The cows come home

Will Great Basin grazing survive climate change?

Fourth generation rancher Bryan Masini: Will he be able to hand off to a fifth?

Fourth generation rancher Bryan Masini: Will he be able to hand off to a fifth?


Joe Guild is a member of one of Nevada’s older families. He manages a small ranch for another of the state’s pioneer families in Douglas County. Though he has a Reno law practice, ranching seems to be his preference. When he returned from military service and Vietnam in February 1971, he spent some time working on a Carson Valley ranch.

Carson Valley is in Douglas County south of Carson City. The valley also contains Minden and Gardnerville. Guild is now 68 and back in Douglas County to ranch. And he’s worried about climate change. He’s not sure what it means for ranching. In the past, even droughts could be dealt with and waited out. But now there’s no certainty that this dry period will end.

“This period of time is exactly what occurred in the 1930s,” Guild said. “I remember talking to an old rancher in Carson Valley when I was down there in the 1970s. So the worry is the uncertainty. Is this 1930s redux, is this the mid-1970s with two years considered a drought, is this 1880s redux or … are we in the beginning of a mega-drought? So it’s the uncertainty.”

The ranch he now runs has a Forest Service grazing permit that allows its small herd of 170 to graze in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail at one point, from June 16 to September 16 each year. Then the herd is brought back to a meadow maintained by the ranch. (Grazing takes place on both rangeland, composed mostly of native grasses and plants, and pastureland, composed of introduced or cultivated plants.)

Surprisingly, the ranch has been able to keep its herd at normal size during these dry years. But that won’t last much longer.

“Now, if we go into another winter like we’ve had … these past two winters, I’m going to have to recommend to the owners that they liquidate some of their cows,” Guild said.

Someone once said that the West begins where the average rainfall drops below 20 inches a year, meaning that the region is already defined by its dryness. And it is in the West that so many cattle are grazed on public land—in an era of climate change.

What happens when climate change hits the Western ground cover on which cattle feed?


Grazing. It's a word identified with the West, part of the script of innumerable movie Westerns, a target for reformers who say the federal government undercharges on public lands, a target for environmentalists who claim the practice despoils the land. Grazing was the putative issue in the fight Cliven Bundy picked with the feds. Grazing is a cultural and political as much as an agricultural issue. And as we will see, there is division among experts on the impact and consequences of grazing.

The danger to grazing could be very real. A term like “could” is not very satisfying, but science doesn’t deal in the certainty that its critics do. And grazing in Nevada could be a different matter than grazing elsewhere in the West. That’s because Nevada is in the Great Basin. The geography is different from other states, and it’s not known whether climate issues play out the same in Nevada as in Wyoming or Utah or Arizona, which have little or no portions of the Basin within their borders.

Some scientists say the characteristics of the Great Basin—which nearly encompasses Nevada—mean that climate change may affect this region differently from other Western regions. Though sections of the Great Basin extend into four other states, Nevada is the dominant human-made jurisdiction within its territory.

The term basin can be misleading. Nevada historian James Hulse has compared it to a bowl of mashed potatoes in which the potatoes in the center rise above the outside rim of the bowl. At any rate, the impact of climate change on the basin is still uncertain. Oregon State University beef cattle specialist Dave Bohnert:

“The difficulty is we really do not have the answer. … [Studies] lay out many scenarios and possibilities, but in general we do not really have an idea what will happen if temperatures do warm over the long-term. Tie this with potential changes in precipitation patterns and we are dealing with an answer of ’It depends.’ I know that is not what you wanted to hear but that is about as good as I can do with the available data.”

Denialists would likely see that as evidence for their viewpoint, but scientists have warned that lack of knowledge of all the implications of climate change should not be taken to mean climate change is not real. In a 2013 report by six scientists on rangelands and climate change, the authors argued, “Despite these uncertainties, it would be irresponsible to ignore the cumulative evidence for climate change—both the current footprint and model projections—on the basis that the rates and magnitude of change are not fully known.”

A couple of years ago, University of Nevada, Reno rangeland scientist Sherman Swanson told us, “Somewhere through the middle of Nevada is a line, and we don’t know where it is. South of that line, it’ll be drier. North of that line, it’ll be wetter.” He may be in doubt on the exact effects of climate change, but not on climate change itself.

While some folks portray the relationship between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management as hostile, some of those close to the scene consider the agency too cozy to those it is supposed to regulate, which affects grazing and climate issues. Ranchers dislike scientific study of grazing, and BLM officials have resisted such studies on their behalf. In 2001, the New York Times reported on a plan for study of climate change factors that affect Western ranges. When scientists included grazing among the factors being studied, it raised the hackles of BLM officials. When the study was completed, the grazing data was used in a federal study but BLM refused to release the data to the public so it could be used in non-federal studies, sparking a lawsuit.

At an Oct. 11, 2007, congressional hearing in Las Vegas, Mark Salvo and Andy Kerr of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign gave a presentation that argued, “A primary cause of excessive wildfires in the Great Basin is the spread of flammable, nonnative cheatgrass. … A primary cause of cheatgrass invasion is domestic livestock grazing. … Rangelands restored with native species and ungrazed by livestock will be more resistant and resilient to climate change than degraded lands. … The federal government should … [d]iscontinue livestock grazing on federal public lands to eliminate a primary cause of weed invasion and increase the success of ecological and hydrological restoration programs in sagebrush steppe.”

Mike Pellant of the Bureau of Land Management responded that his agency had a “team of fire and resource specialists … addressing this issue with rancher input, remote sensing, monitoring data, and fire models to determine how livestock grazing may be used in the future to reduce catastrophic wildfires. This is one of several projects in the Great Basin addressing livestock, fuels, and wildfires.”

Best defense

Why would ranchers resist study of grazing? It's not surprising. Grazing is under attack, and they become defensive. The livestock industry and grazing are often both cited as a cause of climate change, and that citation is frequently and unfortunately framed with a tone of blame and scapegoating.

In 2008, a three-scientist study said, “Because of the regular presence of beef cows across the nation, beef cow vitality provides an effective indicator of the regional impact of climate change.” So there are things to be learned from ranching. But why should ranchers cooperate with such studies if they come back with recommendations that could put ranchers out of business?

And that’s unfortunate, because ranchers badly need further research.

A steer crosses a dry lake.

Describing a United Nations report, Scientific American’s Nathan Fiala wrote, “Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken. For potatoes, the multiplier is 57. Beef consumption is rising rapidly, both as population increases and as people eat more meat. Producing the annual beef diet of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles.”

New York Times writer Mark Bittman has written, “A primer: The Earth may very well be running out of clean water, and by some estimates it takes 100 times more water (up to 2,500 gallons) to produce a pound of grain-fed beef than it does to produce a pound of wheat. We’re also running out of land: somewhere around 45 percent of the world’s land is either directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, and as forests are cleared to create new land for grazing animals or growing feed crops, the earth’s capacity to sequester greenhouse gases (trees are especially good at this) diminishes. I could go on and on about the dangers of producing and consuming too much meat …”

Those who write these kinds of things deemphasize the fact that there are real people behind statistics, people who support families and communities on their earnings from the livestock industry.

On the other hand, some who say they support ranching are doing livestock families no favors by engaging in denialism. Range Magazine, for instance, is a forum for noted climate denialists Fred Singer (featured in the book and documentary Merchants of Doubt, in current release) and Michael Coffman. Ranching may be in real danger from climate change and needs support and information.

Fortunately, with major denialist organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heartland Institute dropping or softening their skepticism, denialism is becoming less common. Virtually all movement is away from skepticism. In Nevada, voices that might be expected to resist the notion of climate impact on ranching are open to it. Some of them wonder if the current drought is a reflection of climate change.

Lynn Hettrick, deputy director of the Nevada Agriculture Department, for instance, does not dismiss the notion, as some might expect a former Republican speaker of the Nevada Assembly to do: “Well, there’s no doubt that the drought that is occurring—for whatever reason—is a big deal. Yes, it’s going to impact our folks out in rural Nevada, without question.”

Sweetwater Ranch owner Bryan Masini, who currently runs between 3,000 and 4,000 cattle—down from his norm of 4,000 to 5,000—takes a similar view.

“Well, obviously, with the drought today it is absolutely at this point almost unbearable for the agricultural community,” he said. “And whether it’s climate change based on what the environmentalists said or climate change based on day-to-day what’s happening, there is definitely something going on. What that is, I’m not a scientist, so I leave that to them. But what’s happening to us right now in the state of Nevada and a lot of the West is to the point of being a disaster.”

His ranch follows an Eastern Sierra corridor from Nevada to Yosemite.

“We’re backing off all the time, trying to make the grass fit the cattle situation,” he says of the struggle to graze his cattle. And Masini and Guild are in a relatively lush part of the region. For ranchers in central Nevada, life is even more grim.

Culture war

The Center for Biological Diversity has said in an undated position paper:

“The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use. In the arid Southwest, livestock grazing is the most widespread cause of species endangerment. By destroying vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and disrupting natural processes, livestock grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike—causing significant harm to species and the ecosystems on which they depend.”

Flat, unequivocal statements like this tend not to indicate any doubt, though scientists themselves are divided on the issue. Nor do such bloodless postures indicate any sense of what their recommendations could mean for the livelihoods of many westerners. Masini, for instance, is a fourth generation operator of the Sweetwater, and his children are coming along behind him.

In November 2012, a study by eight scientists argued that “livestock production—the most widespread and long-running commercial use of public lands—can alter vegetation, soils, hydrology and wildlife composition and abundances in ways that exacerbate the effects of climate change on these resources. … Removing or reducing livestock across large areas of public land would alleviate a widely recognized and long-term stressor and make these lands less susceptible to the effects of climate change.”

The study further said that federal law “explicitly recognizes the BLM’s authority (with congressional oversight) to ‘totally eliminate’ grazing from large areas … of public lands.”

This was strong stuff, and 14 months later, a short review of the science by 27 scientists argued forcefully that the first study was wrong—and that it had cherry-picked the science to make its case. The complexity of climate change, the new survey said, “leads to challenges in synthesizing the scientific literature and allows authors to select the literature which supports particular points of view about grazing impacts.”

The first study argued that range fires and the invasive plants that fueled them were fostered by grazing and livestock production.

The second study argued that grazing is actually a tool that can be used to reduce range vegetation that fuels range fires.

Will climate warming dry out grazing areas and put ranchers out of business?

There are some who say that the future of ranching is set. A website called Clean Technica contends that ranching has been “outgunned” by climate change: “These are just the early days. Climate scientists predict that by the end of this century, current cattle-producing regions could average 75 to 120 days per year where the temperature exceeds 100°F. That will mean the end of the cattle industry.”

But most scientists are less categorical. One study argues that grazing issues could unfold in different ways and the policies need not be either/or: “Some potential negatives could be increases in woody plants and annual invasives, such as cheatgrass and medusahead. One possible scenario that this could cause is increased fuel loads on rangelands and, thereby, increased number and severity of wildfires. In another scenario livestock could be used to control fuel loads with properly managed grazing and potentially alter the timing and/or duration of grazing to obtain the most beneficial (from an ecological and livestock production perspective—they do not have to be mutually exclusive).”

Hettrick believes that the Great Basin enjoys advantages over other areas—history and experience: “The one advantage we have is that we’ve dealt with droughts forever, as you well know. And California is finding out how really serious it is when you don’t have water, and they’re really struggling, where I think we’re a step ahead, but it doesn’t make it any better. We still have issues.”

Guild keeps watching the science.

“What are we facing here? If you look at the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] predictions … there’s various scenarios playing out. If this high pressure ridge off the West Coast stays for a period of time, and we don’t know the length of which, we could be in a very serious situation in Western America. If the high pressure ridge stays where it is, and we get a repeat in the next few winters, the East Coast is going to get slammed. I mean, you know, I just read a ski report from Killington, Vermont, and they’re going to ski at Killington into June. Well, [Sierra ski area] Mammoth has skied into June in this past decade, so I don’t know. It’s the uncertainty because we don’t know and can’t predict. And the models—I think the models have flaws because FEMA’s created the models. Mother Nature didn’t have any input into the models. There’s a quote for you.”