Ranchers followed miners into the interior Columbia Basin, particularly following the discovery of gold in the Clearwater River Basin of Idaho in 1860. Most of the ranchers settled around Walla Walla, where there were gently rolling hills covered with grass and the climate seemed favorable to raising livestock. Farther east the land was more hilly; farther north it was more barren and rocky. Well-used trails passed through the area, and the Columbia was nearby for access to transportation and water.
Soon the industry flourished, but the climate proved to be unfavorable, particularly the winters. Temperatures routinely dropped to zero and below, and winds would rake the region for days on end. The winter of 1861-62 was harsh. Ninety percent of the cattle in the Walla Walla area — about 9,000 — died. The winter of 1880-81 was similarly hard, and the bones of dead livestock were visible on the prairies for years afterward. That winter devastated the industry, and only a few herds remained.
Between 1905 and 1934 the U.S. Forest Service introduced allotments and grazing systems; prior to 1905 there were no controls on grazing on public lands. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 authorized allotment-based grazing to other public lands. Following World War II a series of federal laws focused attention of public land agencies on range rehabilitation and management. Outside of federal lands, however, grazing remained largely uncontrolled.
Around 1880, livestock grazing began to take a noticeable toll on salmon and steelhead streams in the Columbia River Basin. Overgrazing was common long before the turn of the 20th century, and this lead to the elimination of native bunchgrasses, particularly in the settled valleys west of the Cascade Mountains. The seasonal movement of animals from lowlands to highlands and back trampled native grasses and damaged streamside habitat — conservationist John Muir once called sheep “hoofed locusts” for the destruction they could cause. Uncontrolled grazing led to soil compaction and increased erosion, the loss of protective grasses along spawning streams, pollution by fecal material and, as a result, degraded water quality for fish and their primary food organisms. The loss of protective shade caused water temperatures to rise to lethal levels for fish, and the loss of streamside vegetation increased the potential for streambank erosion during floods.
These impacts occurred despite federal laws like that attempted to regulate grazing and protect fish and wildlife habitat. For nearly 20 years after the Taylor Grazing Act became law, its local administration was in the hands of ranchers. Steadily, though, management passed to less-entrenched interests.
Today, livestock production remains an important industry in the Columbia River Basin. Cattle and calf sales constitute 29 percent of the agricultural output of the Columbia River Basin, according to a 1997 federal study. More than half of the basin is suitable for grazing cattle and sheep. The study anticipated that grazing of cheep and cattle would decline slowly but steadily into the future, at least on federal land, as ranchers leave the profession, convert their ranches to dairy farming or sell their land for commercial development.
Meanwhile, decades of abuse by grazing degraded water quality and fish habitat. These resources “remain in poor condition and in urgent need of improvement,” according to a 1988 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office. Since then, changed has occurred; conditions are improving. Under the authority of federal laws intended to improve fish and wildlife survival, including the Northwest Power Act, riparian corridors are being fenced to keep livestock out, water is being pumped or channeled from streams to watering troughs for livestock, and riparian vegetation is being allowed to return naturally or is being planted.