©2002 Cascadia Times
10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry
Sweetwater River - Wyoming
the wetlands are lost
grazing is making the effects of drought more severe
along the Sweetwater River as it flows down the
eastern flank of the Wind River Mountains, near
the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express
trails, and past Independence Rock and Devil's Gate.
run over 1 million acres public lands north and
south of the river, trampling and overgrazing its
ancient riparian wetlands.
riparian wetlands may have formed as early as 2,000
years ago," says Ray Corning, a retired fishery
biologist who lives in Lander, Wyo. "Sheep
were grazed for many years in much of this area
with little lasting damage to riparian wetland areas.
All this changed when sheep were replaced with cattle
in the 60s and early 70s. Cattle grazing has nearly
eliminated the water retaining capabilities of the
various riparian wetlands in less than 50 years."
prevents the replenishment of dead organic matter
formerly supplied by sedges, grasses, and other
vegetation, says Corning, who at one time was principal
fisheries biologist for the Bureau of Land Management.
Most riparian wetlands of the Sweetwater Drainage
are in a perilous condition because of the rapid
rate at which this dead matter - known as humus
- is being eroded. "Conditions are further
exacerbated by overgrazed wetlands and surrounding
uplands, as former snow trapping abilities may have
been lessened by as much as 70 fold through decreased
vegetative height," Corning says.
consequences would be dire in normal years, but
severe drought has reduced flows in the Sweetwater.
By losing its wetlands, the river basin can store
much less water to cushion the drought's effects.
local drought that may be entering the third year
has only emphasized the importance of good functioning
wetlands," Corning says. "Well functioning
riparian wetlands could have made a significant
difference during this period of drought, both locally
and within Wyoming.
Sweetwater basin is habitat for sage grouse, an
imperiled species, and for antelope, elk and moose.
The lower valley is used by bald eagles in winter.
Peregrine falcons migrate and nest in the area.
White-tailed prairie dog towns provide potential
food for the nearly extinct black-footed ferret.
The Sweetwater River has high value habitat for
nesting and migrating mallards, sand hill cranes
and Canada geese.
unlike sheep, congregate on riparian wetland habitats
during hot weather for much of each 24-hour period.
Riparian and riparian wetland habitats are the coolest
areas during hot weather, and they provide the most
succulent forage for cattle.
2000, the first year of drought, the Bureau of Land
Management allowed cows to overgraze the valley.
In 2001, with conditions even more severe, the BLM
ordered cattle off a portion of the range by August
22. Ranchers accused the BLM of having a policy
of "save everything but the rancher."
BLM is now conducting an environmental rangeland
health assessment of grazing covering the entire
Sweetwater drainage. It also planned to conduct
an economic survey, but new BLM director Kathleen
Clarke shut it down after heavy lobbying by the