It was a gorgeous summer day in one of the wildest areas of Montana. I was hiking a trail on the edge of Glacier National Park. Something rustled up ahead. A large black, hairy body moved from behind a tree. I froze, only one thing on my mind: bear. The shape moved out into the trail and my heart pumped faster as emerged from the shadows. “Moo!” It was a cow. As the adrenaline rush subsided, I couldn’t help but think about how far off this was of what I expected to find in America’s “wild” land.

As the standoff continues in Oregon, issues of use and control of taxpayer funded public lands is a hot topic. A long-time user of national parks, I had an expectation that National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land were created to protect ecosystems and allow people to enjoy the American wilds in a native state. However, this is far from the case as these lands were created with forestry and livestock in mind. So, what’s up with cows on public land? And what are the environmental impacts of this policy? Here are some quick facts to get you up to speed.


History of Grazing

  • Grazing on what was once the frontier of the United States was regulated in the 1930s to protect properties and vast lands from being overgrazed. The Grazing Service eventually became what is today the Bureau of Land Management.
  • These lands dedicated to grazing eventually developed systems of fencing, water sources, and management of the stock to promote productivity.
  • A shift towards conservation took place in the 1960s and 70s as legislation to protect clean water, air, and endangered species came into effect.
  • Today public lands are leased to ranchers for grazing and guidelines are in place to balance livestock production and the health of the land.

Environmental Impacts

  • Non-native grasses introduced for grazing have outcompeted with native plants and spread in many areas, increasing the danger and impacts of wildfires.
  • Depletion of native browsing material and seed production, plants that native grazers would eat and places for smaller animals to seek shelter and food.
  • Pollution and depletion of water sources.
  • In some areas, grazing is said to have a positive impact, clearing brush that would make wildfires get out of control and bringing back a natural balance as the cattle replace the large herbivores that used to roam like bison and elk.

Other Considerations

  • A study completed by the Center for Biological Diversity found that allowing cattle to graze on federal lands actually costs taxpayers money.
  • A strategy outlined by the Sierra Club for the removal of grazing on public lands, keeping in mind the impact on local communities and individuals who rely on the system.
  • In our ongoing battle against the effects of climate change, livestock like cattle play a huge role due to the emissions from their production.