Effects of cattle grazing and haying on wildlife conservation at National Wildlife Refuges in the United States
The National Wildlife Refuge System is perhaps the most important system of federal lands for protecting wildlife in the United States. Only at refuges has wildlife conservation been legislated to have higher priority than either recreational or commercial activities. Presently, private ranchers and farmers graze cattle on 981,954 ha and harvest hay on 12,021 ha at 123 National Wildlife Refuges. US Fish and Wildlife Service policy is to permit these uses primarily when needed to benefit refuge wildlife. To evaluate the success of this policy, I surveyed grassland management practices at the 123 refuges. The survey results indicate that in fiscal year 1980 there were 374,849 animal unit months (AUMs) of cattle grazing, or 41% more than was reported by the Fish and Wildlife Service. According to managers' opinions, 86 species of wildlife are positively affected and 82 are negatively affected by refuge cattle grazing or haying. However, quantitative field studies of the effect of cattle grazing and haying on wildlife coupled with the survey data on how refuge programs are implemented suggest that these activities are impeding the goal of wildlife conservation. Particular management problems uncovered by the survey include overgrazing of riparian habitats, wildlife mortality due to collisions with cattle fences, and mowing of migratory bird habitat during the breeding season. Managers reported that they spend 919,740 administering cattle grazing and haying; thus refuge grazing and haying programs are also expensive. At any single refuge these uses occupy up to 50% of refuge funds and 55% of staff time. In light of these results, prescribed burning may be a better wildlife management option than is either cattle grazing or haying.