Alpine whaling? – Interesting developments in evidence-based policy, episode 2

Comparison of grazed and ungrazed alpine meadow. From 2005 DSE Fact Sheet

While Japan has ‘scientific whaling’, Australia might be beginning a phase of ‘scientific alpine grazing’, reversing a policy of removing cattle from summer grazing in alpine national park in the name of research. (Thanks to a number of GenuineEvaluation readers for suggesting we feature this issue – we’ll be interested in your responses).

The evidence we used to have

There used to be sufficient evidence for government to ban cattle from alpine national parks on the grounds that:

  1. they caused enormous environmental damage
  2. they did not reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfire

In 2004, an inquiry into alpine grazing received several scientific submissions, including a submission by the Australian Academy of Science, which summarized the evidence about the damage caused by cattle grazing:

Over five decades of research has shown that grazing and nature conservation in alpine areas are essentially incompatible land uses. The continuation of grazing within any of the Victorian alpine and sub-alpine national parks is at variance with established concepts and values of nature conservation.

and a position paper from the Ecological Society of Australia , the peak group of ecologists in Australia, which also argued for a ban on the basis of the damage caused:

The results of long-term studies since the 1940s have shown unequivocally that alpine grazing is an inappropriate land management practice, particularly in the Alps National Parks. The Ecological Society of Australia urges all levels of government to ensure that the ban on livestock grazing in the parks is maintained.

A study by Australia’s CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) into the 2003 alpine fires found that cattle grazing had not reduced the risk of fire (a claim often made by those advocating alpine grazing “Alpine grazing reduces blazing”):

Widespread fires burned tens of thousands of hectares of alpine country in both Victoria and New South Wales in 2003. Not all alpine areas burned, but significant areas of all of the major alpine vegetation types were.

Preliminary surveys of burning patterns were collected on Victoria’s Bogong High Plains soon after the fires, using a variety of indices of fire extent and severity. About 100 km of transect lines were walked, across all the major regions. Measurements on whether country had burned were taken every 50–500 metres, and environmental data on vegetation types, slope and aspect were collected. A measure of fire severity – minimum twig diameter – was recorded on a sample of dominant shrubs in patches that were burned.

Statistical analysis of the data showed that there was no significant difference between grazed and ungrazed country in the proportion of the landscape that burned, in both grassland and heathland. There was no significant effect of grazing on the severity of burning in heathland.

The Taskforce report concluded that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that cattle grazing caused environmental damage and did not reduce fire risk:

Findings on the environmental benefits and impacts of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park (excluding the issue of fire) (Chapter 3)
… On the evidence before it, the Taskforce concurs with the conclusions of the 1998 Groves report, that the scientific research is adequate and consistently reveals that grazing has a deleterious effect on biodiversity.

The Taskforce finds significant damaging impacts and no overall benefits for the environment from cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park.

Findings on the benefits and impacts of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park in relation to fire (Chapter 4)
Both grazed and ungrazed areas were burnt and unburnt in the 2003 fires, with fire severity predominantly determined by the prevailing weather conditions, topography, fuel loads and fuel flammability types, not whether an area has been grazed. The Taskforce concludes that cattle grazing does not make an effective contribution to fuel reduction and wildfire behaviour in the Alpine National Park.

Now there is insufficient evidence

Early this year, in line with its election promise, the new Victorian State Government claimed there was insufficient evidence about the impact of cattle on fire risk (no mention of their damage to the environment) and moved to re-introduce cattle grazing in alpine national parks – in the form of ”strategic cattle grazing':

To meet its obligations, the Victorian Government is investigating ways to effectively manage fuel and bushfire risk across the public land estate. This includes investigating fuel and bushfire risk management in Victoria’s high country using strategic cattle grazing.

The Secretary to the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) is responsible for the management of land under the National Parks Act 1975, and must “ensure that appropriate and sufficient measures are taken to protect each national park and state park from injury by fire“.

The management of fuel and bushfire risk management using grazing has been an issue of debate for many years with a general lack of peer-reviewed science to support the differing opinions.

Before cattle are introduced into the Alpine National Park for fuel and bushfire risk management purposes, the Secretary must be satisfied with the effectiveness of fuel and bushfire risk management using strategic cattle grazing, and of the non-fuel reduction impacts.

Following a review of the available scientific evidence, the Secretary decided that there was not enough evidence to form an opinion on fuel and bushfire risk management using strategic cattle grazing.

In accordance with the National Parks Act 1975, the Secretary has commissioned a research trial to help form an opinion on the effectiveness of fuel and bushfire risk management in Victoria’s high country using strategic cattle grazing.

What about the previous research?

The announcement of the trial argued there were gaps in the available evidence:

Isn’t it proven that ‘grazing doesn’t reduce blazing’?
No. The effective management of fuel and fire using grazing has been an issue of debate for many years with a general lack of peer-reviewed science to support the differing opinions.

In its 2005 report of the investigation into the future of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park, the Alpine Grazing Taskforce stated that “There has been only one broad-scale, systematic and statistically based investigation of patterns of burning across treeless areas of the Bogong High Plains following the 2003 fires”.

While this study found that there was no statistically significant lowering of fire incidence or severity at a landscape level because of grazing, it only focused on a small part of the Alpine National Park – grasslands, heathlands and wetlands on the Bogong High Plains region – due to practical limitations. There were also important gaps in this study including the following key variables that are known to influence fire behaviour – fuel load and structure, topography and weather.

This scientific research trial will focus on a range of ecosystems in the Alpine National Park, including forested areas, and will build upon the existing body of research by concentrating on areas where scientific evidence is lacking.

And an interesting twist

A leaked email reported in The Melbourne Age, “Government blackmailed university“, suggests that the Victorian Government has been applying some pressure to the University of Melbourne to take on the research project and to engage a particular researcher, who is supported by advocated of alpine grazing, to conduct it.

In response, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, in a statement to staff quoted in The Australian, declared:

The University of Melbourne does not tailor its research work to respond to political pressure. Nor in this matter has the Baillieu government used research grant powers to force particular research outcomes.


How will the study investigate the impact of cattle on fire incidence?

Were there flaws in the CSIRO study, in addition to the limitations discussed above, as claimed by Philip Maguire, a Mountain cattleman whose property was burned in the 2003 fires, and who claims

In fact there is not a lot of research on grazing and fuel reduction in the Victorian Alps. There is the notorious and thoroughly discredited CSIRO travesty by Dick Williams and that’s about it.

We will follow developments with great interest….


1 comment to Alpine whaling? – Interesting developments in evidence-based policy, episode 2

  • Benita Williams

    The cynic in me says that perhaps they are just basing their decisions on other evidence: There might be evidence which seems to suggest that politicians who make choices that will be popular amongst key groups of constituents, has a statistically significantly enhanced chance of re-election?