Nixing grazing won't reduce climate impact on rangeland

ELIMINATING grazing won't reduce the impact of climate change on rangeland, according to several scientists in the western U.S.

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, according to Oregon State University.

"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 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 climate change has on the vegetation, soils, water and wildlife of western rangelands, the announcement said. As a result, they claim that removing or reducing these animals would alleviate the problem.

In this latest paper, however, the researchers argued that grazing can actually help mitigate some of the effects of climate change, which 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, Ore.

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 office in Burns who also has a courtesy appointment in Oregon State's animal and rangeland sciences department.

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

They 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 the effects from grazing are due to 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 Oregon State Extension Service. "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."

Collaborators on the paper are from Oregon State, the University of Arizona, Brigham Young University, University of California-Davis, University of Idaho, Montana State University, University of Nevada-Reno, Utah State University, University of Wyoming and USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

Volume:86 Issue:05

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