Changing Habitat Preferences

Our project at Utah State University focuses on how learning affects diet selection of livestock rather than low-stress-livestock handling techniques. Clearly, we cannot teach you how to work and move your animals more effectively in a few paragraphs. This section is designed to help you: 1) understand how animals form preferences for habitats, 2) make you aware of the possibilities for training animals to use different habitats and 3) provide additional references about low-stress livestock handling. 

Principle 1: Just like foods, preferences for habitat depends on experiences early in life.

Principle 2: Habitat preferences of most individuals can be changed if animals are punished when they linger in sensitive habitats and rewarded when they congregate in more desirable locations. 


  1. Deer as gas molecules - Animals have strong site fidelity, that means they prefer to live in familiar surroundings. So what do you suppose would happen if prime deer habitat opened up because deer were severely hunted in one location? Would neighboring deer move into the newly vacated habitat or would they stay put? Click here to find out.

  2. No Place Like Home - Pictured to the left is the Maxfield-Thompson BLM allotment in southern Idaho. Maxfiled creek is on the left and Thompson creek is on the right. Two groups of cows were identified as either preferring Maxfield drainage or Thompson drainage. Calves with mothers that preferred Maxfield creek were cross fostered onto cows that preferred Thompson creek and vice versa (pictured right). Then the home range preferences of the calves were monitored for 4 years.

    The first year calves were still nursing their mothers so they preferred the habitat their foster mothers preferred. In year two of the study, peers affected habitat selection, especially as yearlings because heifers were housed together as a group during the winter to receive supplemental feed. In year 3, drought affected habitat selection because Maxfield creek dried-up causing cattle that preferred Maxfield drainage to enlarge their home range in order to water. By year 4 when water conditions returned to normal, calves preferred the home range they were exposed as calves with their foster mothers. Thus, the behavior of mom and not her genetics has a profound impact where her calves choose to live.

  3. Training upland cattle. Currently, Bob Budd is the Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.  Several years ago Bob Budd managed Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming for The Nature Conservancy. He and his co-workers trained their cows and calves to use uplands, and discouraged their use of riparian areas, by consistently moving them to desired locations. They also cull individuals that prefer riparian areas and keep animals and their offspring that prefer upland sites. 

Watch the Video (on youtube)

Training Cattle to Use Uplands and Leave Streams and Ponds 

Fact sheets

References on Low-Stress Livestock Handling

  • Bud Williams web site:
  • Cote, Steve. 2004. Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management. USDA-NRCS Boise, ID and Butte Soil and Water Conservation District, Arco, ID. To order: (208)527-8557. His book online is availible on Temple Grandin's website at
  • Smith, Burt. 1998. Moving 'Em - A guide to Low Stress Livestock Handling. The Graziers Hui. Kamuela, HA. ISBN 0-9662704-3-6.