Brandon Loomis' article in the Sept. 2 Salt Lake Tribune, "Some fear conservation plans do more to help ranchers than birds," raised the issue of livestock grazing and its impact on sage grouse. Government agencies are giving livestock grazing a free pass while focusing on oil and gas.
Loomis' article was based on our visit to Rich County to view effects of grazing and to talk about habitat for sage grouse. It was clear from that visit that grazing had removed the vast majority of grasses and flowers that sage grouse depend upon for cover and for food, aside from creating massive soil-erosion problems and loss of productivity.
What is forgotten in the state's addressing of sage grouse impacts is the history of habitat alteration on Western public lands and national forests to accommodate grazing. Tens of millions of acres of habitat have been lost to livestock-induced cheatgrass invasion and subsequent fires, seeding of crested wheatgrass, burning and spraying of sagebrush all to generate forage for livestock.
In addition, thousands of miles of fences fragment habitat across the West, providing perches for hawks to use in hunting prey, including sage grouse. Sage grouse are killed when they hit these fences. Further damage is incurred by the loss of thousands of miles of streams with their associated meadows needed by sage grouse for brood rearing.
Further damage is the heavy and unsustainable grazing of livestock that removes the cover needed by sage grouse and other animals across millions of acres.
While oil and gas exploration certainly has impacts, and restoration from these activities is questionable, the footprint of oil and gas is minuscule compared to the hundreds of millions of acres damaged by livestock on both public and private lands. Our watersheds are eroding and losing their water storage capacity; our streams, reservoirs and canals are filling with sediment due to livestock grazing.
Habitat for many species is being lost, deer and elk are displaced, wolves and other predators persecuted, pets and people are placed at risk by trapping and poisoning, small birds and mammals lose their habitat, fish populations are diminished, and it goes on.
Agency scientists have published their research going back to the 1940s that provides science-based guidance for managing livestock that would recover much of this damage and would be sustainable, yet state agency managers refuse to use this valuable information because it would mean reducing numbers of livestock, closing unsuitable areas to grazing, and resting overgrazed lands.
Our Western politicians rally to ranchers, defending the status quo at all costs, while ignoring the costs to taxpayers in lost water supplies, direct subsidies to ranchers on public lands, lost fish and wildlife and the economic benefits they provide.
Early work at Utah State University revealed the problems of livestock on sage grouse populations in the late 1930s. Our visits to forests and Bureau of Land Management lands across Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and Colorado show that these impacts are near universal.
It is time for politicians and agency managers to use the science we have known for generations and manage the land sustainably.
John Carter is manager of nonprofit Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Mendon, Cache County. Y2uconn@hughes.net