Cow Pies

The picture you see at the top of this blog is not some forest lichen. Indeed, it it is a cow pie. Yes, cow “do-do”. There is lots of it where I was camping this past summer at Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. Cow pies and grazing cows are ubiquitous in almost all public lands that are “managed” for  us by the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The image to the right and the image below portray two areas of USFS land that are within 5 miles of each other. The image on the right shows an area that is both grazed and logged through government “managed” programs. The image below portrays forest land that has been left untouched by government management programs. No cows and no logging. I leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.  


Some 70% of the western United States is grazed by cows and sheep. This includes wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national forests, and some national parks. It seems that these caretaker government agencies  lease grazing rights to cattle and sheep ranchers – ostensibly for our benefit. The cattle people pay the government.  Since the cattle industry is a powerful political force, the questions of how the presence of cattle and sheep on public lands affects connections in Nature is probably never really addressed except in self serving biological studies directly or indirectly paid for by the cattle and sheep ranchers. The driving forces behind cattle and sheep grazing issues are usually the economic benefit of the rancher and rarely about the ecological well being of the land and the environment that we citizens own and entrust to the BLM and USFS.

I’m quick to add that I’m talking about grazing by cattle and sheep ranching and not about natural grazers like Bison and Pronghorn Antelope. Bison and antelope have foraging habits that enhance the natural production of grasses. The grazing habits of cattle and sheep tend to inhibit or destroy nature’s cycle of growing new grass.  

At best, the subject of cattle and sheep grazing is a controversial ecological subject and an endless argument between the special interests of the meat industry and those who value the environment. I did find three well written articles on the adverse ecological effects of grazing that might interest you.

What’s Wrong With Livestock Grazing on Public Lands?

Ecological Costs Of Livestock Grazing In Western North America

Cattle And Sheep Grazing

I condensed some of the key points in these articles for those of you who don’t care to pour through the material:

  • To control cows and sheep, fences are used. Fences prohibit or inhibit the free passage of wild animals, reducing their access to food and water as well as isolating subpopulations.
  • Grazing has completely changed the soil structure and  primary plant species in most Southwest riparian zones. In turn, this has adversely affected populations of local and migrating birds, animals that live near a river, and fish who live in the rivers. 
  • Grazing has resulted in some 464 million acres of land becoming arid desert. 
  • Grazing has reduced the density and biomass of many plant and animal species.
  • Grazing has reduced biodiversity.
  • Grazing has aided in the spread of exotic species.
  • Grazing impedes the cycling of soil nitrogen.
  • Grazing changes habitat structure and disturbs community organization.
  • Cattle and sheep ranching has resulted in a huge draw on water reserves. Urban use, flood control, and recreation are commonly cited as major uses of a region’s water supply, But, these uses are negligible (only 10%) compared to the 90% of water used by agricultural interests associated with the livestock industry.
  • One can also argue that eating meat is unhealthy and that cattle grazing ultimately puts humans at a greater health risk. To this, we must include the social health cost of eating meat.

The whole process of issuing grazing rights to ranchers is questionable because it requires the USFS to “scientifically” assess the capacity of grazing areas owned by the government. It has been repeatedly shown that, much like the weather, it is impossible for mankind to predict and control Nature. Yet, government employees truly believe that they have some innate ability to do so.

The good news is that the studies cited above have shown that the reduction or elimination of grazing can result in ecological restoration in riparian areas where there is water. But, the 464 million acres of land that has become desert is not restorative. How sad.

As  my dear readers know, my passion in life is sustainability education through our youth. I hope that the subject of grazing, and the material I have provided, might be used by those of you who share my passion for ecological education and restoring a consciousness for Nature within the human race.

Thanks for reading this blog post. The purpose for these blogs is to develop a dialog between myself and my readers. You are encouraged to offer your comments in the space provided below.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

6 Responses to “Cow Pies”

  1. There is another perspective on the role of grazing in ecological health, see: http://keentalks.com/how-green-worlds-deserts/

    Unfortunately, he does not address the impacts of invasive species, nor the tremendous amount of human effort to get domestic grazers to behave like wild grazers. And much like the National Forest Plan, it seems pure folly to have one prescription for areas that differ in soils and precipitation patterns.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Hi Christine: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I watched Dr. Savory’s talk as I prepared this post. Like yourself I saw flaws. But even more, like you pointed out, the huge human intensive management that his plan requires left me with great doubts. I really have problems with man trying to manage Nature when Nature is a complex system where we are unable to predict the outcome of our efforts. As I’ve noted in other posts, ecological “managers” consistently fail to understand that Nature is a complex system where there is no (and will never be) a predictable outcome to an input from mankind.

      • Well put, Bill. I also get very nervous when someone claims that “there is only one answer.” Nature has taught us that there are usually many answers to the same question.

        • Not only is there usually more than one answer, but just because one answer works in one area, it doesn’t mean that it will work the same in another.
          I get worried when someone talks about “rolling out” a scheme across the country just because the trial has worked on a single site.

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