The Ecological Wisdom of Leaving Nature Alone - Pacific Standard
The best kind of ranching is likely no ranching at all.

In an increasingly desperate effort to salvage the sinking ecological reputation of beef, several promoters of holistic grazing—also called intensively managed grazing or rotational grazing—have been hammering home a seemingly outlandish claim: We can save the planet by raising more cattle.

The most notable voice has been Allan Savory, whose now-famous TEDx talk set off a stampede of support among ranchers eager to rescue their livelihood from ecological bad news that gets worse with every spin of the media cycle. One such rancher, Nicolette Hahn Niman, boldly confronts the conventional wisdom by arguing, in her most recent book, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, that “cattle are good for the environment.”

Underscoring this declaration is the requirement that the cattle are carefully micromanaged. When this happens the beasts can supposedly replicate the behavior of ancient ungulates that once roamed de-populated landscapes, maintaining lush grasslands that sequestered carbon, retained water, and fostered biodiversity. It’s a seductive idea, and evidence that Niman, for one, swoons under its influence is manifest in her elaboration of Savory’s hypothesis:

Savory advocates that animals be kept in dense herds and moved often; that grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil; that animal waste adds fertility; that hooves break the soil surface; press in seeds, and push down dead plant matter so it can be acted upon by soil microorganisms; that all of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention; and that this is the only way to stop and reverse desertification the world over.

While several studies confirm that holistic management can, indeed, under certain circumstances, improve certain aspects of a degraded ecosystem, a heap of countervailing research condemns the hypothesis as misguided at best. It goes without saying, but none of the mainstream critical assessments of intensively managed grazing make it into Savory’s TEDx performance or Niman’s book.

Critiquing the prospects of rotational grazing, a March 2014 literature review stated, “the vast majority of experimental evidence does not support claims of enhanced ecological benefits in IRG [intensive rotational grazing].” It also noted that existing studies “clearly indicate that IRG does not increase plant or animal production, or improve plant community composition, or benefit soil surface hydrology compared to other grazing strategies.”

“Simply removing cattle from areas may be all that is required to restore many degraded riparian areas in the American West.”

Another study concluded: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity.” And a third that it “could find no peer-reviewed studies that show that this management approach is superior to conventional grazing systems in outcomes,” adding that, “global greenhouse gas emissions are vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to store the carbon emitted each year.”

Savory, who once compared himself to Galileo, has responded to this criticism in confounding ways. “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything,” he told Range magazine. The only thing the scientific method effectively does, Savory said, was “protect us against cranks like me.” When the Guardian’s George Monbiot asked Savory to address common objections to his hypothesis, Monbiot found himself on the receiving end of “long, distracting, irrelevant answers to simple questions.”

Of course, none of this behavior deters the ranchers. Thrilled with the prospect of bringing more cattle into the world, they treat Savory like the messiah. “Savory,” Niman writes, “is simply too credible to be ignored.”

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If the Savory-Niman approach sounds a bit utopian, or even denialist, one can take solace in research that came out in February 2015. It indicates that perhaps the best way to revive a damaged landscape might be to go to the opposite extreme and remove domestic cattle altogether. That is, eliminate grazing for good, stop trying to replicate something as elusive as an ancient ecosystem, and just leave the land well enough alone.

The study focused on the riparian zones in Oregon’s Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge after cattle were taken off the land. Exploring “how ecosystems change with the removal of cattle,” the authors found that, within even the first couple of years, an astonishing array of improvements ensued. Degraded landscapes bloomed. Biodiversity increased. “There can be,” they wrote, “dramatic results from passive restoration following the removal of cattle from a system.”

On nearly every score, the once overgrazed landscape was substantially revived. Ninety percent of the bare soil—the stuff of erosion—was converted into grasses, sedges, forbs, and willow; stream channels exposed to erosion dropped by 63 percent; the population of rushes increased by 400 percent; willow heights rose by two to three times; aspen groves rebounded.

The study’s conclusion suggests that cattle are not the solution. They are the problem. “Simply removing cattle from areas may be all that is required to restore many degraded riparian areas in the American West,” the authors write. Perhaps most critically, they have the pictures to prove it.

The Oregon report joins a growing body of similar evidence found in other regions. A 2003 study of an Arizona landscape cleared of cattle found that 42 of 61 endemic bird species increased in population while critically important biological soil crust was revived. A 2011 study of the Loess Plateau in China reported that the exclusion of livestock resulted in “increased above and below ground biomass, species richness, cover and height for five different communities.” And yet another study from 2014 states that “published comparisons of grazed and ungrazed lands in the Western U.S. have found that rested sites have larger and more dense grasses, fewer weedy forbs and shrubs, higher biodiversity, higher productivity, less bare ground, and better water infiltration than nearby grazed sites.”

The whole notion of leaving the land alone is assuredly one of the more un-American proposals ever concocted. But it may be a viable way to revive landscapes degraded for eons by our inability to keep our hands off of them.

Look at it this way. Even if the Savory-Niman approach could theoretically work, which solution would you consider more achievable—taking cows off the land and walking away, or quadrupling them and micromanaging them to re-enact ancient ecological relationships of which we have only the dimmest knowledge? One solution is a form of bioengineering that makes genetic engineering look like a middle school science experiment. The other is an expression of humility in the face of the Earth’s complexity. I know which one I would choose.

Lead photo: (Photo: Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon)

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