Investigation of relationships between fecal contamination, cattle grazing, human recreation, and microbial source tracking markers in a mixed-land-use rangeland watershed

Naveen Joseph, Jane Lucas, Nikhil Viswanath, Reed Findlay, Jim Sprinkle, Michael S. Strickland, Eric Winford, Alan S. Kolok

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


The United States National Forests are mixed-use lands that support human recreation and cattle grazing. Overuse by humans or cattle, however, can lead to the fecal contamination of local waterways. Until recently, the source of these contaminants was a subject of conjecture; however, microbial source tracking tools have become widely used and are proving to be a valid methodology to identify the contamination source. This study aims to analyze and model the quantity and sources of fecal contamination in the Mink Creek watershed in southeastern Idaho. The U.S. Forest Service Caribou-Targhee National Forest (USFS) manages this watershed. Previous research has indicated that some localities within the watershed exceed US EPA standards for coliform bacteria. In 2019, water samples were collected before livestock began grazing and throughout the spring, summer, and fall after livestock grazing had ended. Fourteen sites were sampled seven times during the field season, allowing the water to be analyzed for total coliforms and E. coli bacteria. Microbial source tracking techniques using Bacteroides bacteria, which are known to live in specific digestive tracks, were used to identify the source of E. coli at each sampling location. The analysis indicated that E. coli counts exceeded state regulatory limits 35% of the time. These exceedances were associated with DNA source tracking markers for humans (58.8%), cattle (5.9%), or both cattle and humans (5.9%). Unknown sources were responsible for the Bacteroides bacteria 29.4% of the time. A statistical model was developed to estimate E. coli using the datasets of microbial source tracking measures, the presence or absence of humans, cattle, the proximity of the sampling date to a holiday, and other seasonal factors. The resulting model showed good performance indices at all the 14 sites based on a K-fold cross-validation scheme (R2 = 0.83 and NSE = 0.69). The results demonstrated that E. coli exceedances have a close association with human recreation and unknown sources and negatively influenced by dissolved oxygen.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116921
JournalWater research
StatePublished - Apr 15 2021


  • Cattle DNA
  • Escherichia coli
  • Human DNA
  • Microbial source tracking markers
  • Quantitative polymerase chain reaction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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