Another shot at the alpine grazing “trial”

In December 2011, the Victorian state government referred a planned grazing “trial” to the Australian government. This referral was necessary because of likely impacts on matters under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The proposed trial was clearly going to impact species listed under the Act, so it is not surprising that the federal government did not approve the trial.

Well, after failing in an attempt to have the Federal Court rule that the decision needed to be reconsidered, the Victorian government is trying again, submitting a second referral to a new federal government for a trial in a new location.

“Reintroduction of cattle to the Alpine National Park is extremely unlikely to reduce fire risk, but is highly likely to damage sensitive alpine soils and vegetation.” – this is what the science says, but you won’t read it in the referral document.

For background on this topic, you can read some of my previous posts. In short, the Victorian government is attempting to honour an election commitment to return cattle to the Alpine National Park. It is no longer legal to license cattle grazing in the park; instead the government is proposing to use the cattle in a “trial” to assess how grazing affects fire risk.

Based on the poor quality of previous studies, I’m concerned about the science in any trial. Perhaps a clear and robust scientific plan will eventually emerge that is different from the “research” conducted to date. That has consisted of consultants racing around before the onset of winter, attempting to determine where cattle had been. Why they didn’t actually look while the cattle were there, and how that information would help the research is beyond me. Perhaps some (any) data were required to help maintain the pretense that the grazing was part of a scientific trial? Who knows – but I digress.

The Victorian high country - this is the Bogong High Plains, which is not the proposed location of the trial

The Victorian high country (this is the Bogong High Plains, which is well north-east of the proposed trial). You can see dead stems of snow gums that were killed by previous fires. This country does burn occasionally, but fires are not unduly frequent and the human population density is very low, which makes risks to humans small over much of the area.

Interestingly, this referral comes just after the Ecological Society of Australia has released a summary of the scientific literature on the effects of cattle grazing on fire risk in Australia’s high country. It concludes “Reintroduction of cattle to the Alpine National Park is extremely unlikely to reduce fire risk, but is highly likely to damage sensitive alpine soils and vegetation.”

And just this week, a paper examining impacts of previous fires in the Alpine National Park concluded that alpine grazing does not reduce blazing.

I’m not sure how much money, time and effort has been spent on attempting to graze cattle in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. But that effort does not come free. It requires considerable resources (money and time of public servants) to plan and conduct these activities. Those resources are not being spent on other activities to reduce fire risk in Victoria.

Based on decades of research, we can conclude that any trial is very unlikely to show that cattle grazing will reduce fire risk. Meanwhile, proven strategies to reduce fire risk exist (e.g., fuel reduction burning, and clearing close to assets).

Further, remote alpine areas in Victoria have relatively low fire risk. The frequency and intensity of fires is not unduly high, and people and their assets are absent from most places.

In contrast, densely settled areas in Victoria where high fuel loads intermingle with high human density (think of areas such as the Dandenongs, Kinglake, Macedon, the Otways, etc) have extreme fire risk. If I lived in those areas, I’d be furious that the Victorian government is spending fire management resources on a trial that seems like an extreme long shot in a comparatively low fire risk area. And I would be telling them just that.

And if I lived in the alpine area and thought the fire risk were too high, I’d be asking the Victorian government to abandon this trial, and instead use the resources in a program of fuel reduction burning to protect key assets.

But I don’t live in those areas, so why is it my business? Well, I am a scientist. And as a scientist, I’m concerned that science is being misused as a tool to achieve a policy. The president of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria was quoted in Nature saying “Ninety per cent of the general public couldn’t give a shit about the cattle or the environment. At the end of the day, it is all politics.” It probably is politics, and has little to do with science or anything else. But it does undermine legitimate uses of science to answer genuine policy-relevant questions.

As a scientist, I am concerned that the premise of the trial seems implausible. Alpine grasses are much less flammable than shrubs and trees – this has been demonstrated through correlative studies and by burning experiments. Cattle predominately eat grass, not the trees and shrubs. Beyond somehow using cattle grazing to replace trees and shrubs by grass (which could only happen over many years by grazing), there is no plausible mechanism by which cattle would reduce fire risk.

If the the aim was to have fewer trees and shrubs in the Alpine National Park, chainsaws in combination with fires would achieve the same result much faster. However, that might not be appropriate management in a national park. And if achieving that outcome with chainsaws is not appropriate, how is it appropriate by using cattle?

About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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