A new article authored by a host of university-based biologists and environmental interests takes direct aim at cattle grazing on public lands in the West and claims it represents the “most common threat” to iconic American landscapes during a time of converging environmental crises.
The article, published in the journal BioScience, recommends three clear action steps that must be taken to restore biological order and “revive” the American West. They are:
- Withdrawal of federal grazing allotments on 11 “reservations” across the West
- Reintroducing gray wolves to those reserves
- Reintroduction of North American beavers into suitable habitat across those reserves
“These three restoration steps can greatly improve ecosystem structure and function, especially in coastal areas,” the article states.
The group of biologists, led by William J. Ripple of Oregon State University, chose wolves and beavers as the hinge species that would make the reopening possible. The group of biologists recommends the return of the wolf to some western states. They say the lack of an apex predator is a major contributor to some of the West’s most pressing problems, such as habitat degradation. For example, in areas where wolves have been reintroduced, habitat across the entire wildlife spectrum has generally improved (even in the face of strong opposition from the farming community and most hunters). The presence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, for example, has forced deer to move more and spread out over more areas of the park instead of remaining sedentary. This has resulted in improved grazing habitat throughout the park—areas once dirt-grazed by stagnant deer now boast healthy browse, new recruitment of aspen and willow and, as a result, more groundwater supplies.
Beavers also contribute to habitat improvement, especially in riparian areas.
“By cutting down trees and shrubs and building dams, beavers enrich fish habitat, increase water and sediment retention, conserve water flows during drought, provide wet breaks from fire, improve water quality, initiate river channel recovery. incised, increase carbon sequestration and generally improve habitat for many coastal plant and animal species,” the article states. He also notes that while suitable beaver habitat makes up only about 2 percent of the wealth of public lands, beaver activity benefits 70 percent of wildlife species in the West.
There is no doubt that the group’s proposal to reintroduce wolves will cause delays. Since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and parts of central Idaho and western Montana in 1995, political opposition has remained fierce and state fish and wildlife agencies have pushed the envelope on wolf management, allowing liberal hunting that, at times , has prompted the intervention of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the animals do not become extinct a second time (wolves were largely extinct in the lower 48 until the 1950s).
“Currently, wolf management by some Western state governments is geared toward reducing their numbers, and it is essential that these policies be reversed and federally protected status fully restored,” the article states.
That said, wolves also have passionate advocates—in 2020, voters in Colorado directed the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to reintroduce and manage wolves in the state. This plan is expected until the end of 2023.
These paired photo examples provided by the article’s authors show riparian or aquatic habitat recovery after cattle removal in Oregon (a); after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995-1996 in Yellowstone National Park (b); and after beavers were introduced into a watershed in northern Nevada (c) (image credit: Ripple, et. al. / BioScience).
According to the biologists behind the article, wolves are considered vital to recovery efforts “because their recovery and sustainability require large areas.” Examining nearby public lands that contain “core wolf habitat” and are at least 5,000 square kilometers, the article’s authors created what they call the Western Rewilding Network. This “network” stretches from New Mexico to northern Montana and west to the Sierra-Nevada Mountains of California. There are a total of 11 “reserves” within the network and it spans 11 western states.
The Western Rewilding network is not just about land. It also categorizes 92 threatened and endangered species within the reserves, including 22 species of fish, 11 mammals and dozens of amphibians, birds, insects and even crustaceans.
While the authors claim that cattle grazing is the most serious obstacle to rewilding the West through the Western Rewilding Network (it’s problematic in 7 of the 11 proposed reserves, the authors say), they also acknowledge that mining, logging, and oil drilling and gas also stand. in the way of any such effort. But the solution to the grazing dilemma is the easiest. The cancellation of grazing leases would barely register in the national commodity market – only 2 percent of the country’s meat supply comes from grazing leases in the West. Of note, the authors of the article only suggest eliminating 29 percent of all cattle grazing leases in the West—they simply support the cancellation of leases within the proposed reserves. And, the authors note, there should be some sort of “federal program of fair economic and social compensation for those who relinquish their grazing permits from the government … provided these allotments are in permanent retirement.” .
These maps show the reserve network for the American West and focus on wolf range expansion (a); 11 proposed reserves (b); the connection of the proposed reserves with the existing reserves (c); Forest carbon content of proposed reserves (d); proposed grazing leases (e); and biodiversity including aspen, (f) (image credit: Ripple, et. al. / BioScience).
“Cattle grazing is ubiquitous on federal lands in the American West and, surprisingly, also occurs within some protected areas, such as wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and national monuments,” the article states. “Federal lands with managed cattle allotments often have diverse ecological impacts due to the multiple direct and indirect effects of these large introduced herbivores. For example, in many areas, cattle grazing causes degradation of streams and wetlands, affects fire regimes, and inhibits the regeneration of woody species, especially willow.
The authors of the article acknowledge that the Western Rewilding Network, if ever considered by the federal government (a many an impossible development even when viewed through the most optimistic lenses during these politically charged and polarized times), its implementation will take time. But, they say, eliminating grazing leases and reintroducing the two mammals—wolves and beavers—that have the most dramatic positive impacts on the landscape could protect and restore the 44 threatened and endangered species most affected by grazing leases.
“Although our proposal may at first seem controversial or even quixotic, we believe that ultra-ambitious action is required,” the article states. “We are in an unprecedented period of converging crises in the American West, including prolonged drought and water scarcity, extreme heat waves, massive wildfires caused at least in part by climate change, and biodiversity loss with many threatened species and endangered.”