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This page last updated February 08, 2009

RangeNet Project
Project WPLGAlbum

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.

Picture 8. Great Basin Sheep Camp. Great herds of hundreds of thousands of domestic sheep (John Muir’s “hooved locusts”) overran the great basin in the 1890’s, and had done serious damage by the 1930’s. Today, sheep range over portions of the Great Basin during late fall to early spring, even though early spring browsing of new growth is known to do more serious damage than winter grazing.

Picture 9. Abandoned Sheep Trough, Ruined Land Livestock watering sites, often referred to as “sacrifice areas,” are subject to severe overgrazing. The native plant communities that once inhabited this site on BLM land in Toole County have long since been replaced by cheatgrass and weeds for as far as the eye can see. Many such valleys or smaller areas can be found. Degraded or destroyed plant communities are the rule, not the exception in Utah’s Great Basin.

As James A. Young and B.A. Sparks have noted, “The native vegetation lacked the resilience, depth, and plasticity to cope with concentrations of large herbivores. The plant communities did not bend to adapt; they shattered. This tends to make the review of grazing in the sagebrush/grasslands a horror story, resplendent in examples of what should not have been done.” From Cattle in the Cold Desert, 1985. This is perhaps even more true with reference to the salt desert shrub communities of western Utah.

Picture 10. Halogeton. Halogeton (Halogeton glomeratus) is thought to have been unintentionally introduced from southern Russia in about 1930. It was first identified in the Great Basin in 1935. It is poisonous to sheep, especially when it is actively growing, but is less poisonous to cattle. It had invaded millions of acres in the Great Basin by 1950. Millions of these Great Basin acres were then planted with non-native crested wheatgrass (Agropyron desertorum) between 1945 and 1965 to suppress the halogeton.

Picture 11. Pronghorn. This picture shows pronghorn antelope crossing halogeton and cheatgrass degraded range that was once a mixed salt desert shrub community. (Near Thomas Range) Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), the only large herbivore to inhabit all of the Great Basin prehistorically, must compete with sheep and cattle for forage and living space. Due to the direct effects of overgrazing by livestock, and grazing’s indirect effect of increased fire frequency, cheatgrass and halogeton have displaced native forage plants over hundreds of thousands of acres.
Great Basin ranges are thought to support only a small fraction of the pronghorn they are capable of supporting. Competition with livestock for winter forage and space, habitat elimination and alteration, sheep fencing, and (arguably), dewatering of springs and streams contribute to the lower numbers.

Picture 12. Sheep Fence. The heavy mesh sheep fences in the Great Basin not only restrict the movement of sheep, but they also restrict the free movement of pronghorn. These fences become a barrier because pronghorn try to go under a fence rather than jump over it. In severe winters, thousands of pronghorn have died in Wyoming after being trapped on the wrong side of sheep fence. One can imagine that they come in handy for predators of pronghorn as well. The once wide open landscapes and ecosystems of the west are now criss crossed and fragmented by thousands of miles of fence because of livestock use.

Picture 13. Ungrazed Great Basin Spring. Coyote Spring is a periodically ungrazed spring in the Great Basin. While some desert animal species have evolved mechanisms that allow them to exist utilizing metabolic water, many animals in the arid Great Basin are dependent on the water or habitat provided in rarely occurring desert riparian communities for their survival. They are also important to the migratory success of birds passing through the Great Basin. Compare this currently ungrazed spring to those that follow.

. Picture 14. Grazed Spring. Cane Springs, on Fish Springs Flat, like many grazed springs on the Great Basin look more like festering wounds than life giving oases for desert animals. The disrespect their treatment represents for desert life is so total that it seems almost incomprehensible. The small square of fenced vegetation in the background is the BLM’s idea of nature’s share, but fencing is so infrequently maintained that even its survival is tenuous. Because so much of the usable forage on many allotments is in rare spring and other riparian areas, they are certain victims of severe abuse. This problem was brought to the attention of the BLM in 1995 but a visit to the area in 2000 revealed that little had changed except for the addition of a few cow carcasses. (see page 3d)

Picture 15. Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. This picture (15) of devastation in 1995 would not be particularly unusual to find in the Great Basin, but I was surprised to find that it was on the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. North Spring is in the background.

Picture 16. North Spring on the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. In 1995, the wildlife refuge was allowing cattle to graze a part of North Spring and adjacent land as they traveled on south toward Cane Springs. Note the removal of vegetation and heavy algae bloom caused by nutrients from cattle wastes polluting the water. The refuge has recently fenced off access to the spring itself- not because of complaints - but because of a transplant program to bring back an endangered Utah chub.

Picture 17. Resource Protection or Livestock Operation? This is a picture of the Skunk Spring area in the Warm Springs Resource Area of the BLM Richfield District, just outside the boundary of the Conger Mountain WSA, Confusion Range, Great Basin of Utah. The springs were actually inside and outside of the WSA, but they have been completely dewatered for an extensive livestock watering project, including the pond below the corral, and really no longer exist in any biologically functional way. The native vegetation has been wiped out and replaced by halogeton (foreground), cheatgrass, tamarix and other weeds. The BLM claimed that they had reseeded the area and that sheep are now kept out, but there is no evidence of even a remotely successful restoration. It is just another indication of how scarce water sources and spring riparian areas have been destroyed and altered in the arid west because of livestock grazing.

(Continued on page 3c)