Climate change increases stress, need for restoration on grazed public lands

Nov 14, 2012
In 1989, cattle grazing was still allowed in Oregon's Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Oregon State University

Eight researchers in a new report have suggested that climate change is causing additional stress to many western rangelands, and as a result land managers should consider a significant reduction, or in some places elimination of livestock and other large animals from public lands.

A growing degradation of grazing lands could be mitigated if large areas of and USDA Forest Service lands became free of use by livestock and "feral ungulates" such as wild horses and burros, and high populations of deer and elk were reduced, the group of scientists said.

This would help arrest the decline and speed the recovery of affected ecosystems, they said, and provide a basis for comparative study of grazing impacts under a . The direct economic and social impacts might also be offset by a higher return on other and land uses, they said, although the report focused on ecology, not economics.

Their findings were reported today in Environmental Management, a professional journal published by Springer.

"People have discussed the for some time with such topics as forest health or increased fire," said Robert Beschta, a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and lead author on this study.

"However, the on rangelands and other grazing lands have received much less interest," he said. "Combined with the impacts of grazing livestock and other animals, this raises serious concerns about , loss of vegetation, changes in hydrology and disrupted plant and . Entire rangeland ecosystems in the American West are getting lost in the shuffle."

Livestock use affects a far greater proportion of BLM and Forest Service lands than do roads, and wildfires combined, the researchers said in their study. But effort to mitigate the pervasive effects of livestock has been comparatively minor, they said, even as climatic impacts intensify.

Although the primary emphasis of this analysis is on ecological considerations, the scientists acknowledged that the changes being discussed would cause some negative social, economic and community disruption.

"If livestock grazing on public lands were discontinued or curtailed significantly, some operations would see reduced incomes and ranch values, some rural communities would experience negative economic impacts, and the social fabric of those communities could be altered," the researchers wrote in their report, citing a 2002 study.

Among the observations of this report:

  • In the western U.S., climate change is expected to intensify even if greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced.
  • Among the threats facing ecosystems as a result of climate change are invasive species, elevated wildfire occurrence, and declining snowpack.
  • Federal land managers have begun to adapt to climate-related impacts, but not the combined effects of climate and hooved mammals, or ungulates.
  • Climate impacts are compounded from heavy use by livestock and other grazing ungulates, which cause soil erosion, compaction, and dust generation; stream degradation; higher water temperatures and pollution; loss of habitat for fish, birds and amphibians; and desertification.
  • Encroachment of woody shrubs at the expense of native grasses and other plants can occur in grazed areas, affecting pollinators, birds, small mammals and other native wildlife.
  • Livestock grazing and trampling degrades soil fertility, stability and hydrology, and makes it vulnerable to wind erosion. This in turn adds sediments, nutrients and pathogens to western streams.
  • Water developments and diversion for livestock can reduce streamflows and increase water temperatures, degrading habitat for fish and aquatic invertebrates.
  • Grazing and trampling reduces the capacity of soils to sequester carbon, and through various processes contributes to greenhouse warming.
  • Domestic livestock now use more than 70 percent of the lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service, and their grazing may be the major factor negatively affecting wildlife in 11 western states. In the West, about 175 taxa of freshwater fish are considered imperiled due to habitat-related causes.
  • Removing or significantly reducing grazing is likely to be far more effective, in cost and success, than piecemeal approaches to address some of these concerns in isolation.
The advent of has significantly added to historic and contemporary problems that result from cattle and sheep ranching, the report said, which first prompted federal regulations in the 1890s.

and burros are also a significant problem, this report suggested, and high numbers of deer and elk occur in portions of the West, partially due to the loss or decline of large predators such as cougars and wolves. Restoring those predators might also be part of a comprehensive recovery plan, the researchers said.

The problems are sufficiently severe, this group of researchers concluded, that they believe the burden of proof should be shifted. Those using public lands for livestock production should have to justify the continuation of ungulate grazing, they said.

Explore further: Strengthening community forest rights is critical tool to fight climate change

More information: Paper: bit.ly/PJux3q

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Multi-paddock grazing is superior to continuous grazing

Jun 15, 2011

A long-term study verifies multi-paddock grazing improves vegetation, soil health and animal production relative to continuous grazing in large-scale ranches, according to Texas AgriLife Research scientists.

ARS scientists study effects of grazing on grouse habitat

Apr 30, 2010

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, Ore., are taking a careful look at how grazing cattle affect sage-grouse habitat on high desert rangelands.

Livestock grazing not to blame for Yosemite toad decline

Jun 07, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Livestock grazing is apparently not the culprit in the steep decline of Yosemite toads and their habitat, according to the results of an extensive, five-year study conducted by UC Davis, UC ...

Amid drought, US opens up land for grazing, haying

Jul 23, 2012

The Obama administration opened up protected US land to help farmers and ranchers hit by severe drought Monday, and encouraged crop insurance companies to forgo charging interest for a month.

Recommended for you

User comments : 0