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Recently the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commission voted to permit cattle grazing on the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Approval of livestock grazing on the WMA is based on the theory that a quid pro quo allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public land will reduce animosity towards wildlife that may inhabit their private holdings. I'm not aware of any study that has substantiated that theory.

As with almost all decisions to allow livestock on a wildlife area, the commission ignored the cumulative impacts of cattle on wildlife (all wildlife) as they are required by law to do, once again demonstrating that politics trumps science.

There is an abundance of studies that demonstrate that cattle diets overlap with elk diet. Depending on the study, cattle forage preferences overlapped with elk anywhere from 30-85%. Of course, every blade of grass going into a cow is that much less for an elk as well as other native herbivores.

MDFWP suggests that livestock grazing enhances forage quality for elk and that elk preferentially graze livestock areas. However, elk don’t “need” livestock to prosper. Elk survived centuries without the “benefit” of domestic livestock grazing. Elk in places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness or Yellowstone National Park persist quite well in the absence of cattle grazing.

Many other species depend on the forage grasses and forbs (flowers) that livestock consume from ground squirrels to grasshoppers to bees to butterflies. In heavily grazed areas, there is that much less plant life for food as well as hiding cover.

If cattle grazing results in a reduction in their numbers, this affects a lot of other species. Fewer grasshoppers might mean less food for trout. Fewer ground squirrels impacts birds of prey like hawks and eagles. Fewer bees may indicate less pollination of shrubs. Less cover may expose pronghorn or deer fawn to more predation. Whether these are a problem with the proposed livestock use of Spotted Dog WMA is unknown because there was no review or discussion by MDFWP.

One documented impact, however, is that cattle socially displaces native ungulates like elk and deer. Under a similar grazing system implemented at Fleecer Mountain WMA near Butte 94% of the elk locations were in pastures without cattle, suggesting that if given a choice, elk avoid cattle.

Cattle grazing of riparian areas seeps, and springs are yet another issue. Cattle evolved in moist woodlands. They spend an excessive amount of time in damp areas that are similar to their evolutionary habitat. Soil compaction that reduces water infiltration, along with bank trampling both reduce the size and effectiveness of wet areas, this negatively impacts water flows and native fish habitat.

Wetlands, seeps, and springs are also critical for native amphibians like Columbia spotted frog, snails, and many songbirds.

Cheatgrass, a highly flammable annual grass that has led to fires which is a significant cause for the loss of sagebrush ecosystems across the West has been documented on over 600 acres of the WMA. Cattle trample soil crusts. Crusts cover the soil and restrict seed establishment of cheatgrass. Cattle preferentially consuming native grasses results in a competitive advantage for cheatgrass, thus exacerbates the spread of exotic grasses.

Few areas in the state are livestock-free. The Spotted Dog WMA should remain one of them.

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist who previously worked for the BLM as a botanist.

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