Breath of Clarity

Ecology Discussion #8: B

Providing incentives for clearing of semiarid forest and scrubland would lead to reduced vegetation and loss of habitat that the wildlife are dependent on. For example, in Janos, New Mexico, increased grazing has resulted in altering the prairie dog population (Ceballos et al. 2010). Moreover, the overgrazing detracts from the grasses ability to compete which results in problems, such as erosion, that lower the soil quality. Scientists Holly Jones and Oswald Schmitz investigated the recoverability of ecosystems under the prediction that ecosystems will take centuries to recover from damages if they recover at all (Jones and Schmitz 2009). However, their research across 240 independent studies showed most ecosystems can recover from major human impacts on timescales of decades to half-centuries insofar as proceeding bring the ecosystem back to its native conditions rather than further changing it (Jones and Schmitz 2009). However, since the planner’s idea would result in passing on a legacy of damage to the next generation, I would recommend Leopold’s “Escudilla” to help communicate the consequences of the planner’s proposed incentive as contributing to the thematic imagery of the chapter. Leopold emphasized human impact significantly alters ecosystems, and it is a modern trend that even the most pristine mountaintop is not exempt from. Continued human impact is just going to prolong ecosystems being in the recovery stage. The chapter is written from the perspective of a mountaintop which provided Leopold with simultaneous visibility of various changing ecosystems including wooded mesas, canyons and a pine forest (Leopold 2013). He also explains how the seemingly different areas, with their respective wildlife communities, all suffer from human impacts such as telephone wires on juniper plants (Leopold 2013). Even the mountaintop described as beautifully untouched by humans at the beginning was then deemed the same fate as the other areas. The same mountaintop with a grizzly, who Leopold beautifully depicted once left its hibernation to happily feed on the cow and vegetation its surroundings originally offered, was eventually trapped and killed by humans (Leopold 2013). That said, I would recommend the essay to the planner as it communicates the value of an ecosystem still composed of its native characteristics which is particularly interesting as the incentive was designed to expand the regional grazing sector of the economy. Perhaps, the planner can instead focus on profiting by preserving the area as it can be opened up for paid visitation. Further, Leopold shows how the killing of a bear is more than just the single death in itself. Rather, the human action has lasting repercussions considering now there is a surplus of cattle and deficiency of bears at the space. That said, I would recommend the essay to the planner to also illustrate human impacts lead to ecosystem imbalance.


Ceballos, Gerardo, Ana Davidson, Rurik List, Jesùs Pacheco, Paricia Manzano-Fischer, Georgina Santos-Barrera, and Juan Cruzado. 2010. “Rapid Decline of a Grassland System and Its Ecological and Conservation Implications.” PLOS ONE 5:e8562. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.008562.

Jones, Holly P. and Oswald Schmitz. 2009. “Rapid Recovery of Damaged Ecosystems.” PLOS ONE 4:e5653. doi:10.1731/journal.pone.0005653.

Leopold, Aldo. 2013. “A Sand County Almanac2491 & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.” Edited by Curt Meine. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Comment by Professor Fenton Kay:

Mary, a small nit – Janos is in Mexico, not New Mexico – as we are wont to say here in the land of enchantment and green chile – New Mexico is neither new nor Mexico.

The scientific evidence that incentives to increase grazing in many systems are counterproductive is pretty solid. Ceballos and his team have produced a series of excellent studies showing just that in the Janos area as well as in similar areas just north in New Mexico. I have had the good fortune to meet Señor Doctor Ceballos at an international meeting in Acapulco. He is a dynamic guy, to say the least.

What approach do you think would be most effective to get across the point that heavy grazing of arid grasslands leads to loss of the resource?



My Response:

Hi Fenton,

Whoops, thanks for the correction about Janos! Mexico and the the other Mexico is an important distinction to say the least!

It makes sense much of the data from Señor’s article about the counterproductively of incentives to increase grazing is transferrable to other areas, especially those with similar climates and ecosystems.

I found an articleLinks to an external site. looking at plant trait responses to climate and grazing variability in semi-arid grasslands of Mongolia. Ungrazed exclosure areas were established in two nomadically grazed grasslands, Bayan-Unjuul (BU) in 2004 and Baganuur (BN) in 2016. Plant aboveground biomass (AGB) was surveyed by species inside and outside the exclosures. Plant species were classified into 11 groups on the basis of palatability, life duration, and functional type. Data on air temperature and precipitation were obtained from weather observatories, and the number of livestock was monitored by using time-lapse cameras since 2016 at BU and BN. A multiple regression model showed that AGB of palatable plants in the grazed areas was controlled primarily by rainfall intensity in June of the current year and secondarily by livestock number in summer (Nakano et al. 2020). The increase in livestock numbers in summer decreased the ratio of AGB of palatable plants in the grazed plots (Nakano et al. 2020).

Continued overgrazing reduces inputs of soil organic matter because less plant biomass is available as litter, which in turn, reduces soil organic matter, nutrients, and biotic activity. This leads to deteriorated soil structure, which increases the potential for erosion and reduces water-holding capacity of soil. Therefore, my approach would focus on how the continued grazing overtime would change the soil condition which would alter the resource’s foundational environment to the point where it no longer is able to grow.


Nakano, Tomoko, Tserenpurevbat-Oyun and Masato Shinoda. 2020. “Responses of palatable plants to climate and grazing in semi-arid grasslands of Mongolia”. Journal of Global Ecology and Conservation. 24: 1-10.

Comment #2:

Original Post by Danette Bordenkircher:

If a politician provided incentives to clear a semi-arid forest to expand the regional grazing economy, it would impact the biodiversity, species, and ecosystems in that region. Additionally, a semi-arid forest can act as a “carbon sink”, reducing or offsetting the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. By cutting the forest down and replacing it with livestock, more greenhouse gases would be released into the atmosphere since deforestation and livestock both produce greenhouse gases. At the same time, fewer trees would be available to absorb additional carbon, contributing to higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and climate change. (UN 2020)

Biodiversity would be impacted since the semi-arid forest would provide habitat for a number of species and would also play an important role in nutrient cycling. Deforestation also leads to habitat fragmentation which can impact the population of a variety of species. With species loss, there is a possibility of a trophic cascade or ecological imbalance which could have unintended consequences for the community. Biodiversity loss can impact life-sustaining goods and services for a community such as water supply, agriculture, nutrition, livelihoods, or the economy. Climate change could bring about similar consequences, making it important for the politician to focus on incentives to preserve the forest and use sustainable agricultural methods. (WHO 2012)

While the politician may see short term economic gain from using the forested area to expand the grazing economy, any benefits would be short-lived and potentially irreversible. Climate change and biodiversity loss can both reach points where damage can not be reversed, especially if species become extinct or habitats are completely destroyed. Leopold speaks of a similar scenario in “Escudilla” where the last grizzly bear is killed to ensure the safety of cattle in the region. When the bear is killed, it is clear that the consequences of the action were not fully contemplated which translates well to the deforestation occurring today. For this reason, I would recommend that the politician read this essay because it might encourage them to think about biodiversity and deforestation from a different perspective.


“Biodiversity.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, December 3, 2012. to an external site..

Environment, UN. “Forests.” UNEP – UN Environment Programme. Accessed November 3, 2020.

Leopold, Aldo. 2013. “A Sand County Almanac2491 & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.” Edited by Curt Meine. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

My Comment:

Hi Danette,

I appreciate your mentioning of deforestation as clearing the semi-arid forest would result in no longer having the “carbon-sink” it provides. In the U.S. in 2003, carbon removed from the atmosphere by forest growth or stored in harvested wood products offset 12-19% of U.S. fossil fuel emissions (Ryan et al. 2010). Furthermore, forests offer many benefits besides carbon, and these benefits should be considered along with carbon storage potential. In the case the developer still decides to move forward with the clearing, it is important for the strategy to take into account while harvesting removes carbon from the forest, some of it is stored in wood products which prevents its immediate release to the atmosphere and some is available for use as biomass energy which displaces fossil fuel use (Ryan et al. 2010).


Ryan, Michael G, et. al. 2010. A Synthesis of the Science on Forests and Carbon for U.S. Forests. Issues in Ecology 13:1-16.

Comment #2:

Original Post by Ed Piersa:

I would advise the politician and/or regional planner to not clear the semiarid forest and scrubland for the purpose of grazing. Even if the ecosystem can recover in the future, this local damage can still prove significant. For instance, this damage would result in the loss of local biodiversity and habitats.

Furthermore, the livestock sector heavily contributes to climate change. On a global level, this sector “is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent. This is a higher share than transport” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxi). The livestock sector relies on grazing for its operations to exist. This proposed incentive program would only exacerbate this environmental problem.

As far as Leopold’s “Escudilla” is concerned, I believe it would be aligned with my assessment above. There is a bit of tragedy to altering any ecosystem, particularly with regard to the elimination of a species (or a bear in the case of Escudilla). Having said that, I do not think this essay would sway the thinking of the planner though. The planner would likely be more focused on local economics and politics.


Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, and Cees de Haan. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

My Response:

Hi Ed,

Great point in saying the livestock sector heavily contributes to climate change, and the incentivize to expand the regional grazing economy would only exacerbate the environmental problem. Each year, a single cow will release about 220 pounds of methane, which is shorter lived than carbon dioxide but 28 times more potent in warming the atmosphere, according to Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality specialist at University of California-Davis (Quinton 2019). Shrinking livestock’s hoofprint worldwide is a major challenge. India, for example, has the world’s largest cattle population, but the lowest beef consumption of any country (Quinton 2019). As a result, cows live longer and emit more methane over their lifetime (Quinton 2019).

UC Davis scientists determined a way to make cows less gassy is by feeding them red seaweed (Asparagopsis taxiformis):


Quinton, Amy. 2019. “Making Cattle More Sustainable”. University of California-Davis. Accessed November 3 2020.

Response by Ed Piersa:

Mary –

Interesting points about India. I did not know that about their cattle population, but that makes sense. I was not aware of red seaweed being fed to cattle either.

In the United States, 10% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by agriculture (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2020). It is important to note that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come not only from the livestock sector though. They also come from agricultural soils and rice production (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2020).

I would highlight these facts to the politician and/or regional planner. Moreover, grazing makes this land more susceptible to drought, especially if it is unable to fully recover. Unfortunately, drought is becoming an ever-increasing issue in both the United States and world. Thus, whatever economic gains from expanding this regional grazing economy would be brief in comparison to the long-term ecological consequences.


United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2020. “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Last modified September 9, 2020.

Response by Professor Fenton Kay:

Mary, great find. I, however, I am concerned about what this might do to the seaweed in the ecosystem. I wonder if they have a way of producing the seaweed that minimizes impacts on the natural system?



My Response:

Hi Fenton,

I agree with your post in terms of seaweed in the ecosystem being impacted. Seaweed aquaculture contributes to climate change adaptation by damping wave energy and protecting shorelines, and by elevating pH and supplying oxygen to the waters, thereby locally reducing the effects of ocean acidification and de-oxygenation. Seaweed farms release carbon that maybe buried in sediments or exported to the deep sea, therefore acting as a CO2 sink (Duarte et al. 2017). The harvested crop can also be used for biofuel production (Duarte et al. 2017). However, the scope to expand seaweed aquaculture is limited by the availability of suitable areas, competition for suitable areas with other uses and increasing market demand for seaweed products, among other factors (Duarte et al. 2017).


Duarte, Carlos, Jiaping Wu, Xi Xiao, Annette Bruhn, and Dorte Krause-Jensen. 2017. “Can Seaweed Farming Play a Role in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation?”. Frontiers in Marine Science. Accessed November 6.