Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1 Bear River - Utah, Idaho, Wyoming


What must a river bear

The Bear River, which loops 500 miles across three states, is the longest stream in the Western Hemisphere that doesn't flow into an ocean. Since the arrival of the pioneers, the watershed has become a sump of polluted water that's run off from the large proportion of grazed land along its tributaries.

The Bear oddly ends about 75 miles from its origin in the High Uintas Wilderness. Taking the long way home, it flows north from Utah into Wyoming; west back into Utah; north again to Wyoming; west into Idaho; south into Utah and finally ends in a delta at the northeast corner of the Great Salt Lake.

There it nurtures wetlands that support 250 migratory bird species, including nearly one-third of North America's migratory ducks. As you backtrack up the river toward Idaho, you discover feedlots crammed with thousands of cattle almost right next to the water. In Idaho, a huge diversion of the river sends about three-fourths of its flow into Bear Lake, a natural lake thought to be at least 100,000 years old, which straddles the Utah-Idaho border. Three fourths of the annual flow of the Bear River is diverted into Bear Lake for irrigation storage. Naturally high levels of calcium carbonate and historically crystal clear water in Bear Lake give it a very blue color. However, studies have shown that nutrient enrichment from livestock grazing, agricultural runoff and recreational homes , has led to increased algal growth and has decreased the clarity of the water.

As you go upriver, you notice the water completely disappears at six separate locations into an extensive and elaborate system of canals and ditches for irrigating crops and watering livestock. As you travel to high elevations, you find thousands of cattle and sheep stomping around riparian areas and polluting the water along tributaries. Studies in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest have shown that the presence of cattle has increased fecal coliform contamination to levels that violate state water quality criteria, and that grazing has resulted in severe soil erosion leading to increased sediment loads to the Bear River and its tributaries.

Finally you reach the Bear's source, in the scenic High Uintas Wilderness. Here, under permits by the U.S. Forest Service, thousands of domestic sheep and cattle denude the alpine meadows, trample streambanks and foul the water. When Congress created the Wilderness in 1984, it let livestock stay. The Forest Service denies the obvious livestock impacts to the wilderness and aesthetic values, wildlife and watershed integrity..

"Wilderness areas are supposed to be untrammeled by man, pristine and natural," says John Carter, Ph.D., an activist and scientist in Logan who has been studying the river for 20 years. "You find sheep grazing at the 12,000 foot level on some of those high alpine ridges. The bottom line is the tributaries and the Bear River itself have become terribly degraded throughout that 500 miles. The Bear is just symptomatic of rivers in the West that are treated as open sewers for livestock."

Grazing in the basin is particularly a problem for the Bonneville cutthroat trout, once a candidate for the Endangered Species List. Historically, Bonneville cutthroat were found throughout the Bear River Basin, but competition from non-native species, loss of aquatic habitat and water quality changes have reduced the populations of these fish. Fish and game agencies dumped thousands of hatchery cutthroats into Bear Lake every year, while largely ignoring the habitat and water quality problems created over most of the watershed by livestock production.

In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the cutthroat's candidacy for the Endangered Species List, but did call for better protection of its habitat from grazing. The agency also warned that regulations to protect the cutthroat were not being enforced in some streams. Other rare species also live in the Bear and nowhere else, including the Bear Lake whitefish, Bonneville whitefish, Bear Lake sculpin and Bonneville cisco.

In Wyoming, the Bear connects with Smiths Fork, a draw that angles north up a deep canyon toward the Salt River Range. When environmentalists talk about riparian areas grazed all the way down to dirt, they bring up Smiths Fork.

Last year, Western Watersheds Project, a group based in Hailey, Idaho, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council of Lander, Wyo., sued the BLM in federal court over grazing leases in Smiths Fork near the town of Kemmerer, Wyo. In 1986, the BLM ranked the 90,000-acre Smiths Fork grazing allotment as worst among 204 allotments in the southwest part of Wyoming. While the BLM continues to be critical of overgrazing in Smiths Fork's riparian and wetland areas, cattle continue to graze in sensitive areas despite fences and range riders that are supposed to keep them out.. Of 57 miles of streams and riparian areas, only nine are properly functioning. Only one-third mile of the entire Smiths Fork is considered to be healthy enough to support Bonneville cutthroat trout.

Nevertheless, the BLM allowed the number of cows to increase by about 20 percent in 2001 from the previous year. Western Watersheds Project asked a federal court to reduce grazing by 42 percent. After a hearing, the court refused to order an injunction against the increased grazing.

"All that was entered into evidence, and none of it was refuted," says Tom Darin, attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. But Judge Clarence Brimmer considered economic and environmental impacts in his decision, and economics won. "The possibility of rangeland damage this summer does not outweigh the very real consequences of a grazing ban on the Smiths Fork graziers," he ruled. The case was dropped, but a related appeal to the Interior Department's Board of Appeals is pending.

Western Watersheds is also appealing 176 Bureau of Land Management grazing permits in Northern Utah, affecting 1.5 million acres, 55,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle. In one allotment, BLM is permitting a 65 mile pipeline to be installed to provide water to graze 3,600 cattle at 68 locations.

In 1985, the BLM said that of 208 springs and 16 streams on its land in Box Elder County, Utah, 124 springs and all 16 streams were in danger of being dewatered and lost because of livestock. While the BLM in its Resource Management Plan in 1985 considered fencing necessary to protect these areas, none of the fencing has been built, though conditions remain the same. Last year the BLM re-issued the permits, without addressing the degraded condition of these riparian and wetland areas. The BLM cited the lack of data as evidence the water is not polluted.

"Of course, the evidence is clearly seen in feces-laden springs and streams, siltation, destroyed stream banks, erosion and lack of riparian vegetation," says Carter.

Carter has taken it upon himself to collect data showing the damage to Forest Service and BLM lands in order to refute the claims of no damage by the agencies and ranchers. Not that it's been a simple venture. "Last fall, while I was in the West Fork Black's Fork collecting data on watershed condition, I was confronted by a sheep rancher who threatened to kill me," he said. "A shot was fired and his threats were carried out with his gun in his hand."