Recent grazing study, with sound science, contradicts 2012 conclusion

Feb 21, 2014

Eliminating grazing won’t reduce the impact of climate change on rangeland, according to nearly 30 scientists in the western United States.

The researchers, who work for nine universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, made this argument in a journal article in response to a debate over whether grazing on western public lands worsens ecological alterations caused by climate change.

“We dispute the notion that eliminating grazing will provide a solution to problems created by climate change,” the 27 authors wrote in the peer-reviewed paper, which was a summary of scientific literature that was published online this month by the journal Environmental Management. “To cope with a changing climate, land managers will need access to all available vegetation management tools, including grazing.”

Some scientists argue that livestock, deer, elk and wild horses and burros exacerbate the effects of climate change on vegetation, soils, water and wildlife on western rangelands. As a result, they claim that removing or reducing these animals would alleviate the problem.

In this latest paper, however, the authors argued that grazing can actually help mitigate some of the effects of climate change. Climate change, they said, is likely to increase the accumulation of flammable grasses and increase the chance of catastrophic wildfires unless those grasses are managed.

“Grazing is one of the few tools available to reduce the herbaceous vegetation that becomes fine fuel on rangelands,” said co-author Dave Bohnert, Director of Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns.

Globally, grazing is used for a variety of vegetation management objectives, in addition to fine fuel reduction, said lead author Tony Svejcar, a research leader at the USDA’s office in Burns who also has a courtesy appointment in OSU’s Animal and Rangeland Sciences Department.

The scientists also said that it’s unclear how removing grazing would overcome the effects of large-scale climatic changes such as reduced snow packs.

The authors also pointed out that some criticism of grazing has been based on decades-old studies, when the scars of unfettered foraging were still fresh on the landscape. They added that in some places it’s hard to tell if impacts from grazing are from current practices or if they are left over from the homesteading era when grazing was unregulated.

“Before the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, it was a first-come, first-served competition, with the winners taking as much of the forage as they could because if they didn’t someone else would,” said Bohnert, who is a beef cattle specialist with the OSU Extension Service and a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Since then, we’ve learned more about the ecology and management of rangelands. Ranchers are constantly looking at ways to be more sustainable in their grazing practices.”

The study has brought out a few critics, quick to point out a 2012 study, also linked to OSU, that came to the opposite conclusion. That study, written by forestry Professor Emeritus Robert Beschta, said grazing on public lands should be greatly reduced. According to a Capitol Press article, Beschta and the other scientists involved in the study said that reducing or eliminating livestock grazing would make the land less susceptible to effects of climate change. They said livestock compact the soil, degrade streams, eliminate habitat and make the land more vulnerable to erosion. Collaborators on that study included the Geos Institute, a southern Oregon environmental group, and researchers with the University of Wyoming and Prescott College.

Critics of that study pointed out that Beschta and the other authors didn’t do original research, but drew from a variety of previous reports, most of which was outdated, and used data from practices ranchers no longer apply.

David Bohnert, Director of the OSU Research and Extension Center in Burns, said the report prompted a response from other scientists because it appeared to be misleading and to have an anti-grazing “agenda.”

“Removing or reducing livestock across large areas of public land would alleviate a widely recognized and long-term stressor and make these lands less susceptible to the effects of climate change,” the authors wrote in the study, adding that removing grazing will “help initiate and speed the recovery of affected ecosystems.”

The 2012 article was hailed by anti-grazing groups, such as Western Watersheds Project (WWP).

“We’ve been advocating for the same thing for 20 years, by continually raising the issue of ecosystem integrity and the need to improve public lands habitats for native species—not livestock,” said WWP in a 2012 news release on the original project.

The study claimed that cattle can compact soils, impact riparian areas, cause erosion and degrade habitat. But the study did not use any new collection of data, relying only on existing field studies as support.

The 2012 study’s funding was enough to draw some questions on its validity. The majority of the money came from grants to the Geos Institute by the Wilberforce and Wyss Foundations. The Wilburforce Foundation gives grants to a wide range of environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as a number of universities. Based in Ashland, OR, the Geos Institute is a self-described “nonprofit organization and consulting firm that uses science to help people predict, reduce and prepare for climate change.”

In addition to Beschta, other authors included Geos Institute President and Chief Scientist Dominick DellaSala, Ph.D.; Grand Canyon Trust Utah Forests Program Director Mary O’Brien, Ph.D.; and Debra L. Donahue JD, a law professor at University of Wyoming.

Collaborators on the 2014 paper are from OSU, the University of Arizona, Brigham Young University, the University of California- Davis, the University of Idaho, Montana State University, the University of Nevada-Reno, Utah State University, the University of Wyoming and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor