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
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.