Grass Needs Grazing Animals Like They Need Grass

Fodder for Thought

The tired mantra of removing grazing livestock from Western lands continues missing the mark on rangeland rejuvenation.

Published on: November 26, 2012
Removal of grazing livestock from public lands in the West is a long-time dream of many environmental extremists, yet it is a losing proposition.

A recent report released by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Wyoming, suggest such extreme measures are necessary to mitigate the degrading effects of climate change and desertification on rangelands in the American West.

This group of researchers say their purpose is to counteract the negative effects of climate change, soil erosion, loss of vegetation, changes in hydrology, and disrupted plant and animal communities.

They suggest:

  • Partial to total removal of all grazing livestock and wild horse and burro populations on large areas of public lands.
  • Substantial reduction in animal numbers and/or length of grazing seasons.
  • Extended and/or regular periods of rest.
  • Reestablishment of apex predator populations to control populations of wild ungulates such as deer and elk.

Laying the debate over the scientific efficacy of the existence of climate change aside, I believe these researchers have blindly overlooked the true cause for degradation of rangelands. It is not the livestock, wild ungulates, or even the practice of grazing that is at fault, but instead a lack of understanding and implementation of proper management techniques on the part of human managers.

Yes, removal of livestock from rangelands would encourage initial recovery. However, prolonged over-rest would lead to a disruption of the natural cycle of biological cycling, leading to higher risks of wildfires and would, in time, actually increase the rate of desertification.

Instead, it may pay these researchers to reference the evolutionary biology that brought about grass and rangelands in the first place.

You see, native grasses and forbs present on rangelands originally evolved in the presence of large wild herds of grazing herbivores such as pronghorn, elk, deer, and buffalo.

Grass needs grazing animals; grazing animals need grass. In essence, we wouldn’t have one without the other.

The grazing, defecation and tromping action created by these grazers as they migrated across rangelands contributed to improved organic matter and carbon sequestration in soils, in turn strengthening the plant and wildlife communities present.

It would surprise many to realize that the real solution to ending the issue of desertification of grasslands and rangelands actually lies with the very animals that researchers such as these are trying to blame. Techniques such as holistic management, a method pioneered by Allan Savory, hold the key to healing rangelands. By mimicking the natural processes of wild herds in the past these methods have been proven effective to stop desertification in its tracks.

In the end, what our rangelands really need is a management approach that takes all of the natural processes that comprise them into consideration, not just select components like those recommendations from the researchers in the aforementioned study.

In addition we must remember that nature is a multi-faceted interconnected complex, and as so, must be considered in wholes. The crisis of climate change is not inevitable and can be averted without removing livestock, if only land managers and environmentalists will take the time to truly understand the bigger picture.