Let's Look at Livestock Grazing and Wilderness

The dismal economics of public land livestock grazing run heavy with red ink for everyone involved. The public bears the brunt, government agencies lose out, and even the public lands livestock operators could not operate without considerable assistance and subsidy.

Of the 52 million acres of protected Wilderness in the lower forty-eight states, domestic livestock are authorized to graze 13 million acres, over a quarter of the total acreage. Due to the grazing language in the Wilderness Act and its 1980s-era corollary, the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, grazing has been occurring in otherwise-undomesticated Wilderness areas for over half a century. Grazing does extreme damage to Wilderness, yet at less than one-tenth of a percent of all forage fed to livestock in the United States, grazing in Wilderness hardly contributes to the U.S. livestock industry. Comparatively, Wilderness areas are of little importance to the vast number of livestock raised in the U.S., yet they are extraordinarily important for biodiversity, scientific study, recreation, and the preservation of wildness.

Livestock grazing is fundamentally at odds with the ideals of the Wilderness Act. Livestock grazing in wilderness creates conflict with native species, including bighorn sheep, salmon, grizzly bears, sage-grouse, amphibians, and rare plants. It also contributes to a “de-wilding” of the landscape for visitors, many of whom head to Wilderness areas to escape reminders of humankind’s influence. Grazing diminishes an area’s wild character and the opportunity for present and future generations to experience the unique benefits that authentic Wilderness provides.

Currently, the Congressional Grazing Guidelines explicitly prohibit curtailing livestock grazing solely because an area is designated Wilderness. They also permit the perpetuation of existing facilities, and in some cases the construction of new facilities, as well as the occasional use of motorized equipment to facilitate grazing operations. The Guidelines are clear in their intent that livestock grazing shall be permitted to continue within Wilderness; they do not, however, mandate that grazing must be present in perpetuity. The Guidelines have led to the absurd situation where livestock grazing is understood by land management agencies to have more permanence in Wilderness than elsewhere on public lands. Congress should remedy that misinterpretation.

Recommendations

Congress can take two courses of action that would significantly increase protection for designated Wilderness while avoiding conflict with current grazing permittees.

First, Congress can enact a law that says if a public lands grazing permittee voluntarily relinquishes a grazing permit, the Wilderness lands covered by the permit would never again be grazed by livestock. The land management agencies would permanently retire the permit, reallocating forage to wildlife and allowing associated grazing allotments to recover from livestock grazing. Third parties would have the incentive to compensate permittees, knowing that the Wilderness would be permanently off-limits to livestock grazing. This is the approach codified in PL 114-46, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, and S. 1167, the Owyhee Wilderness Areas Boundary Modifications Act, and promoted in the “Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act” legislation introduced in the last two Congresses.

Second, Congress can direct the land management agencies to close any currently vacant allotments in Wilderness to grazing. This would protect recreational, wildlife, scientific, and ecological values and would significantly reduce the number of acres that could potentially be reopened to livestock grazing. Because vacant allotments are not assigned to individual users, there is no adverse economic impact to a permittee and they could be closed without being waived to the agency by a permittee.

Resources

  • Organizational Sign-On Letter  to Interior Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack (April 14, 2021) on The Need to Reform Livestock Grazing Administration in Wilderness.

  • Organizational Sign-On Letter to House Natural Resources Committee (Dec 8, 2020): Changes Needed Re Livestock Grazing Practices in Wilderness.