Commercial Beef Cattle in America’s National Parks: Are You Serious?


Many people would be surprised to hear it: There are commercial beef cattle in national parks? Most definitely: More than a dozen of America’s national parks carry “grandfather clauses” that allow privately owned beef cattle to eat and trample national park resources while their owners pay just a token fee to lease these grazing privileges from the National Park Service.

What’s worse, legislation passed last month in the U.S. House of Representatives includes language from a bill known as the “Grazing Improvement Act of 2012.” This legislation would double the length of time commercial beef cattle ranchers can graze their animals inside national parks and other public lands, from ten to 20 years.* This sweetheart deal has high costs for the parks’ wildlife, vegetation, and cultural heritage—and for the National Park Service’s annual budget. The impacts of grazing inside national parks include degradation of wildlife habitat, pollution of streams and rivers with cattle urine and feces, the spread of invasive plant species, and trampling of Native American archeological sites. Park Service officials are denied permission to reintroduce native predators, such as wolves and cougars, to protect the economic interests of surrounding ranching communities, while beef cattle that were never part of the natural landscape freely browse parks.

As one national park superintendent told us, “There are commercial beef cattle in the park right now eating endangered plants that, if you dug one up, I’d arrest you for it.”

A 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study (PDF) revealed that the National Park Service spends $410,000 per year to accommodate commercial beef cattle production inside our national parks, especially in the arid western states. The minimal fees the Park Service is allowed to charge not only fall short of fees ranchers pay to lease neighboring private lands, but also fail to cover the parks’ expenses in restoring trampled stream beds, controlling non-native species, and repairing park fences felled by wandering bovines. In Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah, for example, ranchers pay $1.35 per month for a cow and calf to graze on national park lands. By contrast, a human camper pays $300 per month to camp in the park, and few of them feast on the park’s vegetation.

Some non-profits have bought out commercial grazing leases but then discovered that they were still required by law to continue grazing cattle on those public lands. We need federal legislation that would allow NGOs to purchase grazing allotments, remove the cattle, and restore the park landscapes . Ranchers’ long history of keeping cattle throughout the West—a traditional and even romanticized practice in many places—is not compatible with protected public land. These parks belong to all Americans and must be preserved for generations to come.

Alternately, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis could sign Directors Order 77-3, a written agency rule that would allow superintendents to remove livestock from national park land if the animals are damaging park resources. In national parks that have ended their commercial beef cattle operations, native vegetation and wildlife populations have quickly blossomed back to their previous, healthy conditions.

Meanwhile, the Senate must reject the so-called “Grazing Improvement Act.” Extending beef cattle leases on public lands from one decade to two would not only fail to solve the problems created by beef cattle grazing in our national parks–it would make the situation twice as bad.


National Park Units with Commercial Beef Cattle Grazing

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (CO)
Buffalo National River (AR)
Capitol Reef National Park (UT)
City of Rocks National Reserve (ID)
Coronado National Memorial (AZ)
Death Valley National Park (CA)
Dinosaur National Monument (CO)
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (UT)
Grand Teton National Park (WY)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area (NV)
Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (WA)
Mojave National Preserve (CA)
Point Reyes National Seashore (CA)

*An earlier version of this post reported that this bill was pending in the House of Representatives. It was in fact amended to H.R. 2578, the Conservation and Economic Growth Act, and passed in June, though the legislation has yet to be introduced in the Senate. We regret the error.

About the Author

Madeleine Starkey is executive assistant for NPCA.

About the Author

Former Vice President for the Center for Park Research Dr. James D. Nations

James D. Nations, Ph.D., is former vice president for NPCA's Center for Park Research

  • Stephanie Vesey

    This has gone on too long! The parks and national forests, belonging to ALL Americans should NOT be used to benefit businesses.

  • Kathrine Jenkins

    The commercial beef cattle (ie private ranchers) should never be allowed to “rent” our national parks or “BLM” land (someone needs to let the BLM know that it is NOT THEIR LAND–it belongs to the PUBLIC! Leave the land for the wildlife–this includes the wild horses and the bison. The cattle and sheep do nothing to benefit the land. It is only “free” summer grazing at taxpayer expense. Call your representative and let him/her know that you are against this!

  • Kristin

    So what do we do about it?

    • Heather Edwall

      Legislatively, I don’t know. It’s difficult because the ranchers are entrenched and have very powerful lobbyists in Washington. However if we could somehow take away the demand for their product altogether, we’d be starving the beast in terms of funds and they would need less land to graze fewer cows. Boycott beef!!! Or, at least let’s all reduce our consumption. It’s not actually that good for you anyway. :)

    • Bill

      Exactly … to whom do we write? Let’s have a little guidance here.

  • Judy

    The answer to “what can I do” is to email or write your state representatives in congress. Tell them if HR4234 comes out of committee, to please vote against it. Then don’t just intend to write or email, actually do it. Thanks.

    • Jennifer Errick

      Great comments & advice. Correction to my earlier comment: This legislation passed the House of Representatives but has not yet been introduced in the Senate–NPCA is monitoring the bill, but the timing, as with many bills, is unclear. We would absolutely encourage concerned citizens to let their senators know that they oppose commercial beef cattle grazing on national park lands. Thanks Judy!

  • Kenuck

    Good luck…I lived in a National Park and tried to meet you halfways…too far one side…buy them out

  • Marie Takada

    Why don’t these companies have the cattle graze on their personal property and whoever votes to allow them the use of the national parks as their grazing lands they should use their own personal property as well! This must be definitely rejected!! Marie Takada

  • Anne Ambler

    I was part of a lobbying team from Sierra Club speaking to House and Senate staff to advocate the Rural Economic Vitalization Act, which would enable conservation organizations to pay ranchers who wish to stop grazing, and would enable retirement of their grazing allotments. Currently retirement of the allotments is not legally possible, as noted. At the time of this lobbying effort, which was June 25-26, we were led to believe that the Grazing Improvement Act, an effort to reduce the frequency and hassle of environmental reviews, had already passed the House. Is this not true?

    • Mike Hudak

      As the volunteer leader of the Sierra Club’s Grazing Team, I can verify the correctness of Anne’s remarks. Provisions of the Grazing Improvement Act (H.R. 4234) were added as an amendment to H.R. 2578 (Conservation and Economic Growth Act) and approved by the House of Representatives on June 19th by a vote of 232 to 188. As a way to reduce environmental impacts of livestock grazing on public lands, the Sierra Club endorses H.R. 3432 (Rural Economic Vitalization Act) introduced by Congressman Adam Smith (WA-9). This legislation would facilitate the voluntary retirement of federal grazing permits, while requesting no government funding. More than 50 organizations support this legislation including Natural Resources Defense Council, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Great Plains Restoration Council, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Watch, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Please see our Facebook page for more information about this important legislation:

      • Jennifer Errick

        Anne and Mike: Thank you for your very helpful comments—we have made the correction and appreciate your work on this important issue.

  • charles f.l dildine

    over the last 30 years i have hiked and photographed all the “national park” units in the lower 48. these parks are a gift from god’s great handiwork over milenia of years. these parks are a resource for our spiritual well-being- the only thing that really counts in the long haul. it is imperative that these parks be preserved and subsiderary lands surrounding them. if the laws governing the preservation of these parks are diluted it is just another step in the loss of integrity of our nation. all people in this country need to start living their lives with sound spiritual principles and take a stand for what is right for our children and our children’s children. the government and the congress need to not make new laws but to enforce the ones that were established by principled lawmakers not present day politicians who make deals for egocentric purposes. money should not be our GOD. money is to be used to carry out a principled life in all our decisions. take the cattle out of the “national park” lands!!!

  • Peggy Jakopak

    The level of greed that the ranchers in the west show is staggering. They don’t care what or who they destroy in their quest for more money, and the bottom line, of course, is money. I don’t think they are going to stop until every wild animal is dead and until every single acre that doesn’t have a house on it is in their greedy clutches. It is positively sickening. I understand that cattle need room to graze. But do 200 head of cattle REALLY need 2000 acres? How about doing like the rest of us with large animals do? Buy hay. You can do with a lot less land if you supplement with hay. Oh, never mind, that would cut into the profits, wouldn’t it? I much prefer that cattle is range fed over the nauseating feed lots that are out here, but there has to be a limit. These are our national parks. We can’t even take a pine cone out of a national park because it’s against the law, but it’s okay for cattle to destroy the land. I just don’t understand it.

  • Tom Sherer

    When is Welfare not Welfare? When is “Soshuleesm” not “Soshuleesm”??

    Obviously ,to Western State Legislators and CongressCritters, it is not where providing free or nearly free Goods to Private Enterprise from the Public Trust or Coffers. And, not where it comes to giving away Public Lands that were acquired for the Benefit of the Nation at Cost to the Nation and not Private Enterprises.

    They want to give away or rent-below-market-value OUR Lands to cattlemen. They want to Give away OUR National Assets to every mining, drilling or lumbering entity that comes along – and make Sweetheart Deals keeping the “Rents” low and under the control of absentee landlords so long as they just look at the land once every 10 years.

    Yet, these same people will holler and scream if an Un-Employed worker gets a dime or a homeowner wants a break on a fraudulent loan. I do not understand their Value System.

  • Anonymous

    I am a huge park advocate and naturalist, but also a historic preservationist, and you must be careful in how you look at the issue. It’s not a black or white situation and each park has a different scenario for their grazing programs. There are a number of cases where the cattle were here long before the park service and are the ranches and grazing activities are actually part of the historic context of the park unit, protected under the Historic Preservation Act. There are also cases where the grazing activity helps manage lands that would otherwise require heavy prescribed burning activity if allowed to be restored to it’s pre-contact state. There certainly are environmental implications associated with grazing, just as there are with our cars, boots and tents. But many parks are doing their best to comply with these issues, fencing off creek access, improving runoff and restoring salmon, etc. Please understand exactly what you are taking issue with before presuming all grazing on park service lands is bad. If all grazing activity were required to be stopped, you would lose many major historic resources and the future generations that they were originally preserved for, would never get to see them as such.

    • WMercer

      The cattle were not here long before the natural species that inhabited these areas – restoration to pre-contact status
      will succeed when native species, including predators, are allowed to flourish! Hmm funny the native people did not have to resort to controlled burning to manage grasslands – the bison took care of that! I don’t want my lands leased cheaply to rich cattle ranchers – let them graze on YOUR portion! I’m all for restricting vehicles in alot of our parks – I visited Denali last summer; private vehicles are prohibited and visitors travel by NPS buses driven by rangers. This protects wildlife from contact with people – it was amazing the different species I saw, Grizzlies, Moose, Dall sheep and with no fear of humans as interaction is forbidden…

      • Richard

        WMercer, let me respond to your seemingly reasonable comment: “As one national park superintendent told us, “There are commercial beef cattle in the park right now eating endangered plants that, if you dug one up, I’d arrest you for it.” ”

        Commercial beef cattle, DO NOT BELONG in a National Park PERIOD!!!!!!!! Let the Beef Council advise the farmer about grazing on their own land. PERIOD!!!!!!!!

    • Wayne

      Why are you anonymous? Supporting your own grazing special interest? If it is a public land,paid for by the public fund than private interest has no right to use such resource for gain. If you want to make your persoal family history a property rights issue than all lands would go back to the Indians.

    • Madeleine Starkey


      You are correct- livestock grazing in the National Park System is a very complicated issue. This blog article addresses only commercial beef cattle grazing within national parks, not livestock use for historic preservation or cultural purposes. When commercial interests are damaging national park resources at the public’s expense, it is not an appropriate use of park resources.

      Like the Park Service, NPCA fully supports livestock grazing to preserve historic scenes where this activity does not degrade other park resources. Historic grazing can be found at parks like the Blue Ridge Parkway or Eisenhower National Monument. NPCA also support Native American traditional grazing rights at national park units like Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Additionally, the Park Service preserves and interprets the West’s rich ranching history for the American public at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, which is a working cattle ranch in Montana.

      You also cited that there are different scenarios for grazing at each park – this is also true but it shouldn’t be. The issuing of special use permits, which includes grazing permits for domestic livestock, is guided by Director’s Order #53. The GAO report referenced in the blog found that most national park units are not following the proper management policies when issuing livestock grazing permits. Here is a link to the full report for more information:

    • Sandr Kenney

      Why are posting this as Anonymous? It leads me to think perhaps you have something to hide. I do not agree with you, but respect your right to express your opinion?

  • Tim Upham

    The problem with grazing in national parks is that first of all, it causes erosion which could greatly impact aquatic species. Second of all, it impacts ground nesting birds, and third of all, competition with wildlife that also depends on grazing such as pronghorn antelope. Not a well thought out proposal.

  • Tanya Tweeton

    This is just outrageous! We have to subsidize the catltle ranchers livelihood while they ruin our parks? How about circulating and signing a petition, or getting together an official letter signed by us, the public, and send to the government?
    Sierrans ,fellow members, you are good at this.Can you all get something together?

  • mary floyd

    It doesn’t matter if the cattle were grazing the lands prior to the national park…hey, native americans were here before us and look at what happened to them! This is no different, well, actually it is: the cattle industry is being subsidized by taxpayers and the cost of beef continues to go up – because more people are realizing that it isn’t good for the human body and there is less being sold. I personally cannot eat red meat because of a medical condition, but many more people are becoming vegetarian on their own….so, doubling the time cattle spend on public lands shouldn’t be allowed let alone being there in the first place!
    The killing of wolves can be blamed on the cattle ranchers: their animals aren’t being protected by their owners as they are by sheep people who have shepherds and dogs watching over their flocks. The ranchers just have to pony up and pay for the security of their cattle.
    There is no good reason for these ‘domestic’ animals, raised to be eaten, to be fed by the public which has to pay dearly for their meat!!

  • http://none Doris Vician

    Way past time to get commercial cattle out of our national parks. We allowed this long ago and it is time to stop. We need to preserve these areas. Time to stop these beasts from making a mess on public, historic lands.

  • gerry

    This is just ridiculous!

  • Elizabeth

    I am glad the NPCA is working to resolve the issues that concern all of us nature lovers; and I support them because I have always enjoyed the national parks and just being in the great outdoors! I am also thankful that in their core values they they realize that cultural and traditional diversity is important and that ALL of us that enjoy the national parks should be working together towards a common goal: conservation of our national parks. Looking at this objectively I know that it takes the interests of many people with different values to accomplish these goals. The great thing is, here I see that average Joe’s, animal rights activists, farmers/ranchers, and even hunters can all be a part of what the NPCA stands for. I have read many of these comments and a lot of good points are made. Just remember it’s going to take all of us and many more to support the efforts of the NPCA.

  • Rebecca J. Rens

    get the cattle out of the national parks, please. Humans do not to eat the flesh of animals to get all the protein they need and cattle create a large carbon footprint. The cattle business should not have its beef trampling around in the parks that belong to the people of the U.S.!

  • LD

    I’ve also heard that when the day the “revenuer guy” comes to count the cattle being allowed to range on the public lands, for figuring what the rancher owes the taxpayers, somehow the count is much lower than the rest of the time. Hmmmm. Wonder how that happens…

    And just a point of information for those interested in “Historic Preservation”, government organizations built an expensive fence through an area of Custer National Forest that borders the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range just to keep a few wild horses from being on an area that they have frequented for over a hundred years to appease the ranchers who did not want the horses competing for forage with their cattle. Now that fence (in a high snowfall, mountaintop location) must also be maintained. $$$$$$$ And the horses are contained on acreage that ranchers’ sheep and cattle damaged before it was declared a wild horse range in 1968.

    Lobbyists with fat checkbooks have screwed up a lot of good things in this country. Maybe we need to outlaw that procedure…

  • Kudzu Kard

    The National Parks in this country, belong to us, the people. We pay the taxes that are allotted to the department of the Interior for providing and maintaining these majestic wonders for us. This is no different than my neighbor deciding to raise cattle and seeing no issue with it coming into my yard to graze!

  • Pamela Sue Chandler- Post

    They are grazing cows in the National forest in Eastern Oregon too and it is ruining all the campgrounds and all the feed for the natural inhabitants of said forests. They think this is good forest management, saying that the cows keep the underbrush eaten down so there isn’t as much fire danger. All it is doing is destroying the natural beauty and eroding any water ways and taking away feed from Elk,
    deer and bears!

  • gary brown

    It’s our National Forest , This must mean that it’s our Cow so if you see Cattle in our forest – shoot them and have a good old fashioned chuck wagon camp style barbeque.