Of cows and climate


One needs only to look at the coffee-table book Welfare Ranching’s full page pictures of muddy streams and packed dirt ground to know that cattle grazing can have a negative impact on rangelands. While its specific effects are harder to pinpoint, climate change, too, affects hydrology, native plants and wildlife. Add climate change and cows together, says a recent study, and you've got the potential for a very stressed landscape. In at least one part of the U.S., the Bureau of Land Management has already begun to incorporate those findings into grazing permits.

On Jan. 28, the BLM’s Owyhee Field Office in southwestern Idaho took the opportunity offered by the renewal of four grazing permits to lower the number of cows allowed on those permits. Specifically, the revised permits cut livestock numbers by one third to one half and limit the amount of time the cattle can be on the BLM land. The grazing cutbacks didn't come about just because the BLM was integrating new science, though. Rather, they are the culmination of an epic legal battle begun by the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project, whose pressure has forced the cutbacks. The group, known for its unwillingness to compromise and staunch opposition to public lands grazing, sued the BLM in 1997 for issuing nearly 70 permits without a thorough consideration of rangeland health. In 2002, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in WWP’s favor.

Grazed and ungrazed pasture. Idaho.

Because of that ruling, the agency is just now re-evaluating the health of the area, and an environmental analysis of the first four permits found that all of the allotments violated at least two, and sometimes four, of the BLM’s rangeland health standards, including water quality, endangered species habitat and native plant health. More importantly, the analysis determined that livestock were “significant causal factors” in the allotments’ failure to meet standards -- in other words, the cows are to blame. A small paragraph in document also notes that cattle are a stressor that adds to impacts already being wrought by climate change, and cites a paper published in January in Environmental Management that details the relationship between cattle and climate. When deciding how to revise the grazing permits to respond to the environmental assessment's findings, Loretta Chandler, the field manager of the Owyhee Field Office, appeared to consider these findings, although a spokesman for the Idaho state office said the agency still needs more research on how grazing levels react with climate change.

The authors of the study, “Adapting to Climate Change on Western Public Lands:

Addressing the Ecological Effects of Domestic, Wild,and Feral Ungulates,” argue that reducing cattle numbers or eliminating them entirely will lead to the recovery and resilience of the arid sagebrush steppe ecosystem, important in a region stressed by drought, higher temperatures, more fires and insect outbreaks. Over 70 percent of Forest Service and BLM lands have livestock grazing, but despite this, there are fewer efforts to mitigate cattle’s deleterious effect on the landscape than other stressors, they say.

“They invariably talk about fire, forestry, roads, and they never talk about grazing,” says Robert Beschta, an emeritus professor in Oregon State University’s department of forest ecosystems and society and co-author of the study. “That’s the biggest land use on public lands, (and) it’s basically ignored when they talk about resiliency.” Why? Beschta points to internal politics. “Is there an internal agenda by agencies to downplay grazing impacts? I would say yes.”

The BLM’s new Owyhee grazing permits may be a step towards a more holistic consideration of the impact of grazing when combined with climate change. Chandler notes that the revised permits are an opportunity to prioritize ecosystem resilience and resistance to the impacts of climate change through careful livestock management. The grazing alternative she chose, to limit grazing to the summer time and reduce the number of cattle, will mean that “native plant communities…will be better armed to survive such (climatic) changes,” the permit reads.

Owyhee River, Idaho.

The consideration of climate seems progressive, and counter to some recent agency history. The BLM certainly does not always acknowledge that cattle, or climate, are stressors. In a 2010 grazing management strategy for Juniper Mountain in eastern Oregon, the agency received a comment asking the BLM to consider how impacts of cattle grazing exacerbate climate-induced stress on the ecosystem. The agency responded by denying that climate change was a “new stress” on ecosystems, and wrote that “climate variability has occurred since the beginning of time and most healthy native ecosystems adapt.”

In November 2012, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported that the agency had directed scientists to exclude livestock as a possible factor in changing landscapes. According to the PEER report (which filed a scientific integrity complaint against the agency):

“Launched in 2010 with more than $40 million in stimulus funds, BLM sought to analyze ecological conditions across six “eco-regions” covering the Sagebrush West. There was only one catch: when scientists were assembled BLM managers informed them that there was one “change agent” that would not be studied – the impacts of commercial livestock grazing. BLM managers told stunned scientists the reason for this puzzling exclusion was due to “stakeholders” opposition and fear of litigation, according to documents appended to the PEER complaint.”

To get PEER’s take on the Owyhee permits, I contacted Jeff Ruch, the group’s executive director, and asked him if he’d seen mention of the relationship between climate and cattle in grazing permits before. He admitted he was not familiar enough with permit restrictions to answer that question, but noted climate (and how its effects are, in turn, affected by cattle grazing) wasn’t the deciding factor in reducing livestock numbers. “In both the EA and the permit decision, climate change appeared to be cited as a plus factor, sort of a cherry on top of the regulatory sundae, adding a further justification for pursuing reductions in grazing levels,” he wrote.

As for Beschta, the author of the study cited in the EA, for the BLM to begin to think about this problem at all is a big deal.

To move towards a solution, he says “first of all you need to know you have a problem.”

Emily Guerin is the editorial fellow at High Country News.

Photos courtesy Flicker user detritus and Flickr user Nick/KC7CBF

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