Tag Archives: Alpine National Park

The alpine grazing debate was never about science

The Conversation

Michael McCarthy, University of Melbourne; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University, and Libby Rumpff, University of Melbourne

The Victorian government has removed cattle from the Alpine National Park and introduced legislation to parliament that bans future cattle grazing in the park, under debate this week. This is the latest in a string of decisions relating to alpine grazing in Victoria.

We are now back where we were a decade ago, when the Labor government under Steve Bracks banned cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park in 2005.

So, what is the crux of this debate? Those in favour of alpine cattle grazing argue that “grazing reduces blazing” – that it lessens the risk of fire.

Opponents point to the lack of evidence for this claim and the ample evidence that cattle grazing harms the environment. The science supports the position of the opponents.

But to understand the current situation, it is worth recalling the cycle of policy changes over the past decade.

More politics than science

In 2005, the Bracks government prohibited cattle grazing licences in the Alpine National Park, citing environmental impacts, costs, and lack of benefits.

In 2010, the Liberal-National government won office by one seat, including the seat of Gippsland East. Winning that seat was helped by a promise to reintroduce cattle grazing to the Alpine National Park, securing the backing of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria, a locally influential group.

However, the new government faced a problem. The option to license cattle grazing in the park was no longer available to the government. Instead, the government chose to begin a scientific trial on the effects of cattle grazing on fire risk. National parks in Victoria can be legitimately used for science.

Eyebrows were raised when the cattle were released into the park within months of the government gaining office and in the full knowledge of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association, but to the apparent surprise of the scientist nominated by the government to assist with the trial.

The absence of baseline data collection or data collection while the cattle were in the park, suggestions to “manage” scientists who were critical of the grazing, and broad concern across the scientific community, all fed the impression that this was simply cattle grazing and politics, and that it had little if anything to do with science.

In and out of the park

The Victorian government’s problems didn’t stop there. The federal environment minister at the time, Tony Burke, ruled that the grazing trial should have been referred under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, and ordered the cattle out of the park.

The cattle were due to be removed soon anyway with the impending winter, but after a subsequent referral, Tony Burke ruled that the planned cattle grazing would have unacceptable impacts, and the cattle would not be allowed to return the following summer. This position was maintained when the Victorian government’s bid in the Federal Court to have that decision reconsidered failed.

While the Victorian government had been thwarted, the change of federal government in 2013 offered a new dawn. A scaled-back trial was approved by the new federal government, and cattle were returned to a small low-elevation section of the park in the summer of 2013/14.

But the new dawn was short-lived. With the return of a Victorian Labor government in the 2014 state election, the cattle were removed from the park.

What have we learned?

Well, probably nothing new on the science front. While the cattle and concerned stakeholders might have become dizzy on the political roundabout of grazing in the Alpine National Park, the science remained consistent.

There is no evidence that cattle grazing reduces forest fire risk in the Park, but there is ample evidence that it harms the environment.

Advocates of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park identify with strong historical and cultural links to the practice. These values are valid regardless of how cattle influence fire.

Opposed to these views are those who are validly concerned about the negative environmental impacts of cattle in protected areas.

Science can never resolve these different points of view, because they relate largely to different values, not to questions of data or evidence. While any trial about the effects of cattle grazing on fire risk might provide further evidence of scientific interest, it seems unlikely that it would reconcile the different values that are placed on alpine cattle grazing.

There is no doubt that Victoria faces fire risks that need to be addressed. Science can help identify areas at high risk of burning, and identify where these areas intersect with the things society cares about – human lives, infrastructure and the environment for a start.

Science can help assess any trade-offs between these values. Ultimately it is the government’s role to capture these values, and make the difficult trade-offs about where fire management resources are best spent.

But were Victoria’s fire management resources best spent resolving uncertainty about the impact of grazing in the Alps? Does this help us make better decisions about fire management in Victoria?

Probably not: the planned trial had very little chance of telling us anything meaningful about fire risk across the Alps because of its design, size and context limitations. In the case of alpine grazing, arguing about the science was a distraction that potentially wasted valuable time and resources.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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New research shows alpine grazing does not reduce blazing

The Conversation

By Grant Williamson, University of Tasmania; Brett Murphy, University of Melbourne, and David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The scale and impact, both economic and ecological, of recent bushfire disasters demands a rethink of fire management strategies. A controversial approach receiving more attention internationally is the use of large grazing animals to reduce fuel loads.

But research we published this week shows cattle grazing does little to reduce Australia’s most destructive bushfires.

There are few specific examples of this management intervention being used in Australia. The exception is cattle grazing in the Victorian High Country, part of the Australian Alps. This has been controversial, pitting pastoralists against environmentalists, and scientists against scientists.

It raises questions about acceptable and unacceptable land uses in national parks. And it raises the issue of Australian cultural heritage, including the perpetuation of an iconic “Man from Snowy River” cultural tradition of summer pasturing of cattle in the Australian Alps.

Proponents of grazing within the Alpine National Park claim “grazing reduces blazing”. The clear public message is that the severe fires seen in Australia’s alpine forests in recent years can be reduced in extent, intensity, and ultimately damaging effects by the continuation of cattle grazing.

But environmentalists point to the degradation cattle cause to alpine ecosystems by spreading weeds, triggering erosion, trampling bogs and fouling streams.

Some scientific studies have shown that there is no link between grazing and reduced fire severity but the generality of these findings has been disputed.

This debate involves an unusual intersection of scientific, environmental, legal and political dimensions. The Victorian Labor Government banned grazing in the Alpine National Park in 2005 because of environmental concerns. When the Coalition came to power in Victoria in 2010, they proposed resolving this issue with a grazing trial of 400 head of cattle per year to investigate hypothesised fire mitigation.

This trial was then blocked by the then Labor Federal Environment Minister on the grounds it would have an unacceptable impact on endangered species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

A Federal Court case brought by the Victorian government subsequently found the Federal Environment Minister acted appropriately. Grazing is still banned within the Park.

In this context, we tried a “natural experiment” to discover whether cattle grazing can reduce blazing. We surveyed over 11,400 km2 of the Victorian Alps by analysing satellite images of the area. We looked at vegetation maps, looked back in time using historical satellite pictures, and took advantage of the cessation of grazing this decade and the extensive area burnt by fires over this period.

To implement our study as a classical experiment – for example by manipulating grazing pressure and imposing experimental fires – would be completely impractical, and prohibitively expensive given the same geographical scale and the risks of application of extensive high-severity fires. It would also be unethical given the potential threats to biodiversity, and under current legislation, unlawful.

We overlaid maps of crown scorch derived from satellite imagery following large bushfires in 2002/03 and 2006/07 with the location of pastoral leases. Crown scorch is a measure of fire intensity, based on the degree to which flames have reached a height which enables them to burn the forest canopy. This crown scorch can be detected in satellite images.

Using geospatial statistics we found that cattle grazing had no effect on the likelihood of crown scorch in eucalypt forests and woodlands.

This result is biologically plausible given that cattle are grazing animals, not browsing animals – they do not extensively feed on woody vegetation focusing on grasses instead. Our study is also consistent with previous ground-based studies that have demonstrated the cattle prefer to graze in grassy areas.

Fires in eucalypt forests are important to study, because to their extreme intensity. Fires in these forests are driven by high fuel loads on the forest floor and dense forest structure. Eucalypt forests have the added capacity for fast-moving fires to occur in the upper canopy, carried by the highly flammable leaves. Such fires are nearly impossible for fire fighters to control.

In comparison, fire intensity in grasslands is much lower, fires are easier to control, and grasslands recover rapidly after fires.

Our study does not rule out the use of cattle to manage grassy fuels – this approach may be crucial in tropical savannas, especially where invasive grasses fuel fires that compromise the ecological integrity of native vegetation.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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