Grazing on National Wildlife Refuges

Kirby, et al. reviewed domestic livestock grazing on national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in 1992. Although their study is somewhat dated, it remains the best compilation of data on the subject. Citing various surveys, the authors reported that grazing occurred on 183 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System (38 percent of total units in 1992). The authors noted that on 64 of these 183 units, the Service has little or no authority over grazing activity because it is a "reserved use" managed by another agency or a reserved or granted property interest owned by individual graziers (often grazing was a condition the Service had to accept in order to acquire the land to create a wildlife refuge in the first place).

A 1990 survey of refuge managers by the Service Compatibility Task Group exposed grazing as a harmful use on almost half the refuges where it occurred (76 refuges). Of these, managers claimed that grazing damage on 56 refuges resulted from the limited Service ownership and/or control of the refuge lands being affected. Loss of nesting cover, habitat destruction/degradation, and prevention of waterfowl production goals were most identified as the consequences of grazing abuse.

A few refuges that have exclusive control of grazing on refuge lands are taking steps to permanently end grazing within the preserves. Most others are unable to do so because they are constrained by multiple use mandates, grazing agreements or similar easements, or political pressure to maintain grazing programs.

Myriad studies have confirmed grazing is generally an incompatible use of the National Wildlife Refuge System, including one published by the Conservation Committee of the Wilson Society (1978), two published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1981) (1989), and the Service Compatibility Task Group survey (1991). A plethora of independent ecologists have also criticized grazing on national wildlife refuges: Ferguson and Ferguson (1983), Fischer (1985), Wuerthner (1989), and Drew (1992).

A voluntary grazing permit buyout program could help reduce conflicts between grazing and conservation goals on national wildlife refuges. Voluntary buyout would be especially useful to end livestock grazing on national wildlife refuges where the Service desires to do so, but has no jurisdiction over the grazing activity.


Braun, C. E., K. E. Harmon, J. A. Jackson, C. D. Littlefield (Conservation Committee of the Wilson Society). 1978. Management of national wildlife refuges in the United States: its impacts on birds. Wilson Bull. 90: 309-321.

Coleman, R. A., N. Fuller, J. P. Mazzoni, et al. (Service Compatibility Task Group). 1990. Report to the Director: A Review of Secondary Uses Occurring on National Wildlife Refuges. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Washington, DC. 232 pages.

Drew, L. 1992. Wrangling for change on the range. Nat. Wildl. 30(2): 46-49.

Ferguson, D. and N. Ferguson. 1983. SACRED COWS AT THE PUBLIC TROUGH. Maverick Publ. Bend, OR. 250 pages.

Fischer, H. 1985. A new problem in the Old West: grazing on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. West. Wildlands 11(1): 8-11.

GAO. 1981. National direction required for effective management of America's fish and wildlife. RCED-81-107. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC. 93 pages.

GAO. 1989. National wildlife refuges: continuing problems with incompatible uses call for bold action. RCED-89-196. General Accounting Office. Washington, DC. 84 pages.

Kirby, R. E., J. K. Ringelman, D. R. Anderson, R. S. Sodja. 1992. Grazing on national wildlife refuges: do the needs outweigh the problems? Trans. 57th North Amer. Wildl. & Nat. Res. Conf.: 611-626.

Wuerthner, G. 1989. Public lands grazing: what benefits at what cost? West. Wildlands 15(3): 24-29.