May 1, 2000

The Beef with Livestock

National Parks

Grazing is allowed at about three dozen parks and preserves. Although the practice is legislatively mandated, it frequently causes conflicts with wildlife and natural resource policies. The clash is most apparent at Grand Teton National Park.

LAST AUTUMN, a traveler from Tuscany came to America with hopes of catching a glimpse of the "Wild West." His imagination whetted by the classic outlaw movie, Shane, Daniele Tiezzi decided to hike in Grand Teton National Park not far from where the motion picture had been made half a century earlier.

Yet as the young Italian walked through the park and posed for a photograph in front of the spectacular mountains, he was rudely awakened by the clashing values of the Old and New Wests. Confronted by an angry Jackson Hole cowboy working for a local rancher, Tiezzi was ordered to leave because his presence, he was told, might frighten cattle grazing inside the national park boundary.

For wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind, who accompanied Tiezzi on the hike and who oversees the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance in Wyoming, the incident provides proof that livestock still are treated as sacred cows in some parks--even when the domestic animals dash with native wildlife, the National Park Service's mission of landscape preservation, and enjoyment for park visitors.

Although the National Park Service (NPS) is working to phase out grazing in some parks--notably Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Channel Islands National Park--others continue the practice and may in fact be extending it at parks such as Grand Teton. Some three dozen different parks and preserves began the 21st century with nonnative livestock grazing inside their borders, and at least another four sites allow grazing through agreements with the Bureau of Land Management.

Even as the National Park Service works to change the policy--a tedious and expensive process--Congress sometimes works to continue it. Led by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N. Mex.) and Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), some members of Congress have tried to stall grazing reforms, in some cases authoring legislation that would solidify the grip of livestock grazing on public lands in the West.

But a growing chorus of prominent ecologists posits that no single human activity has negatively affected the arid West more than livestock grazing.

In addition to land, grazing has a tremendous impact on riparian areas and their inhabitants. Of the 12 Western states that have a state fish, eight are considered endangered mainly because of grazing.

A 1994 study by the National Wildlife Federation tided Grazing to Extinction found that grazing contributed directly or indirectly to a minimum of 340 species listed or becoming candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In the arid West, the federally protected desert tortoise has been especially hard hit by grazing. Beginning this year, NPCA has made examination of the real costs of grazing in parks a primary component of its State of the Parks program, established to identify threats to biological diversity as well as the health of natural systems and the condition of historical parks.

"Cattle grazing in national parks is an incompatible activity, given what the parks were established for, especially in as spectacular a park as Grand Teton where the needs of native wildlife should be preeminent," says Tony Jewett, NPCA's northern Rockies regional director. "Cattle compete with native wildlife, degrade native plants, and disrupt visitor experience. The longer cattle persist in these parks, the longer there is going to be conflict."

Jewett notes that some units of the system, such as Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana, were set aside specifically to celebrate the history of frontier-era farming and ranching, but they are exceptions.

The National Park Service is being forced to confront a prickly and politically volatile question: What legitimate presence, if any, should livestock have in parks?

Debra Donahue, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, is the author of a scathing critique of livestock grazing titled The Western Range Revisited (University of Oklahoma Press). Donahue is also an academically trained biologist.

"One of the only reasons that cattle remain in many national parks and many Forest Service wilderness areas is the incredible political clout that the livestock industry wields in Congress," she says. "There is little or no scientific justification that can be made for livestock grazing in parks."

In all cases where grazing persists, it is legislated by Congress. Compromises were struck to ease tensions over fears that new national parklands would be "locked up" and unavailable for traditional local uses. Grand Teton provides a vivid example. The park was carved out of the picturesque valley of Jackson Hole when livestock still ruled the range. Over the years, many cattle allotments in Grand Teton have been phased out, and "those that remain are supposed to end upon the death of the beneficiaries named.

Camenzind puts the Grand Teton impact in perspective. The park, he says, spends more than $40,000 annually to maintain these allotments, and it receives about $8,500 a year in grazing fees. The cost to graze the same cattle on private land in Jackson Hole would be about $81,900, meaning that the ranchers enjoy more than $70,000 in subsidies each year.

"And what does the public get?" Camenzind asks. "We get unnecessary conflicts between cattle and federally protected grizzly bears, which resulted in a grizzly being killed inside the national park. We got a very intensive and expensive surveillance of a wolf den in the national park because it was near the cattle. We get thousands of acres of national parkland infested with alien weed species and a corresponding depletion of biodiversity. We also get over 100 miles of fences in our national park, much of it crisscrossing major wildlife habitat and migration routes. In all, the arrangement results in an almost complete loss of winter forage on about 2,700 acres and a severe depletion of forage on another 5,600 acres. This is forage that should be available for buffalo, elk, pronghorn, and other wildlife."

Park spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo says the park has not ignored Camenzind's concerns.

"Grand Teton was born of extraordinary political compromise and one of the compromises involved the continuation of livestock grazing. Sometimes short-term compromise is necessary to accomplish long-term objectives."

George Helfrich, a management assistant in the superintendent's office who is working on an environmental review of grazing, says that grazing was established as a legitimate use in the park by Congress, which means the park itself cannot unilaterally act to end it. Scientists, he says, have differing views on whether cattle cause all of the problems asserted by Camenzind, but one thing is certain. As wolves and grizzlies continue to recolonize, conflicts with cattle are likely to increase.

Recently, park officials have made overtures about extending the leases for grazing in Grand Teton, arguing that helping to keep large ranches in the valley is important to protecting open space and wildlife habitat. If ranchers lose access to grasslands inside the park, they say, the agrarians may have no other choice but to subdivide their pastures and pave them over with development. Currently, the park is in the midst of a congressionally funded study to determine the relationship between cattle grazing and the protection of open space and wildlife habitat surrounding it. Congress also is considering an appropriation to buy conservation easements on adjacent ranches that would benefit Grand Teton's bison, elk, and pronghorn.

"I say there are alternative ranching operations that could be adopted that would free up the parkland and give it back to wildlife," Camenzind says. "We could take the dollars currently used to subsidize the permittees [ranchers] and buy winter hay or pellets for the cattle."

"Instead we give the park forage to the cattle," Camenzind continues, "and buy winter feed for our elk and buffalo on the National Elk Refuge. And throughout all of this, the permittees have made no guarantee that they would keep their ranches operating and in open space. I think protecting open space is as important as phasing cattle out of the park. I just do not accept that the two are inextricably linked."

Every park that has livestock grazing inherited it as part of the arrangement for the park's creation. Conservationists understand that deals were cut to assuage local citizens who opposed park designation; however, continuing the practice has merely extended a protracted struggle.

In desert parks such as Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, where precipitation is minimal, it might take hundreds of acres of land to sustain a single cow, where in other, moist parts of the country, a few cows can subsist on a single acre of green pasture. It means that in the desert, the limited forage that cows consume and the patterns of their movements can cause severe stress for other plants and animals.

In these two parks, as well as Great Basin National Park in Nevada, the Park Service is having success at eliminating what were once extensive grazing allotments, but the process is far from complete.

At Mojave National Preserve, which supports prime desert tortoise habitat, the preserve had been encumbered with livestock grazing leases on 1.25 million of its 1.6 million acres. Within the last year, according to John Reynolds, the western regional director of NPS, the Park Service has been working on a project that could allow NPS to buy out the first set of grazing rights and has received a significant commitment in private pledges to buy out the remaining rights.

At Death Valley National Park, the largest park in the lower 48, the situation is just as positive. According to NPCA's Defending the Desert, a report released last fall on the anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, the Park Service had eliminated two-thirds of the grazing in the park. Last year, the Park Service canceled the Last Chance grazing permit because of the rancher's lack of compliance with existing regulations. Additionally, the park is canceling grazing on parcels that connect to larger allotments on neighboring BLM lands. This would leave the park with only one area open to grazing.

Studies collected on lands analogous to Mojave and Death Valley show a clear correlation between cattle and environmental destruction. The Park Service's own resource guidelines recognize "the pervasive quality of grazing impacts on park resources" and cite a long list of resource concerns, including vegetation changes, water quality degradation, and degradation of cultural resources.

Johanna Wald, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "It is well established that livestock grazing can have significant adverse effects in arid environments like the Mojave National Preserve."

Unfortunately, individual park superintendents do not have the power to take action, says Reynolds. Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, section 2.60, prohibits "the pasturing or grazing of livestock in a park area, except as specifically authorized by statute, as required under a reserved right, or as conducted as an integral part of a program to maintain an historic scene. In all the parks where we have cattle, it is authorized by Congress."

Although the hands of NPS personnel may be tied to some degree by Congress, Helen Wagenvoord, NPCA's associate director of the Pacific region, says the agency has an impressive arsenal of laws at its disposal to counter some of the worst effects of grazing. These include the Organic Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Over the past few years, the Park Service has made some impressive gains in eliminating grazing from some parks where it had been most entrenched.

"Where we have been working pretty diligently is trying to arrange situations where it is beneficial for the ranchers with grazing arrangements to phase out over time," says Reynolds. "Where we have had financial partners to help facilitate the transition, the success rate has been pretty high."

Reynolds cites the recent withdrawal of cattle from 46,000 acres in Great Basin in Nevada--although sheep grazing continues--after ranchers were compensated for their allotments. In January 2000, grazing also was phased out of the Cades Cove meadows in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee after 70 years. These actions, in the East and West, are considered potential models for remedying the ongoing conflict with cattle.

NPCA's Southwest Regional Director David Simon says the land use history of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico demonstrates why intensive livestock grazing is incompatible with parks in the parched West. In arid environments, cattle have especially insidious effects because they reduce native grasses and their hooves break open the thin cryptogamic crust that anchors native plants and serves as a protective layer against wind and water erosion.

In 1879, 140 cattle were grazed in the entire state of New Mexico. Four years later, aided by the arrival of the railroad, which could ship animals to market, there were 1 million head, and a decade after that, millions more swarmed public lands including the landscapes of future parks.

"In Bandelier, the scars caused by cattle, sheep, and burro hooves are written deep into the land," Simon says. "Many believe the park is in intensive care, suffering from a combination of grazing, climate change, and fire suppression. The last burros were pulled out of Bandelier in the 1970s, and 20 years later the park is beginning to figure out how to grapple with all the problems," says Simon. "Overcoming the wounds is going to cost a lot of money, but who should be responsible for fixing it? It's like a Superfund site where nobody wants to pay the bill."

In response to public pressure, the Park Service has assigned Kathy Davis, a resource specialist based in southern Arizona, to draft a report on park grazing issues that could form the basis of a national management policy.

For tourists like Daniele Tiezzi, any reforms will not occur soon enough. He now realizes that the frontier mentality that shaped cowboy classics is not a fiction. In the "Wild West," including some of America's finest national parks, the jingle rings true: Cattle is king.

TODD WILKINSON lives in Bozeman, Montana, and is a frequent contributor to National Parks. He last wrote about the decline of the California sea otter population.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Parks and Conservation Association