A group of nearly 30 researchers say the idea of eliminating grazing on western public lands to ease "ecological alterations caused by climate change" is not an effective plan.
The researchers, representing nine universities and the USDA, explain their argument in a peer-reviewed summary of scientific literature released this month by the journal Environmental Management.
"We dispute the notion that eliminating grazing will provide a solution to problems created by climate change," the 27 authors wrote in the paper. "To cope with a changing climate, land managers will need access to all available vegetation management tools, including grazing," they said.
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. 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, the director of Oregon State University's Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center.
Globally, grazing is used for a variety of vegetation management objectives, in addition to fine fuel reduction, commented lead author Tony Svejcar, a research leader at the USDA's office in Burns, Ore.
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," Bohnert said. "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."
Additional collaborators on the paper are from 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.