Two grazing studies yield opposite conclusions
By Eric Mortenson
A study by 27 cattle and rangeland experts, including two based at Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, concludes that grazing can mitigate the effects of climate change.
If that sounds familiar in a head-scratching sort of way, it’s because a 2012 study — also linked to OSU — concluded the exact opposite. That one, principally written by forestry professor emeritus Robert Beschta, said grazing on public lands should be greatly reduced.
Beschta and others argued that reducing or eliminating livestock grazing would make the land less susceptible to effects of climate change. They said livestock compact the soil, degrade streams, eliminate habitat and make the land more vulnerable to erosion.
Collaborators on the study included the Geos Institute, a southern Oregon environmental group, and researchers with the University of Wyoming and Prescott College.
Critics quickly pointed out that Beschta and the other authors didn’t do original research, but drew from a variety of previous reports.
David Bohnert, director of the OSU research and extension center in Burns, said the report prompted a response from other scientists because it appeared to be misleading and to have an anti-grazing “agenda.”
“We knew it was horrible because we know it’s wrong,” Bohnert said.
A group of like-minded researchers “got together and said, ‘Who wants to help with this (response),’” he said. Tony Svejcar, a USDA rangeland scientist who also works at the Burns center, was lead author.
It was clear the Beschta group left out key information contained in the earlier studies, choosing sections that supported their thesis, Bohnert said.
“They reported a bunch of stuff that wasn’t wrong, but they didn’t look at everything in context,” Bohnert said. “Grazing can be bad, but it’s not one of those things that’s black and white. We don’t hear that with proper management, it can work, we just hear grazing is horrible.”
“I’m biased, too,” Bohnert acknowledged, “but I’m a good scientist.”
Much of the Beschta group’s criticism was based on intensive grazing practices that are no longer done by ranchers, Bohnert said.
Moderate grazing, on the other hand, reduces the fuel load available when wildfires roll through rangeland. If fires burn too hot, they kill native grasses and allow invasive plants to get established.
Bohnert and the other critics also question how the Beschta group linked grazing to climate change phenomena such as higher spring temperatures, reduced snow packs, earlier peak stream flows and reduced summer stream flows.
“It is unclear how removing grazing would overcome the effects of large-scale climatic changes (such as reduced snow packs) that are triggered by larger and more complex resource issues than grazing,” the report concludes.
Beschta did not respond to a phone message and email requesting comment. Bohnert said he’s heard Beschta is working on a response to the refutation.