For over a century, cattle have grazed local national forest lands in the mountains during summer and early fall. Well-managed grazing can result in fairly minimal impacts; however, CSERC staff often document conditions where livestock have dramatically degraded public lands. We repeatedly find over-grazed meadows, chiseled streambanks, riparian areas trampled and pocked, and other resource impacts.
Like many issues, however, livestock grazing on public forest land is not a simple issue to resolve. National forest grazing produces benefits for local ranching families who use public forest lands to supplement their foothill ranches' forage. Ranchers claim that this theoretically keeps more foothill ranch lands in agriculture, instead of ranching families choosing to sell their lands for development (such as new subdivisions). Grazing on public forest lands is also a legacy often passed down from one generation to the next.
Issues with livestock overgrazing
Instead of attempting to halt all livestock grazing on public land, CSERC has spent the past 29 years trying to improve grazing management on the Stanislaus National Forest. Much of our work focuses on persistent watchdog monitoring.
Our staff measures key plant species to monitor how much forage livestock are consuming in meadows to gauge whether compliance is being met under Forest regulations. We take photos throughout the grazing season to produce photo evidence of livestock impacts to meadows and stream areas. Staff biologists collect water samples from streams to measure livestock contamination of water quality.
Despite CSERC’s efforts to reduce livestock impacts, local Forest Service policies continue to allow intensive cattle grazing without adequate safeguards for plants, wildlife, and water resources.
After striving for improved grazing practices for over two decades, CSERC staff has recently shifted to advocate a strong position against all livestock grazing in the upper elevations of national forest lands in the Sierra Nevada region. Due to the short growing season and more fragile habitat of the higher elevation meadows, we urge a halt to livestock grazing above 7000' elevation. These high elevation meadows also provide habitat for two recently federally listed amphibian species, the Yosemite toad and Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, making these areas a high priority for monitoring and protection.
In 2018, 44 meadows were visited by CSERC staff scientists who photo-documented conditions pre and post-grazing, and measured percent utilization along transects in 22 meadows. Measurements showed that at 72% of the transects the utilization standard had been exceeded. Trampling, chiseling, and pocking of streambanks, seeps, springs, ponds and other wet areas were common. Stream channel entrenchment was the long-term problem most often observed, and most meadows suffered from some degree of entrenchment and/or headcutting.
Forest Water Sampling
Downstream of cattle grazing, water can often be contaminated by fecal matter, which contributes to high levels of pathogenic bacteria like E. coli. During the grazing season, CSERC staff test water samples from forest streams to determine whether the bacteria contamination poses risks to people. CSERC follows a rigorous scientific protocol approved by the State Water Board, and has published three peer-reviewed research articles since 2011 discussing the elevated bacteria in waters downstream of cattle grazing. To read more about these efforts, see our page on testing and protecting water quality.