The New Eco Moooovement

Despite its foul reputation, cattle grazing could help save the American prairie

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Environmentalists have long regarded cows as Public Enemy No. 1 in the American West. They are blamed for everything from degrading public lands and destroying wildlife habitat to wasting energy (it takes five pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef). Even their belching is environmentally incorrect: The methane gas they expel contributes to the greenhouse effect.

But some ranchers and university researchers who are pioneering holistic land management techniques assert that cattle grazing can actually improve the health of grasslands: Cattle hooves till the earth, creating stable soil cover, and grazing can remove old plant material and stimulate the growth of beneficial perennial grasses. As Dan Daggett, author of Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West That Works, points out in Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures (Fall 1997), this new research—and its practical application—may hold the keys to saving our vanishing grasslands.

On Tipton's ranch in central Nevada, for example, a desolate 10-acre slope was successfully reseeded by simply scattering hay and allowing their herd to graze and trample and fertilize it. A few months later, a tract that once barely supported tumbleweeds had sprouted thigh-high grass. "Tests revealed that their cow-cultivated mine site had produced more grass than some of their neighbors' irrigated hay fields—and had done it on less than six inches of moisture," Daggett writes.

Former Zimbabwean wildlife manager Allan Savory has taught this cultivation method to thousands of ranchers throughout the West after making similar observations on the savannas of Africa. While the grazing of domestic cattle often leaves the land ruined, migrating herds who feed and leave actually improve the soil.

Some environmentalists regard these arguments as a thinly veiled attempt to create positive PR for the embattled cow at a time when various interests are battling it out in Washington over a hike in public land grazing fees. Although they agree that light grazing can be beneficial, they argue that overgrazing—and grazing cattle in places where they don't belong—has been standard practice in the region since the 1800s. "I don't deny that Savory grazers have revolutionized [ranching]," says Dan Heinz, a grazing consultant for several environmental groups. "But they also need to realize that extended rest can have benefits, too."

On another front, environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy have begun working with ranchers to fight a common enemy: suburban sprawl. They want to preserve large open tracts of land, which they consider critical corridors for migrating wildlife. In the process, they hope to create models for monitoring and managing grassland ecosystems on ranches, using such strategies as "grass banks," where ranchers can graze their cattle while allowing overgrazed areas to restore themselves.

Such a partnership could be good news for the American rancher, who, if overgrazing continues, could find himself relegated to Marlboro ads and coffee-table books. After all, the primary threats to ranching no longer come from meddling Washington regulators but from overused land that can no longer produce sufficient forage for grazing herds. Those ranchers who work to keep the entire ecosystem healthy may be the ones who survive in the long run.