "to iron
out" changes in the grazing program, according
to her interview this summer with the Wyoming Livestock
Roundup, an industry newspaper. "Kathleen Clarke
is in a tough position," the Roundup said in
an editorial. "For eight years BLM employees
were rewarded for anti-grazing antics by an anti-ranching
administration. While Clarke may be heading in the
right direction it will take time to convince field
staff of the need to follow."
But environmentalists think that's the wrong way
to go. "We've taken three giant steps back
since Bush came in - we were on a better path before,"
As drought intensifies across the West, federal
agencies have forced cattle off the range, or in
many cases moving them to protected areas. In the
Gila River basin in New Mexico and Arizona, the
number of cattle allowed on public land is down
70 percent this summer. On the Tonto National Forest
in the Sonoran Desert near Phoenix, all but 10 percent
of the cattle have been booted off. The reductions
are temporary; when the drought is over - and it's
possible that it will not - the cows will be back.
Yet poor riparian and range conditions suggest more
rest is needed for these lands, says Jon Marvel,
executive director of the Western Watershed Project,
an environmental group based in Hailey, Idaho, that
is pursuing lawsuits to protect ecosystems from
Marvel is among many environmentalists who have
put their support behind a novel approach that would
accelerate the cow's exodus from public lands -
a voluntary buyback of all federal grazing leases.
The buyback would cost the U.S. Treasury some $5
billion, though annual savings on reduced subsidies
could be enough to finance the buyback in as few
as 10 years. No one would be forced to sell. If
approved by Congress, the buyback would help restore
rivers while easing the financial pain being felt
by the thousands of families that run small ranches.
It would also bail out huge corporations that own
some of the biggest cattle ranches in the West.
"Our your goal is to reverse the extinction
curve," as Andy Kerr of the National Public
Lands Grazing Campaign, an umbrella organization
behind the buyback. "That's only going to happen
by a massive reduction in public lands grazing."
Hundreds of environmental leaders from around the
country agree with Kerr, but a few are troubled
with the buyback.
"What a lot of people don't realize is many
of these allotments are held by corporations,"
says Boggs of the Utah Environmental Congress. She
cites the example of J.R. Simplot, one of the wealthiest
men in Idaho, who grazes cattle on thousands of
acres of public lands, collecting the same subsidies
as other ranchers. "The idea of buying out
Mr. Simplot, I mean please give me a break,"
Boggs says. "We don't owe that man a dime,
and considering how much money he has, we should
send him a bill to pay for the cost of restoring
all the areas that his livestock have destroyed."
Buying back permits to save natural resources is
not a new concept. The Grand Canyon Trust has been
purchasing leases in southern Utah to protect the
new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,
and governments in Canada have purchased commercial
ocean fishing licenses to prevent over-harvest.
Surprisingly, the idea is getting support among
some ranchers, who are eager to take the money,
if offered by an act of Congress, and get out of
an industry in trouble. The industry has been battered
not just by lawsuits and prolonged drought, but
also by global competition, the rise of factory
farms, the advancing age of the typical rancher
and the disinterest of offspring to continue the
business. And climate change caused by global warming
may mean the drought conditions of today will be
the normal weather of tomorrow.
Environmentalists have also been aggressively documenting
the damage caused by grazing. Most notably, in September,
the Foundation for Deep Ecology published Welfare
Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American
West, a richly illustrated 344-page expose of
the industry, co-edited by George Wuerthner and
"Pulverizing the resource"
The two federal agencies responsible for grazing
on public land - the Bureau of Land Management and
the Forest Service - have a crystal clear idea of
what's going on. In 1994 the Forest Service concluded
that livestock grazing is the number one cause of
species endangerment in arid regions of the West,
such as the Colorado Plateau and Arizona Basin.
At the same time, these agencies have developed
a skill at looking the other way, according to several
current and former agency employees interviewed
by Cascadia Times.
Forest Guardians, an environmental group based
in Santa Fe has sued the Forest Service for failing
to monitor 50,000 acres of wetlands and streams
on the three million acre Gila National Forest,
where officials have monitored only 28 percent of
the streams in 15 years. "On some of Forest
Guardians' recent visits to grazing allotments on
the Santa Fe National Forest and Nearby BLM lands,
we found streams that were choked by algae, and
banks littered with cow fecal matter and devoid
of woody vegetation," says Kristen Stade of
Forest Guardians. "And these streams were deemed
'functional' by the agencies. Streams are the arteries
of life in the arid southwest. Agency ignorance
about the basic ecological status of these critical
areas is inexcusable."
Government sources confirm that under the Bush
administration, line officers in the BLM and Forest
Service have been told to accommodate for ranchers
needs. "There is extra pressure now under Bush
for managers to look out for the ranching community,"
a source said.
Only rarely does a government employee speak out
publicly, as did David Stewart, regional director
for range management with the U.S. Forest Service
in Albuquerque. In June of 2002. Stewart wrote in
an internal memo that he had just witnessed large
numbers of cattle "pulverize" habitat
for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, "potentially
undoing many years of habitat improvement. This
(is) a species for which we are trying to protect
and improve habitat to hopefully avoid federally
Stewart's troubling memo was quickly leaked to
the press, exposing a critical disparity in the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision earlier
in June to not list the Rio Grande cutthroat trout
under the Endangered Species Act. The agency had
cited "improved habitat conditions" as
a reason why listing was not warranted. It even
said "cattle grazing practices on public lands
now provide better habitat protection."
But when Stewart toured the range on June 20 he
found such improvements had not been made. Rather,
prolonged drought and overgrazing had severely damaged
habitat. "Nothing had been done, with once
again, cattle being allowed to simply pulverize
the resource," Stewart wrote. He called the
forest "the most horrible example of grazing
administration I've ever experienced in 35 + years
with the FS."
Stewart ordered the cows off the Santa Fe National
Forest by mid-July. But Stewart apparently has little
support from his superiors, and many ranchers ignored
the order. By the end of August only a few cows
had been removed. By then, the Forest Service had
not only weakened the order, but signaled that cows
could stay until an independent range survey was
complete, and officials in the "Washington
office" could be consulted. Meanwhile, an "Executive
Team and Incident Commander" was on its way
to the scene. As for the 275 ranchers involved,
on July 15 they staged a protest at Forest Service
offices reminiscent of confrontations that rocked
the Klamath Basin in 2001.
In an interview with Cascadia Times, Stewart said
conditions are so dry, there's no water anyplace
for the cattle to drink but in the rivers. "It
does not bode well for the agency to allow that
to go on in an excessive way," he says. "The
cattle damaged the vegetation and streambanks in
a way that should not be allowed to happen."
What's amazing is that Stewart still has a job.
Not so the former BLM director in Idaho, Martha
Hahn, who was ordered to relocate this year to New
York City after ordering a slight reduction in grazing
near the Owyhee River in southwest Idaho. The transfer
apparently was the work of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho,
who had long sought Hahn's removal and convinced
top Interior officials to make the move, according
to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Craig had denounced BLM's decision to restrict grazing
in the Owyhee County as "an affront" that
he would try to reverse. Craig's office admitted
the senator was not happy with Hahn, but denied
there had been a coup.
So much for holistic management. Stewart's findings
follow those of several Forest Service officials
who in 1997-98 publicly condemned the agency's flaunting
of the law. "Livestock grazing on Southwestern
National Forests is the major reason that ecosystems
are deteriorating, species are near extinction and
watersheds have lost much of their ability to yield
high quality and quantities of water," Leon
Fager, a 31-year service veteran, wrote in a Feb.
23, 1998, letter to then-Forest Service chief Mike
Dombeck. Fager was head of the Threatened, Endangered
and Sensitive Species program for the Southwest
Jim Cooper, the region's fisheries chief, took
early retirement in 1998 because he felt isolated
inside his own agency and frustrated at its habit
of reacting to, rather than preventing, crises over
wildlife and habitat, he told the Albuquerque Journal.
"There's a lot of rhetoric being tossed around
about recreation and riparian areas being so valued.
I hear a lot of talk but I don't see the walk,"
Cooper said. "While we're talking out of one
side of our mouths, internally we're slam-dunking
any biologist who speaks up and says, 'Hey, there's
something wrong.' And that's basically why I left."
Douglas Barber, a National Forest supervisor in
New Mexico, said when he retired in 1997 he had
known for years that the grazing management system
was broken beyond repair. "What we have is
a comatose patient on life support and it's time
to turn the machine off," he wrote in a letter
to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM.
The agencies and ranchers are bolstered by the
knowledge that their activities have strong support
in Congress, no matter how much damage they might
cause. This summer, congressional allies attached
a "rider" to an annual Appropriations
bill that would shield their grazing permits from
environmental reviews when they are renewed, no
matter how much damage is being caused. Earlier
this year, the Forest Service announced that it
would do no environmental reviews on grazing in
the largest allotment in the Southwest, a 110,000-acre
area in the Gila River headwaters -- even though
the agency admits that area is one of the most severely
overgrazed places in New Mexico and Arizona.
"Spotted owl of the desert"
It's been said that the end of public lands ranching
won't come from politics. It will come from the
courts. Environmental groups are determined to hold
ranchers and agencies accountable for continuing
to allow cows to ravage rivers and rangelands, and
time and again they are winning. These groups believe
the cow's existence is the problem, not cow management.
Laird Lucas of the Boise-based Land and Water Fund
of the Rockies says he is highly selective with
the cases he takes on, but he hasn't lost a one.
The Center for Biological Diversity has won 127
of 194 lawsuits in 10 years. Many more cases are
in the pipeline, in nearly every state.
The Western Watersheds Project of Hailey, Idaho,
has won four major cases in Idaho establishing its
right to buy state grazing leases to protect wildlife.
It is now filing lawsuits in Wyoming, Colorado,
Utah and Nevada. The Oregon Natural Desert Association
in Bend has won court protection for two Wild and
Scenic Rivers in Oregon, the John Day and Owyhee,
and it persuaded Congress to protect a third, the
Donner und Blitzen.
In one recent mega-case, Lucas sued the Forest Service
and Bureau of Land Management over 1,025 illegal
water diversions in Idaho's Salmon River basin.
The Forest Service has agreed to a settlement, while
the BLM has not. Other critical victories in Idaho
have taken cows off the Upper Salmon and put water
back into the tributaries, where it's needed to
nurture wild and endangered salmon, steelhead and
Many environmentalists see livestock grazing, as
commonly practiced in the West, as an illegal activity.
"If you were to hold the government accountable
to the laws we have on the books now, most of the
grazing would go away," says Bill Marlett,
executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert
Association in Bend.
Besides the Endangered Species Act, groups are
using the National Environmental Policy Act and
the Clean Water Act to protect water from grazing.
NEPA can force federal agencies to do a better analysis
of grazing impacts, but the trick is to turn better
information in to better decisions. The agencies
are notorious for ignoring their own data. The courts
have ruled that the Clean Water Act's most potent
tool against pollution - the National Pollution
Discharge Elimination System permit - doesn't apply
to grazing. But other parts of the Clean Water Act
might be useful, particularly Section 313, which
requires federal projects to comply with state water
Environmentalists sometimes lose, as they did in
2001 when a federal judge in Wyoming allowed the
number of cows to increase in a tributary to the
Bear River that is badly degraded, or in an Oregon
case where they tried to regulate cows as point
"We are going to keep pushing hard," says
Lucas. "People are really starting to wake
up to ecological impacts of grazing. They are so
widespread, and they are so important in the riparian
areas that are so valuable biologically. What you
are seeing is more and more smart people using whatever
tools they can to put pressure on the livestock
industry and land management agencies. I just don't
think that's going to change."
Western Watersheds' Marvel says his strongest case
has not been filed yet. It will involve the sage
grouse, which he calls the "spotted owl of
the desert." A petition to list sage grouse
throughout the West is pending before the Fish and
Wildlife Service. Marvel predicts lawsuits will
force the listing if the agency rejects it. More
lawsuits will force the government to protect sage
grouse after it is listed.
"Ranching in the West is effectively over
on lands that are or have been habitat for sage
grouse," he says. "There is no way in
my opinion to manage these lands and protect sage
grouse habitat," he says.
Even without litigation, the ranching industry
in the West may continue to decline from other powerful
forces. Even if the West's cattle leave the public's
land, ranchers will still have access to vast expanses
of private ranchland. About 70 percent of the western
range is privately owned, including much of the
prime, riverfront property. And even if western
cattle ranching disappeared tomorrow, America's
appetite for beef would still continue to be met.
Only 3 percent of the nation's beef is grown in
the West. Widespread damage to the West's rivers
and public lands, the irreversible loss of native
species, and spiraling taxpayer subsidies add up
to an extreme price to pay for such a relatively
thin slice of meat.
Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times.
He is a co-author of The Clean Water Act: An