©2002 Cascadia Times
10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry
Bear River - Utah, Idaho, Wyoming
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.
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.
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
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.
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..
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
course, the evidence is clearly seen in feces-laden
springs and streams, siltation, destroyed stream
banks, erosion and lack of riparian vegetation,"
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