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Normalized Degradation

A Toll of Public Lands Livestock Grazing

The concept of normalized degradation is that to various and differing degrees, we and public land managers  do not “see” livestock degradation. A definition of “degraded” is “reduced in quality.” For instance, the habitat of a small mammal might be reduced in quality by the absence of tall grasses following annual grazing. The habitat of an avian predator may be reduced in quality by reduced populations of that mammal.  The habitat of a sage grouse chick may be reduced in quality by livestock consumption of forbs that attract insects upon which its growth depends. The paths by which reduction in the quality of a landscape can occur due to livestock grazing are myriad. (Of course, degradation of a given site for a specialized or rare native species may benefit a more generalized or common species).

Of the 4.9 million acres within the three southern and central Utah national forests (Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-La Sal), 97% are active livestock allotments that are grazed annually. Livestock have been grazing these forests for over a hundred years.  We may immediately detect some degradation due to livestock grazing: a streambank or spring is trampled by cow hooves,  a mountain meadow is primarily dandelion, an open expanse is mostly crested wheatgrass. But much of what we see that appears intact has also been degraded by livestock, both in the past and currently. If such a habitat appears  to be standard, or to be expected “naturally,”  the degradation has been normalized.

 

We know and understand what we see. In the absence of seeing or studying an area that has never been grazed by livestock but otherwise is comparable in soil, aspect, elevation, fire history, etc., we have little sense of the nature or extent of degradation. When we stand at the edge of a decades-old cattle exclosure, looking inside and outside, we begin to grasp what has been and is being changed or taken from the site.  But we only begin to understand. Are certain microorganism communities depleted?  Have food webs been simplified? What species have gone missing due to consumption of parts of the vegetation upon which they or their prey depend?

 

BLM and FS livestock managers, too, know what they see.  Range training and management are most fundamentally focused on maintaining green “forage” and avoiding readily-observable soil erosion due to livestock grazing. Range managers are not trained or encouraged to observe, acknowledge, or express concern over the disappearance from an allotment of a non-listed wildlife or plant species. Due to livestock grazing, degraded habitats, simplified ecosystems, and depleted biodiversity are all around us and whenever we do not detect that simplification or depletion, but instead see the habitats and ecosystems as “normal”, we have normalized that degradation.

The following are particularly essential in order to detect, measure, and document (i.e., “un-normalize”) the degradation of our public lands due to livestock grazing:
  • Voluntary permit retirement

  • Construction and maintenance of livestock exclosures and all-ungulate exclosures

  • Retirement of livestock from wilderness