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

The following article was written by David Stauth.  The entire scientific study is available here.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – 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 Bureau of Land Management 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 changing climate. The direct economic and social impacts might also be offset by a higher return on other ecosystem services 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 impacts of climate change 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 climate effects 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 soil erosion, loss of vegetation, changes in hydrology and disrupted plant and animal communities. 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, timber harvest 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 climate change 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.

Wild horses 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.

Collaborators on this study included researchers from the University of Wyoming, Geos Institute, Prescott College, and other agencies.

28 thoughts on “Climate change increases stress, need for restoration on grazed public lands”

    • Basically they are saying…

      1)Grazing can have negative environmental impacts (depends on management but this has been well documented)
      2)Climate change will make things drier (based on models)

      Here’s where it gets normative…

      3)Therefore we should stop public lands grazing or apply a more restrictive test for when it can occur.( a policy call)

      Now, looking at the same journal, I found some new research. For example, this looks interesting.

      Also this one about environmental impacts of non-motorized recreation.

      Based on that we could write another paper that says…

      1)Winter non-motorized recreation can have negative impacts
      2) More rain based on climate models will increase erosion
      3) Therefore we should stop non-motorized winter recreation on public lands or apply a more restrictive test before we allow it..


      1)Oil and gas development has negative impacts
      2)Climate and a drying environment will make them worse.
      2)Therefore we should stop oil and gas leasing on public lands or apply some kind of test before we allow it.

      It doesn’t matter how many cites for 1 and 2 you have, you are moving out of the empirical science realm and into the normative policy realm, when you go to 3..

      I’m sure that the authors are smart people and know exactly what they’re doing, so I don’t need to bother to write them. As I said, It’s an op-ed with citations.

      So let’s take a look at the folks involved:

      Bob Beschta is a card-carrying scientist, but doesn’t seem to have many publications on grazing (more on fire salvage).

      Ms. Donahue is a law professor with a wildlife biology background.

      Dr. Della Salla has a great background in many things but not necessarily grazing.

      Rhodes’ recent papers seem to be about salvage logging and wildfires

      James Karr seems to be another west-sider who worked on post-fire logging.

      Here is the bio for Mary O’Brien from the Grand Canyon Trust website.

      Mary O’Brien: Utah Forests Program Director

      Mary joined Grand Canyon Trust in Fall 2003 to help organize and co-coordinate the Three Forests Coalition’s efforts to obtain greater care for native wildlife, vegetation, and ecosystems on southern Utah’s Dixie, Fishlake, and Manti – La Sal National Forests. Since earning a B.S. in Sociology, a Masters in Elementary Education, and a Ph.D. in Botany, Mary has worked as a staff scientist for toxics reform, environmental law, and public lands conservation organizations for 28 years.

      Dr. Fleishner has studied grazing and seems like a very interesting person.

      And Cindy Deacon-Wiliams is also with the Geos Institute.

      Cindy Deacon Williams, MS, Senior Fellow

      A fisheries biologist by training, Cindy currently facilitates ClimateWise®, workshops to help communities prepare for a changing climate. She also assists the Geos Institute in writing articles for publications in scientific journals. She has over 25 years of experience as a policy analyst and field biologist working with conservation organizations, governmental agencies, and the California legislature. Cindy helped write natural resource laws in California and Washington, D.C. to protect endangered species, water resources, and wetlands, and assisted the Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service in development of regional federal land management plans for the Pacific Northwest and Columbia River Basin. She is the co-author of an essay to be published in the upcoming book Moral Ground. Cindy holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from Oregon State University and a M.S. in Biological Sciences from California State University at Sacramento.

      They all seem like great people. It does seem odd for people mostly from western Oregon and Washington (who have published much on salvage logging) to get interested in grazing, mostly an Interior West phenomenon.

      There is one Wyoming law professor and a conservation biologist from Arizona, so that’s something.

      One final thing I would also like to add about this is the statement from the paper that says:

      Livestock use affects a far greater proportion of BLM and FS lands than do roads, timber
      harvest, and wildfires combined (Fig. 3).

      I’m not sure that we know how many acres timber harvest and wildfires affect (thanks to the lack of a Peoples’ Database) so I wonder where the numbers came from that are in Fig. 3, because maybe there is some data that I didn’t know about. There appears to be no citation (maybe I am missing something?)

  1. When I look at the list of Scientists at the end, I can’t help but think of that line in the movie “Cassablanca,” when Claude Rains says “round up the usual suspects.”

  2. Does anyone else notice this pattern here on this blog?

    Doesn’t it seem that whenever new science or research is unveiled, the “usual suspects” on this site will either 1) offer a snarky, dismissive comment in a childish attempt to discredit the science or 2) will just fully try and discredit the scientists, often times focusing on the location (usually a University or college) where the scientist lives/works in relationship to what’s being studied?

    You’d think if some “usual suspects” seem to have the ability to almost immediately react in such a way to new research and science that they must be the great scientists in the world themselves.

    • A fair observation Matt. Not that I necessarily agree with any of the above comments or post but your comment is perhaps a good call for some introspection from the usual suspects…

    • I wasn’t trying to “discredit” the “scientists,” (remember, one is a law professor). I was asking a legitimate question about “why should we listen to these specific individuals on this topic?”

      Several years ago I was giving a talk on the science-policy interface at an SAF Convention in Washington, D.C. and I used this analogy …

      If we want to know if it’s safe to walk outside our hotel at night, how would we gather information? We have a number of choices. We could use a theoretical model based on variables by block or zip code. We could use empirical data derived from police records. Or we could ask someone who walks around there at night. These are all legitimate ways of getting information to make a decision. Each way has its pros and cons.

      It seems like a legitimate question, when the topic is the effects of grazing and most especially, the argument for changes to, or deletion of, the management of an activity that has been going on for 100 years or so, that that person have direct experience or knowledge of the program- most particularly, I think, by the equivalent of “walking through the neighborhood at night.”

      So I noticed that Dr. Beschta has some papers about wolves. I know nothing about wolves other than observing them, taking the R-1 Carnivore Class at Yellowstone, and reading Martin Nie’s excellent book. If I were to round up a bunch of colleagues, and write a paper about my ideas on wolf policy, I certainly hope someone would ask the question, “I wonder how her expertise (knowledgeable on other things) relates to wolves?”

      Re: your comment

      You’d think if some “usual suspects” seem to have the ability to almost immediately react in such a way to new research and science that they must be the great scientists in the world themselves.

      I am not the greatest scientist in the world myself, for sure, and not even close, and I don’t want to think about the criteria a person might use to determine that (eek! performance metrics! hate ’em) . But I have spent more time than I care to admit reviewing papers of various kinds, so it’s easy for me to spot certain things. In many journals, this would have to go in a specific section for papers like this, so it’s important to be able to pick up on that. You would also get different kinds of credit for it in some performance systems than for original research. It’s kind of like telling an elk from a deer, real obvious if you know what to look for, after a period of time you can just sense the difference at a glance.

      I’d also like to apply the logic of your statement to reflect our frequent discussions about fuel treatment projects.

      You’d think if some “usual suspects” seem to have the ability to almost immediately react in such a way to new fuels treatment projects, that they must be the great NEPA planners (fuels specialists, wildlife biologists?) in the world themselves.

    • Please insult me personally Matt. I laughed all afternoon at your childish comment yesterday and lame attempt at slander.So feel free to insult me, cause it makes my day.I admit to a guilty pleasure in watching you blow your top. I’ll attack your ideology, I’ll attack your radical enviro groups,but I don’t attack you personally.I think your behavior does that for me.

      • Eeeeezzzzzzzyyyyyy there Derek. Take the high road.

        You have provided some great observations on this blog (BTW, I thought you were done with us). Don’t succumb to emotion. Emotion is the tool that the “radical enviro groups” use to garner support from their several thousand constituents.

        • JZ. I take umbrage when someone on this blog attacks me personally. Perhaps you missed Matt’s comment to me on Zybach’s story.
          Comment #22:

          “oh please Derek. Remember, it was you who made on-line comments so threatenting against me that the Missoulian had to remove them from their site.
          Be a man and own up to the fact that you made this ridiculous anology, “to say that someone………”
          And I’m being emotional. I gave up debating Matt a long time ago as a useless endeavor.I make my observations and ignore him. I have never attacked him personally. I understand your point, but maybe you or his “co-host” should give him a lecture on “taking the high road.”

      • Derek, Please, oh please, tell me where I “slandered” you. If you think I’ve “slandered” you Derek, go hire an attorney and have them contact me. I look forward to that.

        And please tell me where I’ve “blown my top” with my comment here? I made a very real, fact based observation that some people (I called them the “usual suspects” because that’s the term you used for scientists/researchers) on this blog just seem to quickly react to new science/research in a few predictable ways in an attempt to discredit it. Thanks.

    • Matt: I kind of agree with what you are saying, but Sharon has offered a detailed analysis of this paper which deserves consideration — and you and I are not the only ones to occasionally resort to snarky and dismissive comments on this blog (your own post seems to be treading a little on thin ice in that department, for example).

      The bottom line is that this is not “new science or research,” as you suggest — it is a “new report” (as described) of some opinions that have been around for many years; and as expressed by a number of the same individuals who repeat their claims and offer their unsolicited “solutions” again in this publication.

      You can’t replicate conjecture. But you can keep repeating it. That’s nothing new.

  3. There is no way wildlife managers will reduce large ungulate populations, if they can at all help it. Removing livestock wouldn’t accomplish much if wildlife fill the void, which they would. Public pressure and human psycology aside, large game hunts fund state wildlife agencies.

  4. Even if this article isn’t “pure” science, does it really matter? I’m actually quite comfortable with scientist jumping into the policy realm, as long as its good science that informs the policy (as it seems here). Who better to advocate than well-informed citizens, some of whom are scientists? Let’s stop arguing over whether something is “scientific” or “normative” and start talking about whether the information is credible and whether the policies that are being advocated are smart policies… My two cents.

    • Mike: What constitutes “good science?” There is a world of difference between scientific findings and the opinions of a scientist. When the two become mixed, bias needs to be clearly recognized and stated — and that is rarely the case. This has become a long-term concern that has fueled many similar discussions in the past regarding the work of at least a couple of these authors. The point is to convince the reader that only “good science” is being used by the authors as they jump into policy discussions; the problem is that most of the “good science” these guys use is of their own making and that of their pal reviewers.

    • Mike, it really does matter.

      There is an entire literature on this topic, which I will no doubt inadequately convey in this reply, but makes me feel perhaps some more cross-fertilization between the STS community and this blog is in order.

      We can talk about different policies, and scientists can weigh in and have every right to do so. The question was whether this specific document, because it was published in a journal, can be appropriate referred to as a “scientific study” and to what extent the legitimacy of “science” goes with this paper.

      Many in the scientific community fear that mushing the two together makes people appropriately distrustful of the entire scientific enterprise.

      To know if that list of citations is credible, we would have to vet them all using my 8 steps from a previous post. Unfortunately, under our system, no one is paid to do that.

      If it’s a smart policy we should start with the policy, “removing grazing from public lands” and examine the likely impacts. I would hope we would have some kind of open discussion and hear from all kinds of people. But this specific policy agenda has been through much discussion, and a tactic used to promote this policy position has been… the ever-popular litigation.

      If there are bad effects, one way is to manage them better and get more bucks to “on the ground” administration. Unfortunately, this scientist, before she retired, saw much of those bucks going to NEPA documents and litigation. How to manage the program better is a discussion that could lead in many possible directions.

      A further problem with applying scientific information too slavishly is that it is often contested and we don’t really know the answers to fundamental things. As I was writing this, for example, I ran across this paper in Nature through Roger Pielke, Jrs.’ blog here. Best to maintain resilience to waves of scientific information with a variety of no-regrets policies (like managing grazing as well as we know how, what keeps us from that? Another project for the People’s Research Agenda!).

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful responses to my comment yesterday. I think this raises real questions about bias within science and whether there is really any way to remove “bias”. In my personal experience, I think we do a disservice to scientists and to our society to continue the illusion of “pure science”. As Sharon points out, there is as deep body of literature on this topic, most of which suggests that even the decision of “what to study and how” is filled with bias, and this can be significant.My comment yesterday was really a reflection of my frustration with the time and energy wasted in perpetuating the illusion. Good science can and should be done with all cards on the table. State one’s bias up front, and then go do good science. If the method utilized is good, then its good science.

    For instance, if you are opposed philosophically to over-grazing (or even just any grazing) on public lands, and you do “good science” that indicates there are or could be unacceptable (to you) adverse impacts from grazing, then it does not (in my view) discredit the science when you advocate for policy changes, based upon empirical evidence derived from good science. I know that sentence is mouthful, so please read it again if need be….:)

    Having said all this, if the only real issue is whether this report should have should have been published in a “scientific” journal, given that it includes advocacy, then that’s a different story. Nonetheless, it is still related because those who believe it should not have been published in this journal are hanging on the the belief in “bias-free science” (which I clearly do not believe in). I say we change the whole paradigm by judging “science” not only by the quality of methods employed, but also by how how well the authors spell out their philosophical biases right up front! In other words, let’s get real!

    • Mike, no, I am not thinking it should not have been published in the journal, nor do I believe in “bias-free” science. Perhaps I have not been clear enough. At the risk of being more pedantic than the bona-fide pedants around here..

      Perhaps it would help if I described the study that would answer the question “what is the best way to proceed with grazing on public lands?” This goes back to my eight steps for vetting.. the research summarized was not designed to answer that question. So it was not framed appropriately. Therefore, it can’t be the best science to answer the question.

      First, I would ask federal people working in range administration, ranchers and the local environmental groups what they think are the key issues, through a series of interviews, to develop some ideas of alternatives.

      Second, I would examine the potential economic (including local) and environmental impacts of different approaches to improving management, the status quo, and taking cows off. We might also get some historians to talk about the cultural meaning of ranching in interior west communities.

      Third, I would open the results of the second stage for open public review and comment.

      To me, that would be the “best science” that could inform the policy. You can’t just yard up a couple disciplines and advocate for a policy that has many other disciplines involved and claim (which I’m not sure they did, but it may have come across that way) that your position is “based on science”. It may be based on some “science,” but not all the “science,”

      Matthew called it a “scientific study” which has specific meaning. It could be considered to be a literature review, which would be fine, also.

      It’s the leap from “what is” to “what you should do about it” that’s missing scientific information in the article. My shorthand for that was moving from empirical to normative because that’s the language I learned in philosophy. In the Tom Mills (former Director of the Pacific Northwest Research Station) it was “”shoulds” don’t belong in scientific assessments.”

      Hoping that makes things a bit clearer.

      Now sometimes research is designed to help policy… Check this out for example:

      Here are the first few paragraphs:

      A team of scientists led by the University of Colorado has received a $12 million grant to explore ways to maximize the benefits of natural gas while curtailing negative impacts on ecosystems and surrounding communities, the university announced today.

      The multi-disciplinary team will review industry fracking practices with the research that is funded by the National Science Foundation, ultimately bringing forward findings to the public in an educational effort.

      A part of NSF’s Sustainability Research Network initiative, or SRN, the project will focus on the Rocky Mountain region, where natural gas development, as well as objections to it, are increasing.

      The team is led by Professor Joseph Ryan of CU-Boulder’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department.

      As part of the project, Ryan said team members will review industry practices for hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — which involves pumping pressurized water, chemicals and sand down well bores to crack rocks and let loose petroleum and natural gas for easier extraction.

      • Hi Sharon,

        Thanks for the clarification of your thinking. Based upon your outline of how you would do the “best science”, I would suggest you very clearly value the gathering of a diversity of opinion and perspective as part of a the scientific method. This is not surprising, given your long career with a public service agency. However, this bias toward appreciating a diversity of opinion and perspective does not make it the “best science” in my view, although tacking the issues using your method could make for a stronger advocacy position. Do you see where I’m coming from?

        In other words, the authors of this study are not charged, as is the USFS, with serving the broader public interest. Instead, they are more narrowly focused on a particular advocacy point of view and are simply using empirical evidence to support their view point. Their bias is more narrowly focused, while yours is more broadly focused. How does this make the “science” more or less credible on its face? If there are questions about the methodology used (as it seemed there were concerning a U Wyoming study a few months back), then that’s a different issues, since it speaks to the quality of the methodology used and not whether there was an advocacy position attached to the study…Cheers, Mike

        • Thanks for this discussion, Mike. It tells me that I learned some things in the past years before I started to work in planning, that I need to be able to explain better.

          Well, there is the “best science” as a great idea, and actually trying to figure out what “best science” is in any specific situation (which is where people who are spooked with that terminology are coming from).

          I don’t think that there can be “best science” outside of a specific framing of the issue. My point was that the scientific information presented in the paper did not match the policy recommendations.

          The paper would have matched “predicted effects of grazing and climate change”, which is way different that “what you should do about it”. which can’t be considered in a scientific way without comparing it to other approaches. does that make any sense?

          Anyway, I think one useful thing I could do is post more about science and policy in a more generic way.

  6. Sharon wrote: “Matthew called it a “scientific study” which has specific meaning. It could be considered to be a literature review, which would be fine, also.”

    Sharon, I called it a scientific study because it was called a “study” 4 or 5 times in the official press release article written by Oregon State University. If OSU and the researchers/scientists would have called their “study” a “literature review” I certainly would have called it a literature review.

    • Matthew, I’m sorry to have mis-directed the comment. I read everything with a grain of salt, especially press releases, especially those from universities about research.

      People not as experienced with the science biz may not be as sensitive to these things…as I am beginning to realize.

  7. Wow. An interesting thread, and I think I learned a lot about various people and bias. And what science should and shouldn’t be.

    But I learned nothing about the issue of largely uncontrolled cattle grazing and the prediction of global warming. (And I say largely uncontrolled because that is a fact in a majority of grazing allotments.) I have an opinion based on several years of grazing management experience on some western forests, but I don’t feel qualified to “guesstimate” what might happen when/if the West becomes several degrees warmer and inches drier. And I don’t believe anyone has those qualifications. Including those folks who published the article/study/report/review.
    You have to make too many unsubstantiated assumptions about what is coming with the big “warming”. So at this point, who knows? Only the Shadow knows, and he ain’t talking.

    • Ed: I agree with you on almost all counts (maybe excepting USFS and BLM grazing allotments in Oregon, at least), but mostly I agree with your summary.

      Sharon often cites Roger Pielke Jr.’s Blog, and here is a relevant recent post regarding current global drought trends:

      Remember, most climate figures are based on a minimum 30-year average of weather conditions, including extremes. A 60-year period — particularly in today’s political environment — is significant.

      I am in full agreement with Pielke Jr. that our best response to global climate change during the next few decades is to “deal with it” as it takes place. His short-term outlook seems a little more apocalyptic than my own, but the idea of systematically and strategically responding to events as they occur is a far better goal than continuing to listen to (and paying dearly for) our current wave of computerized soothsayers and their agenda of getting everyone to change light bulb brands and begin driving electric cars in order to avoid The Apocalypse.

      I don’t believe anyone — or any one group of people — “has those qualifications,” either, Ed.


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