Livestock vs. Wildlife
Steve Gallizioli, Arizona Game and Fish Department
Presented at a seminar on
Improving Fish and Wildlife Benefits in Range Management
Forty-first North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference
In Arizona the single most important range management problem "which limits attainment of potential fish and wildlife benefits" can be summed up neatly in one very short and simple phrase: overgrazing by livestock. I have reason to believe the problem is not unique to our state.
While the results of overgrazing may not be as shockingly apparent as a strip-mined landscape, nor as obviously destructive of wildlife values as a bulldozed stand of riparian vegetation, the consequences of prolonged range abuse by livestock are far more damaging to wildlife in general than various other insults to which the habitat is subjected. Even more disturbing than the impact of overgrazing on wildlife populations is the effect it has on the soil, the most basic of natural resources. Soil loss due to decades of overgrazing has irreparably diminished the productivity of millions of acres of rangeland. And, unfortunately, it is a process that is going on still.
Some of you personally unfamiliar with western rangelands may wonder at the charge that overgrazing is still a serious problem. Is it really possible that in the year 1976, with our knowledge of the devastating effects that prolonged overgrazing has had on other lands, especially in the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Asia, that we still permit any significant degree of overgrazing on our public lands? In this age of environmental awareness are we still tolerating the continued deterioration of these lands, lands that belong to all of us, as much as they do to the livestock operator who temporarily grazes his sheep or cattle on them? Unhappily it is all too true. Consider, for example, the situation on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
According to the Environmental Impact Statement for Livestock Grazing Management of Natural Resource Lands, issued December 1974, more than 47 million acres of the Natural Resource Lands, considered to be usable by livestock, are in either a "poor" or "bad" condition class. Excluding the grassland, from 19 to 36 percent of the other biomes, Desert, Woodland-Brushland, and Coniferous Forest, were classified as "poor" or "bad." Only 13 percent of the Desert, 14 percent of the Woodland-Brushland, and 24 percent of the Coniferous Forest were rated "good" to "excellent." So far as Arizona's desert ranges are concerned, I feel that classifying even 10 percent as good or better is stretching the definition of "good" and "excellent" to the breaking point.
Some idea of what cattle overuse of BLM lands has meant to wildlife populations is indicated in a special task force report on the effects of livestock grazing on wildlife and other values in Nevada (Anon. 1974). The following are extracts from this report:
"Uncontrolled, unregulated or unplanned livestock use is occurring in approximately 85 percent of the state and damage to wildlife habitat can be expressed only as extreme destruction."
"It is apparent that wildlife habitat is being destroyed."
"Stream riparian habitat where livestock grazing is occurring has been grazed out of existence."
"During the time the particular pasture is grazed the entire winter habitat for deer is consumed by livestock. This leaves nothing for the wintering deer."
National Forest lands are usually considered to be in somewhat better condition than BLM lands. In Forest Service Region 3, which includes New Mexico and Arizona, available data indicates that on the average the National Forests may be in almost as deplorable a state as BLM lands. The latest information I have is the Allotment Analysis Summaries for 1974. It shows that about 30 percent of some 21 million acres of grazed national forest land in Region 3 was classed as "poor" or "very poor"; only 7 percent was rated "good" or "excellent." The sorry condition of the National Forests is even less excusable than that of BLM lands. The forests have not only been under the control of the U.S. Forest Service for a longer period of time but have had better regulatory mechanisms as well as a larger staff available per unit area of rangeland.
According to some, conditions are not as bad as they are painted. Among the comments that BLM received to the draft E.I.S. on grazing management were many objecting to the statements on deteriorating rangelands. These individuals and organizations charged that range conditions today are in reality much improved over what they were prior to the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. If conditions have actually improved I can only shudder, as I view BLM lands in Arizona today, to think what the situation must have been like prior to 1934.
It may be that the problem is one of semantics. What is meant by "improved range conditions"? The connotation the term holds for me is probably not the same as that held by some rancher. To someone else it may mean not improvement per se but a slower rate of degradation. Perhaps it's analogous to the "improvement" that may result from trying to save a burning building. After a time the efforts of the fire fighters result in the flames being lowered from a height of 20 feet to no more than five. Now, that's improvement, right? But if the firemen are satisfied with this level of effort and apply only enough water to keep the flames from mounting higher than five feet, the building will still burn to the ground despite the "improvement." It will simply take longer to do so. I fear that much of the "improvement" claimed for our range lands is of this type. Range deterioration continues but at a slower rate. Our precious top soil is still being lost, but not as rapidly. It's a type of "improvement'" that leaves a lot to be desired.
I know from personal observation that range conditions in some parts of Arizona are worse today, instead of being improved, compared to 25 years ago when I moved to Arizona. In some areas of the state where I have hunted quail each winter since 1951 range conditions have deteriorated steadily over the years. These were once excellent Gambel quail areas, but no more. Short term fluctuations of Gambel quail in Arizona are known to be due to the uncertainties of winter precipitation, but long term changes are the result of habitat alteration. I've quit hunting these areas, primarily because the quail have enough problems adjusting to the deteriorated habitat, but also because seeing such range conditions disturbs me to such a degree that I'm unable to enjoy the hunt. Gambel quail is only one of the many forms of wildlife that are hurt by overgrazing.
Several studies have demonstrated that elk and cattle are also less than compatible. Mackie (1970) in Montana and Skovlin, et al. (1968) in Oregon have reported that elk use on an area was inversely related to cattle use. When cattle moved in the elk moved out. Arizona studies on the Beaver Creek Watershed yielded similar results. One watershed was heavily used from the time it was treated and fenced to exclude livestock until some five years later when cattle were again permitted to graze the area. Since then evidence of elk has been conspicuous by its absence.
I might add that some elk hunters are aware of this relationship and make a point of avoiding areas that are heavily grazed in the months immediately preceding the hunting season. It is the first consideration in my own decision of where I will hunt elk and I'm convinced the avoidance of grazed areas is the most important element in the success of these hunts.
The influence of livestock grazing on deer populations is not as easily demonstrated. "Common sense" tells us that because cattle are "grazers" and deer "browsers," cattle grazing will reduce the vigor of grass and promote better growth of browse species, thus favoring the deer population. "Common sense," however, was also once responsible for the belief that the earth was flat. The trouble with this interesting theory (the one on grazing--not the flat earth theory) is that on overgrazed ranges cattle not only eat grass but they eat everything else that's palatable, including browse species preferred by deer, and sometimes will even consume plants that are normally unpalatable and that have no nutrient value. Also, if the theory had substance, it should be possible to demonstrate that areas grazed by livestock for many years support more deer than ungrazed areas. I'm still waiting for someone who believes this myth to show me such an area. Meanwhile I know of one place, the Three Bar Wildlife Area in central Arizona, ungrazed by livestock since 1935, where I can demonstrate that the opposite is true: there is a much higher deer density on the ungrazed Three Bar than on adjacent grazed areas. According to a talk he gave in 1974, Starker Leopold apparently shares my views. He had this to say on the subject: ". . . the ubiquitous cow is rendering . . . cumulative effects on soils and vegetation of western ranges, to the continuing detriment of the deer herds."
The Merriam turkey is yet another species that evidently suffers from the effects of overgrazing. Recent data from one of Arizona's turkey areas showed the following: 580 poults per 100 hens on an ungrazed area compared to 150 poults per 100 hens on grazed areas. A reduction in nesting cover is suspected to be the cause of the lower poult production in the grazed areas.
Mearns' quail have long been known to develop better populations in moderately grazed than heavily grazed oak-woodlands. We suspected the reason was the cattle's overutilizing the several species of annual plants which produce the bulk of the feed for this bird. Studies in recent years turned up some surprising data. The plants in question actually increased under grazing. However, too much grazing eliminated the perennial grass cover this bird needs for nesting and escape cover. Here is one example where proper levels of livestock use are conducive to a higher carrying capacity for one species of wildlife but where excessive grazing can virtually eliminate the same species.
While my main concern has been with the problems and the impacts of too much grazing on wildlife, there is at least one species, the desert bighorn, that apparently will not tolerate the presence of any cattle within its habitat. Many of our desert ranges no longer support sheep populations and their disappearance seems to have coincided closely with the spread of cattle into those areas. At the present time we know of no range in Arizona where there is now a thriving population of bighorns and where cattle are being grazed.
The reaction of bighorns to cattle seems to be the same in Utah where Wilson (1975) reports that there had been no bighorns sighted in Red Canyon in southern Utah since 1877--the year cattle were introduced. The cattle were removed in 1974 and within six months the bighorns were again using the area. In another canyon where bighorns were well established, 30 heifers were introduced as an experiment. Even though the cattle were removed within a month, no bighorns were seen in the canyon for another eight months. The evidence may be inconclusive but it is certainly suggestive.
The desert bighorn was recently placed on the Arizona list of threatened species. It is an animal found only in the hottest, driest, most barren reaches of Arizona, a habitat truly fragile and one easily disturbed by the presence of exotic livestock. By no stretch of the imagination can this type be considered cattle range. Only infrequently, when abnormal winter precipitation brings on a flush of ephemeral annuals, is there any forage for livestock and then only for a few weeks in the spring. Except for such brief periods any livestock grazing is too much. It is a vegetation type where it would be best to leave the scanty vegetation for the local wildlife.
It isn't only the game species that take a beating from overgrazing. Our fisheries people are concerned about the influence of grazing on the small streams in northern Arizona where we are attempting to develop viable populations of the threatened Arizona trout (Salmo apache). Habitat for other trout species in many areas of the country has also been reported to be degraded by siltation resulting from overgrazing.
Non-game species, particularly birds, have been receiving increasing attention lately. Many workers have reported on the damaging effects of overgrazing on populations of small birds. Buttery and Shields (1975) recently reviewed a number of papers reporting the results of studies in many parts of the country. Almost invariably bird populations declined in the presence of too many head of livestock. They also cited the beneficial effects that occurred when a severely overgrazed area was placed under proper grazing management resulting in more than a 100 percent increase in the small bird population.
The solution to the problem of overgrazing can be verbalized as simply as was the problem itself: Reduce the number of livestock to a level where the land can begin to heal itself. Anything less than this will not get the job done. Efforts at range restoration, such as vegetation manipulation, reseeding, etc., without reducing the number of livestock until the carrying capacity has been sharply increased, is so much window dressing. Besides, the magnitude of the problem which involves millions of acres, rules out range treatments as economically impractical.
Even more drastic measures are called for on our hot deserts. Wildlife has a difficult enough time surviving in this region of sparse vegetation, thin rocky soils, and oven-like summer temperatures. These areas should not be grazed by livestock except in those rare springs when ephemeral annuals are available in abundance. Even then livestock should not be permitted on those ranges where desert bighorns are struggling for survival.
How to implement the solution is, of course, the $64,000 question. We all know what we are up against. Livestock operations have long dominated the scene on our range lands to the virtual neglect of other values. The Nevada report on the BLM situation cited earlier puts the problem in focus with this statement: "Generally, the objectives were dominated by and oriented toward satisfying the wishes, even dreams, of the livestock operator."
Hopefully, the climate is changing. The E.I.S. for grazing management on BLM lands, the result of a suit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a start. The subsequent requirement that an E.I.S. be filed for each BLM grazing district was even more encouraging. The next step would seem to be to persuade the U.S. Forest Service to prepare E.I.S.'s for grazing on National Forests.
Bringing the problem of overgrazing under control will require more than Environmental Impact Statements. Many, perhaps most, of BLM and U.S. Forest Service officials are equally as concerned about the problem as some of us on the outside, but their attempts to take corrective action on specific areas are often frustrated by political pressure at the Washington level.
Political pressure, however, is a two-edged sword. Politicians tend to keep at least one eye on the next election and there are more potential votes among citizens who should be concerned about the abuse of their lands than there are among the people responsible for the abuse. Unfortunately it is a problem that has not aroused the public to the same degree as other environmental issues. People, particularly those who enjoy the outdoors, must be awakened to the fact that overgrazing has adverse effects on fish and wildlife. They must be convinced it is in their own best interests to let their congressional representatives understand they expect them to be working to preserve these values and they should also make it clear to their senators and representatives that they will no longer tolerate political interference with attempts by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service to properly manage our public lands.
Anon. 1974. Effects of Livestock Grazing on Wildlife, Watershed, Recreation and Other Resource Values in Nevada. Special Task Force Report by Bureau of Land Management.
Buttery, R.F. and P.W. Shields. 1975. Range Management Practices and Bird Habitat Values. Proceedings of the Symposium on Management of Forest and Range Habitats for Nongame Birds. Tucson, AZ, May 6-9, 1975.
Leopold, S.A. 1974. Ecosystem Deterioration Under Multiple Use. Address given at the Wild Trout Management Symposium, Yellowstone National Park. September 26, 1974.
Mackie, R.J. 1970. Range Ecology and Relations of Mule Deer, Elk and Cattle in the Missouri River Breaks, Montana. Wildlife Monographs, No. 20.
Skovlin, J.M., P.J. Edgerton and R.W. Harris. 1968. The Influence of Cattle Management on Deer and Elk. Transactions of North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, 33:169-181.
Wilson, L.O. 1975. In The Wild Sheep of North America. Proceedings of a Workshop on the Management Biology of North American Wild Sheep.