Juniper woodlands in the Wah Wah Mountains. Photo: Erik Molvar.

The dawn breaks each morning on a hundred different mountain ranges in the Great Basin, with few human eyes to see it. Many of these mountain chains will be unfamiliar to most – the Toquimas, the Wah Wahs, the Goshutes, the Sheeprocks, the Fox Range – but the one thing they all have in common is their juniper woodlands that have been here for thousands of years. On the mesas and tablelands of the Colorado Plateau, guarding the slickrock canyons and mazes of badlands that are American icons, are the fragile woodlands (don’t bust the crust!) of pinyon and juniper that perfume the air with that ineffable scent of wild country. Today, just as the world awakens to the reality that we need as much carbon sequestration as possible, these arid woodlands are under assault from a coordinated campaign to deforest the West, orchestrated by the livestock industry.

Action to address climate change has been announced as a central policy priority with the Biden administration, putting the significant role of domestic livestock in climate disruption in the spotlight. Methane emissions (both from the four-chambered digestion system that allows ruminants to digest cellulose, and from the breakdown of manure) get the lion’s share of the attention, in keeping with America’s end-of-tailpipe fixation on measuring pollution. But the carbon cycle is circular, and livestock exacerbate climate disruption at many points in the cycle. One key effect is by bankrupting soil carbon reserves by eliminating deep-rooted perennial plants and replacing them with annual weeds, and another is through deforestation to create cattle pasture. While deforestation for livestock is widely-recognized as a major climate problem in the Amazonian rainforests, deforestation of pinyon-juniper woodlands is ramping up across the American West, and similarly contributes to the climate catastrophe.

The real reason that pinyon-juniper woodlands are so aggressively targeted for “control” and “treatment,” even though they are an ecologically important and natural component of western ecosystems, comes down to the almighty dollar. A recent survey of Bureau of Land Management employees by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility contains this clue: “with ranchers, one employee noted that the current excuse to cut pinyon juniper and sagebrush to prevent wildfire, which have been the native species for thousands of years, has no scientific reasoning. Instead, it’s to benefit cattle.”

Old-growth juniper atop Cedar Mesa, within the once-and-future Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Erik Molvar

During the dying days of the Trump administration, an all-out war on juniper woodlands was underway under the guise of fire prevention. The Tri-State Fuel Breaks Project planned almost a thousand miles of strips; scientists criticized the project, predicting it “will not achieve success and may in fact exacerbate degradation of the native flora and fauna of the region.” The Idaho portion was approved in May of 2020, authorizing “manual, mechanical, and chemical treatments, along with targeted grazing and prescribed fire.” The Great Basin Fuel Breaks Project was even bigger, authorizing 11,000 miles of fuel breaks in April of 2020. The selected alternative authorized wiping out 121,000 acres of woodlands. And for what? A federal review of the science found inconclusive benefits from fuel breaks constructed throughout the West over the past five decades. In effect, these are make-work projects that, while causing significant ecosystem destruction and habitat fragmentation, have little or no benefit in reducing the extent or intensity of fires.

Fuel breaks are but the tip of the deforestation iceberg. In January 2021, during the twilight of the Trump presidency, a program called “Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration for the Great Basin” was completed. Under this plan, more than 26 million acres would be targeted for a variety of environmentally destructive projects euphemistically labeled “vegetation treatments” as if the native vegetation is somehow sick. “Targeted grazing” is one such treatment authorized, even though a federal court ruled that livestock grazing actually increases the spread of flammable cheatgrass, instead of reducing fire risk, after hearing expert testimony on both sides of the issue. Pinyon-juniper woodlands would bear the brunt of the projects, facing chainsaws, chaining with bulldozers, and herbicides. Some 3,088,468 acres of pinyon-juniper woodlands are now scheduled for “restoration treatments.” The Administration pre-approved this massive program habitat destruction under a single Environmental Impact Statement, which could allow the agency to approve future projects without analyzing the site-specific impacts, or perhaps even public notification.

The drive to get rid of pinyon and juniper woodlands began several years ago. Senators Hatch and Heinrich slipped a rider into the 2018 Farm Bill instructing the Bureau of Land Management to create a “Categorical Exclusion” exempting pinyon-juniper logging and chaining projects of up to 4,500 acres from having to go through environmental analysis otherwise required by the National Environmental Policy Act. This legislation was pushed by sportsman groups, spearheaded by the Mule Deer Foundation. Western Watersheds Project and other conservationists warned that pinyon-juniper removal was bad for wildlife – including mule deer – but these warnings were ignored by Congress. Ironically, several months after Hatch-Heinrich passed, a new scientific study was published demonstrating that pinyon-juniper woodlands were an essential habitat component for mule deer, and that juniper removals have a negative effect on the species.

Then the Trump administration took it a giant leap farther, authorizing that pinyon-juniper removals as large as 10,000 acres could be approved under a Categorical Exclusion.

Cutting down juniper woodlands is often promoted as a method to create or improve habitat for the imperiled sage grouse, which requires undisturbed sagebrush steppe habitats and avoids trees of any kind. While juniper removal might seem to make sense, the reality is that logged-off juniper woodlands seldom result in sage grouse habitat. Mature and old-growth stands of junipers typically have very little understory at all, neither sagebrush nor native grasses. When bulldozers and other heavy equipment move in and the trees are torn down, what you get is disturbed bare ground. It’s the perfect breeding ground for the non-native invasive weed, cheatgrass.

If the goal is fuel reduction, cheatgrass infestations are the worst possible outcome. When livestock add their impacts into the mix (as they almost always do), suppressing native bunchgrasses and breaking up fragile soil crusts, cheatgrass proliferates. Highly flammable, cheatgrass predictably dies each July (escaping the drought stress of high summer in seed form). Drying out, it creates the perfect tinder for fires to burn, and those fires wipe out sagebrush and other fire-intolerant shrubs creating a monoculture of cheatgrass that fuels a cycle of frequent wildfires in perpetuity.

There is a widespread myth that pinyon pines and juniper are an “invasive species” that are unnaturally expanding their range as a result of human activities like fire suppression or heavy livestock grazing. The reality is that these woodlands have been expanding and contracting for thousands of years in a natural cycle, following changes in precipitation patterns.

In addition to mule deer, there are a number of other native wildlife species that benefit from pinyon-juniper woodlands. Scott’s oriole, juniper titmouse, and Bewick’s wren are a few of the songbird species that are considered juniper obligates. Pinyon jays are pinyon obligates, as their name suggests. Obligate species are animals that require a specific type of habitat to sustain their populations.

As for the climate impacts, when you replace juniper woodlands – or sagebrush-bunchgrass steppes – with cheatgrass, it reverses the enormous carbon sequestration capability of western desert shrublands, hemorrhaging soil carbon into the atmosphere. We typically think of forests as the most important carbon immobilizers, but desert shrublands can pull even more carbon out of the atmosphere and safely lock it away in the soil.

The removal of pinyon-juniper woodlands across the American West draws a direct parallel with rainforest destruction to create livestock pastures in the Amazon Basin. It’s all about the fool’s errand of trying to mow down native ecosystems and replace them with idyllic grassy pastures ideal for adding pounds and profits to beef cattle. Nevermind that cattle are ill-adapted to arid environments, and do so poorly on western public lands that the vast acreage dedicated to beef production on western federal lands amounts to little more than two or three percent of the nation’s beef production. Even if western public lands had no recreational value to the Americans for whose benefit they are supposed to be managed, the carbon sequestration value of juniper woodlands would still eclipse the scanty private profits that are wrung from marginal western livestock operations. Climate change is a serious problem, not least of all for the arid West now struggling with protracted drought and decreasing water availability. Let’s stop making it worse by cutting down the fragile woodlands that hold the carbon in place.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds across the West.

 
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Erik Molvar

5 Responses to Livestock and deforestation in the American West

  1. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    🙂 Nicely written. Something so emblematic of the West needs to be preserved.

  2. avatar rastadoggie says:

    My neighborhood junipers are full of Townsend Solitaires eating berries, chickadees, pygmy and white breasted nuthatches storing seeds in the flaky bark and taking excellent cover there in those tight branches on stormy days. I’ll bet they spend their cold nights there too. Local fire mitigation short sightedly targets them, even old growth, because they’re “resinous”. Stand up for junipers.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      The BLM seems to have something against junipers too! Chaining(!) them to make more pasture for livestock!!

  3. With 60% of mammals on earth livestock for cruel and arbitrary slaughter, 36% humans abusing every other creature, and only 4% wild mammals, I wish all these scientists would focus on the root of the problems – that state departments of “natural resources” (* resources to be killed or destroyed violently ) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife “Service” were structured in the mid 1800’s to be killing businesses and exploitation for hunters, trappers, loggers, and now snowmobiles and hounding – coyote killing contests and trophy killing and take of our last wildlife in the most cruel and wanton ways. Until we DEMAND general public funding of our state agencies and USFWS – until we DEMAND fair proportionate REPRESENTATION on deciding boards and staffing of agencies, we are doomed to complete the extinction of a MILLION SPECIES ongoing – half of the life of this planet which will collapse the other half. Expect more zoonotic pandemics as humans forever focus on HUMANS HUMANS HUMANS and LAND, AIR, and WATER – HABITAT HABITAT HABITAT and NOT the fellow mortals that weave the world together for us to be healthy. We are insane and it is way too late – but some leadership to focus on WILD LIFE would be helpful. AND the politics and structure and funding of destruction of wildlife.

  4. avatar Ed Loosli says:

    Patricia: Thanks for this… You are absolutely right about the need to change the funding for state wildlife departments and boards. Going from a majority of hunter/fisher funding to a majority of PUBLIC FUNDING will make a tremendous difference in conserving our wildlife rather than consuming our wildlife. I believe that the California Fish and Wildlife Dept. now gets more than 50% of its funding from the PUBLIC state treasury instead of from hunter/fisher license fees. As a result of this funding formula, California has placed the gray wolf on its Endangered Species List where it is fully protected. Compare that to Idaho or Montana or Wyoming or Wisconsin, where hunters/fishers are the big funders of the state wildlife agencies.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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