If you’re concerned about the ecological damage caused by livestock grazing on our public lands you’ve probably encountered arguments that cattle can be used as a tool to improve the land. These claims are typically made by proponents of a livestock management system called holistic resource management (HRM), which is promoted by a fellow named Allan Savory.
Savory claims disturbances caused by livestock grazing are natural because vegetation co-evolved with herds of wild grazing animals. But that’s not true for the arid rangelands of the Intermountain West. Big herds of large grazing animals, such as bison, haven’t been found west of the Rockies since at least the end of the Pleistocene era, more than 10,000 years ago. While it usually takes longer than that for new plant species to evolve, it’s plenty of time for existing species to move to different areas. And that’s what happened in the West. The animals and plants which needed a wetter climate disappeared when it became too dry for them. Subsequently, the area’s dry ecosystems are not adapted to intense grazing from large ungulates.
Despite this, HRM proponents still claim that Savory’s grazing systems are a way to produce win-win solutions, wherein ranchers get to put more cattle on the land while, at the same time, wildlife habitat is improved by the cattle. The problem is that HRM isn’t based on science and there’s plenty of research which proves it doesn’t work. There’s not room here to review all the available research, but it’s so abundant that it’s easy for anyone to find it online.
Numerous HRM projects in Arizona, for example, have ended in failure:
- Arizona’s Tonto National Forest published a study in 1991, wherein the implementation of HRM on Greenback Creek failed to improve this Sonoran Desert riparian area.
- The Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Research Branch published a technical report by Richard L. Brown in September 1990 titled Effects of a Savory Grazing Method on Big Game. It concluded that, “There’s nothing within the overall results of this study to suggest suggest that a doubling, or near doubling, of original stocking rates is advisable under HRM.”
- In 1994 the Arizona Bureau of Land Management’s state office spent thousands hosting an HRM seminar that proved to be of no use.
- In the late 1990s the Environmental Protection Agency funded an HRM project intended to reduce nonpoint source water pollution on the Arizona Strip with a $28,000 Section 319 grant. This “Ungulate Action” demonstration project involved placing a herd of about 400 cattle in to a relatively small pasture of sagebrush. The EPA grant money was spent on feeding them while they were there. It was hoped the animals would trample the sagebrush to death, create seed beds for herbaceous vegetation with their hoof action, and increase the fertility of the soil with their manure. The idea was that this would result in more vegetative cover, and thus reduced erosion and nonpoint source pollution. It didn’t work.
HRM Livestock Management Uses Junk Science
HRM proponents like to avoid scientific discussions and instead offer personal opinions and anecdotes. For instance, they compare HRM’s intensive grazing schemes to situations where there was previously little or no grazing management, taking advantage of the fact that something is better than nothing – but avoiding a direct comparison with science-based livestock management.
They also hijack the debate by trying to focus it on irrelevant topics. Their argument that grazing can improve soil nutrients is a good example. There’s no evidence it improves the soil, and a lack of soil nutrients isn’t the primary limiting factor for vegetation in the arid West, it’s the lack of rain, and rain doesn’t follow the hoof.
They even go so far as to completely ignore science. They like to claim, for example, that cattle hoof action is good for the soil because it compacts it so that it doesn’t get washed away. There’s plenty of research, however, that shows soil compaction is a bad thing because it prevents rain from infiltrating the ground and thus increases runoff and erosion. At other times they claim that hoof action is good because it chops up the soil, which helps seeds germinate. But pulverized soil also increases runoff and erosion, and seed germination is dependent upon timely precipitation.
HRM advocates also like to claim that high forage utilization rates are good because plants are stimulated to regrow when they’re grazed. Like most HRM nonsense, it sounds good but it’s not true in arid environments. It’s often been said, for example, that Arizona, like much of the arid West, is a land of perpetual drought, interrupted by an occasional wet year. The vegetation, along with the wildlife that depend upon it, have to survive the dry years so they can take advantage of the infrequent wet ones. This means livestock numbers must be modest enough to ensure conservative forage utilization rates. As one Forest Service range conservationist pointed out to me, “What happens if it doesn’t rain?”
The HRM strategy of using livestock grazing to stimulate plant growth includes denigrating old plant growth by labeling it “decadent.” HRM advocates complain that dead plant material hinders new vegetative growth that cattle prefer to eat by blocking sunlight. But old plant growth adds to ground cover, which helps to prevent erosion, and also provides essential habitat, food and shelter for a variety of living things. And life-giving shade is found beneath old growth in the desert Southwest.
The lengths some HRM advocates will go to defend their junk science is shown by their claim that it helps to prevent wildfires. It’s true that heavily grazed areas are less likely to burn because there’s little vegetation. But they fail to acknowledge the fact that periodic, low intensity fires are natural ecosystem disturbances that help to maintain grasslands by controlling the spread of woody vegetation. Intense grazing, like the kind used in HRM grazing schemes, removes the herbaceous vegetation needed to carry these fires. As another Forest Service range con once told me, “HRM is very good at growing brush.”
Savory’s most outrageous claim, however, is that HRM grazing schemes can help fight climate change by capturing atmospheric carbon. This nonsense prompted the Sierra Club to issue an official statement in 2013 to scientifically refute it
That’s the situation regarding the uplands. There’s no justification for allowing grazing in riparian areas whatsoever – using HRM or any other scheme.
Furthermore, even if these intensive HRM grazing schemes worked, they would be inappropriate for our public lands. That’s because they adversely affect wildlife habitat, watershed conditions, and recreational users – as they are solely focused on livestock forage production. This violates the multiple use doctrine under which the various uses of our public lands are supposed to be managed in a combination that best serves the public interest. Dedicating these lands to livestock production at the expense of all other uses violates this law. The overwhelming scientific proof that HRM schemes don’t work means that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management should not allow them to be implemented on the public lands grazing allotments they administer.
Unfortunately, however, there are still private land managers that are so desperate that they’re willing to try HRM anyway. One of these people, for example, is William Burnidge, director of the grazing management program for the Nature Conservancy. This well-known conservation organization claims to always “use the best available conservation science and a science-based rigor.” But their financial need to make money on the ranches they’ve purchased has led them to help ranchers implement HRM schemes on the grazing lands they manage. In other words, the Nature Conservancy is embracing junk science and calling it collaboration. Sad.
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