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This page last updated February 08, 2009

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Page 17: Federal Rangeland "Management"
Manages to Destroy the Environment

by: Range Watch
1996

Disclaimer: The locations of photographs in  this album have not been determined through survey. Due to the intermingled nature of land ownerships throughout much of the west, some photographs where the context or caption imply or otherwise indicate government ownership may actually be located on intermingled or adjoining private lands.

Surrounded by Sequoia National Forest ... and Cow Feces
In a mile-high forest in a remote corner of California's Tulare County, surrounded by the Sequoia National Forest on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is Poso Creek.

 

Polluted Waters Flow By
Poso Creek is clear and looks picturesque and visitors to a nearby bed & breakfast are drawn to t he appealing stream. However, they must be warned that the water is too polluted with bacteria from cattle feces for wading, fishing, let alone drinking. The water coming off the Sequoia National Forest has been measured with fecal coliform bacteria levels five times the State of California's standard for water contact recreation.

During the grazing season, when cattle trample streambanks and wade in waters upstream, Poso Creek turns the color of coffee. The sediments introduced into the stream by cattle reduce the productivity of the habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms.

 

Cattle Related Sediments in the Stream Cause Problems
Because fish need clean gravel in which to spawn and lay their eggs, stream sediments caused by grazing create problems. The unnatural silt and sand fills in spaces between gravel, reducing the flow of oxygen to fish eggs and smothering gill-breathing invertebrates which the fish need for food. With continued grazing, vegetation which provides shade is consumed and the resultant solar heating increases water temperatures. With ongoing trampling, the stream becomes wider and shallower, leading to higher water temperatures. High water temperatures kill fish eggs. 

 

An Ungrazed Stream has Clean Spawning Gravel
This photograph of a stream in Yosemite National Park shows naturally occurring gravel which is good spawning for fish eggs. With no commercial grazing and livestock-related sediments, grasses provide protective bank cover.

 

The Cows Upstream
Through a gate and just a hundred paces upstream from the bed & breakfast on Poso Creek is an entirely different vista composed of shades of brown. Here, the Sequoia National Forest is commercially grazed by private cattle. Nationally, the government's grazing program costs taxpayers between $200 million and up to half a billion dollars each year.

Here, the streambanks are damaged. There is no vegetation to provide habitat for song birds, mammals and amphibians. In the words of writer Edward Abbey, this creek is "cow burnt." Silt and sand clog the creek because the vegetation has been trampled or eaten by cows for more than a century and a half. It no longer can act as a filter, to catch and hold sediment before it enters the creek. On this creek, healthy streamside vegetation should be providing habitat for the important rare furbearers which use the area's creek as transportation corridors. The vegetation also provides vital habitat for insects on which fish feed.

 

Downstream, Things Aren't Any Better
Only shouting distance downstream from the bed & breakfast, Poso Creek looks terrible -- especially if you were a turtle, frog, fish, or a bird like the willow flycatcher that needs willows in which to nest.

 

Upland Areas Are Also Livestock Damaged
The livestock damage isn't limited to the stream areas. It is easy to find overgrazed, barren, unprotected, eroding hillsides a short walk into the National Forest. Using video, Range Watch's Jane Baxter is documenting soils at risk due to improper livestock grazing. Notice the old, stunted Mountain Mahogany plant. Each year all the new growth is cropped, leaving it in a bonsai-like condition. This process is called "hedging." Ungrazed, these plants grow up to fifteen feet tall.

 

Where Cows Don't Graze, It Gets Green Again
However, about a mile upstream in the National Forest, you find more stretches of lush, green, healthy vegetation. Why? Protruding granite rock formations make this stretch of creek inaccessible to cattle.

 

An Ungrazed Meadow
This ungrazed meadow in the Sequoia National Park has vegetation growing three to four feet high, with some plant species standing head height. A healthy meadow acts as a giant sponge, helping to store water for gradual release during dry periods of summer and fall. Meadows such as this one are vital habitat for forest wildlife (especially fish and deer) and are highly valuable to the montane ecosystem.

 

A Similar Grazed Meadow
This similar grazed meadow in the Sierra National Forest has been scientifically matched to the one above by the U.S. Forest Service for elevation, exposure, slope, and hydrology. Its vegetation is not even ankle-high. The meadow looks more like a golf course than a vital habitat for forest biodiversity. In a healthy meadow, water flows slowly and is not disturbed or damaged by livestock hoof punctures, compaction, or tears in the fabric of the meadow sod. Both these above photos were taken during the same week in October.

 

Another Overgrazed Meadow
This is a heavily grazed meadow in the Sequoia National Forest at the end of the grazing season. The vegetation is less than two inches, and the growing season is over so there will be no regrowth this year. It is easy to figure out which meadow you would choose if you were a mother doe trying to hide a young fawn. 
 

Well, you've seen the difference between grazed and ungrazed ecosystems. You've seen examples of how livestock, when improperly managed, can cause severe ecosystem damage. Unfortunately, mismanaged rangelands are all too common. The law governing public lands mandates that no use in an ecosystem (like livestock grazing) shall be allowed to diminish other uses (like fishing, wildlife habitat, or recreation). But intent of the law has been betrayed, and subsidized grazing continues to damage our public lands.