Holistic Resource Management (HRM) Grazing Plans Don’t Work

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. He 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 American Southwest. Big herds of large grazing animals, such as bison, haven’t been found there since at least the end of the Pleistocene era, more than 10,000 years ago. Subsequently, the vegetation of the area’s dry ecosystems isn’t 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. HRM grazing schemes are typically implemented through a biased collaborative process, and use high forage utilization rates combined with short duration periods of grazing. 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:

Chino Winds NRCD HRM Demonstration Project – In the early 1990s the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve a project that awarded a couple of Section 319 nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution prevention grants totaling $175,600 to help fund the Chino Winds HRM Demonstration Project on the Yavapai Ranch, which includes the Prescott National Forest’s Yavapai Grazing Allotment. A coordinated resource management plan (CRMP) was used to implement an HRM grazing system that was supposed to increase ground cover, and thereby reduce erosion and NPS water pollution. The project monitoring showed the CRMP didn’t produce the expected results. Despite this failure, the Prescott’s Chino Valley Ranger District continues to allow HRM grazing systems on its allotments. In the meantime, the ranch’s owners have continued to receive more benefits from government assistance programs.

Government Assistance Program Key

AWPF - Arizona Water Protection Fund, AWPF Commission (state)
EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
HPC - Habitat Partnership Committee, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
LCCGP - Livestock & Crop Conservation Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
LFP - Livestock Forage Disaster Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
LRP - Landowner Relations Program, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
WQIG - Water Quality Improvement Grant, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (federal/state)

Yavapai Ranch (Yavapai Ranch LP) - Yavapai Allotment
1990AZ319 #90-004
(Now called WQIG)
$175,600Chino Winds NRCD HRM Demonstration Project
2009 - 2015 LFP$496,272
2017HPC #16-305$15,900Yavapai Ranch Dirt Tank Cleanouts
2017HPC #16-308$33,831Yavapai Ranch Solar Conversions
$1,350,215TOTAL 1990-2019
Erosion caused by cattle grazing on the Yavapai Ranch
Erosion of a wash on the Yavapai Ranch that passes beneath Yavapai County Road 5, just north of its junction with Forest Road 731, June 2020. Cattle were present in the upstream pasture. (Jeff Burgess)

Arizona Game & Fish Department Report – The 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.”

Tonto National Forest Study – Arizona’s Tonto National Forest published a study in 1991, wherein the implementation of HRM on Greenback Creek failed to improve that Sonoran Desert riparian area.

Arizona BLM HRM Seminar – In 1994 the Arizona Bureau of Land Management’s state office spent thousands hosting an HRM seminar that proved to be of no use.

Arizona BLM Ungulate Action Demonstration Project – In 1995 the ADEQ convinced the EPA to award another Section 319 grant of $79,800 to help fund another HRM demonstration project on public land in the Bureau of Land Management’s Pratt Tank Grazing Allotment on the arid Arizona Strip. It was supposed to show that feeding a herd of 400 cattle confined to a relatively small pasture of sagebrush would kill the sagebrush and increase the ground cover, especially grass, thereby reducing erosion and NPS water pollution. But, like the previous Section 319 Chino Winds HRM project, it didn’t produce the expected results.

Upper Verde River Adaptive Management Partnership (UVRAMP) – In 2000 ADEQ took over the administration of EPA Section 319 NPS water pollution prevention grants in Arizona. It was renamed the Water Quality Improvement Grant (WQIG) program. ADEQ, however, had apparently failed to learn from the previous Section 319 HRM project failures in Arizona, because in 2002 they awarded the $55,700 WQIG #4-012 to EcoResults! to implement some HRM livestock management measures on the Prescott National Forest’s Del Rio/West Bear and Horseshoe grazing allotments, located along the upper Verde River. The permittees of the two allotments had signed a memo of understanding (MOU) in 1998 with the U.S. Forest Service to become part of the UVRAMP. The stated purpose of the UVRAMP was to foster collaboration to address, “the cumulative needs of all parties as it pertains to management of the Upper Verde River Ecosystem.” The WQIG grant was used to help fund a project that was supposed to include “state-of-the-art” techniques, but most of them were common measures, such as building fences, and cutting down juniper trees to grow more grass for cattle. The project’s uniquely HRM measure of having cattle stomp hay and seeds into the ground to promote the growth of vegetation was a complete failure. But this wasn’t the only government program that benefited these HRM ranching operations. In 1998 they each received a grant from the Arizona Water Protection Fund (AWPF). The grazing permittee for the West Bear/Del Rio allotments was awarded AWPF #98-047 for $115,300, and the Horseshoe allotment’s permittee received AWPF #98-055 for $82,561. The money was used to build new livestock waters and fences. Despite this large public investment, a report titled, Ravaged River: Cattle Damage to Endangered Species Habitat in Arizona’s Verde River Watershed, was released by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2020 that showed their survey of the river in 2019 had found these grazing allotments were among those where cattle were accessing the river and negatively impacting it.

Financial information acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests and Public Records Requests.

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. The 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.

In fact, HRM proponents go so far as to completely ignore science. For example, research has shown that livestock grazing actually decreases organic matter in the soil of the West’s arid ecosystems. This makes common sense too, because large amounts of organic matter are removed from the land when cattle are rounded up and sent to markets.

The proponents also like to claim 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 in the Southwest is dependent upon timely precipitation.

HRM advocates like to call it time-controlled grazing because they claim that how long cattle graze is more important than how much they graze. They argue 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?” And the Southwest has been experiencing a nearly uninterrupted drought for the last 20 years.

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.

But despite all of the science proving HRM schemes don’t work, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature passed a law in 1995 that created an HRM program for the Arizona State Land Department. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Russell Bowers, R-Mesa, gave the agency the option to facilitate HRM plans in order to “alleviate the need for critical habitat designations” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. According to agency officials, none have been completed.

Moreover, HRM grazing schemes are inappropriate for our public lands because 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. Coupled with the fact that HRM schemes don’t work, this 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 ranch 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.

Liked this post? Follow this blog to get more. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.