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Last year’s combination of drought and wildfire will have a long-lasting impact on western ranchers.
The grazing controversy
Ranchers who have grazed rangelands for decades say proper grazing reduces the potential fuel load for a wildfire. But anti-grazing interests continue to push for a reduction or elimination of livestock on public lands. In fact, anti-grazing groups are cheering a recent study entitled “Climate Change Increases Stress, Need for Restoration on Grazed Public Lands.”
Published recently in the Journal of Environmental Management, the report claims that climate change justifies a drastic reduction or elimination of livestock grazing in the interest of range health. The study’s authors say cattle compact soils, impact riparian areas, cause erosion and degrade habitat. The study contains no new research; it simply cites earlier data and claims a fresh perspective by factoring in climate change.
Other range scientists are skeptical about the study results, pointing to use of old data and the failure to acknowledge differences between today’s grazing methods and those of the early 20th century. The Public Lands Council (PLC) says the paper’s conclusions are based on speculation, not facts.
Meanwhile, ranchers and range scientists are trying to educate the public about the importance of grazing – especially in dry years – to reduce wildfire risk. Wildfires damage watersheds, soil, wildlife habitat and rangeland ecology (and threaten private property), much more than livestock ever could, they say.
The Idaho Cattle Association hosted a discussion on grazing and wildfire trends during its annual convention last November. Many panel members cited cheat grass as a primary factor in fires in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. This invasive exotic annual is the chief fuel for range fires, especially in areas where grazing has been reduced or eliminated.
Some points made by speakers included:
- Karen Launchbaugh, University of Idaho, says early spring grazing reduces cheat grass, thus removing fuel for wildfires.
- Barry Perryman, University of Nevada-Reno, refuted the idea that cattle won’t eat dry cheat grass; in fact, cattle can maintain weight and body condition on cheat grass. Plus, fall grazing helps maintain the health of native perennials, which burn less readily than cheat grass.
- Range consultant Greg Simonds says a study of grazing’s effect on fire was conducted at Squaw Valley Ranch in Nevada. It showed grazed range is much less volatile when exposed to fire conditions.
Speakers also pointed out that many problems western ranchers face today stem from interpretations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the constraints exerted by National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on government agencies’ ability to properly manage federal lands. Sage grouse are a prime issue. Fire is the biggest threat to them, not livestock, yet government policy will restrict or eliminate grazing in sage grouse areas if the bird is listed as endangered. This will lead to more wildfires.
PLC hopes Congress will streamline NEPA and ESA procedures and reintroduce the Catastrophic Fire Protection Act, which proposes better coordination between state/local firefighters and federal policymaking forces.
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