Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2002     Vol. IX, No. 2     PDF ISSUE


Home on the Holistic Range
By Keith Raether

Allan Savory's leap of holistic faith in matters of range management and livestock grazing belies an entire body of range science. His is a quasi-religious world laced with proverbs and prophesies -- a world in which the messiah is Savory himself.

Savory is the founder of the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management, which promotes, among other strategies, the Savory method of livestock grazing to federal agencies and ranching communities. The method is predicated on the notion that rangelands are in poor condition because they are undergrazed, not overgrazed.

Savory blames the wholesale degradation of watersheds in the Rocky Mountain West on "biological decay' and "too few animals" on the watersheds that feed rivers. In the world according to Savory, domestic livestock are a means to "land reclamation."

It goes without saying that livestock grazing has severely depleted vegetative cover and production on public lands in the West. What needs to be said in holistic management workshops is that sufficient forage no longer exists in most of the West to support the large herds on which Savory's grazing system depends.

Also overlooked is the role of livestock grazing in the replacement of native vegetation with weeds across millions of acres of the West.

Individual ranchers have reported some success with Savory's holistic management plan. Why? For one, ranchers who buy into the plan are usually in the hummocks looking up. The promise of a cure-all appears and, presto, everybody's on good behavior When public lands permittees suddenly go from absentee stewardship to hands-on animal husbandry, any result is bound to be positive.

When Savory argues that centuries of large-herd grazing in the West maintained healthy grasslands, he reinvents history Until domestic livestock were introduced to the region some 150 years ago, the Great Basin and the desert Southwest were not heavily grazed for 5,000 to 10,000 years.

Savory also fails to mention that, prior to the introduction of livestock, 400,000 miles of barbed-wire fencing didn't cut off migratory corridors. Before rangelands were fenced, wildlife herds were able to roam for hundreds of miles without competition for forage.

In a recent letter to the publication Rangelands, Savory wrote positively of the only scientific grazing research trial that he has conducted in 30 years of consultation with ranchers. All three authors who published papers on the trial reported the opposite result. Savory's method, the authors concluded, failed to improve ranch profits, failed to improve range conditions and failed to increase financial returns per head of cattle.

Experimental studies dating from 1984 by range and soil scientists conclude that Savory's principles of range management reduce water infiltration into the soil; increase erosion; reduce forage production, soil organic matter and mineral cycling; and increase soil bulk density.

The late, eminent range ecologist Joy Belsky challenged Savory's claims about livestock management widely and often. In a paper entitled "Allan Savory's Holistic Management: Scientific Misinformation on Grazed Ecosystems," she cites a grazing study on a ranch in Zimbabwe where Savory's recommendations were applied to improve range condition and increase livestock productivity.

Neither outcome occurred. Increased production only happened during periods of heavy rainfall. In periods of normal rainfall, stocking rates prescribed by Savory stifled production and severely damaged the range.

Contrary to Savory, scientific studies show that bunchgrasses in arid environments such as the Rocky Mountain West are more likely to die if they are grazed. Contrary to Savory, "overrest" of grasslands does not cause deterioration. As one of several examples, Belsky cites Dutchwoman Butte in central Arizona, a fertile, stable territory where grazing by livestock has never occurred.

"Published comparisons of grazed and ungrazed lands in the western United States have found that rested (protected) sites had larger and denser grasses, fewer weedy herbs and shrubs, higher biodiversity, higher productivity, less bare ground, and better water infiltration than nearby grazed areas," Belsky writes.

And yet, the U.S. Forest Service is currently collaborating with Savory to establish a "national learning site" in central Idaho to "heal the land." This leap of faith for Savory's services will cost American taxpayers $ 1 million over four years.

The price to pay for livestock grazing on public lands, of course, is greater still. Public lands ranching threatens native species, reduces water quality, spreads noxious weeds, alters natural fire regimes and accelerates soil erosion, destroying streamside and upland ecosystems.

In its Global 2000 report, the Council on Environmental Quality noted that "improvident grazing . . . has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage (351,562 square miles), within the United States."

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us," Aldo Leopold once wrote. "When we begin to see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

When and where human dominion over the land ends, healing begins. Holistic management starts here.

Keith Raether is director of public information for Western Watersheds Project and public information coordinator for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

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