All that is unsavory about Holistic Management

Typical overgrazed western US rangeland.
Typical overgrazed western US rangeland.

Hiding behind his ecologist title, Allan Savory (founder of Holistic Management), states without evidence that his grazing scheme will save biodiversity while at the same time reversing desertification and even climate change. The theory of Holistic Management is to design livestock grazing systems to balance social, economic, and environmental considerations. It hypothetically involves understanding the interrelationships—between soils, plants, animals, and climate and how they are affected by human activities—and then making decisions that are grounded in a thorough understanding of the ecological and economic impacts of different land management practices.

The Holistic Management narrative acknowledges that humanity often reduces problems down to their simplest components—and that there is a need for humility and a shift from “control” to “cooperation”—but then Allan Savory goes on to do the exact opposite. The best way to refute the ramblings of an ecologist long-divorced from a resource ethic is with real evidence-based ecology.

The not-so-mysterious mega disappearances

North America’s first contribution to the current mass extinction event coincided with the initial presence of Homo sapiens on the continent. Also referred to as the late Pleistocene Extinction Event or Quaternary Extinction Event, North America lost 23 of its 36 megaherbivores (large, plant-eating animals heavier than 1,000 kilograms / 2,200 pounds). Also disappearing were 9 megacarnivores (100 kilograms / 220 pounds). In all areas of the planet outside of Afroasia, megafaunal losses coincided closely with the global expansion of Homo sapiens.

Ecosystems evolved under the browsing, grazing and trampling effect of many different species, and the carnivores that limited their numbers. Historically, every herbivore species was present in different numbers and had dissimilar usage patterns. These animals’ numbers were limited by competition with each other, unique habitat preferences, physiological adaptations, and carnivores. The loss of megafaunal species has had cascading effects on ecosystem processes, leading to changes in the populations and roles of smaller animals, as well as to the extinction of plant and animal species reliant on the larger animals for some part of their life cycle.

With the demise of species like giant ground sloths, American camel, wooly mammoths, and long-horned bison, the smaller American bison filled the vacuum, becoming singularly dominant and increasing exponentially between 8 to 10 thousand years ago. Up until two centuries ago, it was estimated there were 30 to 50 million bison roaming an area that extended from the border with Mexico all the way up to the arctic, and from central Idaho east to the Mississippi River.

Holistic Management ignores millions of years of evolutionary ecology, instead focusing on the last eight thousand years. Their answer to reversing the deteriorating conditions of grassland ecosystems planet-wide is simple: cattle. The long-used aphorism holds true: if all someone has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A single herbivore, especially one like cattle, is more likely to have consistent behavior: eating in one place, defecating in another, focusing on particular plants, and concentrating nutrients instead of dispersing them across landscapes, gradients and seasons. What this means is that some areas become extremely degraded, with many native plants and animals disappearing. Species that are tolerant of heavy grazing, unpalatable, or invasive become dominant.

Not only is it impossible for cattle to imitate the effects of extinct megaherbivores, they are also poor impersonators of bison, who have a well-developed sense of smell, with a remarkable ability to detect water sources from great distances. In the wild, bison have been known to travel up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) in search of water. By contrast, livestock like cattle rarely get more than 3 or 4 kilometers (2 to 2.5 miles) away from water even on relatively flat ground. In steep topography, cattle can be limited to as little as half a kilometer (a third of a mile).

Bison are also adapted to a range of landscapes including grasslands, savannah, and woodland, distributing nutrients across these landscapes and utilizing areas that have less productive soils. Cattle are generally suited to areas with more productive soils and less vegetative diversity. Bison can remain high up in rough country during cold snaps, but cattle gather for warmth near streams, further eroding stream banks and wetland areas.

A tiny critter, but a mighty plague

Severing itself further from contemporary ecology, Holistic Management completely ignores the effects of the now-extinct Rocky Mountain locust and 19 other species of locust worldwide. The Rocky Mountain locust may have been the greatest life force ever to inhabit the planet. The elimination of smaller species in ecosystems—when present in great abundance—can have a similar cascading effect as the loss of megafaunal animals. Instead of top-down, theirs is a bottom-up effect. No insect has ever occupied a larger share of public attention in North America. Savory not only completely ignores an animal that helped shape the ecology of the Great Plains and Great Basin, but also one that shaped current society itself.

The Rocky Mountain locust forced a nation into dealing with the conflicting ideals of agrarianism and industrialism, the nature of poverty, and the obligations of government to come to terms with its duties to the people in times of suffering and need. Governments were forced to deal with dueling interpretations of poverty—moral weakness and blameless misfortune—as locusts wiped out cropland. Layered on this were religious interpretations of locusts being sent from God to punish sinners. Today, the same sorts of issues first precipitated by the locusts are again being struggled with by society and government.

Because of the social and economic consequences of their existence and categorization as a pest, the positive ecological ramifications of periodic locust outbreaks have been ignored. The Rocky Mountain locust consumed no fewer than 50 kinds of plants from more than a dozen families. In 1875, entomologist C.V. Riley witnessed a swarm in Nebraska and estimated it contained between 3.5 trillion and 12.5 trillion insects, covering an area of 51 million hectares (198,000 square miles). He further estimated that the swarm could consume 200 million tons of vegetation in a single day, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of vegetation that would be consumed by 25 million head of cattle.

The incredible vegetative consumption of locusts had none of the negative effects on soils that similar use would have had by large ungulates like cattle. The complete absence of soil compaction meant greater soil porosity, making it easy for water, air and nutrients to filter down, which in turn increases soil productivity. Increased soil porosity and water absorption also facilitates the recharging of groundwater aquifers.

There were other surprising ecosystem effects of locusts that have been repeatedly ignored by Holistic Management, as we shall see.

The evolutionary marvel of grasses

The most honest complex organisms on the planet are native plants. Their physiology is incapable of lying and can be used to inform evolutionary ecology. While Holistic Management ignores the ecology of animal species that shaped ecosystems, it also ignores plant physiology.

The western portion of the historic range of the American bison coincides closely with that of blue grama grass. Blue grama is one of the most prevalent grass species in the shortgrass prairie. Research has found that grasshopper feeding on blue grama results in the plant’s energy reserves being shuttled below ground—into its root system. The inability of grasshoppers to immediately remove the leaves and seed heads like an ungulate allows the plant time to mount its defenses and react. This process is called nutrient remobilization: moving nutrients into the root system facilitates storage for later use by the plant for growth, development, and reproduction. This allows blue grama to optimize their nutrient use and ensure their survival and reproduction in nutrient-poor environments, even when above-ground portions of the plant are consumed by locusts.

Because the shortgrass prairie evolved under the influence of not only megaherbivores, but the Rocky Mountain locust and several other grasshopper species, blue grama’s physiological response is consistent with evolutionary ecology. Occasional swarms of locusts would have increased the productivity of grasslands in years following their population booms. Ironically, it is likely that locusts may have allowed the Great Plains ecosystem to support more bison and elk than would have been possible in their absence.

Bluebunch wheatgrass is one of the most productive, palatable and widely distributed native grasses in the western United States. It is found in a variety of habitats including sagebrush-steppe and grassland habitats, from Alaska and western Canada southward to northern Mexico. Unfortunately for the wheatgrass, ungulate cropping when the seed head first appears has been reported to eliminate plants within as few as three years. Recovery of the plant’s vitality and robustness has been found to require most of a decade, even with complete protection from grazing. The effects of grazing on bluebunch wheatgrass are well-documented: basal area, stem numbers and both root and forage yields are significantly reduced, and mortality can be high. Bluebunch wheatgrass subjected to the combined stressors of heavy grazing and full competition from other native plants produced 43% less herbage and 95% fewer flower stalks the following year, compared with ungrazed plants growing under full competition.

Anywhere bluebunch wheatgrass exists, the historical density of herbivores was sparsely populated enough to accommodate a grass whose physiology is extremely sensitive to grazing. Infrequent cropping of this grass would have been the norm. Consistent livestock grazing on habitats with bluebunch wheatgrass has been shown in study after study to lead to rangeland deterioration.

Fencing in lands and corralling water

My first exposure to Allan Savory and Holistic Management was in the 80s, while working for the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho. These rangelands were mostly steep and rugged, and cattle invariably hung out near streams, rivers, and springs where overgrazing became rampant. Dryland areas immediately adjacent to these water-influenced areas were overgrazed and trampled to dust. The further away from water, the less the impact. The only areas that were in good condition were usually populated with bluebunch wheatgrass, and were inaccessible to grazing livestock because of their distance from water.

Ungrazed Idaho wilderness. Biodiverse grasses and forbs.
Ungrazed Idaho wilderness. Biodiverse grasses and forbs.

For ranchers and many Bureau managers in the area, Holistic Management was heaven-sent. Allan Savory effectively undermined efforts by those government officials who were trying to reduce cattle numbers because of overgrazing. The only problem, according to Savory, was that there weren’t enough pastures/paddocks. In spite of the plethora of fences in wildland areas, they needed more. With more pastures and fences, they then needed more water to “spread the cattle out.” The consequences of Savory’s theories were rangelands with just as many cattle, littered with even more fences.

The few remaining fragile spring systems were dug out, culverts placed where their water surfaced, to be piped into troughs in remaining areas whose ecological condition—until that time—had been excellent because of the absence of cows. Fueled by snowmelt feeding groundwater aquifers, thousands of natural springs had once existed where water emerged onto the surface of the landscape. These springs were scattered randomly across western rangelands. They were the veritable oases in the desert, providing succulent vegetation and clean, dependable water for wildlife in highly localized areas.

The goal of Holistic Management has always been getting water to every conceivable location, so that livestock are able to eat as much of the grass in the stockman’s allotted area as possible. Savory has single-handedly helped facilitate the destruction of most remaining spring-fed aquatic areas. In some western states, all of the springs in dryland, non-forested areas have been developed in this manner. First overgrazing—and then destroying—these native spring systems has likely resulted in the extinction of numerous aquatic invertebrate species including springsnails, amphipods, isopods, insects, and other snails that were never identified before being ushered out of existence.

Because of the need for more pastures, Holistic Management is an especially fencing-intensive form of livestock management. The negative effects of fencing on wildlife are numerous. Fences can pose a physical barrier that injures or kills birds flying across the landscape, as well as animals trying to negotiate them. Fences can create artificial barriers that alter predator-prey dynamics by separating predators from their prey, or confining prey to small areas. Fences also fragment natural ecosystems, causing changes in bird and animal behavior.

While Holistic Management mentions predators in passing in its mission statement, the stark reality is that not only are predators dismissed, but predator populations are most often either limited or eliminated by the presence of livestock. For example, in a 15-year period between 2006 and 2020, 161 wolf packs were killed in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as a result of preying on livestock. Wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, jaguars, grizzly and black bears, tigers, lynx, fox, lions, leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs, cheetahs, dingoes, and occasionally even eagles are demonized and killed when they attack cattle. By artificially propping up livestock numbers, Holistic Management further contributes to the ongoing planet-wide elimination of predators.

Why a missile range is so biodiverse

According to a review article in the International Journal of Biodiversity, comparisons of grazed and ungrazed lands in the western US have found that areas that were rested from domestic livestock grazing have larger and more dense grasses, fewer weedy forbs and shrubs, higher biodiversity, higher productivity, less bare ground and better water absorption and infiltration than nearby grazed sites.

These findings are consistent with my observations over a long career spanning more than three decades. They are further corroborated by anyone fortunate enough to see the Chihuahuan desert grassland within the 8,300 square kilometer (3,200 square mile) White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, an area that has had no cattle grazing for 80 years. Grazed by a few antelope and imported oryx from Africa, it may be the most intact desert grassland ecosystem in the United States—possibly the entire planet. The area is lush with biodiversity including native grasses, pollinators and grassland birds.

The effects of intensive cattle grazing on grassland biodiversity and wildland hydrology cannot be overstated, and are infinitely worse than producing more beef on feedlots. It is ludicrous to presume that managed livestock can mimic the complex interactions of insects and megafaunal animals on ecosystems. It is nonsensical to presume they can even mimic one megaherbivore—the bison.

Allan Savory was prescient in greenwashing a negative environmental effect before it became commonplace. The negative effects of Holistic Management on ecosystems have been exported to at least four continents. Without fail, livestock presence on the landscape leads to either the reduction or elimination of carnivores. Holistic Management requires fencing and modifying natural aquatic habitats to facilitate livestock control and movement—to the detriment of native ecosystems everywhere.

With no data or even compelling anecdotal information, Savory’s proof that Holistic Management works is only in photos lacking any context whatsoever. His photos paint the picture he wants his followers to believe. Holistic Management requires faith in a system without historical or ecological context—a system divorced from science, one that entirely ignores behavioral, evolutionary, and contemporary ecology. The belief that cattle can be used to improve ecosystems decimated by centuries of their overgrazing is the very definition of insanity. Holistic Management is a religion cloaked in subterfuge, further sacrificing an environment reeling from centuries of abuse, while maximizing narrow human economic interests.