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WNPS Grazing of Domestic Livestock on Public Lands Policy


The primary purpose of this policy is to protect native plant species and their ecosystems by supporting appropriate grazing management practices on appropriate sites. WNPS seeks to collaborate with public and private land managers in order to promote grazing practices that are least harmful to native ecosystems and plant populations. The WNPS believes that native habitats that appear to be intact should be managed to support dynamic native plant and wildlife populations into perpetuity.


Policy Statement

  • The WNPS recognizes that livestock grazing can be a valid use of public lands.  However, grazing, like many other land uses, has potential adverse effects. 
  • The WNPS recognizes that responses to the effects of domestic livestock grazing are specific to ecological conditions and vegetation types. 
  • The WNPS would support livestock grazing on public lands in cases where a funded site-specific management plan, based on the best available science, is expected to protect native habitats and native flora.
  • The WNPS opposes grazing use where native plant communities will be degraded, with a long-term reduction in natural biodiversity.
  • The WNPS does not support the initiation of domestic livestock grazing on previously ungrazed habitats, particularly shrub-steppe and Garry oak habitats.
  • The WNPS favors a public policy that will reduce the adverse impact of grazing, particularly in shrub-steppe and Garry oak communities, on public lands in Washington state.


Botanists, plant ecologists and others concerned about native plants are interested in the whole suite of vascular plants, as well as the mosses, lichens, fungi and algae, which complete the biological setting that other organisms inhabit and use.  Ecosystems have evolved with complex interrelationships between the plants and animals in them. In the northwest, plants evolved without large populations of ungulates; as a result, native plants in the region are more sensitive to domestic livestock grazing than native habitats where large ungulates were historically present, such as bison in the North American great plains. Livestock grazing has a multitude of effects on native ecosystems, and potential negative effects can severely alter habitats, which are difficult to restore to natural conditions.

Areas with extensive and intensive, poorly managed grazing are widespread on public lands in Washington state.  Poor management is often the result of: grazing on lands that are sensitive; where funds are not available to either monitor for or mitigate damage; and/or where grazing is allowed due to improper administrative or political motivation.  Poor range management techniques can have negative affects on natural resources such as native plants and plant communities, pollinators, wildlife, and water and soils.

Less than 15% of the shrub steppe community is still biologically intact in Washington. (Noss et al. 1995)  Garry oak communities are of limited extent and also highly altered.  Current native plant communities in eastern Washington did not evolve with the continual levels of grazing pressure and the presence of noxious and non-native invasive species. 

The tradeoff between benefits and costs of grazing on public lands has long been an issue with WNPS members, public land managers and the public at large.  Public land managers (both state and federal), charged with increasing revenues from public lands, have often used grazing as another source of income from the lands they manage.  WNPS members have been concerned that the short term monetary gain from grazing may not justify the potential long-term negative effects to native plants and habitats or cover the potential increased cost of future management.

The WNPS recognizes the shared goals of ranchers and the WNPS to preserve natural open spaces, which contrast with the economic conditions driving natural open space loss through conversion for housing, agriculture or energy development.  In many cases, grazing may be a better land use than others with greater impact, such as development, that can result in permanent loss of wildlands. 

Issues and Concerns

Grazing is not compatible with biological resources on all sites.  Some sites are less resilient to disturbance or may harbor sensitive species.

Grazing can increase the distribution of invasive plant populations.  Grazing may also contribute to the risk of wildfire through plant community changes towards a more flammable system.

Use of grazing for weed control may have adverse impacts on residual native plants.  In sites with both native and non-native species present, native species are usually preferred forage by livestock.

In many cases, the long-term increased economic costs of weed control, soil loss, water degradation and loss of biological integrity is much higher than the short term economic benefit of grazing.

Monitoring and adaptive management practices are needed for grazed sites, but are frequently not implemented due to limited funding.

Adequate funding should be available when grazing is implemented on public lands.  Inadequate funding can prevent implementation of good management practices and of adequate monitoring and review.

The long-term cumulative effect of grazing practices are difficult to evaluate and quantify, such as reduction in natural biodiversity or the loss of native flora, because of the numerous disturbance factors present in the Columbia Basin over the past 100 years.  However, current and historic grazing practices contribute to ecological impacts.

On state and federal lands, inadequate required environmental review (NEPA/SEPA project analysis), out of date policies, lack of management plans and inadequate reviews, feedback and follow through of those plans, may not provide adequate protection of threatened, rare or endangered plant species and other natural resources.

The regulatory mechanism to reduce the amount of grazing on an allotment, or to close vacant and unused allotments, is not in place or applied.



  1. Recommends development of formal decision-making criteria for, and the application of, appropriate grazing practices based on ecological conditions, such as the specific ecosystem and site grazing history.
  2. Recommends that previously ungrazed lands determined to be in excellent condition, are not grazed in the future. This is particularly important for shrub-steppe and garry oak habitats because of their limited extent.
  3. Recommends that sensitive ecological areas (such as riparian areas, wetlands, or rare plant habitats) are protected using appropriate practices (such as exclosures, managed intensity, duration and timing, or movement of animals).
  4. Recommends that grazing practices allow for flowering and sexual reproduction to provide for long-term viability of native plants.
  5. Recognizes that management decisions must be made to accommodate political or economic realities (such as human communities or land acquisition opportunities).  With this in mind, the WNPS recommends the development of decision-making criteria for a grazing regime that accommodates political necessities, while affording the highest possibly protection to native plants and their habitats.
  6. Recommends that use of grazing for weed control should be applied carefully and monitored to preserve native plants and habitats.  Use of grazing to control weeds may be most appropriate in permanently altered, non-native communities.  Plant communities that have experienced significant alteration, such as invasion by exotic plants, should be managed where possible, to return them to a more natural state.
  7. Recommends to the extent possible, restoration to a more natural state, or rehabilitation to a more productive state, of significantly altered plant communities. Adequate monitoring followed by adaptive management may prevent the need for restoration or rehabilitation. 
  8. Recommends a system of consistent monitoring and review that allows the grazing regime to be altered when necessary.
  9. Recommends that agencies build a system that provides adequate funding for all appropriate grazing management and monitoring practices.  Hidden costs that can be barriers to appropriate management, and which should be included in funding plans, include mandated environmental compliance (NEPA/SEPA), monitoring, fencing, and weed control.
  10. Recommends that the costs and benefits of grazing should include both the return from grazing and the long-term costs of weed control, soil loss, water degradation, developing water sources, and loss of biological integrity.  Short-term monetary return of grazing should not be the only consideration.
  11. Recommends that the availability of water for both grazing and ecological needs, particularly during drought-year scenarios, should be considered.
  12. Recommends that federal agencies cancel permits and make inactive those active allotments that are unused, with the intent of eventual closure and cancellation.


Brady, W.W., M. R. Stromberg, E. F. Aldon, C. D. Bonham, and S. H. Henry. 1989. Response of a semidesert grassland to 16 years of rest from grazing. Journal of Range Management 42(4):284-288. 

Chambers, Jeanne C., Bruce A. Roundy, Robert R. Blank, Susan E. Meyer, and A. Whittaker.  2007. What Makes Great Basin Sagebrush Ecosystems Invasible by Bromus tectorum? Ecological Monographs 77(1):117–145.  

Fleischner, Thomas L. 1994. Ecological costs of livestock grazing in Western North America. Conservation Biology 8(3) 629-644. 

Kauffman, J. Boone, Andrea S. Thorpe, and E. N. Jack Brookshire. 2004. Livestock Exclusion and Belowground Ecosystem Responses in Riparian Meadows of Eastern Oregon. Ecological Applications 14(6):1671–1679. 

Kleiner, E.F., and Harper, K.T. 1972. Environment and community organization in grasslands of Canyonlands National Park. Ecology 53:299–309. 

Loeser, Matthew, R. R. Thomas, D. Sisk, and Timothy E. Crews. 2007. Impact of Grazing Intensity during Drought in an Arizona Grassland. Conservation Biology 21(1): 87–97. 

Lyman, R. Lee, Steve Wolverton (2002). The Late Prehistoric–Early Historic Game Sink in the Northwestern United States. Conservation Biology 16 (1), 73–85.

Mack, R. N. And John N. Thompson. 1982. Evolution in steppe with few large, hooved mammals. American Naturalist 119(6): 757-773. 

Milchunas, D. G., O. E. Sala and, W. K. Lauenroth. 1988. A generalized model of the effects of grazing by large herbivores on grassland community stucture. American Naturalist 132:87-106. 

Milchunas, Daniel G. 2006. Responses of plant communities to grazing in the southwestern United States.General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-169, USDA. 

Morgan, J.T. and T.M. Lloyd. 2001. Management Recommendations for Washington’s Priority Habitats.  Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA.

Noss, R. F., E. T. LaRoe III, and J. M. Scott.  1995.  Endangered ecosystems of the United States: a preliminary assessment of loss and degradation. Biological Report 28.  U.S. National Biological Service, Washington D.C., USA. 

Parker, J. D., D. E. Burkepile, and M. E. Hay. 2006. Opposing effects of native and exotic herbivores on plant invasions. Science 311:1459-1461. 10 March, 2006. 

Ponzetti, Jeanne, and Bruce McCune. 2001. Biotic soil crusts of Oregon's shrub-steppe: community composition in relation to soil chemistry, climate, and livestock activity. The Bryologist 104 (2): 212-225. 

Reynolds, T. D., and C. H. Trost. 1980. The response of native vertebrate populations to crested wheatgrass planting and grazing by sheep. Journal of Range Management 33:122-125. 

Vander Haegen, W. Matthew. 2007. Fragmention by Agriculture Influences Reproductive Success of Birds in a Shrubsteppe Landscape. Ecological Applications, 17(3): 934–947. 

Westoby, M. 1980. Elements of a theory of vegetation dynamics in rangelands. J. Environ. Manage. 1: 151-167. 

Wisdom, Michael J., Mary M. Rowland and Lowell H. Suring, Editors. 2005. Habitat Threats in the Sagebrush Ecosystem: Methods of Regional Assessment and Applications in the Great Basin. Alliance Communications Group.

Adopted: October 18, 2008

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Updated: March 5, 2015
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