Don't blame the cows
Updated: Friday, February 01, 2013 12:30 PM
By DOUG WARNOCK
For the Capital Press
A controversial report from researchers at the Oregon State University Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society calls for removal of livestock and feral ungulates from federal lands. The stated purpose is to initiate ecosystem recovery and reduce contributions to climate change.
"They've totally missed the human element of management and the fact the cow is not the problem. The way the cow is managed is the problem. It's not the tool, but how the tool is used," said Jim Howell, CEO of Grasslands, LLC and keynote speaker at the grazing conference scheduled for Jan. 24-25 at Walla Walla Community College in Walla Walla, Wash.
"They just make the default conclusion that herbivory and its associated animal impact are bad," Howell said. "They do acknowledge, 'The site-specific impacts of livestock use vary as a function of many factors (e.g., livestock species and density, periods of rest or non-use, local plant communities and soil conditions),' but then fail to explain how these site-specific impacts look and how they can be hugely positive, or at least compatible with ecological integrity."
Howell continues, "To me, it's pretty irresponsible to make broad, sweeping conclusions like they have with no recognition of all the contrary evidence or an honest assessment of natural history. Their observations are not inaccurate. Poorly managed livestock do indeed create damage, but their report is incomplete and misleading and the conclusion, if implemented over the long term, will not lead to the results they're seeking or professing.
"All they have to do is go look at areas that have been livestock-free for decades," he said.
Howell is referring to the public lands in western states on which livestock have been excluded, in other words given complete rest, which have essentially become deserts with unhealthy ecosystems.
Many years ago, French scientist Andre Voisin, in his book "Grass Productivity," stated that overgrazing is not a function of the number of animals on a pasture, but a function of time -- the amount of time plants are exposed to grazing and the amount of time plants have to recover before being grazed again. The healthiest pastures and rangelands are those in which plants have short-term exposure to grazing and optimum time for recovery.
As Howell says, the problem is not the grazing animal, but the management of the grazing animal as conducted by the human in charge.
In his book, "For the Love of the Land -- Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature's Image," Howell relates cases where well-planned grazing by livestock has healed the land and greatly improved ecosystem health.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, now lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley.