Grazing has greatly increased the problems of wildfires in much of the American West. At the same time, “fire suppression” regimes are being used as a cover for indiscriminate removal of trees from woodlands on western federal lands to make room for even more grazing.
Most notably, grazing is one of the primary reasons invasive winter grasses, which dry up and become fine fuel, have taken such a stronghold in the Western United States. For example, overgrazing of native grasses has spurred the spread of invasive cheatgrass, which can damage or destroy intact sagebrush and bunchgrass ecosystems, which are more fire-resistant. Cheatgrass is a highly flammable annual grass considered the main culprit in the rangeland mega-fires that have increasingly been devastating the Great Basin region, where livestock grazing is a leading conservation threat.
Ironically, many livestock producers and agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees grazing on Western public lands, promote grazing as a way to control cheatgrass and reduce wildfire risk. This framing has been called out by numerous environmental experts and organizations as a cover for improving and expanding cattle pasture, thereby increasing profit for ranchers.
Indeed, for decades under the dual guise of “wildfire reduction” and “restoration of sage grouse habitat,” huge tracts of old-growth pinyon-juniper forest have been chained and razed by the BLM and turned into cattle pasture, despite the reality that both grazing and the removal of pinyon-juniper forest have been shown to increase cheatgrass invasion and harms to sage grouse.
In a six-year study of pinyon-juniper forest removal “treatments” by both prescribed burn and by machine cutting at 10 sites across the western United States, researchers found that cheatgrass significantly increased with both prescribed fire and tree removal by cutting.
And in a 2019 meta-analysis, researchers examined 14 years of data from 417 sites across the central Great Basin to identify the effects of livestock grazing on cheatgrass spread. They concluded, “Our results indicate that grazing corresponds with increased cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence regardless of variation in climate, topography, or plant community composition, and provide no support for the notion that contemporary grazing regimes or grazing in conjunction with fire can suppress cheatgrass.”
Pinyon-juniper are among the oldest and most prevalent native woodland types in the western United States, extending through 10 states in the Great Basin region. Most of these forests also happen to exist on BLM lands leased to ranchers. Since cattle don’t eat trees, “rangeland scientists” paint these native forests as “invasive,” claiming they encroach on endangered sage-grouse habitat and also increase forest fire risk.
Between 1940 and 1964, more than 3 million acres of pinyon-juniper forests were destroyed and converted to pasture, though those numbers are likely much lower than the true figure (government documentation of tree clearance was not regulated until 1970). Another 600,000 acres of these woodlands were clear-cut by the BLM between 2009 and 2015. And in what would be their largest tree removal project to date, the agency has now proposed removing another 7.4 million acres of pinyon-juniper woodland across the Great Basin.
These extensive tree-removal projects are given misleading titles like “Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration,” keeping the taxpayers who fund them in the dark via greenwashing phrases that imply “stewardship.”
All the while that these self-proclaimed “restoration” projects are decimating old-growth pinyon-juniper woodlands — ostensibly in part to improve imperiled sage-grouse habitat — vast tracts of actual sagebrush habitat are designated by the BLM as necessary “fuel break” areas and are mowed, crushed, burned, and, like their pinyon-juniper counterparts, completely eradicated under the guise of “fire suppression,” then seeded with non-native grasses like wheatgrass on which ranchers then graze their cattle.
Katie Fite, public lands director at Wildlands Defense, writes:
“BLM’s falsely named ‘restoration’ focuses on woody plant destruction projects that turn beautiful wild places into dirt, grass and often flammable weeds. The beneficiaries of this mammoth taxpayer-funded wildlife habitat destruction scheme will be the 18,000 public lands Welfare Ranchers who have the revocable privilege of holding federal grazing permits. The EIS is a surefire way for cattlemen to maneuver for increased grazing, especially if the “restored” sites become infested with flammable cheatgrass or other weeds. After BLM smashes sagebrush or grinds pine nut forests into wood chips under its new EIS, the agency can turn right around and intensify livestock use in a ‘targeted grazing treatment’ by claiming cows will reduce flammable weeds generated by the project.”
Scott Lake, a legal advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, notes: “Putting more cows on more public lands isn’t a solution, it’s a recipe for more problems. Livestock grazing is what led to cheatgrass invasion in the first place, and it’s one of the main reasons why fires in the West have become more frequent and destructive. There’s no evidence that more of the same will reduce the prevalence of invasive grasses or restore sagebrush landscapes.”
While naturally occurring fires are a normal part of many ecosystems, humans are responsible for an estimated 75% of wildfires globally, with most forest fires — some 96% — caused by humans, whether deliberately lit or unintentionally set through carelessness. Of global fires that are deliberately set, agricultural fires are a predominant sector.
Humans have used fire for agricultural purposes for centuries: to clear land to grow crops; to improve soil fertility; to remove trees and shrubs in order to create livestock pasture; and to force new growth of the young, tender grasses that cattle prefer to eat.
Increasingly, however, we are seeing vastly more fires being set for cattle ranching, and, from these, more escaped fires, many of which turn into larger, uncontrollable blazes with devastating effects.
Most familiar perhaps are the hundreds of thousands of fires that have seen the Amazon rainforest in a near perpetual state of burn for the last several years.
The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and mitigates global warming by absorbing around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. In total, the Amazon stores an estimated 150–200 billion tons of carbon. But when forests are cut and burned, trees and plants release massive amounts of stored carbon, accelerating climate change. In 2020, fires caused by deforestation for cattle ranching in the Amazon rainforest were up 23% from the headline-making blazes of 2019, with a 60% rise in uncontrolled wildfires that escaped into intact rainforest that had not been cleared.
Unlike the western United States, the Amazon ecosystem is not naturally fire-prone; the overwhelming majority of these fires have been deliberately set to clear land for cattle pasture or feed crops, in what is commonly known as “slash-and-burn” agriculture. In fact, cattle ranching alone is responsible for 80% of current deforestation rates in the Amazon.
Portions of the Amazon are being so heavily deforested that the Brazilian Amazon released nearly 20% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it absorbed, over the past decade. This means one of the world's largest carbon sinks is being turned into a net emitter of carbon dioxide instead.
By advancing climate change, deforestation in turn promotes greater incidence of wildfire, as periods of longer and hotter temperatures, combined with increasing drought, dry more vegetation, creating a higher fuel load and thus an increased fire risk.
Forests are not the only ecosystem being harmed by fires set for grazing. Grasslands constitute the largest ecosystem in the world. They cover approximately 40% of the earth's terrestrial surface and play an important role in carbon sequestration by storing about 10% of global soil carbon stocks. Grassland soils’ role as an organic matter sink is almost as important as forests for carbon fixation and storage.
The Pantanal, for example, in the heart of South America, includes the planet’s largest seasonally flooded grasslands, and is home to thousands of different species of wildlife, many endangered. But escaped fires set by ranchers to make more pasture for cattle burned nearly a quarter of the Pantanal in 2020, while thousands of uncontrollable fires set by cattle producers devastated the delta grasslands of nearby Argentina. Livestock operators burn the dead winter grass in order to spur stronger growth of new grass for grazing.
Prescribed fire (also known as controlled burning) is the most common grassland management regime. The annual burning of grasslands to create new or improved pasture for grazing livestock is a ubiquitous practice around the world. But research has shown that compared to unburned grasslands, annual burning increases CO2 emissions from grassland soils by 30%.
Additional greenhouse gases are emitted from burning itself, with both prescribed and escaped prescribed fires for rangeland management emitting vast amounts of CO2, nitrous oxide, and black carbon. These impacts, along with methane emissions from grazing ruminants, have led climate scientists to conclude that climate warming from managed grasslands cancels the cooling effect of carbon sinks in natural grasslands and grasslands sparsely grazed by native herbivores. Ultimately, grazing management causes grasslands to switch from a carbon sink to a significant net emitter of greenhouse gases.
From the rainforests and grasslands of South America to the public lands of the western United States, beef and dairy production continue to devastate native plants, animals and peoples. Razing and burning of old-growth forests to create ever more pasture has displaced native wildlife and vegetation with cattle and exotic grasses or monoculture forage crops, altering natural fire cycles and decimating indigenous ecosystems and communities.
Scientists warn that so much of the world’s largest rainforest has been burned that the Amazon is on the verge of becoming dry, open savannah. Meanwhile, in the western United States, development in high fire-prone areas and more extreme fire weather due to climate change continue to increase fire risk. Systems that require more cattle are not a viable solution to ecological crises. Reductions in meat and dairy production are required to help restore ecological balance to the world’s forests and public lands. In addition to reducing cattle production, other solutions to wildfire issues include improving land use practices and public lands management, while working with Indigenous communities to integrate traditional ecological approaches where appropriate.
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