Thursday, June 23, 2005

Birds and the Land Rule Changes in the West

An article in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor outlines changes in the rules affecting ranchers whose cattle are having an adverse ecological impact. When herds of cattle are causing damage, their size must be reduced. Under the new rules ranchers can delay reducing their herds up to five years after the damage is discovered.

Giving extra time to ranchers is not in itself a bad thing. Land use rules need to address a variety of different interests and represent a balancing act of sorts. Many of the smaller ranchers are operating on marginal profits and need an extra boost from the federal government from time to time. What is bothersome, to me, is that the administration continues to distort or ignore scientific research that contradicts their agenda. Here is the director of the Bureau of Land Management:

Kathleen Clarke, director of the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees 261 million acres of federal land in the West, says the new regulations "will produce long-term rangeland health benefits." These include more vegetation along stream banks, which will reduce soil erosion and provide more wildlife habitat, says Ms. Clarke.
This statement flies in the face of both research and common sense. Overgrazing by cattle herds has long been known to reduce the amount of vegetation and increase erosion, not the opposite as Ms. Clarke claims.

It is especially jarring in the light of a recently-released study that attempted to discover the causes for the decline among birds that depend on grasslands for breeding. As the New York Times reports, scientists in Scotland and Spain studied meadow pipits in grassland plots with varying numbers of grazing sheep. Pipits in areas with heavy grazing tended to produce smaller eggs - and thus fewer viable offspring - than pipits who nested in areas with light grazing. This shows a clear impact upon breeding birds in areas with heavy grazing. Whether or not the new grazing rules will increase wildlife habitat, which is debatable, they will do little to promote biodiversity.