Lainie Brice stands in a field with a shovel. She's smiling.
Lainie Brice

Beginning in 2001, an executive order mandated that the Bureau of Land Management consider climate change in their reports and their management planning. Here, Science Moab talks with wildlife ecologist Lainie Brice about a project for the climate adaptation science program at Utah State University. A key feature of this project was looking at the gap between scientific literature on climate change and the actual land management practices within the Bureau of Land Management.

Science Moab: How is BLM land used, and how are those uses affected by climate change?

Brice: The BLM has a mighty task on its hands. They are mandated federally to specifically manage lands for multiple uses, which very commonly are competing. For example, they have to manage land to allow for mining, energy development, and logging. But they also are supposed to manage the land for grazing livestock and recreation. They’re supposed to work towards the conservation of the land and help maintain the land in a way that provides ecosystem services to people and preserves cultural values. We often see that some of these specific uses interact with others, in either positive or negative ways. 

For recreation, for example, we expect to see warming temperatures actually expand the seasons when people can go out and hike, so you might see more participation in outdoor recreation. On the other hand, you would see less snow-based recreation, because we’ll have less time when snow is available. We expect to see lots of effects on wildlife and plant species. I think some of the most commonly studied species that are expected to be impacted are pika, coldwater fish like brown trout, spotted owls, and sage-grouse. All of those species are expected to be really heavily affected because they’re reliant on colder temperatures. That could be losing habitat or shifting distributions. We actually expect increased productivity on range lands because we get longer growing seasons, so you might actually have longer seasons when cattle can graze on the land. Rather than climate change directly affecting energy development, that contributes to climate change, so oil and gas permits will be most affected by policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Science Moab: What is the relationship between scientific studies on climate change and BLM Resource Management Plans? Are BLM offices addressing climate change in those RMPs?

Brice: Between 2001 and 2017, there was an executive order that mandated that the BLM consider climate change in their reports and management planning. We wanted to see if BLM Resource Management Plans correspond to what science and researchers are publishing in terms of what we expect to happen with climate change. Resource Management Plans don’t really mention climate change all that frequently. I think only 12 offices mentioned climate change, and they were all different in what they were saying. That’s really where the disconnect comes in. In scientific literature, every study said climate change is going to affect whatever they were studying. Climate change is a huge process that is altering everything. One of the challenging things for researchers to then have to kind of push for is specific suggestions we can give to managing agencies to actually address this. Most of the time, research says this will have management implications, but doesn’t really say what those are, or what specifically land managers should do. If the plans aren’t mentioning climate change, that doesn’t mean that the land managers aren’t addressing it. 80% to 90% of land managers are concerned about climate change and think it’s their job to address it, but it’s just not known because it’s not in the plans.

Science Moab: Are you able to bridge the gap between research and management?

Brice: We felt like this synthesis was a more manageable way for land managers to find helpful literature. We have all of our data in a library of research, so instead of having to search for it themself, especially since a lot of public agencies don’t have access to academic journals, we have them available. We also have an app on the Climate Adaptation Science website that allows you to filter all these resources for what’s available to you. One of the gaps that we saw reading through almost 300 articles is that it’s so uncommon to have actual management suggestions in peer-reviewed literature. It really is very vague on how to adapt to climate, so that’s a call to the academic community to push themselves to include implementation strategies. It’s also a call to land managers to try and incorporate the broader spectrum of research that’s out there, or make the plans more transparent in how they’re doing that.

Science Moab: What are some ways that land managers could use research to address climate change?

Brice: Say, for example, we take grazing, they would need to have very targeted goals. There’s research that suggests that grazing might reduce the frequency and severity of fire, and might even decrease the spread of invasive species. So, they could use grazing as a tool in areas where fire is a bigger threat, by suggesting that ranchers graze their livestock in specific areas and rotate those to reduce the chance of fire spreading. One thing we already see with mining is the 2021 executive order to pause all new gas and oil development. There’s a bit of a push to try and limit fossil fuel energy development and push towards more renewable energy. Generally, you have to pick an issue and see how management can adapt to it or use it as a tool to adapt to climate change.
Science Moab is a nonprofit dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of this interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio.