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This page last updated February 08, 2009

RangeNet Project
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Page 3: Grazing in Utah's Great Basin
by: Christopher "Chris" Christie
February, 2000
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.


The Great Basin - Rather than a single basin, the Great Basin Desert actually consists of a series of basins and north-south trending fault block ranges, totaling about 165,000 sq. mi. in area from crest of California’s Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch range in Utah & from the southern edge of the Columbia river drainage in the north to the edge of the Colorado river drainage on the south. Rivers in the region flow neither to the Pacific nor to the Atlantic, but into the many basins of Oregon, Eastern California, Nevada and Utah. (Parts of southern Idaho are also included in some delineations.) These include Harney and Malheur Lakes (OR), Owens Valley and Mono Lake (CA), Pyramid and Walker Lakes and the Carson Sink (NV), Sevier Lake, Great Salt Lake and the rest of prehistoric Lake Bonneville in Utah. Precipitation ranges mostly between 4 - 10 inches, higher on some ranges, most of which comes in winter as snow. Winters are cold and summer is quite warm to hot. Drying winds are frequent. Soils are often alkaline or saline due to evaporation and accumulation of salts in these ancient basins. Since the pleistocene, the native plant species, particularly the grasses, of the Great Basin have not evolved under heavy grazing pressure and, under the conditions that exist in the Great Basin, have not fared well under post-settlement domestic grazing pressures.

From the first decade of the century until the Great depression, such pressures included millions of sheep that sometimes used the same Great Basin land as hundreds of thousands of cattle in Utah and Nevada. Due to the aridity, temperature extremes and soil composition, these are fragile and easily disrupted desert ecosystems. (See discussion in Donahue, The Western Range Revisited, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999) Unfortunately, these same ecosystems have been abused by livestock grazing since the 1840’s, with heavy damage beginning by the 1860’s. Changes in plant community composition and plant distribution appears to have been substantial, but base line data is spotty to nonexistent. We do know that degradation has been extensive and continues at a lowered intensity in ecosystems that now exhibit diminished productivity and biodiversity. So great has been the damage over so much of the Great Basin that, in the face of scant data on presettlemet biodiversity, it is a fair question to ask if we may have lost some species that we never knew existed.

In Utah, 59% of the mammals, 28% of the birds and 38% of the reptiles and amphibians occur on the salt deserts. Some commonly known animals that make their homes on the Great Basin include pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, kit fox, badgers, several owls, golden and bald eagles, ferruginous, swainson’s and red-tailed hawks, sage grouse, jackrabbits, desert collared and leopard lizards, gopher and rattlesnakes. The factor that most adversely affects wildlife populations over the long term is the loss, in quality or quantity, of suitable habitat. The primary cause of habitat degradation in the Great Basin (besides human population expansion) is livestock grazing.

In the pictures below, the second and third pictures are of desert shrub communities, that while not pristine, are in pretty good shape for areas subjected to livestock in Utah’s Great Basin. Such areas and the surrounding mountain ranges would certainly be eligible for any regional biodiversity preserve system. These two pictures can serve as general comparisons for later pictures of more commonly encountered scenes. The lands in these pictures are all administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and those in Millard County are under the care of the Fillmore field office.

Picture 1. Great Basin Cattle Country. This picture is of Wheeler Peak, 13,063 ft, 8,000’ above valley floor, in the Snake Range (Nevada). In the foreground is Snake Valley-Ferguson Desert and a salt-desert shrub community, this one dominated by greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) on saline and/or alkaline soils. Great Basin National Park is half of a complete and functional Great Basin landscape level system because it includes only a portion of the range (Snake Range). The basin, the Snake Valley and northern edge of the Ferguson desert in the foreground, is winter range for many wild ungulates and is outside the park, mostly in Utah.

Picture 2. Mixed Desert Shrub Community. This picture shows a mixed salt desert shrub community under light to moderate cattle grazing in the Ferguson Desert/ southern Snake Valley (Millard County) consisting primarily of shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia), low sagebrush which is dying out on this site (Atemesia sp.), winter fat (Krasheninnikovia [Eurotia] lanata), a sprinkling of mormon tea (Ephedra sp.) and very few perennial grasses. The perennial grasses are few on this site because it is grazed out by cattle.
Desert allotments grazed by cattle generally have only pauperized perennial grass populations and the lack of grass is a clear signal that it is being grazed by cattle with a preference for grass, even if the usual widespread and noticeable damage is not present.

Picture 3. Three Tule Valley Great Basin Shrub Communities. This picture, taken in south Tule Valley, Millard County, shows three different plant communities. The first is the green Indian Rice Grass (now Achnatherum hymenoides) with the smaller, interspersed reddish cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum); the second is the gray-green winter fat (Krasheninnikovia [Eurotia] lanata) community; and past that is the darker green shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia). This section is part of a winter sheep allotment, thus the presence of the rice grass community, as sheep generally prefer to feed on shrubs and forbs.

 Pictures 4, 5, 6 and 7 - Wrong Animal, Wrong Place. The cows on what is left of this damaged salt desert shrub community (Picture 4 Cruel & Unusual Punishment) on Fish Springs Flat, House Range Resource Area, deserve our sympathy, but those who allowed them to be put in this unsuitable environment do not. Because most of the forage is found on nearby springs that the cattle have ruined biologically, they are able to survive, but their browsing damages the shrub community and there are few native perennial grasses as compared to nearby sheep allotments.
Previous damage from sheep feeding on this allotment left large bare areas and a serious infestation of the poisonous exotic weed, halogeton, which can be seen in the foreground. Probably because halogeton is more poisonous to sheep than cattle, this allotment is now subjected to further damage by cattle grazing, having been converted from earlier use as a sheep allotment.

Dead cows (Picture 5 Dead Cow ) are commonly found littering the Great Basin and other landscapes in Utah and the arid West. Given the unsuitable conditions they are expected to exist in, it is no wonder. This expensive water development is on the Stott-Rowley allotment, Warm Springs Resource Area, in Millard County. Mr. Rowley, who is the local BLM Field Manager and not the person the allotment is named after, told me that the allotment was named for a deceased relative of his. (The Assistant Field Manager, who has been known to hang poetry from Range magazine on her office wall, is from a ranching family.)

Picture 6 (Moonscape) is of Petersen Well, managed by the Warm Springs Resource Area, in Millard County. Like a pioneer rancher cited in Donahue’s book said: “Grazing livestock take the most flavorful forage first, and when those forms are killed out they adjust their tastes to the kinds of lesser nutrition. This process under a regime of unlimited grazing goes on until in a tragically short time the vegetation left alive on ranges of six to twelve inches of annual rainfall bears little resemblance to the original forms.”
Most of the native plant communities near this cow-poxed moonscape are severely degraded or missing altogether. In recent decades livestock grazing has helped spawn serious die-offs of shrub communities in the eastern Great Basin thought to be caused by the exacerbation of environmental stresses by livestock grazing practices.

Picture 7, (Tough Times) of the Stott-Rowley allotment, shows the bleak situation of disturbance and weedy species invasion created by livestock grazing and to which riparian adapted cows in the Great Basin are expected to adjust. The plant material in the foreground is tumbleweed and tumble mustard, both exotic weeds. The light areas behind the cows are cheatgrass and tumble mustard infestations.

(Continued on page 3b)