The Myth About Livestock Waters on Western Public Lands

stock tank
Stock tank, Tonto National Forest, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

Several years ago I accompanied some U.S. Forest Service staff on a horseback inspection of a livestock grazing allotment located in the arid Superstition Mountains of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. As we neared a muddy stock tank perched on a chaparral-covered hill we scared off several mule deer that were taking a drink. The District Ranger turned toward me in his saddle and told me how glad he was that livestock were allowed to graze public lands, because the deer would be scarce if there weren’t any livestock waters.

The theory that the wildlife species native to the West’s arid ecosystems depend upon livestock waters for their survival is a popular one. Many federal land managers are willing to believe it. Their environmental assessments of grazing allotment management plans often warn that eliminating livestock grazing would harm local wildlife populations because the livestock waters wouldn’t be maintained.

Most ranchers also seem to believe it, and they frequently offer it in defense of livestock grazing on public lands. I’ve even had ranchers tell me there was hardly any wildlife in Arizona before ranchers arrived and “improved” the land, which is, of course, ridiculous (Davis 1982).

The idea that wildlife depend upon livestock waters is so prevalent there’s a conservation group called the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society that works with the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) to try and increase bighorn sheep numbers by constructing permanent water holes in the Sonoran desert.

Statewide, the AGFD maintains more than 725 wildlife waters at an estimated annual expense of about $400,000.

Dead rock squirrel that drowned in a cattle watering tank that lacked a wildlife escape ramp on the Tonto National Forest’s Cave Creek Ranger District, June 2018. (Tim Flood)

Despite all this, there’s surprisingly little scientific evidence to support this belief – and much that contradicts it. Even long-time proponents of livestock waters question their effectiveness (Brown 1997; Krausman 1997). For instance, a review of the AGFD bighorn sheep water development program (Broyles 1995) conducted in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge concluded, “It has not been shown that these developments are necessary, beneficial, or without harmful side effects.”

Another study conducted in southern New Mexico (Burkett and Thompson 1994) compared wildlife populations at 20 sites that had man-made waters with the same number of similar sites lacking permanent surface water. They found that, “definitive effects of artificial water sources on native wildlife species were not detectable.”

And another study conducted in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert  (Krausman and Etchberger 1995) looked at desert mule deer and bighorn sheep populations in the area of the Central Arizona Project canal before and after its construction. They found that, “additional water was not important to the deer or sheep populations.” And a more recent study of mule deer distribution in arid environments (Marshall 2006) found that forage quality was the most important habitat component, and additional livestock waters had little effect.

There are also studies suggesting livestock waters may have negative effects upon native wildlife. For example, they may provide habitat for invasive fish, bullfrogs, and crayfish that can get washed into streams during floods (Sponholtz 1997), and non-native species are the primary factor in the decline of native fish and amphibian species in the West (Simms 1997).

Building new livestock waters in upland areas is often justified by claiming they will lure cattle away from ecologically important riparian bottomlands. But cattle are bred to be lazy critters and are unlikely to climb a sunny hill in the heat to get a drink when the they can stay in the shade of a tree along a stream. Research has shown (Carter 2017) that upland water sources in the arid West don’t attract enough cattle out of riparian areas to allow these important habitats to achieve full ecological health.

The construction of new livestock waters is also used to improve livestock distribution on the uplands. The idea is to spread out the livestock more evenly to reduce overgrazing in areas where the animals like to congregate. It can help overused areas recover from overgrazing, but it can also bring the negative ecological impacts of grazing to new areas that were historically too dry for livestock use (McAuliffe 1997).

Still, the idea that more water means more wildlife sounds intuitively good. It’s an easy concept for hunters and hikers to believe because they know one of the best places to spot wildlife is around water holes. But just because animals congregate around water holes doesn’t mean they’re relying on that water source for their survival. For example, how often have you stopped to take a drink from a water fountain just because it was convenient?

Fetid stock tank, Coronado National Forest, AZ
(Jeff Burgess)

But what about all of those biologists warning us the majority of the West’s wildlife depend, in some way, upon riparian areas for their survival? Livestock waters rarely support significant amounts of riparian habitat. Many of them are so trampled by cattle they are considered ecological sacrifice zones.

Numerous studies have shown it’s the amount and quality of suitable habitat that has the most influence upon wildlife populations. For instance, AGFD research showed that Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelli) don’t need surface water, and the quantity and quality of forage was the most important limiting factor on quail populations (Gallizioli 1961). In other words, water is just one component of wildlife habitat, and most Western U.S. wildlife species are adapted to its scarcity.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Elk, for instance, behave much like cattle and livestock waters constructed by ranchers have helped them inhabit hotter and drier areas where they were historically scarce or nonexistent. It’s ironic, because ranchers often complain that local elk populations need to be reduced because they’re competing directly with their cattle for available forage.

The bottom line is the ecological effects of building livestock waters should be objectively considered. Sufficient vegetation to provide quality cover and forage appears to be more important than surface water for most arid land wildlife species. New livestock waters are very expensive and on public lands they are typically built with public funds. In most situations, it would be cheaper for the taxpayers if federal land managers would simply cut permitted livestock numbers to achieve natural resource goals.


Brown, D.E. 1997. Water for Wildlife: Belief Before Science. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Broyles, B. 1997. Reckoning Real Costs and Secondary Benefits of Artificial Game Waters in Southwestern Arizona. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Burkett, D.W., and B.C. Thompson. 1994. Wildlife Association with Human-Altered Water Sources in Semiarid Vegetation Communities. Conservation Biology 8(3):682-690.

Carter, J., Catlin J.C., Hurwitz, N., Jones, A.L., and J. Ratner. 2017.  Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas . Rangelands Volume 39 (3-4):  112-118.

Davis, G. P. 1982. Man and Wildlife in Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, AZ.

Gallizioli, S. 1961. Water and Gambel quail. Arizona Game and Fish Department Bulletin. Phoenix, AZ.

Krausman, P. R., and R.C. Etchberger. 1995. Responses of Desert Ungulates to a Water Project in Arizona. Journal of Wildlife Management 59(2):292-300.

Krausman, P.R., and B. Czech. 1997. Water Developments and Desert Ungulates. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Marshal, J.P., V. C. Bleich, P. R. Krausman, M. L. Reed, and N. G. Andrew. 2006. Factors Affecting Habitat Use and Distribution of Desert Mule Deer in  an Arid Environment. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34(3):609-619.

McAuliffe, J.R. 1997. Rangeland Water Developments: Conservation Solution or Illusion? Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Simms, J. 1997. Some Effects of Stock Tanks on Aquatic Biodiversity in Arizona Streams. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Sponholtz, P.J., D.C. Redondo, B.P. Deason, L.M. Sychowski, and J.N. Rinne. 1997. The Influence of Stock Tanks on Native Fishes: Upper Verde River, Arizona. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.

Dakota Access Pipeline Victory May Only Be Temporary

Dakota Access Pipeline
Oil Pipeline Construction (Wikipedia)

Protestors trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota were victorious on December 4, 2016, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to permit the pipeline to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil beneath Lake Oahe.  The U.S. State Department had previously approved the pipeline with a controversial determination that it wouldn’t substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The protests against the DAPL began in April when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone Camp to accommodate pipeline protestors near the mouth of the Cannonball River, where it empties into the lake. The primary objective of the protestors was to protect the lake from oil spills because it’s the source of the tribe’s water supply.

They used the slogan, “Water is Life.” But their protest soon grew into much more, and became a worldwide focal point for indigenous rights and climate change activists. Thousands of people joined the camp, including representatives from hundreds of tribes, making it the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. About 2,000 veterans of the U.S. military also traveled to the camp intent on forming a human shield to protect the protestors from police attacks.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The Corp of Engineers explained they were denying a pipeline easement beneath the lake so they could conduct a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) in which alternative routes would be explored. An EIS is the most rigorous type of environmental study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. NEPA requires federal agencies to complete environmental studies of all their projects, using a public participation process that analyzes the environmental effects of various alternatives.

The Corp of Engineers has a say in whether a pipeline can be permitted beneath Lake Oahe because it has jurisdiction over public waterways and the lake is a reservoir on the Missouri River. The Corp had already completed an environmental assessment (EA) for the DAPL, a less rigorous type of NEPA study that’s typically used for projects with fewer significant issues. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation considered an EA to be inadequate for this project, and asked the Corp to complete an EIS.

The incoming Trump administration, however, will probably try to make the Corp reverse their decision to conduct an EIS, or even worse, work with the Republican-controlled Congress to revoke or eviscerate NEPA. This would have serious consequences on U.S. public lands administered under the multiple use doctrine by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands – comprising about 193 million acres. The BLM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages about 30 million acres, including 221 wilderness areas and 23 national monuments. NEPA is the primary mechanism by which Americans participate in the management of these lands because it requires federal land management agencies to conduct publicly reviewed environmental studies for their plans and projects. Without NEPA, the public would have little or no effective input on proposed mining operations, drilling operations, timber cuts, recreational activities, or livestock grazing schemes.

The scope of the potential danger is best illustrated by taking a closer look at the situation in regards to livestock grazing on public lands. The BLM administers more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments, while the Forest Service has almost 6,000 grazing permittees. Public lands grazing is, by far, the most ubiquitous use of U.S. public lands, occurring on more than 200 million acres, mostly in the West. Subsequently, it’s also the commercial activity that inflicts the most widespread ecological damage on public lands. Even with NEPA, the public typically gets to review and comment on a grazing operation just once every 10 years – the term of a federal grazing permit. Without NEPA, even that modest opportunity would be gone.

But death of NEPA as we know it would do more than threaten the ecological health of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. As mentioned above, a NEPA study must also be conducted when a proposed project might adversely affect a public waterway, even when the project is located on private land.

These are just some of the examples of the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s often been referred to as the environmental Magna Carta because its stated purpose is to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation.” If the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are allowed to neutralize NEPA, the U.S. will have crossed over an ideological threshold to a dark domain where the only thing that really matters is money.


In January of 2017 newly elected President Donald Trump issued an executive order to make the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reverse their decision under the Obama administration to complete a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) of alternative routes for the DAPL, and then had them issue a permit to allow the pipeline to be drilled beneath Lake Oahe.

On June 14, 2017, federal judge James Boasberg ruled that the Corp of Engineers was, indeed, required to complete an EIS for the DAPL on the Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline, however, had already been built and the judge didn’t order it to be shut down while the EIS is completed.

On November 8, 2018, a federal judge in Montana halted construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline after finding that the EIS the Trump administration completed for the project completed was inadequate.

Privatizing Public Lands is More Republican Kookery

Republicans have launched the biggest attack on America’s public lands since President Ronald Reagan gave political legitimacy to the Sagebrush Rebellion by appointing James Watt Secretary of the Interior in 1981. Earlier this year they passed nonbinding budget resolutions in the U.S. Senate and House that suggested privatizing public lands by giving them to the states.  And Republican legislatures in several Western states have passed measures promoting the distribution of federal lands to the states. This new assault is being supported by the American Lands Council, with support from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers. ALEC recently released a disingenuous report which claims the states would be better environmental stewards of the Western public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service, while simultaneously increasing their economic production.

western public lands by state
Smokey Bear Was Wrong

The growing frequency of catastrophic wildfires on Western public lands is the cornerstone of Republican claims that the states would be better environmental stewards. This isn’t a fair criticism of federal land management, however, because American forestry suffered from bad science until relatively recently. Ecologists now understand that many ecosystems are fire-adapted, and depend upon periodic low-intensity wildfires to maintain their health.

But for many years land managers used Smokey Bear to promote the idea that all forest fires were bad. The resultant suppression of natural fire regimes is the primary reason that many forests on public lands are now unnaturally dense with trees, making them more susceptible to catastrophic fires. Higher summer temperatures and lower humidities from climate change are also contributing to the situation.

The most prevalent activity on Western public lands, however, is livestock grazing. The ALEC report claims there’s “ample evidence” that the states would be “superior” environmental stewards of public lands. But the Western states have very poor reputations when it comes to managing grazing on their state lands.

The Arizona State Land Department, for instance, manages approximately 9.2 million acres of State Trust lands and the vast majority of it is leased to ranchers for livestock grazing. The department does little to implement livestock management plans and the state’s grazing lands are widely considered to be in poorer shape than local grazing allotments administered by the BLM and Forest Service. In fact, the department has such a bad reputation in regards to livestock management that in the 1980s it willingly participated in land exchanges which traded hundreds of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive state lands to the BLM because everyone understood that federal agency would do a better job of protecting them. (And they have.)

The other claim that proponents of privatizing public lands make is that economic production could be increased on them if they were given to the states. This argument begins with a complaint that it isn’t fair for the federal government to own so much land in the West. They point to the fact that public lands comprise more than half of the land in three Western states, and at least a fifth of it in all of them, and this supposedly hurts the local rural economies.

According to ALEC, “The federal government’s control over so much land in the western states is inconsistent with America’s longstanding doctrine of the inherent equality of all states. This important principle is violated by allowing the eastern states jurisdiction over the vast majority of their lands but denying the same to the western states.” But the reason so much land in the Western states is still owned by the federal government is that nobody wanted it because it was too mountainous and/or dry.

The pattern of federal land ownership during the westward expansion from the original 13 colonies was set by the passage of the  Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. After the claims of local Native American tribes were extinguished, the government surveyed the land and sold it, except for some parcels that were given to the states to support public schools.

Special natural places on federal land began to be set aside when the Yellowstone Act of 1872 created Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed federal land to be set aside to establish national forest reserves to preserve important watersheds by requiring controlled timber cutting. In 1905 the Forest Service was created to manage these lands, now called National Forests.

Those federal lands that weren’t set aside for the common good were still available to settlers. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave people the opportunity to obtain ownership of a parcel of federal land without having to buy it. All they had to do was live on the land and prove they had farmed it for five years. Despite these generous terms, only about 40 percent of the applicants succeeded in getting a land title because, by 1862, most of the unsettled lands were in the arid West and not suited for agriculture.

In 1946 the BLM was created to manage most of the land that hadn’t been set aside and was still owned by the federal government. President Herbert Hoover had proposed to deed these lands to the Western states in 1932, but they declined his offer, complaining that it would cost too much to manage them.

Commodity Producers Oppose the Multiple Use Doctrine

This new Republican assault against public lands is being fueled by the relatively recent success that conservationists have had in getting long-standing environmental laws applied on most federal lands. They include the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, Endangered Species Act of 1973, National Forest Management Act of 1976, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976. These laws changed the management of public lands by making commodity production just another use, instead of the dominant use that it was for many years. They defined a new multiple use doctrine, wherein all activities shouldn’t be permitted on all public lands, and the objective of public lands management isn’t necessarily the maximization of commodity production – but to identify the appropriate mix of uses that are in the best interests of the general public. In other words, a fair and common sense strategy.

It’s taken many years of social activism and federal court cases filed by conservation groups to get things changed on the ground, and this struggle still continues in some localities. An example of the local political opposition these laws have faced is shown by the Clinton administration’s Rangeland Reform ’94 initiative to update public lands grazing regulations. The promulgation of these new rules took place many years after the laws they codified were passed by Congress.

Old school Westerners who were easily able to profit off public lands dislike the new ethical paradigm represented by the implementation of the multiple use doctrine. Ranchers holding federal grazing permits have been especially stubborn, as evidenced by the recent behavior of rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada when the BLM attempted to enforce the law.

The Fossil Fuel Industry is Funding the Attack

This latest attack against public lands taps into this resentment, but its real impetus comes from deep-pocketed oil and natural gas producers. New hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies have created a boom in fossil fuel exploration and production and the industry doesn’t like the federal environmental regulations that apply to their operations on public lands. Earlier this year, for example, Congressional Republicans introduced the Federal Lands Freedom Act, which proposes to give the states the power “to control the development and production of all forms of energy on all available Federal land.” Fossil fuel producers obviously think it would be easier for them to deal with state regulators, and they’re probably right about that. For instance, the primary reason Arizona Republican legislators supported the creation of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in 1986 was to allow the state to try and take over the enforcement of national environmental laws from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the tacit understanding that state enforcement would be more lenient.

Public Lands Are a Treasure, Not a Burden

The argument that federal lands, as they are currently managed, are burden upon rural economies in the West needs to be closely examined. An often heard claim is that local governments with lots of public lands within their boundaries cannot collect sufficient tax revenue because federal lands are exempt from private property taxes. But in 1976 Congress also created the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program to provide payments to them to offset the lost tax revenue. Arizona, for example, received more than $30 million in PILT funds during the 2014 federal fiscal year.

A fair assessment of the economic production from public lands must take into account everything they produce. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, fishing in Arizona generates an estimated $831.5 million on equipment and trip-related expenditures annually, while hunters account for an additional $126.5 million in retail sales. Watchable wildlife activities, the agency says, generate another $1.5 billion. Together they generate more than $115 million in state tax revenue. The Outdoor Industry Association says that all forms of outdoor recreation in Arizona generate $10.6 billion in consumer spending annually. A very large portion of these activities occur on Arizona’s public lands.

Less tangible benefits from public lands must also be considered. One of the original reasons for the creation of National Forests, for instance, was to help protect municipal watersheds. This continues to be important in the arid West where many cities, such as Phoenix, rely upon upstream reservoirs for their water supplies.

Public lands also harbor reservoirs of biodiversity, and biodiversity is the foundation of the food chain that supports human life. Public lands will become increasingly important for preserving biodiversity because scientists say we have entered the Anthropocene Epoch in Earth’s history, wherein humans are having an unprecedented impact upon the planet. Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, along with demands put upon natural resources by the growing human population, are combining to damage and destroy entire ecosystems. The millions of acres of undeveloped public lands in the West are the best hope for many American plant and animal species.

The Bottom Line

The existing multiple use doctrine allows for mining, logging, grazing, and drilling activities to occur on federal lands – but only where they are appropriate and only when they comply with environmental laws. This wise philosophy is the real target of the proponents of turning public lands over to the states. They want to go back to the not-so-distant bad old days, when commodity production monopolized public lands. They don’t have the support of the general public, as shown by the defeat of Proposition 120 in Arizona in 2012. This measure was placed on the ballot by the Republican-led legislature and called for the state to unilaterally declare it’s control over its federal public lands. It was soundly defeated, with 67.7% of the voters rejecting it. Privatizing public lands is just more right-wing Republican kookery.

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