A SIDE-BY-SIDE photo comparison related to the Nov. 19 Feedstuffs cover article, "Grazed Lands Need Restoration," has yielded a few questions and comments from readers.
As a result, we have gone back to the researchers who conducted the study for clarification.
Dr. Robert L. Beschta, emeritus professor of forest ecology and society at Oregon State University, along with seven other research collaborators from the University of Wyoming, Geos Institute, Prescott College and other agencies, reported their findings and published the photos in the Nov. 13 issue of the journal Environmental Management.
Their work is controversial in that it suggests that climate change is causing additional stress on many western rangelands and that, as a result, land managers should consider a reduction or even possibly an elimination of livestock and other large animals from public lands.
The report drew immediate rebuttal from the cattle industry and even the researchers' agricultural colleagues at Oregon State.
Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences dean Dan Arp agreed that rangeland research is indeed an important priority. He noted, though, that the work by Beschta and his colleagues does not represent any official university position.
"That paper does not represent a position taken by Oregon State University any more than any other single manuscript by one author would," Arp said. He added that he believes that "livestock grazing can be an important part of a range management program."
In regard to the photos, Beschta pointed out that it is important to note that in the photo to the right, which was taken some two decades after the earlier photo on the left, willows are increasingly present in the foreground, and stream banks have been re-vegetated. Thus, he said, the channel is no longer eroding and serving as a source of sediment at high flows.
As for the trees in the background, Beschta said they are aspen, and many are dying in the more current photo because they are at the end of their life cycle.
On that point, he said, had the cattle not been removed from Hart Mountain in the 1990s, "aspen stands would be disappearing as we speak. However, since livestock were removed from riparian areas 20 years ago, we are seeing a resurgence of young aspen recruitment in riparian and upland aspen groves. It is these younger aspen that will eventually replace the over-story trees that are now so rapidly dying."
Thistles and other invasive plants seen in the more current photo to the right came in after cattle were removed, Beschta said.
The willows in the background are relatively large in the earlier photo, Beschta noted, explaining that off to the left of the photo (and not visible) was a small cabin used by ranchers. Around the cabin was a fenced area that excluded livestock from use. So, the tall willow communities around the cabin, in his opinion, support the thinking that removing livestock allows woody plants (and other native plant species) to grow, thus maintaining biodiversity.
How western public lands are managed during a changing climate is an important issue and one that Beschta said deserves further examination.