Environmental Management

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 516-526

First online:

Riparian Livestock Exclosure Research in the Western United States: A Critique and Some Recommendations

  • DANIEL A. SARRAffiliated withDepartment of Forest Science, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

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Over the last three decades, livestock exclosure research has emerged as a preferred method to evaluate the ecology of riparian ecosystems and their susceptibility to livestock impacts. This research has addressed the effects of livestock exclusion on many characteristics of riparian ecosystems, including vegetation, aquatic and terrestrial animals, and geomorphology. This paper reviews, critiques, and provides recommendations for the improvement of riparian livestock exclosure research. Exclosure-based research has left considerable scientific uncertainty due to popularization of relatively few studies, weak study designs, a poor understanding of the scales and mechanisms of ecosystem recovery, and selective, agenda-laden literature reviews advocating for or against public lands livestock grazing. Exclosures are often too small (<50 ha) and improperly placed to accurately measure the responses of aquatic organisms or geomorphic processes to livestock removal. Depending upon the site conditions when and where livestock exclosures are established, postexclusion dynamics may vary considerably. Systems can recover quickly and predictably with livestock removal (the “rubber band” model), fail to recover due to changes in system structure or function (the “Humpty Dumpty” model), or recover slowly and remain more sensitive to livestock impacts than they were before grazing was initiated (the “broken leg” model). Several initial ideas for strengthening the scientific basis for livestock exclosure research are presented: (1) incorporation of meta-analyses and critical reviews. (2) use of restoration ecology as a unifying conceptual framework; (3) development of long-term research programs; (4) improved exclosure placement/design; and (5) a stronger commitment to collection of pretreatment data.

KEY WORDS: Livestock exclosures; Riparian ecosystems; Ecological restoration