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

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


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:

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.

More information: Paper: bit.ly/PJux3q

Provided by Oregon State University

"Climate change increases stress, need for restoration on grazed public lands." November 14th, 2012. http://phys.org/news/2012-11-climate-stress-grazed.html