Newspaper column: Want to save the planet? Let the cows out

Grant Gerber, champion of grazing. (photo submitted to Elko Daily Free Press)

Once again the sagacity of cowboy philosopher Will Rogers has been proved: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

Writing in the summer edition of Range magazine longtime ecologist Allan Savory notes that it is universally agreed that strict control on livestock grazing is needed to prevent turning our rangelands into barren deserts. But it ain’t so.

“In more than 60 years of research, neither I nor any collaborating scientists have found any evidence to support the idea that controlling livestock numbers prevents desertification,” writes Savory under the superlative headline, “Cows Can Save the World.”

In fact, Savory reports, complete removal of cattle accelerates desertification for two reasons. “First, most or all aboveground stems and leaves of perennial grasses die back every year,” according to Savory. “Unlike trees that also have leaf turnover, grasses cannot shed dead leaves and stems. Over millions of years such grasslands — soil life, plants, grazing animals and their predators — developed together in an amazing symbiotic relationship. The grasses needed animals grazing, trampling, dunging and urinating just as much as the animals needed plants.”

Land on left was grazed while that on right was not.

Land on left was grazed while that on right was not. (Range magazine photo by Andrea Malmberg)

The writer, who is originally from Rhodesia but now makes his home in New Mexico, notes that most Americans live on the coasts where there is enough moisture for grasses to rapidly oxidize, but in the more arid climes gradual oxidation doesn’t allow adequate sunlight to reach ground level if there is no grazing. This results in grasslands weakening and nature striving to fill the vacuum with taproots plants — weeds or forbs, shrubs and trees if rainfall is high enough.

While this may sound like heresy to federal land managers and those whose experience with grass in limited to a backyard turf, it is something many ranchers have been saying for years.

The late Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber often charged that federal agents are in thrall of the radical environmentalists, whose mantra is that the land should be returned to the pristine state before ranchers ruined it by trampling it with sheep and cattle.

But the truth is quite the opposite. It is those sheep and cattle that helped transform the Great Basin into a land hospitable for wildlife such as elk, deer and sage grouse.

Gerber, who died in October of a head injury after his horse stumbled during a protest ride to Washington on behalf of ranchers being forced off federal public land, was fond of quoting from the diary of fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden who crossed Nevada circa 1828: “There were times when we tasted no food, and we were unable to discover water for several days together; without wood, we keenly felt the cold; wanting grass, our horses were reduced to great weakness, so that many of them died, on whose emaciated carcases we were constrained to satisfy the intolerable cravings of our hunger, and as a last resource, to quench our thirst with their blood.”

Only after the sheep and cattle came and trampled the earth and fertilized it and ranchers improved access to water, the region blossomed, Gerber contends.

Gerber explained in an interview a couple of years ago that this was because: “Along the Humboldt River it began to get a little better because as these wagon trains would come through the cattle would plow up the soil with their hooves, the oxen and the horses and the sheep. They’d fertilize it and they would knock down the sage brush and grind it into soil. Just like you do with your garden. Every year the soil got a little bit better.”

This is also explained by Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner, who in an article in the Elko Daily Free Press in November, noted that between 1846 and 1853 an estimated 165,000 people crossed the Great Basin en route to California. They brought with them nearly 1 million cattle, sheep and horses.

“Think of the impact these animals must have had on the environment along the Humboldt and elsewhere during that period,” Gardner recounts. “But did things deteriorate — was the grass abused and depleted? Not according to the logs and diaries that were kept. Almost to a person, it was indicated that grazing conditions were improving — that there was more grass and feed found then, than had been found earlier.”

Grazing has transformed Nevada. Do we wish to see it revert to a pristine but barren state devoid of wildlife and vegetation?

A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

17 comments on “Newspaper column: Want to save the planet? Let the cows out

  1. Rincon says:

    I can certainly understand that cattle can contribute to the ability of plants to grow. What I am less willing to swallow is the clear implication by the following quote that there is no such thing as overgrazing:
    “In more than 60 years of research, neither I nor any collaborating scientists have found any evidence to support the idea that controlling livestock numbers prevents desertification.”

  2. Steve says:

    That quote in no way says overgrazing…it simply does not say it.

  3. JFC says:

    Cattle that grazed according to Savory’s method needed expensive supplemental feed, became stressed and fatigued, and lost enough weight to compromise the profitability of their meat. And even though Savory’s Grazing Trials took place during a period of freakishly high rainfall, with rates exceeding the average by 24 percent overall, the authors contend that Savory’s method “failed to produce the marked improvement in grass cover claimed from its application.” The authors of the overview concluded exactly what mainstream ecologists have been concluding for 40 years: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity.”

  4. Rincon says:

    “…Savory has not put his theory out for peer review.” Quaaaaak!

  5. Rincon says:

    Sorry Thomas. WSJ won’t let me in. Maybe they think I’m too liberal. I assume they don’t like peer review?

  6. Steve says:

    These guys have the article.

    And here is the Op/Ed referred in the WSJ editorial.

    It is what it is, more reason to be skeptical of politically motivated scientists.

  7. Rincon says:

    Thank you Steve. Is your conclusion is that since one article (out of over a thousand each month) escaped the peer review process, then the only scientists to be trusted are those that are not peer reviewed??? That can’t be right. Could one of you derive a sensible conclusion from this article that is related to Savory? I can’t see one.

    Just as it’s easy to find a single case of scientific malfeasance, it’s even easier to find it in politics. Here’s a piece from the Huffington Post about the Tea Party. I can find these all day.

  8. Rincon says:

    Oops, I forgot the most important part. Who found out LaCour’s malfeasance? Other scientists who tried to duplicate his findings. Why don’t the antiglobal warming types try that? Oh, they probably have.

  9. Steve says:

    ” since one article”
    You draw a ton of conclusions based on that one article…why am I not allowed to do so?

    In case you have forgotten,,,I have been saying this over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over over and over

    you get the point?

    Science in the political interest is not science…it is people corrupted by power and politics.

  10. Steve says:

    How about the email scandals? Who had to rout that out?

  11. Rincon says:

    Anyone that bases their view of a discipline of hundreds of thousands of hardworking members on the misdeeds of a single individual is so lost as to never be found.

    The Email scandals failed to bring to light a single piece of doctored data nor any illegal act. There was actually almost nothing of importance. A few idiots saying a few idiot things. It’s to be expected when filtering through huge numbers of Emails.

  12. Steve says:

    “misdeeds of a single individual”

    AGAIN…I have been saying this over and over and over………..

    The email scandal was “explained” away…like every other political scandal, it was “handled”

  13. Peer review? How about the verdict of history?

  14. Rincon says:

    Does anyone here know how peer review is utilized in the world of science or anything about its origin? If no one explains it, I’ll assume none of you know.

  15. More assumptions? That ends the debate.

  16. Rincon says:


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