Warming Temperatures Increase Stress on Public Lands

Researchers have discovered that climate change is creating additional stress on western rangelands, and as a result land owners should consider a reduction or elimination of livestock and other large animals from public lands.

According to the group scientists, a growing degradation of grazing lands could be mitigated if large areas of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USDA Forest Service lands become free of livestock, and feral animal such as wild horses and burros. The grazing lands would also benefit from reducing the populations of deer and elk in those lands as well. These efforts would help slow the decline and speed the recovery of affected ecosystems and provide a basis for comparative study of grazing impacts under a changing climate.

Livestock use affects a far greater proportion of BLM and Forest Service lands than do roads, timber harvest, and wildfires combined. But the effort to mitigate the pervasive effects of livestock has been comparatively minor, even as climatic impacts intensify. 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.

The advent of climate change has significantly added to historic and contemporary problems that result from cattle and sheep ranching, which first prompted federal regulations in the 1890s. According to the study, wild horses and burros are also a significant problem. Deer and elk populations tend to be higher in portions of the West, partially due to the loss or decline of predators. The researchers say that restoring those predators may become part of the recovery plan.

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.