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Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 

A team of researchers is calling on policymakers to instate measures that would curb grazing by domestic and wild animals on Western public lands.

The eight researchers published a report today in Environmental Management recommending that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service eliminate grazing on some large areas. Climate change has altered the landscapes of the West’s public lands, said Robert Beschta, professor emeritus in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

“How we are grazing the West today is creating all of these adverse impacts,” said Beschta. “The whole discussion about improving rangelands is missing.”

Higher temperatures, less snowpack in the winter, wildfires and varying precipitation have all proved to be stressful on grasslands in the West, Beschta said. Grazing animals, like cattle, wild horses, burros and ungulates — hooved mammals like deer and elk — are eating away the chance for grazing lands to recover.

These areas could serve as sites for researchers to observe how ecosystems might recover from constant grazing in the face of climate change.

More BLM and Forest Service land is used to feed domestic and wild grazing animals than is consumed by forest fires, roads and the timber harvest combined, the study finds. Trampling from animals increases soil erosion with negative consequences on watersheds and wildlife. The stress on native grasses also reduces plant biodiversity and pollination.

Public benefits from reduced grazing

Deer and elk have grown in population due to the decline in large predators like wolves. Reintroducing these predators could help restoration efforts, the authors wrote.

In January, the Forest Service adopted a revised planning rule — the first update since 1982 — that incorporated a greater focus on climate change adaptation for forests. Although the rule could potentially serve as a framework for better management in the face of climate change, it has also been criticized for being too vague and dependent on local forest managers.

“It requires the planning process to look at interactions, rather than just climate alone,” said David Cleaves, climate change adviser to the Forest Service chief, after the announcement of the new rule (ClimateWire, Jan. 27).

The report mentions the possible economic consequences of restricting grazing on public lands, saying some operators would see reduced incomes and land values.

The benefits far outweigh the costs, said co-author Debra Donahue, a professor in the University of Wyoming’s College of Law. These include improvements in water quality, improved soil quality and better pollination. Because only a tiny percentage of American beef is raised on grasslands, beef prices are unlikely to rise.

“The ecological improvement will translate to economic benefits,” Donahue said.