Environmental Management

, Volume 51, Issue 2, pp 474-491

First online:

Adapting to Climate Change on Western Public Lands: Addressing the Ecological Effects of Domestic, Wild, and Feral Ungulates

  • Robert L. BeschtaAffiliated withDepartment of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University Email author 
  • , Debra L. DonahueAffiliated withCollege of Law, University of Wyoming
  • , Dominick A. DellaSalaAffiliated withGeos Institute
  • , Jonathan J. RhodesAffiliated withPlaneto Azul Hydrology
  • , James R. KarrAffiliated with
  • , Mary H. O’BrienAffiliated withGrand Canyon Trust
  • , Thomas L. FleischnerAffiliated withEnvironmental Studies, Prescott College
  • , Cindy Deacon WilliamsAffiliated withEnvironmental Consultants

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Climate change affects public land ecosystems and services throughout the American West and these effects are projected to intensify. Even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, adaptation strategies for public lands are needed to reduce anthropogenic stressors of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and to help native species and ecosystems survive in an altered environment. Historical and contemporary livestock production—the most widespread and long-running commercial use of public lands—can alter vegetation, soils, hydrology, and wildlife species composition and abundances in ways that exacerbate the effects of climate change on these resources. Excess abundance of native ungulates (e.g., deer or elk) and feral horses and burros add to these impacts. Although many of these consequences have been studied for decades, the ongoing and impending effects of ungulates in a changing climate require new management strategies for limiting their threats to the long-term supply of ecosystem services on public lands. Removing or reducing livestock across large areas of public land would alleviate a widely recognized and long-term stressor and make these lands less susceptible to the effects of climate change. Where livestock use continues, or where significant densities of wild or feral ungulates occur, management should carefully document the ecological, social, and economic consequences (both costs and benefits) to better ensure management that minimizes ungulate impacts to plant and animal communities, soils, and water resources. Reestablishing apex predators in large, contiguous areas of public land may help mitigate any adverse ecological effects of wild ungulates.


Ungulates Climate change Ecosystems Public lands Biodiversity Restoration