Hunters, fishers need to demand better federal management of public land

Livestock have decimated parts of the arid West

December 10, 2022 5:30 am
water low in creek

Cattle have decimated the creek in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in southern Oregon. (Courtesy of Adam Bronstein)

I have been hunting and fishing on public land in the West for over 20 years, and I can tell you through experience that where there are cows, the quality of fishing and hunting has been severely impacted. Where there are no domestic livestock, there are many more trout, elk, deer and moose. 

Cows and sheep are invasive species and ecological misfits in the arid West. Bovines were first domesticated in southeast Asia and were exported to the European continent where the climate was wet and grass was plentiful. Cows outcompete ungulates like elk, deer and antelope for these scant resources. Social displacement of ungulates by livestock further shrinks the usable space for wildlife. The dewatering of natural springs and surface water for livestock troughs and pipelines leave wildlife parched and vulnerable, forcing them to travel longer distances for water and risk drowning in manmade tanks and drinkers. 

Barbed wire, scornfully referred to as “the Devil’s Rope” by western Native American tribes during early settler colonialism, stretches for thousands of miles across the landscape impeding animal migrations and risking mortal injury and maiming entanglements to those crossing through the gauntlet of fences. Thousands of sage-grouse, a once frequently-hunted game bird,  are decapitated each year by flying into strung wire. The fencing directly injures hunting dogs and humans who dare to pass through. I don’t know a single chukar (game bird) hunter who doesn’t have a harrowing story to tell about an emergency visit to the vet after their dog was injured by barbed wire. 

The West is iconic for its native trout, salmon and steelhead populations that are sought after by anglers who directly benefit from healthy habitat. Domestic livestock wreak havoc on streams and rivers, threatening the health and survival of self-sustaining salmonid populations. Livestock decimate streamside vegetation that provides shade to keep waters cool and provide habitat for terrestrial insects, an important component of a trout’s diet, and crush undercut banks that provide refuge for fish, spreading out stream channels that warm more quickly and deoxygenating the water. Livestock set off cascades of erosion processes in the uplands too, leading to silt in streams, lower water quality and suffocating fish eggs.  

Hunting and fishing in livestock-degraded landscapes and ecosystems takes a toll on the spirit. For me, the discontent goes well beyond knowing that fish and game numbers are being diminished. Seeing and experiencing the impacts from livestock on what would otherwise be untamed wildlands is psychologically painful. It greatly diminishes my experiences and deprives me of a deeper connection with the natural world.

As a concerned group of public land users, hunters and anglers must start making their voices heard by demanding better from our federal land management agencies. We are a powerful economic force so we should play a greater role in decision making. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in 2019 hunting and angling in Oregon generated $1.2 billion in spending. Public lands grazing generated $134 million in state economic activity, a mere five-one-hundredths of 1 percent of Oregon’s economic output while contributing to less than 2% of the beef we consume in the state. 

Sportspeople – and the whole web of life – would be better served by conservation of healthy fish and wildlife populations instead of perpetuating destructive livestock grazing which only benefits the few at the expense of the many. It’s time to start raising our collective voices.

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Adam Bronstein
Adam Bronstein

Adam Bronstein is the Nevada-Oregon director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.