Predator-Friendly Managed Grazing

Livestock management practices that may help restore Elder Creek:
• Read “Holistic Management” and the workbooks, then use this information to create a holistic land management plan.
• Use the resources available through USFW and NRCS to reduce your habitat improvement costs.
• Never kill predators unless you have tried to defend your herd in every other possible way, and your losses are incompatible with your subsistence needs.
• Never give your livestock unmanaged access to creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes.
• Avoid the use of set stocking during the growth season, and try to avoid it altogether.
• Avoid the use of large confined feeding operations.
• Keep your herd or flock size as small as possible; cooperate with others to increase herd size periodically to produce desired “herd effect” on targeted species.

Anatomically modern humans have only been on Earth for about 200,000 years, while the planet has been home to non-human beings for about 4 billion years and to vertebrate land animals for 380 million years. This means that the non-human world had a very long time to build topsoil.

And topsoil is the foundation for much of the diverse set of terrestrial life on Earth today, including most of the food we eat. But each year, due to poor land management decisions by agriculturalists, foresters and others, about 75 billion tons of soil is eroded from the land—a rate that is about 13-40 times as fast as the natural rate of erosion. In arid and semi-arid lands, [i] desertification is the end result of this human-induced erosion, and this region appears to be in the early stages of it. According to the map at bottom, we are, at a minimum, in a very vulnerable position. And much of the western U.S. is even worse.

All the topsoil that we humans have been exploiting for 10,000 years was a gift of the lifeforms, weathering and climates of the past. And most of this world–especially the grasslands and savannas–was well-populated with very large animals, called megafauna. In brittle environments like ours, large herds of grazing and browsing animals were kept on the move by pack-hunting predators, which greatly reduced the likelihood of large areas of land becoming overgrazed. In essence, predators were the grassland managers of the past, and the end result was deep fertile soils and amazing diversity. Perennial grasses, trees and shrubs had time to rejuvenate after being pummeled by the hooves and teeth of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of large animals. And of course biological activity greatly benefited from all the manure and urine. Here in California, even after the great die-off of megafauna about 13,000 years ago, there were still vast herds of tule elk, pronghorn and deer.

California’s indigenous human cultures learned to live in a way that created a balance suitable to themselves–and apparently one that was truly sustainable–while maintaining the vast herds of megafauna and their predators, as well as not diminishing the massive flocks of migratory water fowl that passed through each year.

Of course all that abundance of life is gone. In today’s sociopolitical setting, the changes needed to head us in that direction again are impossible. While there are still tule elk and pronghorn and deer, the obstacles to grazing vast areas with them are also very daunting, but worth consideration. But while the planning of that decades-long transition has yet to seriously begin, we have one option available to us now: domesticated livestock.

Grassland, which used to comprise 40% of Earth’s land mass, and its topsoil evolved with–was made in part by–large animals. We need them back. But not the way the Euro-Americans have been grazing livestock here for the last 200 years. We need large, dense herds to move through the land quickly, particularly in the wet season. Set stocking the entire year, which is giving animals free range in a fairly large area with little or no threat from predators, needs to be transformed to Predator-Friendly Managed Grazing (PFMG) as the video below demonstrates. Of course, each locale is different, and while there have been successes with this approach in some regions, California may be a particularly challenging place to pull this off, especially with cattle, who do not behave or eat like elk, deer, or pronghorn.

The holistic planning process often leads owners of smaller parcels of land to think beyond their holding, so it encourages a community approach to land stewardship, which has the potential for more benefits–or damage if done poorly–for the watershed or region more quickly. For example, folks at Land EKG have found in some locales that the native plant community does best with four years of rest. This makes us think that a community herd would be the best choice among small land holdings. If you are interested in a joint project, please use our contact page to get in touch.

As noted above, we want to emphasize the value of predators to restoring the land. Predators were the managers of brittle lands of the past, and they did their job sustainably. The top video at right demonstrates the value of predators using the wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone as a great example of trophic cascades.

If done right, this land management approach has the following potential benefits: building topsoil and regenerating desertifying grassland, carbon sequestration, better forage, increased biodiversity and extension of the hydrologic cycle. The consequences of poorly executed grazing in the arid west, as is the case particularly in regions with less than 15 inches of annual rain, has resulted in degradation on all these fronts, and so we endorse the support of organizations that are working to reform or purchase grazing leases on public lands.

Desertification_map