Busting Livestock Industry Myths About Cattle and Soil Carbon

BLM grazing allotment, Oregon Coast Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

High-intensity, short-duration grazing has been the fad diet of the livestock industry, a miracle cure-all of a grazing system that promises to turn cattle from ecologically destructive misfits to regenerative messiahs. Regardless of the question, the livestock industry and its apologists propose more livestock as the answer, from enriching the soil to promoting biodiversity to pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, a recent New York Times article (“Keeping Cattle on the Move and Carbon in the Soil,” Oct. 31, 2021) uncritically regurgitates this fictional narrative and repackages it as news.

The false prophet of this story is Allan Savory (founder of the “Savory Institute”), who spent his most productive years training and fighting with “guerrilla gangs” against indigenous groups in Rhodesia, and spurring government efforts to kill more than 40,000 elephants on misguided ecological pretexts (a decision he later stated he regretted). How fitting, then, that this former employee of the British Empire’s Colonial Service would become a hero to the American livestock industry, which itself is substantially responsible for clearing away (and wiping out) Indigenous peoples and exterminating native wildlife to make way for their own hoofed empire. Ranching is an ongoing colonialist conquest of nature spanning both hemispheres and trying desperately to maintain its dying grasp on the 21st Century by reframing it as a solution, rather than a cause, of the climate and biodiversity crises.

As a nation, we shouldn’t sacrifice native species and healthy lands to make the West safe for non-native, invasive cattle and sheep, so we can benefit a tiny, economically insignificant fraction of the population.

The idea that increasing the numbers of livestock has some redeeming ecological outcome to break up brittle soil crusts and push carbon into the ground is contrary to science. Peer-reviewed publications have determined that all of Allan Savory’s major claims are unfounded, and the purported benefits of high-intensity, short-duration grazing systems lack scientific support. Indeed, on the Great Plains from Alberta to Wyoming , experiments to test short-duration grazing against traditional dispersed grazing, and demonstrated that Savory’s rotational methods offer no improvements in land health or soil productivity. These results have been known for more than 30 years. The scientific bankruptcy of rotational grazing is, in fact, old news, documentary puff-pieces heralding new breakthroughs notwithstanding. The reality is that improvements in range condition result from simply reducing overall livestock grazing pressure, regardless of which grazing system is employed.

Unfortunately, U.S. federal agencies are still applying Savory’s destructive ideas to western public lands, piling onto the ecological destruction of lands already stressed by drought conditions too many cattle and sheep. For example, under the recently-approved Three Creeks project, the Bureau of Land Management implemented this supposedly-beneficial rotational grazing across more than 100,000 acres of the highest-sensitivity sage grouse habitats in northeastern Utah. The project includes 24 miles of new fences, 85 new livestock troughs, and 91 miles of new water pipelines. Barbed-wire fences are a major, deadly problem for the imperiled sage grouse. One Wyoming study found that fence collisions killed 146 low-flying grouse over 1.5 years, along a single five-mile stretch of fence. Water developments are also cause problems; sage grouse commonly drown in stock tanks and water troughs.

While Savory and his coterie of livestock apologists claim that more cattle are needed on the open range to save humanity, improve land health, and solve the climate crisis, nothing could be farther from the truth. Their myths ignore the desertification, conversion to carbon-hemorrhaging invasive weeds, mud-choked trout streams, fecal-coliform-contaminated waterways, decimated native bunchgrasses, and disappearing populations of sage grouse and prairie dogs and wolves and grizzly bears. These are the true outcomes of the cattle industry’s “real environmentalism” over the past century and a half, and Times reporting should reflect this ecological reality instead of the wishful thinking of industry propaganda.

Facing the facts is also critically important as President Biden’s “America the Beautiful” campaign moves forward. To protect 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030, the administration must be prepared to take a hard look at truly effective conservation strategies like reducing livestock impacts, restoring native predators, and keeping large landscapes connected to each other free from major human disturbance. It is imperative that we get this right.

The “just-so story” has its origins in Rudyard Kipling’s intentionally fanciful (and fictitious) children’s’ stories of how African animals got their distinctive features. How appropriate that a colonialist white man from Africa with minimal scientific training (and indeed a distinct disdain for science) is now peddling the biggest just-so fantasy ever to emerge from Africa. In the absence of critical thinking and fact-checking, the American media (and its flagship, the New York Times) is falling all over itself to amplify it.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.