Livestock Use on Public Lands in the Western USA Exacerbates Climate Change: Implications for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Environ Manage. 2022 Jun;69(6):1137-1152. doi: 10.1007/s00267-022-01633-8. Epub 2022 Apr 2.


Public lands of the USA can play an important role in addressing the climate crisis. About 85% of public lands in the western USA are grazed by domestic livestock, and they influence climate change in three profound ways: (1) they are significant sources of greenhouse gases through enteric fermentation and manure deposition; (2) they defoliate native plants, trample vegetation and soils, and accelerate the spread of exotic species resulting in a shift in landscape function from carbon sinks to sources of greenhouse gases; and (3) they exacerbate the effects of climate change on ecosystems by creating warmer and drier conditions. On public lands one cow-calf pair grazing for one month (an "animal unit month" or "AUM") produces 875 kg CO2e through enteric fermentation and manure deposition with a social carbon cost of nearly $36 per AUM. Over 14 million AUMs of cattle graze public lands of the western USA each year resulting in greenhouse gas emissions of 12.4 Tg CO2e year-1. The social costs of carbon are > $500 million year-1 or approximately 26 times greater than annual grazing fees collected by managing federal agencies. These emissions and social costs do not include the likely greater ecosystems costs from grazing impacts and associated livestock management activities that reduce biodiversity, carbon stocks and rates of carbon sequestration. Cessation of grazing would decrease greenhouse gas emissions, improve soil and water resources, and would enhance/sustain native species biodiversity thus representing an important and cost-effective adaptive approach to climate change.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carbon
  • Cattle
  • Climate Change*
  • Ecosystem
  • Female
  • Greenhouse Gases*
  • Livestock
  • Manure


  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Manure
  • Carbon