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


The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West



by Paul Koberstein


The Bear. The Salmon. The Gila. The John Day. The Owyhee. The Sweetwater. The Little Humboldt. The Big Hole. The Yampa. The Kern.

For these rivers in the West, and many others too, 2002 has been a year of epic drought in 11 western states. All summer long, rivers have been running at record lows. While media attention has focused on drought, news reports have missed one key fact: The millions of cows that run through the West's publicly owned deserts, mountains, canyons, plateaus and valleys have made the effects of drought much worse.

"Some of the range is so dry there's not enough for a chigger to eat, much less a cow," says Denise Boggs of the Utah Environmental Congress. "I am no great fan of livestock but I don't think they should be tortured. That's how bad the shape is of some of this land they graze."

Water is scarce from the inland Northwest to Texas, yet cattle pollute and dewater almost every river, lake, spring and wetlands. Centuries ago, the landscape could always store enough water to keep most rivers running all year long. Today livestock production has reshaped the water cycle. Cattle pound the soil hard - reducing its ability to store water when it rains, and reducing its ability to give up water when it's hot. The result is rivers that run shallower and stagnant and dirty in summer, when there's any water in them at all.

When the amount of water in a river goes down, the concentration of pollution goes up.

Cows do their greatest damage in the rich green riparian zones along streams. These areas provide habitat for 80 percent of all plant, fish and wildlife in the inland West, yet cows chew them to the nub while dumping their waste in the same location. Cows erode soils and remove streamside shade, causing stream temperatures to sizzle.. Water quality violations occur everywhere, yet are enforced almost nowhere. Many fish have gone or are going extinct. Alien weeds are invading.

In some river basins cows have been fenced out of riparian areas along the main tributaries. They have been moved to upland areas where they trammel springs and wetlands and smaller streams instead.

By no means is grazing the only resource extraction industry to threaten these rivers. What distinguishes ranching from the others is that ranchers don't have to treat their pollution, don't need permits to destroy wetlands and don't have to meet state water quality standards that are supposed to protect a river from high temperatures, pollution, sedimentation and loss of oxygen. Ranching has successfully fought off every effort to bring it into compliance with the nation's primary water-protection law, the Clean Water Act. Other industries must comply with this law. Ranchers are allowed to block rivers, kill fish and siphon off every last drop of water from rivers with impunity - actions that no gold mine, pulp mill or subdivision could ever get away with. Instead, they get to foist the cost of repairing their environmental damage onto others, usually the taxpayer, and they get to collect public subsidies of up to $500 million a year, also from the hapless taxpayer.

Today there are 23,000 federal grazing permits held by banks, large corporations, grazing associations, individuals, and small family operations. Though the majority are the small operators, often known as "hobby ranchers," the most land and cows are run by the wealthy - like J.R. Simplot, Barron Hilton, Les Schwab, Anheuser-Busch Inc. and Mary Hewlett Jaffe, daughter of Silicon Valley billionaire William Hewlett.

Curiously, ranchers are hailed in the media by scientists and some conservationists. They are "ranching for ecology," as a recent headline in the Denver Post said. Ranchers are "the last best hope for preserving habitat for many native species," according to an article by Jon Christensen in the New York Times. Christensen quotes James H. Brown, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and an expert on the ecology of the Southwest as saying the notion that ranching is bad is "demonstrably wrong." But Christensen all but dismisses ranching's damage to rivers and streams, which represent most of the habitat out West. "Studies have found damage from grazing in and around streams in the desert West, for instance," he writes, without going into any details about it.

In this issue of Cascadia Times, we investigate these important details. We look at the impacts of livestock production on not just rivers and streams, but on water in the West - on the entire web of water-dependent life under the cow's hoof. It's the face of the trout, the spikedace, the loach minnow, the jaguar, the wolf, the salmon. It's water for nature and people. It's a river.

Salmon, as in fertilizer

Consider the profile of the typical western ranch: It occupies private land on a river bottom where it diverts water to grow hay and alfalfa for livestock. The typical irrigation diversion is a wood or rock structure a century old that channels all the water into a leaky ditch that runs for miles, and then flood irrigates a field of hay or alfalfa. The cows graze on public land at higher elevations for as much of the year as they can, and for the remainder of the year come down to the private land or go off to a feedlot someplace else.

In rivers throughout the West, ranchers build countless "push up" dams: temporary dirt and gravel diversions that they construct in rivers with bulldozers. Very often, the material for the dam is scraped from the river channel itself, and includes the eggs of protected fish. A single ranch may require several such dams to irrigate different fields. These temporary dams don't damage stream habitat just once; they may wash out several times each year, releasing sediment downstream and requiring replacement dams that multiply the damage. Diversions have to be big enough to account for large losses from leaking and evaporation. Most rivers lack gauges to measure flow in these diversions, so there is no way to hold ranchers to their appropriated water right. Nor are there state employees assigned to monitoring a rancher's use.

All too often an endangered trout or salmon gets a ride to the field. The federal government has spent $3 billion in the last few years saving salmon in the Columbia River Basin, but many end up as fertilizer. "In each of these diversions where fish go off into the field, is there an incidental take permit as required by the Endangered Species Act? No," says Kaz Thea, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and a former federal fisheries biologist. "This is a huge loss."

The West's system of dividing water among various users is called the "doctrine of prior appropriation." It means whoever got there first is first in line to get the water. When water is abundant, everyone with a valid water right gets a share. But in normal years like there's not enough to satisfy every legal claim to the water, and much less in a drought. The more junior water rights are shut off. And while fish clearly got there first, in many places they have no rights to water at all. The system is absurdly out of balance. Almost any river can get sucked dry by irrigators without any regard to impacts on fish. In a few areas ranchers conserve water to boost flows for fish, but in most places this is pointless because conserved water is simply taken out of the stream by the next water user down the line. State laws to protect river flows for fish are weak or don't exist.

Cows in the Gila

Livestock production in the headwaters of the Gila Basin of New Mexico and Arizona has been going on for more than 400 years. The Gila has always been one of the driest basins in the West. Only in the 1990s, however, have steps been taken to protect sensitive riparian areas, and now some of those areas are improving. The biggest step came in 1998, when a lawsuit brought by Forest Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity forced the Forest Service to remove 15,000 cows off 230 miles of riparian zones along the major rivers in the basin. Congress spent $400,000 in taxpayer money to pay for fences along riparian zones, and for new watering stations for cows moved up to higher ground.

These projects are intended to protect 22 listed species and another 47 species that are candidates for listing. Some say they see significant progress. Today, three years later, river banks along the Gila and some of its tributaries are thick with grasses and willows.

But the changes may come too late for the Gila chub, a fish devastated by grazing impacts. On August 9, 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the chub as an endangered species. The Gila River in fact is the only U.S. river basin with all of its freshwater fish species extinct, on the Endangered Species List, or recommended for listing. In almost every instance, livestock grazing is a major factor.

Fences and water projects add to the cost of ranching's public welfare, yet are not practical as a solution to the problem of grazing across the entire western landscape. Fencing every inch of riparian area in the West from cows would be impractical and costly. The idea of closing off every rivers with a fence seems destructive to the natural values that are being protected. But even at that, there's no evidence fences can effectively prevent damage to rivers. They break down, aren't maintained, and aren't monitored in many parts of the West, says Martin Taylor of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. Fences also entangle wildlife while trying to gain access to water.

But Taylor says his biggest concern about fence and water projects in the Gila is that they shift cows to upland areas, where they destroy springs and wetlands. Fences and water projects, however, aren't the only tool in the toolbox. An abundance of scientific evidence shows the most effective remedy for a cow-bombed river is to remove the cows from the land. Bret Maetzke, an ecologist with California Trout, says a grazing damaged river like the Kern needs 50 years free of cattle to recover.

The late desert ecologist Joy Belsky, who researched grazing impacts for universities, government and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, cites 19 sources showing that livestock have damaged at least 80 percent of all riparian areas on the western range. Some proponents of ranching claim livestock actually benefit desert ecosystems, but Belsky found no scientific evidence to support that claim.

"Cattle cause more damage to riparian zones than their often small numbers would suggest," she wrote in 1999. "Cattle tend to avoid hot, dry environments and congregate in wet areas for water and forage, which is more succulent and abundant than in uplands. They are also attracted to the shade and lower temperatures near streams, most likely because their species evolved in cool, wet meadows of northern Europe and Asia."

When livestock get into riparian areas, they damage habitat for plant species, cold-water fish, and wildlife, causing many native species to decline in number or go locally extinct. The changes ripple throughout adjacent and downstream ecosystems, including people. The city of Laramie Wyo., which normally draws its water from the Laramie River, this summer tapped an aquifer after the river ran dry. The river was lost to drought and livestock production.

The practice of grazing and dewatering rivers has caused many native species to decline in number or go locally extinct throughout the West. A 1997 study by the federal Western Water Policy Advisory Committee said that of 170 native freshwater fishes west of the Rocky Mountains, and another 40 occurring on both sides of the Continental Divide, 20 have gone extinct in the last century, and another 100 are considered imperiled. Loss of all these would mean destruction of 70 percent of all fish species native to the lands west of the Rockies. In almost every case, livestock grazing has been and continues to be a critical problem for salmon, trout, minnows, chubs and spikedace. Birds, like the Mexican spotted owl, sage grouse and Southwest willow flycatcher, are also squeezed out. Even such carnivores as the wolf and coyote are impacted by cattle damage to rivers.

In the Gila, ranchers have not been blind to their environmental impacts, and in many areas actively search for solutions that do not drive endangered species or their business into oblivion. The Santa Fe-based Quivira Coalition formed in the 1990s to promote the "new ranch" or "holistic resource management" concepts where a number of steps are taken to reduce impacts on riparian and upland areas. They believe that poor land management, not cattle, causes ecological damage. Allan Savory of the Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque insists that grazing, when properly planned, can "benefit the whole environment." Many environmentalists, eager to see their friends and neighbors keep their ranches, have joined this quest for a kinder, gentler - and, they are quick to emphasize, still profitable - way of grazing.

Yet Belsky's research demonstrates that even light and moderate grazing results in significant soil compaction and erosion, resulting in more flooding, and less recharge of the water table. In a drought, the loss of this water and increased evaporation between rainstorms reduces river flows even further.

Moving 'em out

Ranchers, and the government agencies that regulate them, are trying to halt criticism of these impacts by making some modest changes, yet resist evidence that a healthy ecosystem simply cannot support the number of cows now out on the range. In 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt determined that the ranchers' old ways of grazing the West needed to be reformed. The livestock production industry sued to stop a suite of new regulations, but lost in a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, in case after case, the courts are forcing ranching to lighten the cow's impact on the land and its rivers, sometimes going so far as to tell the rancher to head 'em up and move 'em out.

Ranchers are looking to the Bush administration to roll back Babbitt's reforms. Kathleen Clarke, the new BLM chief, is working with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Public Lands Council and other pro-ranching organizations "to iron out" changes in the grazing program, according to her interview this summer with the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, an industry newspaper. "Kathleen Clarke is in a tough position," the Roundup said in an editorial. "For eight years BLM employees were rewarded for anti-grazing antics by an anti-ranching administration. While Clarke may be heading in the right direction it will take time to convince field staff of the need to follow."

But environmentalists think that's the wrong way to go. "We've taken three giant steps back since Bush came in - we were on a better path before," says Thea.

As drought intensifies across the West, federal agencies have forced cattle off the range, or in many cases moving them to protected areas. In the Gila River basin in New Mexico and Arizona, the number of cattle allowed on public land is down 70 percent this summer. On the Tonto National Forest in the Sonoran Desert near Phoenix, all but 10 percent of the cattle have been booted off. The reductions are temporary; when the drought is over - and it's possible that it will not - the cows will be back. Yet poor riparian and range conditions suggest more rest is needed for these lands, says Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watershed Project, an environmental group based in Hailey, Idaho, that is pursuing lawsuits to protect ecosystems from livestock production.

Marvel is among many environmentalists who have put their support behind a novel approach that would accelerate the cow's exodus from public lands - a voluntary buyback of all federal grazing leases. The buyback would cost the U.S. Treasury some $5 billion, though annual savings on reduced subsidies could be enough to finance the buyback in as few as 10 years. No one would be forced to sell. If approved by Congress, the buyback would help restore rivers while easing the financial pain being felt by the thousands of families that run small ranches. It would also bail out huge corporations that own some of the biggest cattle ranches in the West.

"Our your goal is to reverse the extinction curve," as Andy Kerr of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an umbrella organization behind the buyback. "That's only going to happen by a massive reduction in public lands grazing."

Hundreds of environmental leaders from around the country agree with Kerr, but a few are troubled with the buyback.

"What a lot of people don't realize is many of these allotments are held by corporations," says Boggs of the Utah Environmental Congress. She cites the example of J.R. Simplot, one of the wealthiest men in Idaho, who grazes cattle on thousands of acres of public lands, collecting the same subsidies as other ranchers. "The idea of buying out Mr. Simplot, I mean please give me a break," Boggs says. "We don't owe that man a dime, and considering how much money he has, we should send him a bill to pay for the cost of restoring all the areas that his livestock have destroyed."

Buying back permits to save natural resources is not a new concept. The Grand Canyon Trust has been purchasing leases in southern Utah to protect the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and governments in Canada have purchased commercial ocean fishing licenses to prevent over-harvest.

Surprisingly, the idea is getting support among some ranchers, who are eager to take the money, if offered by an act of Congress, and get out of an industry in trouble. The industry has been battered not just by lawsuits and prolonged drought, but also by global competition, the rise of factory farms, the advancing age of the typical rancher and the disinterest of offspring to continue the business. And climate change caused by global warming may mean the drought conditions of today will be the normal weather of tomorrow.

Environmentalists have also been aggressively documenting the damage caused by grazing. Most notably, in September, the Foundation for Deep Ecology published Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West, a richly illustrated 344-page expose of the industry, co-edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson.

"Pulverizing the resource"

The two federal agencies responsible for grazing on public land - the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service - have a crystal clear idea of what's going on. In 1994 the Forest Service concluded that livestock grazing is the number one cause of species endangerment in arid regions of the West, such as the Colorado Plateau and Arizona Basin. At the same time, these agencies have developed a skill at looking the other way, according to several current and former agency employees interviewed by Cascadia Times.

Forest Guardians, an environmental group based in Santa Fe has sued the Forest Service for failing to monitor 50,000 acres of wetlands and streams on the three million acre Gila National Forest, where officials have monitored only 28 percent of the streams in 15 years. "On some of Forest Guardians' recent visits to grazing allotments on the Santa Fe National Forest and Nearby BLM lands, we found streams that were choked by algae, and banks littered with cow fecal matter and devoid of woody vegetation," says Kristen Stade of Forest Guardians. "And these streams were deemed 'functional' by the agencies. Streams are the arteries of life in the arid southwest. Agency ignorance about the basic ecological status of these critical areas is inexcusable."

Government sources confirm that under the Bush administration, line officers in the BLM and Forest Service have been told to accommodate for ranchers needs. "There is extra pressure now under Bush for managers to look out for the ranching community," a source said.

Only rarely does a government employee speak out publicly, as did David Stewart, regional director for range management with the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque. In June of 2002. Stewart wrote in an internal memo that he had just witnessed large numbers of cattle "pulverize" habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, "potentially undoing many years of habitat improvement. This (is) a species for which we are trying to protect and improve habitat to hopefully avoid federally listing!"

Stewart's troubling memo was quickly leaked to the press, exposing a critical disparity in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision earlier in June to not list the Rio Grande cutthroat trout under the Endangered Species Act. The agency had cited "improved habitat conditions" as a reason why listing was not warranted. It even said "cattle grazing practices on public lands now provide better habitat protection."

But when Stewart toured the range on June 20 he found such improvements had not been made. Rather, prolonged drought and overgrazing had severely damaged habitat. "Nothing had been done, with once again, cattle being allowed to simply pulverize the resource," Stewart wrote. He called the forest "the most horrible example of grazing administration I've ever experienced in 35 + years with the FS."

Stewart ordered the cows off the Santa Fe National Forest by mid-July. But Stewart apparently has little support from his superiors, and many ranchers ignored the order. By the end of August only a few cows had been removed. By then, the Forest Service had not only weakened the order, but signaled that cows could stay until an independent range survey was complete, and officials in the "Washington office" could be consulted. Meanwhile, an "Executive Team and Incident Commander" was on its way to the scene. As for the 275 ranchers involved, on July 15 they staged a protest at Forest Service offices reminiscent of confrontations that rocked the Klamath Basin in 2001.

In an interview with Cascadia Times, Stewart said conditions are so dry, there's no water anyplace for the cattle to drink but in the rivers. "It does not bode well for the agency to allow that to go on in an excessive way," he says. "The cattle damaged the vegetation and streambanks in a way that should not be allowed to happen."

What's amazing is that Stewart still has a job. Not so the former BLM director in Idaho, Martha Hahn, who was ordered to relocate this year to New York City after ordering a slight reduction in grazing near the Owyhee River in southwest Idaho. The transfer apparently was the work of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who had long sought Hahn's removal and convinced top Interior officials to make the move, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Craig had denounced BLM's decision to restrict grazing in the Owyhee County as "an affront" that he would try to reverse. Craig's office admitted the senator was not happy with Hahn, but denied there had been a coup.

So much for holistic management. Stewart's findings follow those of several Forest Service officials who in 1997-98 publicly condemned the agency's flaunting of the law. "Livestock grazing on Southwestern National Forests is the major reason that ecosystems are deteriorating, species are near extinction and watersheds have lost much of their ability to yield high quality and quantities of water," Leon Fager, a 31-year service veteran, wrote in a Feb. 23, 1998, letter to then-Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck. Fager was head of the Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive Species program for the Southwest Region.

Jim Cooper, the region's fisheries chief, took early retirement in 1998 because he felt isolated inside his own agency and frustrated at its habit of reacting to, rather than preventing, crises over wildlife and habitat, he told the Albuquerque Journal. "There's a lot of rhetoric being tossed around about recreation and riparian areas being so valued. I hear a lot of talk but I don't see the walk," Cooper said. "While we're talking out of one side of our mouths, internally we're slam-dunking any biologist who speaks up and says, 'Hey, there's something wrong.' And that's basically why I left."

Douglas Barber, a National Forest supervisor in New Mexico, said when he retired in 1997 he had known for years that the grazing management system was broken beyond repair. "What we have is a comatose patient on life support and it's time to turn the machine off," he wrote in a letter to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM.

The agencies and ranchers are bolstered by the knowledge that their activities have strong support in Congress, no matter how much damage they might cause. This summer, congressional allies attached a "rider" to an annual Appropriations bill that would shield their grazing permits from environmental reviews when they are renewed, no matter how much damage is being caused. Earlier this year, the Forest Service announced that it would do no environmental reviews on grazing in the largest allotment in the Southwest, a 110,000-acre area in the Gila River headwaters -- even though the agency admits that area is one of the most severely overgrazed places in New Mexico and Arizona.

"Spotted owl of the desert"

It's been said that the end of public lands ranching won't come from politics. It will come from the courts. Environmental groups are determined to hold ranchers and agencies accountable for continuing to allow cows to ravage rivers and rangelands, and time and again they are winning. These groups believe the cow's existence is the problem, not cow management.

Laird Lucas of the Boise-based Land and Water Fund of the Rockies says he is highly selective with the cases he takes on, but he hasn't lost a one. The Center for Biological Diversity has won 127 of 194 lawsuits in 10 years. Many more cases are in the pipeline, in nearly every state.

The Western Watersheds Project of Hailey, Idaho, has won four major cases in Idaho establishing its right to buy state grazing leases to protect wildlife. It is now filing lawsuits in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. The Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend has won court protection for two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon, the John Day and Owyhee, and it persuaded Congress to protect a third, the Donner und Blitzen.

In one recent mega-case, Lucas sued the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management over 1,025 illegal water diversions in Idaho's Salmon River basin. The Forest Service has agreed to a settlement, while the BLM has not. Other critical victories in Idaho have taken cows off the Upper Salmon and put water back into the tributaries, where it's needed to nurture wild and endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

Many environmentalists see livestock grazing, as commonly practiced in the West, as an illegal activity. "If you were to hold the government accountable to the laws we have on the books now, most of the grazing would go away," says Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend.

Besides the Endangered Species Act, groups are using the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act to protect water from grazing. NEPA can force federal agencies to do a better analysis of grazing impacts, but the trick is to turn better information in to better decisions. The agencies are notorious for ignoring their own data. The courts have ruled that the Clean Water Act's most potent tool against pollution - the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit - doesn't apply to grazing. But other parts of the Clean Water Act might be useful, particularly Section 313, which requires federal projects to comply with state water quality standards.

Environmentalists sometimes lose, as they did in 2001 when a federal judge in Wyoming allowed the number of cows to increase in a tributary to the Bear River that is badly degraded, or in an Oregon case where they tried to regulate cows as point sources.

"We are going to keep pushing hard," says Lucas. "People are really starting to wake up to ecological impacts of grazing. They are so widespread, and they are so important in the riparian areas that are so valuable biologically. What you are seeing is more and more smart people using whatever tools they can to put pressure on the livestock industry and land management agencies. I just don't think that's going to change."

Western Watersheds' Marvel says his strongest case has not been filed yet. It will involve the sage grouse, which he calls the "spotted owl of the desert." A petition to list sage grouse throughout the West is pending before the Fish and Wildlife Service. Marvel predicts lawsuits will force the listing if the agency rejects it. More lawsuits will force the government to protect sage grouse after it is listed.

"Ranching in the West is effectively over on lands that are or have been habitat for sage grouse," he says. "There is no way in my opinion to manage these lands and protect sage grouse habitat," he says.

Even without litigation, the ranching industry in the West may continue to decline from other powerful forces. Even if the West's cattle leave the public's land, ranchers will still have access to vast expanses of private ranchland. About 70 percent of the western range is privately owned, including much of the prime, riverfront property. And even if western cattle ranching disappeared tomorrow, America's appetite for beef would still continue to be met. Only 3 percent of the nation's beef is grown in the West. Widespread damage to the West's rivers and public lands, the irreversible loss of native species, and spiraling taxpayer subsidies add up to an extreme price to pay for such a relatively thin slice of meat.

Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times. He is a co-author of The Clean Water Act: An Owner's Manual.