Patterns In Nature: Bison, Cattle, and Wolves
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Cattle had indeed wrecked havoc. They destroyed watersheds, trampled riparian vegetation, and turned grasslands to hardpan, triggering severe erosion. To top it off, the livestock industry spent the twentieth century securing cheap access to public lands through thousands of grazing permits now granted by the Bureau of Land Management  and the U.S. Forest Service. Today, ranchers enjoy tax-supported access to 270 million acres of public land. Seventy-three percent of publicly-owned land in the west is currently grazed by privately owned livestock. Some of that grazing might be done responsibly. Most of it, according to the BLM itself, is definitely not.”

— From a Forbes article titled “Ranchers Insistence On Cheap Grazing Keeps Wolf Population In The Crosshairs

The story of the American Bison’s connection with Nature is also the story of America’s Midwestern Great Plains tall-grass prairies. These huge grassland environments were complex tall-grass ecosystems where the American Bison was a keystone species that was inextricably interconnected with its environment.

Before the 1800′s, it is estimated that over 30 million bison inhabited North America from Alaska to Mexico. The Grazing-2596slaughter of these creatures by humanity in the 50 year period starting around 1830 reduced the population to a few thousand. In the Great Plains, the human migration to the prairies and subsequent futile attempts at farming reduced the grazing area of the bison to less than 5% of its original range. Because of more recent conservation efforts, the bison population has rebounded to a revitalized North American population of about 500,000. Most of these animals are constrained by fences in mixed-grass prairie preserves and private ranches. Only 20,000 bison that are part of conservation herds are considered to be truly wild number.

Nonetheless, recent research has shown the American Bison to play a keystone role in the health of the remaining prairies. The primary beneficial behavior is the bison’s tendency, unlike cattle, to selectively graze in patches leaving broad-leaved herbs (called forbs) and woody plants untouched. The bison then revisit areas throughout the season. The resulting patchiness promotes plant species diversity by allowing the forbs to grow unharmed.

Dynamic spatial and seasonal bison grazing with the ongoing presence of forbs enhances density and plant cover above ground as well as gas exchange below ground. With parts of the prairie grazed, photosynthesis rates are enhanced because more light is made available.

Grazing-9303In addition, bison grazing increases animal diversity. Herds of grazing bison shape grasslands and create habitat. Prairie Dog foraging capabilities are enhanced. In turn, these Prairie Dogs are prey for ferrets, foxes, hawks, and eagles.  Prairie Dog tunnels are homes for the Burrowing Owl, small mammals, and reptiles.

Fire is a natural and healthy phenomenon in prairie ecosystems. Bison grazing limits the loss of nitrogen through fire by reducing the amount of plant litter. Through grazing in patches, the bison helps produce patchiness in fire.

The bison’s profound and complex connections to prairie ecosystems produce a unique ecology that has deep effects on mixed-prairie ecosystems. This interdependency is summarized in a recent research document entitled  “Managing Bison To Restore Biodiversity” by Joe C. Truett, He says:

Prior to their demise in the late 1800s, bison coexisted with and helped sustain a diverse and spectacular assemblage of animals and plant communities on the Great Plains. Bison, in concert with fire, exerted strong control on the structure of the vegetation by grazing, trampling, and wallowing. The changes in the vegetation induced changes in many animal populations. These impacts, coupled with the bison’s role as the major converter of grass to meat, so greatly affected other species that some have called bison a “keystone” species in the Great Plains ecosystem. The black-tailed prairie dog, dependent on bison grazing over a large part of the Great Plains, amplified the keystone influence of bison by its own grazing and burrowing activities and its utility as prey.

There are numerous sources that provide information on the “sins” of cattle grazing. Here, I have condensed some Cows_1of the key points.

  • 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.
  • Cattle 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.
  • Cattle grazing has resulted in some 464 million acres of land becoming arid desert.
  • Cattle grazing has reduced the density and biomass of many plant and animal species.
  • Cattle grazing has reduced biodiversity.
  • Cattle grazing has aided in the spread of exotic invasive species.
  • Cattle grazing impedes the cycling of soil nitrogen.
  • Cattle 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.
  • A recent University of Minnesota study states that “reallocating croplands away from fuels and animal feed could boost food available for people by 70 percent without clearing more land.”
  • The whole process of issuing grazing rights to ranchers is questionable because it requires the U S Forest Service and other government organizations who oversee our public lands for us 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 even though the 464 million acres of land that has become desert because of grazing is not restorative. And of course, with the elimination of grazing, most of the fear and conflict over our wolf populations would disappear while we get healthier.

What do you think?

Worth Your Extra Attention :

I am grateful to those of you who responded to my request to read and review my eBook entitled “Connections: Life Sustaining Relationships In Nature.

Here are some well written articles on the adverse ecological effects of cattle grazing that might interest you.



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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.

12 Responses to “Patterns In Nature: Bison, Cattle, and Wolves”

  1. Thanks for posting something like this actually, its amazing! :)

  2. Thanks for addressing this sort of topic into a post- awesome! :)

    • Thanks Emma:

      I just came across this very appropriate Aldo Leopold quote.

      * “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows.”

  3. BLM Fails to Manage Livestock to Protect Diversity and Stability.
    From many studies, one can conclude that the hoof prints, plant consumption, and seed dispersal by domestic livestock, are the principal historic disturbances that admitted and spread weeds into natural ecosystems of the western U. S. Public land management agency practices, particularly the U. S. D. I. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), were inadequate to prevent the great loss of diversity and productivity attributable to livestock grazing. BLM has done nothing to alter its practices and protect the remnant native vegetation that remains.

    Sample reference from this literature: Mack, R. N. 1981. Invasion of Bromus tectorum L. into western North America: An ecological chronicle. Agro-Ecosystems 7:145-165.

    • Thanks Garry:

      My experiences are more with the forest service. Broken fences, cows wandering everywhere, and USFS not having a clue what to do. At a USFS campground, I literally had a cow stick its head inside my camper door to check things out. Many times, the soundscape of undisturbed nature was totally silenced by mooing cows who seemed to take over the ecosystem. For me, with the incompetence I’ve seen and the constant complaining of ranchers who feel they are entitled to do with Nature whatever they please, I’m very angry about it all. All on public lands that you and I share ownership.

  4. As a matter of clarification, George sent me an email. Since his email contains a lot of great information, I am posting it here for all to see.

    Hey Bill,

    Great blog today. I left a comment but, in fairness, I should have mentioned that on many allotments, that the government will pay for the construction or development of facilities ( fences and stock water) and the Permittee provides the maintenance.

    Maybe you could clarify a comment I have noticed a couple of times. One is that fences are needed for cattle and sheep grazing. In my experience sheep are herded in a tight cluster and fences are not for their control.

    Also in my experience, sheep primarily consume forbs and some shrubs and pretty much leave grass alone. Cattle selectively eat grass and don’t consume a lot of forbs (alfalfa and clover excepted) unless forced to.

    Of course, my experience is in the Great Basin steppe and your blog was about the Great Planes prairie; is livestock behavior different out there?

    You also mentioned the way grazing capacity is determined. Actually, the methodology is pretty accurate in determining how much grass will grow, on average. Which is the problem! It would require a dissertation to explain all the problems with the Policy methodology. Let me see if I can hit a couple of high points. First and foremost, it is easy to intentionally bias the input information, or unintentionally use poor scientific technique; the degree to which varies greatly from District to District. The Catch 22 is that the handbook methodology must be followed or else the Allotment Management Plan would be subject to appeal to the Internal Board of Land Appeals.

    But even if data was collected and analyzed properly, it is for the average condition. For example, let’s say that the average grazing season would produce enough grass to feed 10 cows per acre. That becomes the stocking rate. It, therefore, means the range is overstocked half the time. Arguably, it could be said that the range is understocked half the time but, without going into detail, it really doesn’t work that way for a lot of reasons. But agencies administering grazing have the authority to implement a “Draught Policy”. It is pretty much totally arbitrary and ineffective. Among other problems, no office, to my knowledge is even attempting to use realistic predictive tools (nor are most offices staffed with the expertise to do so.) The effect of grazing during a drought can easily be more destructive that even the “average” grazing capacity problem. Just to add one more insane policy problem; after a catastrophic event (such as wildfire) it is policy to not put cows back on the range for at least two years (which generally translates into “exactly” two years). This policy was predicated on the “fact” that grass seedlings do not have the root strength to keep it from being pulled out of the ground by a cow trying to eat it. Seldom are any other ecosystem variable looked at, like adequate litter cover or robustness of the plants or success of other plants in the community to withstand the pressure of grazing.

    Keep up the good work Bill. Looking for your next blog.


  5. @Bill Graham – Those costs are publicly available but would be a pretty big workload to dig them out. I did that years ago (under the Reagan administration). If I get a chance I will try to see what I can find. The direct costs are the Range staff and their budget. Range improvement budget. Indirect costs include a portion of the Resources staff and their budget. Some percentage of the overhead budget. I suppose litigation should be included and probably some other hidden costs.

    That is the easy part, getting the amount collected in grazing fees might be more challenging but they are out there.

    In fairness, I should have mentioned that in many Allotment Manage Plans the government pays for the cost of “range improvements and facilities” which include fencing, water developments, brush to grass conversion, etc. ) and the Permittee is responsible for maintenance.

    • Ok I found some numbers for BLM 2012 budget to give you a conservative idea of costs and incomes (grazing fees). Even what I post below is a little convoluted (it the Federal budget, right?). These are direct costs only, not the total costs of administering the Grazing program. Also there are 636 fte employees in the Rangeland program but there is no way to identify their actual cost so BLM uses an average annual per person cost. I don’t know which number they used in 2012 so am using the average of all fte. (see first document below).

      Bottom line: it cost BLM about 200 million in direct costs and they receive about 8 million in fees.

      Hope that helps.

      Rangeland Management ……………………87,392,000 (8 million paid from grazing fees)
      Rangeland Management .fte………………….636 permanent full time x $170000 = $108,000,000

      Range Improvements 47 fte………………………..10,000,000
      Grazing Fees for Range Improvements, Taylor Grazing Act…….8,000,000
      (processing of grazing fees is about $6 million to be recovered under a pilot program) (see chap IV page 35-42

  6. A couple of things to add to your list Bill.
    Grazing on the Public Lands requires a huge amount of tax payer dollars to administer. It requires not only Range Conservationists and Range Specialists but but far more resource specialists (biologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, botanists, etc) than would otherwise be needed. In return for the cost of administration and the extraction of grass and forbs, not to mention the impact to other ecosystem components, the grazing permittee pays a fee. The 2023 fee is $1.35 per AUM (that’s and “Animal Unit Month = one cow and calf per month)! Clear and simple it is a subsidy; welfare.

    You mention that “Dynamic spatial and seasonal bison grazing with the ongoing presence of forbs enhances density and plant cover above ground as well as gas exchange below ground.” It should be noted that in addition to necessary gas exchange, structure is improved allowing better root penetration. Moisture and nutrients are more available to those roots. Diel soil temperature extremes are reduced. And soil biodiversity in increased. All of which result in heather plants and more robust ecosystems.

    • Thanks George:
      Once again, you have added great clarity. I am particularly interested in your enumeration of the economics. That is detail we rarely hear about. On top of it, the overseers have to deal with angry ranchers who want the government to pay for wolf eradication rather than the rancher implementing nonlethal methods. A bad deal for both the wolf and the taxpayer.

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