Most Range Research Cannot Be Applied World-Wide

The arid desert of the western United States is largely composed of public lands and seas of sagebrush. On these rangelands, cattle and feral horses have grazed alongside each other for centuries. But in recent years, the feral horse population has increased. According to data from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Wild Horse and Burro Program, there are 58,150 feral horses grazing the Western U.S. and another 46,492 are in BLM holding facilities.

A recent article written in the Washington Post addresses the western issue, “U.S. looks for ideas to help manage wild-horse overpopulation,” written by Lenny Bernstein and Brady Dennis. In the article, Executive Director of Protect Mustangs Anne Novak was quoted stating when equines graze along cattle, it leads to a healthier cow. Novak cites a livestock grazing research experiment conducted in Kenya, Africa to corroborate her view.

Novak, of Protect Mustangs, dismissed the notion that wild horses have destroyed grazing lands that ranchers need to feed their cattle. She cited work by Princeton University researchers that shows that allowing wild animals to graze alongside cattle can actually result in healthier cows. Their conclusions were based on studies conducted in Kenya, where cattle paired with donkeys gained 60 percent more weight than those left to graze only with other cows. The researchers said that the donkeys ate the upper portion of grass that cows have difficulty digesting, leaving behind lush lower vegetation on which cattle thrive.”

Novak failed to mention important facts surrounding the study. The research was conducted in Kenya where environments receive 15 to 30 inches of precipitation a year, in a tri-modal pattern. It is located near the equator and have a year-round growing season—provided there is adequate moisture for plant growth. The research, however, cannot be applied to the arid West because in general it has cold winters and much of its precipitation comes as snow. The growing season occurs primarily in the spring, summer and early fall depending on precipitation—which is always a gamble in the west.

The Princeton University research (cited in the article) recorded the Kenya vegetation cover averaged around 77.8 percent. In comparison, the vegetation cover in central Nevada ranges from 10 to 15 percent, according to the Online Nevada Encyclopedia. The levels of available forage and forage growth in Kenya is considerably different than central Nevada. Note: We used Nevada as an example because it is the state with the most acres of public rangeland allotted to feral horses.

Even though donkeys benefited cows during the wet season in Kenya, things changed during the dry season. The research showed that during the dry season, cattle and wild herbivores competed for forage (Odadi et al. 2007). This research study was not only beneficial for cows, but for equines as well. The research found when herded together during the wet season both cattle and donkeys gained more weight, had higher bite rates, and selected more balanced diets—than when foraging separately. In addition, parasite egg output in feces of donkeys was reduced by 14–35 percent after foraging with cattle (Odadi et al. 2011).

The research conducted in Kenya does not adequately represent the Western feral horse environments, so why compare them? It may be useful research for livestock producers in Kenya, but not for the average western U.S. rancher.


Odadi, W. O., T. P. Young, and J. B. Okeyo-Owuor. 2007. Effects of wildlife on cattle diets in Laikipia rangeland, Kenya. Rangeland Ecology and Management 60:179–185.

Odadi, W. O., M. Jain, S. E. Van Wieren, H. H. T. Prins, and D. I. Rubenstein. 2011. Facilitation between bovids and equids on an African savanna. Evolutionary Ecology Research 13:237–252.

Can You Trust Fleischner (1994)?

Fleischner, T.L. 1994. Ecological Costs of Livestock Grazing in Western North America. Conservation Biology 8(3): 629-644.

One peer-reviewed journal article that is frequently cited by those who advocate removing all livestock grazing from public land is Fleischner (1994). The article is presented as a review of the scientific literature on livestock grazing in the West.

I’d like to put the article above in context. It was published in 1994, around the time some environmentalists we repeating; “Cattle free by 1993.” The statement was made in reference to removing livestock grazing from all federal public land. That did not happen and Fleischner was published in 1994. In addition, the review is over twenty-years-old. Isn’t there a more recent review that can be cited to make the case all or most livestock grazing is harmful to arid rangelands in the West?

In his article, Fleischner does not discriminate between over-grazing and sustainable grazing. He makes this clear in his letter to the editor in the April 1995 issue of Conservation Biology. In his letter he states: “I explained (Fleischner 1994) why I think the term “overgrazing” lacks clarity; consequently, I think the term should be avoided. I agree that there are valid uses of livestock as a management tool, but as I stated in the article (p. 636), many such claims are suspect.

In terms of sustainable rangeland management, scientists and managers distinguish between over-grazing and sustainable grazing. To label papers about over-grazing, which is usually made clear in the introduction or objectives of an article, as a grazing study is misleading to the reader. I agree that over-grazing is not a sustainable practice and detrimental to any grazing land.

After Fleischner (1994) was published, at least 11 letters to the editor were published in the 1995 April and June issues of Conservation Biology about his review. Some supported Fleischner’s (1994) stance on the livestock grazing. While others stated his paper’s obvious bias “livestock grazing is detrimental” does not belong in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

In addition, not all scientists agreed with the completeness of Fleischner (1994). Curtain in 2002 reported “A paper by Fleischner (1994) is not discussed here because that paper is generally not considered a comprehensive review of the literature (Brussard et al. 1994; Brown and McDonald 1995; Curtain 1995; Jones 2000).”

Below I present either quotes or summaries from the articles cited above:

Brown and McDonald (1995): “We have three concerns about this review.”

“First, it implicitly assumes that these studies reflect the average impact of grazing and thus its true costs. Examination of the relevant studies, however, reveals that some studies that report little or no livestock impact are not cited. Many studies that are cited suffer from poor experimental design. For example, many studies had problems with pseudo replication or lack of replication. Many study areas were likely chosen because differences between grazed and ungrazed areas were already apparent.”

“Second, many effects of excluding domestic livestock on other organisms and on ecological processes that Fleischner cited have also been observed when native mammals, ranging from rodents to mega herbivores, have been excluded. Such differences between plots where herbivorous mammals are present or absent are often substantial. Both domestic livestock and native mammalian herbivores may remove substantial biomass causing reduced herbaceous and shrubby plant cover, changes in plant and animal species composition, soil disturbance, and alteration of ecosystem processes, but these changes are not necessarily unnatural or detrimental.”

“Third, Fleischner repeats the fiction that the condition of western North America as chronicled by European explorers and colonists represents a natural and inherently desirable state. Changes in landscapes, habitats, and organisms recorded in the last few centuries are measured against an inferred historical condition and usually are regarded as detrimental impacts of human activities. In the absence of direct evidence such as photographs or fossils, determining with certainty past conditions and therefore a natural state, which has often fluctuated much through time, is difficult.” Note: References were deleted from the passage above due to length.

Brussard et al. (1994): While, I can’t find a reference to Fleischner in the article above. The editorial refutes the idea of scientists designing experiments to support the causes of environmental activists.

Curtin (1995):  “I was disturbed by Fleischner’s failure to distinguish between over­grazing and grazing as a management tool. His review of the literature leads one to the implicit assumption that all grazing is bad.”

“…grazing has diverse and varied effects on the local biota.”

“Models by Milchunas et al. (1988) illustrate that one must consider grazing in the context of historical disturbances.”

“There is little doubt that over­grazing is a severe ecological problem. Yet, ecologically responsible grazing can be an important management tool for conservationists.”

Jones 2000:Traditional qualitative literature reviews do little to resolve such controversial issues, as they are subject to biases of the reviewer. For example, Fleischner’s (1994) review of effects of grazing in western North America almost exclusively cites prior studies demonstrating detrimental effects of grazing. A range scientist with a contrary bias could easily cite as many studies demonstrating insignificant, and beneficial, effects of grazing. Though Fleischner’s study sought to make the case against grazing rather than present a comprehensive review of grazing literature, I cite this example to illustrate that literature reviews can sometimes be a front for specific agendas.


  1. Brown, J. H., and W. McDonald. 1995. Livestock grazing and conservation on southwestern rangelands. Conservation Biology 9:1644–1647.
  2. Brussard, P. F., D. D. Murphy, and C. R. Tracy. 1994. Cattle and conservation biology: another view. Conservation Biology 8: 919–921.
  3. Curtin, C. G. 1995. Grazing and advocacy. Conservation Biology 9:233–234.
  4. Jones, A. 2000. Effects of cattle grazing on North American arid ecosystems: a quantitative review. Western North American Naturalist 60:155–164.

How I Critique a News Article

This is how I analyze a news article, at least in my head. I ask questions. I want to know where the information in the article originates. It’s easier to read the original article without my comments. You can connect to it by clicking on its title below. My comments about the article are in bold and italics, and text that I consider opinion is in green.

The article below was written for Wildlife News, and it’s easy to assume that Wildlife News is pro-wildlife. I like wildlife, however, I don’t know their stand on grazing livestock on public lands. I think I can guess, but I’m not sure. I look at the keywords for the article; they are: BLM, Department Of Interior, Economy, Grazing and Livestock, Public Lands. It doesn’t say opinion or commentary so I assume it is news.

Article Title: BLM Public Lands Grazing Accounts for Only 0.41% of Nation’s Livestock Receipts

By Ken Cole On August 15, 2013·In BLM, Department Of Interior, Economy Grazing And Livestock, Public Lands

The recently released Department of Interior Fiscal Year 2012 Economic Report shows that Grazing on BLM Public Lands Accounts for only 0.41% of the nation’s livestock receipts and only 17,000 jobs. In contrast, recreation accounts for 372,000 jobs and contributes $45 billion to the economy.

Comment: The article begins with accurate statements from the Department of Interior (DOI) Fiscal Year 2012 Economic Report. However, I think they should have used the same measure, direct economic output. According to DOI report: “Direct economic output attributable to public land forage for FY 2012 was estimated to be approximately $808 million dollars.” Page 60. $808 millions dollars is still much, much less than $45 billion. Comparisons should be made in the same units.

According to the report, the BLM permits 12.4 million animal unit months (AUM’s) but only about 9 million AUM’s were billed in 2012 and the average during recent years is only about 8 million AUM’s. An AUM is the unit of measure for livestock grazing and equals to forage needed to support one cow/calf pair or five ewes and their lambs for one month. The rate for an AUM in 2012 was $1.35, which in terms of inflation, is lower than it has ever been. As of 2011, the BLM has about 18,700 active permits on more than 21,000 allotments across 155 million acres.

Comment: The DOI report also stated: “The remaining AUMs were not used due to resource protection needs, forage depletion caused by drought or fire, and economic and other factors.” Page 59. This statement is important considering the statements made below about the BLM.


The report goes on to rationalize the reason for the low rates as compared to private grazing lands where the market price was $16.80/AUM in 2011. Public lands are not as productive as private lands and private landlords may provide and maintain other amenities such as water developments or fences for the ranchers. Unfortunately, even with the absurdly low rates, ranchers routinely ignore fence and water development maintenance. (Comment: How many ranchers don’t fix fences or maintain their water development?) On nearly every trip to the field I have made over the years, I witness cattle inside poorly maintained exclosures or sign that they have been there. (Comment: How many trips? Over what area? Which years? Who is supposed to maintain exclosures? What do you mean by sign of cattle?) I also routinely witness water troughs that completely fail or that leak onto the ground creating a stinking, muddy, manure and urine filled mire that is ideal habitat for West Nile Virus infected mosquitos and pollute other surface waters and groundwater. (Comment: Define routinely. What do you mean by completely fail? How many different troughs over what time period?) These same troughs also lack the required bird escape ladders (Comment: All of them, because more and more troughs are being fitted with bird escape ladders) and sometimes are filled with dead wildlife. (Comment: What do you mean by filled? The link goes to the following article: “More Ranching Custom and Culture. Dead Wildlife in Water Troughs. By Ken Cole On August 30, 2011 In Advocacy, Conservation, Public Lands, Western Watershed Project.” So if you follow the link above, you’re sent to an article labeled advocacy and you’re no longer reading news.)

Mountain Springs allotment

The report does admit that the absurdly low grazing rates “creates an incentive to use federal forage before using other forage sources and perhaps to use federal grazing allotments more intensively than privately owned rangeland.” (Comment: I find this statement from the report interesting since agencies determine when and how long livestock are on an allotment.) This is clearly evident when you visit many western grazing allotments. Often, private rangelands are in considerably better condition than our public lands, especially in drought years when permittees often increase their use of public lands except for the rare case when the BLM recognizes the drought conditions. Even then, since there is a large discrepancy between the number of AUMs permitted and the actual number of AUMs used, any cuts to grazing during drought years are only imaginary and use increases over previous years anyway. (Comment: The DOI report includes a graph of AUMs used from 1970 to 2012. The figure caption states: “Figure 8-1 shows the downward trend in AUMs used, from 12.8 million in FY 1970 to less than 9 million in FY 2012.” Page 60. Based on the graph AUMs have decrease— not increased.) This phenomena is occurring this year in parts of Idaho where the BLM and the USFS have failed to make any significant cuts to grazing during a severe drought.

Comment: The text in green font I believe to be either opinion or inaccurate information. None of the information above or below in green is in the DOI Report nor is the word “absurdly”. 

The public lands grazing program among all agencies, according to a General Accountability Office report, cost $144 million in 2005 and received only $21 million in grazing fee receipts.

In contrast, compare the economic benefits to recreation, an activity, generally, that is far less damaging to landscapes and habitats than livestock grazing. Recreation supports 372,000 jobs and contributes $45 billion to the economy. Arguably, livestock grazing greatly reduces the value of a landscape for recreation. With polluted water, degraded wildlife habitat, hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed wire fence that tear clothes, gates that are nearly impossible to open and close, predator killing to protect livestock, aggressive guard dogs, and many other impacts, livestock grazing eliminates or detracts from the value of the landscapes that would otherwise support much more wildlife and unhindered recreation.

When you compare the economic values of one activity over another and then compare the undue political influence that welfare livestock interests have over everything else, it is clear that livestock grazing on public lands is out of place with modern values. The federal agencies that manage livestock grazing on public lands are failing to properly manage livestock and ranchers have subdued them from doing so at the taxpayers’ expense.

The report has a curious error though. A chart contained in the appendix shows the inflation adjusted grazing fee but calculates the value in 2012 dollars incorrectly. Here is the correct data with additional years and data for the USFS, which is part of the Department of Agriculture not the Department of Interior.

Comment: I agree with the authors. The chart doesn’t seem to be correct, which doesn’t give me confidence about using government documents.

Misusing Mueggler

Mueggler (1975) has been cited to further the notion that all livestock grazing causes irreparable harm to plants in arid environments unless plants are rested for years after grazing. Below I give a recent example of authors misusing Mueggler (1975) from the following publication:

Carter, J., A. Jones, M. O’Brien, J. Ratner, and  G. Wuerthner. 2014. Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems. International Journal of Biodiversity.

These authors state: “… bunchgrasses in arid environments are more likely to die if they are heavily grazed by domestic animals [34” AND “Native, western USA bunchgrass species such as bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) are sensitive to defoliation and can require long periods (years) of rest following each period of grazing in order to restore their vigor and productivity [34”

Reference 34 is identified in Carter (2014) as: Mueggler, WF. 1975. Rate and pattern of vigor recovery in Idaho fescue and Bluebunch wheatgrass. Journal of Range Management 28:198-204.

Why do I think these statements are misleading? Public land agencies do not condone heavy grazing. Mueggler doesn’t study the likelihood of plants dying from heavy grazing. I couldn’t find any information concerning it in the paper. Defoliation isn’t defined above, but I assume they mean grazing since it is used later in the sentence. However, Mueggler is not a grazing study. It’s a clipping study. Grasses are clipped in or near the boot stage of development, when grasses are most susceptible to both clipping and grazing.

To apply this clipping study to any livestock grazing in an arid environment, one must assume:

  • Clipping and grazing affect plants equally.
  • The species of concern are either bluebunch wheatgrass or Idaho fescue. If not, then all plants respond the same way to grazing.
  • All plants in the community are grazed to the same level of clipping used by Mueggler.*
  • The entire plant, and not just part of the plant, will be grazed.
  • Plants are grazed at or near boot-stage of development.
  • The same climatic conditions that occurred during Mueggler are present.
  • The same history of grazing, that occurred prior Mueggler, exists.
  • Plants grow on the same aspect, slope, and soil type as in Mueggler.
  • Soils have the same nutrient levels as those present in Mueggler’s study.
  • Plants are growing in the same plant community that occurred at Mueggler’s study site.
  • Grazing a plant not in full vigor, which is a very vague term, is detrimental to plants and the grassland as a whole at a landscape level.

*Bluebunch wheatgrass was clipped to remove 50% of the plant by weight. For Idaho fescue, the clipping was so severe that it cannot be equated with any grazing management plan.

The statements made by Carter et al. (2014) ignore grazing studies by Ganskopp and Bedell (1981) in eastern Oregon. They showed that: 1) Lightly (0%-25% utilization) grazed Idaho fescue and bluebunch wheatgrass (BBWG) produced as much or more height, weight, and seed stalks as ungrazed plants; 2) No differences were detected between moderately (25%-70% utilization) grazed and ungrazed BBWG and fescue plants; 3) Heavy grazing (above 70% utilization) reduced production and height of fescue, but did not significantly impact BBWG; and 4) No plants died from grazing treatments.

Also, Rickard et al. (1975) working in eastern Washington concluded that clipping studies do not mimic cattle grazing. They also reported that many years of moderate grazing could likely be sustained before pronounced shifts in plant species composition and abundance, including BBWG, are noticed.

Finally, a clipping study by Clark et al. (1998) discovered plants that when only ½ of their basal area was clipped to a 3” stubble height during mid-boot, it increased their basal area by 18.6%. In comparison, the basal area of unclipped plants only increased by 5.2% by the end of the growing season.


Clark, PE, WC Krueger, LD Bryant, and DR Thomas. 1998. Spring defoliation effects on bluebunch wheatgrass: II. Basal area. Journal of Range Management 51:526-530.

Ganskopp, DC and TE Bedell. 1981. An assessment of vigor and production of range grasses following drought. Journal of Range Management 34:137-141.

Rickard, WH, DW Uresk, and JF Cline. 1975. Impact of cattle grazing on three perennial grasses in south-central Washington. J. Range Manage. 28:108-112

History of Livestock Grazing on Public Lands: Changes Associated with the Taylor Grazing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act

Western Range Before the Taylor Grazing Act

In the late 1800s, livestock operations in the western United States grew quickly due to high profits and what seemed to be an unlimited supply of free forage from federal government land. By the turn of the century, western rangelands were severely overgrazed and damaged. From 1870 to 1900, cattle numbers grew from 4.1 to 19.6 million head and sheep from 4.8 million to 25.1 million. As a consequence of greed and ignorance, public ranges became severely degraded.

At the time, homesteading laws only allowed most settlers to get title to about 1,120 acres of federal land, insufficient acreage for most ranching operations. Ranchers tried to protect what they considered their customary range. By 1880, barbed wire had become less expensive and large ranches began to fence the public lands that their animals grazed. Some fenced areas were hundreds of thousands of acres.

In much of the West, water is a precious commodity. A stream, spring, or pond might be the only source of water for miles. Large ranching operations would have their cowboys make fraudulent claims under federal land laws that contained reliable sources of stock water. Control of a water meant control of the grazing on adjacent federal land.

The Taylor Grazing Act (TGA) of 1934 Drought and depression in the early 1930s set the stage for adopting new laws to control grazing on federal land and the Taylor Grazing Act was enacted.

The TGA placed controls on public land grazing and established specific grazing allotments or areas of use. Ranchers who received grazing permits had some guarantee their livestock operations were sustainable. TGA also specified that a portion of the fees collected for grazing livestock on public lands were returned to the grazing district to be used to improve public rangelands, such as fencing, water developments, and practices to increase livestock forage. After passage of the TGA and subsequent adjudication of public rangelands, the number of livestock grazing rangelands was reduced, and stabilized to a level considered by many to besustainable. However at the time, issues associated with multiple-uses were not considered.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 Changing social values toward protecting the environment and conservation of natural resources, as reflected by FLPMA, brought more scrutiny to livestock grazing on public lands. Also as the nation’s population increased, conflicts over public rangelands increased as more people began using public lands for a variety of purposes. Today, livestock grazing as a legitimate use of public lands competes with other legitimate uses of public lands, such as recreation, wildlife habitat, riparian management, protectingendangered species, mining, hunting, cultural resource protection, wilderness, and a variety of other uses.

In summary, changing social values and competition for land use have required that public land management decisions achieve greater balance among conflicting resource uses. These decisions can result in reductions to livestock grazing to protect other resource uses and can negatively affect the economic viability of some livestock operations. However, decisions can also lead to improved range conditions which have a positive and stabilizing effect on ranch operations.

What is Rangeland Management?

Rangeland (n) – All land in the world that is not cultivated farmland, dense forest, barren desert, or covered by solid rock. Rangeland supports indigenous vegetation that either is grazed or has the potential to be grazed. It is managed as a natural ecosystem. Rangeland cannot be cultivated due to climate, availability of water, soils, and topography. Rangeland includes grassland, grazable forestland, deserts, semi-deserts, shrubland and pastureland. Range is not a use. (adj.) it modifies resources, products, activities, and practices pertaining to rangeland.

Range Management is a distinct discipline founded on ecological principles and dealing with the use of rangelands and range resources for a variety of purposes. Many range managers work for the federal government, since public lands must be managed for multiple-use. Public rangelands must be managed for: wildlife habitat, domestic livestock grazing, recreation, clean water, native plants, prevention of invasive species and the list goes on. Public rangelands are often embroiled in lawsuits over livestock grazing, wild horses and threatened and endangered species—just to name a few.

Who owns rangelands? Rangelands in West are owned and managed by federal, state and private entities. The western side of the United States is 53% rangeland. Around 399 million acres of rangeland are privately owned. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages about 167 million acres of publicly owned rangeland, with the United States Forest Service (USFS) managing approximately 95 million acres.

Want more information? Try the links below

Rangelands Overview

Accounting for the World’s Rangelands – an article about Rangelands

The Purpose of this Blog

In 2012, the head of the Utah Grazing Improvement Program (UGIP) asked me to critique a letter written by the director of Wild Utah Project, a Utah environmental group. The letter was handed out to the members at the Utah BLM RAC Board Meeting regarding their sage-grouse management plan. My job was to evaluate the scientific literature cited in the letter and determine if it was used correctly. The letter was 25 pages and contained 99 references. I agreed to check all references that were from peer-reviewed journals or 47 references. I returned a 15-page report outlining how the literature cited in the letter was misused.

Since writing that report, I’ve read many articles written by advocacy groups that misuse or ignore scientific information or present inaccurate information. In addition, environmental groups are filing more and more lawsuits accusing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (USFS) of poor land management practices and not following federal procedures. Websites sponsored by environmental groups often charge the Forest Service and BLM for mismanaging livestock grazing on public lands.

I believe these websites give people who are unaware of public land issues an extremely negative, distorted view of the BLM, USFS and western ranchers. My current role in extension is to take university research findings about rangeland management and put this information in a form that can be used by both public and private land mangers. As an extension agent, I am an advocate for science and sustainable agriculture.

However, I am not an advocate for ranchers or agency personnel who mismanage grazing on public lands. I started this blog to counter the misinformation presented by different advocacy groups about grazing on public lands. In addition, this blog will provide information on how public lands are managed by the federal government. With every blog post, I will cite references to support my position so that you—the reader—can check the information presented.

About Me: Beth Burritt

I grew up in Atascadero, California, a rural community near the coast.  I raised market lambs in 4-H to earn money to buy a horse. At age 11,  I was finally able to buy my first horse. I am not from a farming or ranching family. I have a BS from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and an MS from Utah State University, both in animal Science.

I have 30 years of experience in the areas of livestock behavior and ruminant nutrition. I spent most of my career conducting research on how livestock learn about foods—which to foods eat and which to avoid.

I currently work as an Area Rangeland Extension Agent in the three northern counties of Utah (Box Elder, Cache and Rich). My primary focus is understanding and modifying the diet selection of livestock and wildlife to meet land management goals, reduce costs for producers, and improve sustainability of grazing operations.