Concerns about EARTH A New Wild’s Messages About Grassland Conservation

I know that many of you watched the first two episodes of EARTH A New Wild last week on Public Television, including Episode 2: Plains.  I watched as well, and while I was glad for the attention paid to grasslands, I also had some concerns about the content of the Plains episode.  If you didn’t see it, you can watch it here.

The recent measles outbreaks in the United States have been the topic of much discussion lately.  While there is a great deal of finger pointing going on regarding vaccinations, I worry that a bigger issue is being ignored; in today’s noisy world, it is very difficult for the public to know what information is based on good science and what is not. The growth of the anti-vaccination movement is a good showcase of the issue, but the problem is much broader, spanning topics from climate change to dietary supplements.  It often seems that anyone with charisma and/or a loud voice can gain credibility and a following, especially if they are promoting a message that feeds people’s fears or tells them what they want to hear.  Cutthroat politics and a desire among media outlets for provocative stories both stoke the fire, and there is almost no way for the average citizen to sort truth from propaganda.

As a scientist who spends a lot of time and effort communicating about science, this is something I really struggle with.  I try really hard to present only the best information I can, and to distinguish between facts, assumptions, and opinions.  At the same time, I do have an agenda – I want to see prairies conserved, and I feel strongly that factors such as biodiversity, habitat heterogeneity, and ecological resilience are critically important.  While there is a lot of research that backs up those assumptions, I still have to acknowledge my biases, and I try to be careful not to pass off opinions as science.  It’s very difficult.

All of this is leads back to my main topic of this post; my disappointment in the Plains episode of EARTH A New Wild that aired on Public Television last week.  I was disappointed with the program because I thought it presented a very one-sided perspective on some ideas, and their promoter, Allan Savory, that are very complex and widely disputed. To be fair, the narrator of the series, M. Sanjayan, did mention that Savory and some of his theories are controversial, but not that numerous scientists and studies have actually contradicted those theories.  Instead, he appeared to endorse Savory’s ideas, and much of the episode explored how they could be applied in grasslands around the world.  I welcome any attention paid to prairie conservation issues, but I felt the Plains episode led people to believe that the strategies it advocated were better supported by science than they really are.

My intent with this blog post is not to discredit or disprove the theories and ideas promoted by Savory or the Plains episode.  Instead, I want to provide additional information that I hope will help round out some of the topics presented in the episode and facilitate a productive discussion among those who watched it.  The following are a few pieces of information I feel are important to be aware of as you consider the potential value and application of the ideas presented in last week’s show.

Controversy over Savory’s Big Ideas

  • Allan Savory gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk back in 2013 that gained a lot of attention because of its assertion that “planned grazing” was necessary to reverse desertification and climate change. In fact, he claimed that his method of intensive, concentrated grazing is the only viable solution to reverse those two processes.  The most specific rebuttal (among many) to that talk was published by five eminent grassland scientists in a Society for Range Management journal (Rangelands 35(5):72-74. 2013).  The rebuttal addresses each of the main claims made in the TED talk and refutes them.  Unfortunately, the article is not available online to those who don’t have a subscription allowing access to SRM publications.  A brief summary and links to some responses to the rebuttal are included at the end of this post if you’re interested.
  • There were many other critiques and rebuttals of Savory’s TED talk, including one by George Monbiot in The Guardian and another by James E. McWilliams in Slate.  Both echo many of the points made in the Rangelands rebuttal, and also provide links to other information, including numerous scientific studies that refute both Savory’s TED talk claims and the broader success of his Holistic Management grazing practices.  You can read a rebuttal to Monbiot on the website of the Savory Institute.
  • To be fair, it’s important to separate Savory’s “bolder” theories about desertification and climate change from his more moderate Holistic Management and planned grazing ideas, which have been incorporated by a segment of the ranching community across the world.  Among other things, Holistic Management encourages careful planning and monitoring, which is certainly positive, but its proponents also tend to promote the use of higher stocking rates than many rangeland scientists feel are sustainable.  The results of scientific studies evaluating the results of Holistic Management and planned grazing have been decidely mixed.  Some studies have supported Savory’s theories, but many others showed that planned grazing either didn’t deliver the promised benefits or performed less well than other grazing systems.   As is typical in the scientific process, more data needs to be collected and research projects need to be repeated to resolve the inconsistent findings so far.  In the meantime, however, it seems premature to conclude that Savory’s grazing strategies are obviously and significantly better than other options.
  • Allan Savory is vocal about his distaste for the use of fire for managing grasslands and excludes it from his land management recommendations. Coincidentally, there was no mention of fire in the entire Plains episode, despite it being one of the three major forces that control grassland ecosystems (along with grazing and drought).  An example of Savory’s thoughts on fire can be found in a quote from An Overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making from the Savory Institute’s website, which says that fire “pollutes the atmosphere and exposes soil contributing to desertification/climate change.”  Climate change and its contributing factors comprise a very complex web, and I sure can’t say that fire is not part of that web, but it’s also important to consider the way fire affects carbon in the atmosphere, a topic I covered in an earlier blog post.  Of course, fire can have both negative and positive consequences, as can any management tool, depending upon the way it is applied.  However, most people working in prairie conservation feel that prescribed fire is a very important tool, and there is abundant research that supports that view.  One synthesis of that research can be found here, and Chapter 4 (page 29) deals with central North America, in particular.

The Complex Issue of Prairie Dogs

  • During the segment on prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, the Plains episode highlighted the ability of prairie dogs to increase the health of grasslands. They create habitat for other species by burrowing, and grazing/clipping of vegetation by prairie dogs can increase the forage quality of grassland areas.  All of that is true and important.  However, research also shows that prairie dogs can change the composition of a plant community in ways that lower forage quality and/or quantity available for livestock and other animals.  As a result, there is strong evidence that prairie dogs can compete with livestock for forage.
  • I was disappointed that the Plains episode focused only on the positive aspects of prairie dogs, especially because it also talked about (and showed) ranchers working to eradicate prairie dogs without really explaining why.  Balancing the ecological benefits of prairie dogs with the economic impacts they can have to ranchers is a key component of prairie conservation in North America.  It is a complex and multi-faceted issue that requires understanding and empathy on all sides if it is going to be resolved. Here are links to two recent research publications that highlight the complexities of the prairie dog issue.  The first is publicly accessible, but the second is only available to those who have journal access subscriptions.  Thank you to my friend Stephen Winter for providing these citations.

Both Savory and Sanjayan are charismatic speakers, and very effective salesmen.  The ideas presented in the Plains episode of EARTH A New Wild are attractive because they appeal to our romantic sense of balance in nature, and imply that we can play an important role in re-setting that balance.  I agree that large predators are key components of ecosystems, and that we should find ways to live with them when it’s possible, and attempt to replicate their role when it’s not.  However, I felt the Plains episode unnecessarily focused on a very narrow set of theories and proposals for grassland conservation; a set built upon widely and vigorously challenged assumptions.  I am very optimistic about our ability to conserve our grasslands and other ecosystems, but doing so will require robust and well-rounded conversations and a wide range of strategies.  As we continue those conversations, it will be imperative that we are upfront with each other about which strategic options are based on good science and which are not.

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Here are the main points from the rebuttal to Savory’s TED talk that was published in the journal Rangelands.  The rebuttal essentially focuses on Savory’s presentation piece by piece, including:

1) Pointing out the fallacy of Savory’s statements that all non-forested lands are degraded and that rangeland science fails to either understand the reasons for or to be able to mitigate that degradation;

2) Laying out the physical impossibilities of Savory’s claim that changing the way grasslands are managed could solve climate change;

3) Pointing out that photos were the primary evidence used to support Savory’s claims of restoring degraded grasslands and that several of the photos he used either had a different grazing history than Savory claimed or were from a completely different location than Savory stated.

4) Refuting Savory’s statements about the benefits of hoof action breaking up biological crusts in desert grasslands  to increase water infiltration by pointing to the well-studied ecological roles (protecting soil from wind erosion and carbon loss) played by those same crusts.

For those of you who do have access to the Rangelands journal, I hope you will read not only this rebuttal article, but also a response from Richard Teague and the subsequent response to that critique.  In addition to providing context around Savory’s climate change and desertification theories, the series of three short articles also provides an excellent synopsis of the many arguments among scientists trying to understand the complexities of grazing management.

 

 

Ruminations on Tree Planting and Prairie Conservation

Trees are great, but trees in and around prairies can negatively impact habitat quality for many grassland plant and animal species and provide points of introduction for invasive species.  Encroachment by trees has become a major threat to prairie conservation in many landscapes.  

A few months ago, I cut across the courthouse lawn on my way home from the office (I was walking – it’s a small town).  On the west side of the courthouse, there are a number of statues and other monuments memorializing veterans of various wars.  In the midst of those, however, is a very different kind of memorial (pictured below).  This plaque-on-concrete memorial got me thinking – yet again – about our relationships with trees, our desire to plant and care for them, and how that affects our former, current, and future relationship with prairie.

We love trees so much, we use them to memorialize important events and people in our lives.  Sometimes, we then create memorials to honor people who plant trees!

We love trees so much, we use them to memorialize important events and people in our lives. Sometimes, we even create memorials to honor the trees and the people who planted them!

I live in Nebraska, home of Arbor Day.  Early European settlers of Nebraska were enthusiastic tree planters for both practical and aesthetic reasons; our legislature even designated us as “The Tree Planters State” back in 1895.  There were good reason for all that tree planting.  It’s certainly nice to have shade around one’s house and yard, and a grove of trees provides a valuable shield from strong winter winds for both homes and livestock.  In addition, early settlers found the open prairie lacked adequate wood for fuel and building materials.  However, despite the numerous practical uses for trees, I think most tree planting was and is done primarily as a way to make the landscape more visually appealing.  People just like trees.

This brings me to my contemplation of tree planting and prairie conservation.  Research has shown that when given a choice, people seem most attracted to the aesthetics of a savanna-like landscape – one with scattered trees and short grass.  That mindset is evident in the way we design our yards and parks.  Not only do we enjoy having trees, we really like to plant them ourselves.  We gain immense satisfaction from the simple act of digging a hole and plopping a seed or small seedling in the ground, knowing that we and future generations will be able to watch that tree grow skyward.  The trees we plant often become almost family members in the way we celebrate their growth and mark time by how big the trees were when such and such happened.

The landscaping around the Hamilton County, Nebraska courthouse (where the above plaque is located) is a great example of the kind of scattered trees/short vegetation landscape humans find aesthetically appealing.

The landscaping around the Hamilton County, Nebraska courthouse (where the above plaque is located) is a great example of the kind of scattered trees/short vegetation landscape humans find aesthetically appealing.

This brings up two issues for those of us working to conserve prairies.  First, we’re starting from a handicapped position when we advocate for prairie conservation because prairies are not what most people visualize when they think of natural beauty.  Given the choice between a treeless grassland and a park-like landscape dotted with trees, most people would choose the wooded park as a site to photograph, hike or picnic, or build a house.  In fact, there are countless examples in which people buy a small patch of prairie for a recreational property and immediately plant numerous trees to make it “look nicer.”  We really haven’t changed much from our European settler predecessors in that regard.

Second, we haven’t yet found a prairie-related analog to tree planting; a simple activity that creates something people can take ownership of, love and nurture.  Planting trees is so easy a child can do it, and with very little investment of time or money, someone can establish a couple trees that become treasured landmarks or memorials – – which further reinforces people’s love of trees and wooded areas.  In contrast, planting prairies is fairly complicated and requires more space.  It also takes a few years for a planting to grow out of its weedy phase and start to look like a prairie.  Prairie planting can certainly be rewarding, but it’s not nearly as simple, accessible, and instantly gratifying as tree planting.

Many people find wide expanses of open prairie impressive, but not alluring.  How do we get people to care about and nurture landscapes and ecosystems they have to work to appreciate?

Many people find wide expanses of open prairie impressive but not alluring. How do we get people to care about and nurture landscapes and ecosystems they have to work to appreciate?

So how can we help people connect with prairies in the same way they connect with trees and wooded landscapes?  I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas.

1) We need to encourage more people to spend time in prairies and make sure they enjoy themselves when they go. It can be a definite challenge to convince someone to take a walk in a prairie.  Even worse, when people do step foot in a prairie, many are unimpressed because they don’t really know what to look for or how to appreciate what they’re seeing.  As a result, they often walk away with an even less favorable opinion than before they came.  “It was just a lot of grass!  And I was pulling ticks off myself all night!”

A good naturalist and interpreter can lead someone on their first prairie excursion and make it a positive and thought-provoking experience.  There is no substitute for the expertise and enthusiasm of a good leader, but there aren’t enough of those people to go around.  Several Nebraska Master Naturalists approached me last year with an idea to create a “Prairie Exploration Guide” – a pamphlet/booklet designed to help newcomers to prairie see the beauty and complexity they might otherwise miss.  The guide is still in the development stage, but I have high hopes that it will be a useful tool when it’s done.

2) Using native prairie plants in landscaping is becoming increasingly popular. The public’s concern over population declines of bees and monarch butterflies is helping to spur the movement, as are issues such as water conservation.  There is no question that getting the public to buy, plant, and appreciate native prairie plants in their backyards is a major step toward building a prairie conservation constituency – and backyard prairie gardens also make real conservation contributions on their own.  Significant obstacles still hinder the movement, especially our cultural norms about what yards and gardens are “supposed” to look like, but I am optimistic about the future.

3) One successful method for engaging people in prairie conservation at our Platte River Prairies has been through seed harvesting. People identify with both the value of seeds and the idea of restoring lost habitats.  Harvesting seed is a tangible way people can contribute toward something important; they can measure that contribution by the amount of seed piling up in their buckets.  Ideally, harvesters come back and help plant the seed they picked, and then visit regularly to watch the prairie planting develop over time.

I hope that helping me harvest and plant seeds at our family prairie will help my kids develop a love for grasslands.

I hope that helping to harvest and plant seeds at our family prairie will help my kids develop a love for grasslands.

Along those lines, one of the most inspired strategies I’ve seen to engage people in prairie restoration was being done by Wayne Pauly in Dane County, Wisconsin.  I went on a tour of some of his prairie restorations back in 2004 and was very impressed with both his plantings and his involvement of volunteers. Most particularly I liked Wayne’s strategy of having volunteers “paint the prairie” with seeds during prairie plantings.  He’d give each volunteer a bucket of seeds of one prairie wildflower species and let them decide how and where to plant those seeds – allowing them to create a pattern or design of their choice (thus the idea of “painting”).  That is a brilliant idea, and one that should not only be fun on planting day, but should also draw those volunteers back in subsequent years to view the results of their work.

Humans have a long and strong relationship with trees, one that is likely embedded within our DNA.  Tree planting is an easy, accessible, and tangible way to contribute something to the natural world.  Unfortunately, tree planting doesn’t do anything to help prairies, and can sometimes be counterproductive if trees are planted in or near open grassland.  If prairie conservation is to succeed, we need to get the public excited about grasslands and combat the perception that prairies would look a lot prettier if they just had some trees growing in them.  More importantly, we need more strategies that actively connect people with prairies and give them the same sense of fulfilment they get from planting trees.  I think we’re getting better, but we have a long way to go.