Ecological Debate

The Ecological Debate: Is Rangeland Livestock Grazing Destructive to the Environment?

Some hold that livestock grazing is destroying rangelands. Others believe that grazing is essential for the maintenance of healthy rangelands. Both could be right... or dead wrong. Our lack of knowledge and differing conceptions of what is healthy rangeland makes resolving these differences challenging.The answers are also likely to be site specific. Rangelands have different climates, topography, soils, and potential for producing vegetation and each site is embedded in its history of natural and human disturbances. Because of this, any two sites may respond quite differently to the same management. In addition, grazing can be done in many ways and subtle differences in management may produce surprisingly different results. Groups on both sides of the issue have put forth a battery of studies to support their overarching conclusions. Each work should be read with caution and an eye for substantial information.

What constitutes "healthy" rangeland?

  • New Concepts for Assessment of Rangeland Condition: The Society for Range Management (SRM) established the Task Group on Unity in Concepts and terminology which has developed new concepts for evaluation of the status of rangelands. These concepts are based on the premise that the most important resource on each ecological site is the soil. Journal of Range Management 48(3):271-283 May 1995.
  • Rangeland Health: This Natural Resource Conservation Service bulletin discusses ways to measure rangeland health and the need to develop indicators based on sound science, yet understandable to the public.

What impacts can livestock grazing have on the environment? - such as: How can livestock grazing affect riparian areas? How might wildlife be affected by livestock grazing? What might be the effect of livestock grazing on watersheds? What impacts can livestock grazing have on plant communities?

  • Cows and Fish: The Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Program is a partnership between Canadian cattlemen's organizations, Trout Unlimited, and various Canadian land management agencies. Basic information about riparian management, and links to community tools for cooperative efforts.
  • Effects of Livestock Grazing on Riparian Stream Ecosystems : Policy statement discussing the negative effects of livestock grazing and possible solutions.
  • Grazing and Haying CRP Lands: Research study on the productivity and economic potential of grazing and haying marginal, highly erodible land, as well as issues concerning the use of marginal lands in general.
  • Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife: A synthesis of important topics of grazing behavior including: Diet Selection, Habitat Selection, Wildlife & Livestock Grazing Interactions, and Manipulating Animal Behavior to Accomplish Management Goals.
  • Grazing Effects on Riparian Areas: Rangeland Watershed Program Fact Sheet No. 14. Documentation shows that cattle, given the opportunity, will spend a disproportionate amount of time in a riparian area as compared to drier upland areas. This may be 5 to 30 times higher than expected based on the extent of the riparian area.
  • Guidelines for Managing Cattle Grazing in Riparian Areas to Protect Water Quality: Livestock grazing in riparian areas is controversial. Many riparian areas in the United States have been mismanaged and degraded by improper livestock grazing. However, negative effects of grazing in riparian areas can be minimized or eliminated with proper management. Grazing management is the key to attaining the benefits riparian areas offer livestock while maintaining water quality standards and fully functioning riparian ecosystems.
  • Influence of Grazing Systems and Grazing Intensity on Nongame Birds in North Dakota Grasslands
  • Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance: Study coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Livestock production and processing often have been associated with negative environmental effects. This report identifies how to alleviate the negative and enhance the positive impact of livestock on the environment and thereby contribute to the sustainable use of the natural resource base.
  • Livestock-Big Game Relationships: Conflicts and Compatabilities: Competition between livestock and wild ungulates is an ongoing concern of both wildlife biologists and livestock operators. (In Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife. 1999. Idaho Forest, Wildlife & Range Exp. Sta. Bull. #70, Univ. of Idaho, Moscow, ID. 130-136.)
  • Livestock Grazing Impacts on Public Lands: In recent years, livestock grazing on public lands has been a subject of considerable controversey. Groups advocating or opposing grazing on public lands have often based their arguments on emotion rather than fact. A discussion of grazing impacts on public lands based on available literature is overdue. Journal of Range Management 34(3):251-254 May 1981.
  • Short-Term Response of Riparian Vegetation to 4 Grazing Treatments: Journal of Range Management 47(1):48-53 January 1994.
  • Watershed Restoration Success Story in the 'Show Me State: Photo survey of a restoration project in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri spanning 1935-2000.