If Only

If only people stopped religiously practicing overgrazing or continuous improper grazing – a tradition that’s been around for some 300+ years (Dyksterhuis 1972) – especially grazing at all costs just to “pay the land taxes”, which is no excuse at all though widely used.  There are wildlife tax exemptions available which lead to a higher land value than land that is used solely for cattle production.  It pays much more ecologically and economically in the long-term to reduce and/or remove livestock and restore former grazing lands to native habitat, which in turn support native wildlife.  Wildlife leases can bring upwards of 5-10 times more money per acre than cattle grazing can.

If only people stopped planting hypo-diverse pastures of exotic grasses like Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) or KR Bluestem (Bothriochloa iscahemum) because they are too impatient to wait for and observe the brilliant process of plant succession to establish the natives, those evolutionary-rightful heirs to the land.  Though a prairie doesn’t need continuous grazing to “keep it healthy”, livestock can graze and make weight gains just fine on a diverse grassland or prairie.  This is especially true for those who utilize a lesser weight of cattle than the traditional heavy beef beasts.  Many people are fooling themselves into thinking cattle grazing is akin to mowing a lawn.  Proper grazing practices take a lot of work to implement and monitor, along with strong dedication to grazing higher than old-hat stubble height recommendations.  It is not a part-time job.

If only people stopped relentlessly mowing and grazing, and used rest and fire more often (which has been around as an ecological force for some 425 million years and true grazers only a mere 10 million), because, as a chemical process, fire does far more above and below ground for graminoids and forbs than grazing ever will.  Relentless mowing and grazing kills many a prairie in North Central Texas by continuously defoliating the plants and subsequently killing the roots, thus making it easier for noxious weeds to invade, become established, and drive out the natives (KR Bluestem is a dominant exotic invader in many overmowed prairies and grasslands).  Excepting exotic species control, grasslands do not need a constant input from the hand of man, regardless of what many people think.  Rest, or deferment, does far more as a management tool than other inputs can simply because too many inputs is not a good thing.  But these days, too much rest is a rare thing and too much grazing is beyond ubiquitous.

If only people would pay more attention to the native ecology of the ecoregion they live in and realize what little of it and its associated plant communities truly remain (and how quickly it is being lost), then this is how the sandy loam country of the Cross Timbers of North Central Texas would look each fall.  And what a much prettier sight it is when cloaked with the rusty red culms of Little Bluestem’s fine fall colors – a dominant visual of the autumnal aspect.  It’s a wonderful compliment to the old Post Oaks that sometimes surround and shield this graminoid from the doom of the progress of modern man.

A once common but still ecologically correct autumnal scene in the Cross Timbers of North Central Texas. If your pasture doesn’t look like this come October, it’s a sign to take a real hard look at your grazing practices. Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is the dominant herbaceous vegetation on properly managed and properly grazed sites.  This pasture is in excellent range condition.

But that wonderful scene is fading daily, falling victim to lifeless grazing pastures of “improved” grasses that are exotic in origin and many that display incredibly noxious behavior.  These artificial pastures offer no positives for the land mechanism as a whole, short-term or long, they offer no wildlife habitat or any incentive for wildlife population increases and only contribute to their decline, and they solely serve the dollar, the man, and the ubiquitous non-native beasts that tromp them.

As exotic plant species continue their invasion into what little remains of our biologically diverse North American grasslands – the greatest the world had ever seen – and reduce their floristic richness to near monocultural status, decrease their abundant arthropod communities and cause bird and other mammal species to follow their decline, degradation of the soil biota occurs.  One of many inherent soil degradation examples is the reduction of beneficial soil fungi available for native species, which is often the final straw for the natives during a biological invasion process.  Exotic grasses are also one of the major reasons for the sharp decline in grassland bird species.  In Texas this has taken a tremendous toll on quail populations, which in turn has resulted in economic losses to rural towns.

Also suffering greatly and often invisible to laymen, is the functionality of ecological succession because exotic species arrest that rehabilitative process in many areas of the globe (D’Antonio and Vitousek, 1992).  This can oftentimes result in an altered steady state of plant communities that in many instances remain locked within the grassland matrix for decades, impeding restoration inputs. The rancher who plants an exotic grass because they “cannot get anything else [natives] to grow” may serve his cattle well in the short-term, but in the long-term he is causing immense biological harm[3] and diminishing the overall productivity of the ranch and their bottom line. Rangelands experience tremendous landscape dysfunction when managed as lawns, and that is what an Old World Bluestem or Bermudagrass pasture essentially is.

E. J. Dyksterhuis spoke about Dan Fulton during a 1976 conference in Billings, Montana.  Fulton, during the early 1950s, recognized a major shortcoming of such pastures and pointed out that, “tame pastures do not relieve range management problems, but, instead, intensify them.”   Exotic grass pastures offer a false sense of security in times of drought, as the classic and evolutionary-correct indicator species of bad grazing, other mismanagement symptoms and problems, and impending or intensifying drought are no longer present to raise red flags.  Thus, the grazing and soil compaction continue well into drought, time and time again, perpetuating and intensifying the grassland degradation process.

Some may point out in the above photo the small communities of Annual Broomweed (Amphiachyris dracunculoides) present within the grassland matrix.  Broomweed is a native and common forb of the Cross Timbers and its presence at the low density shown is of no concern. Many people mow down the Broomweed in thinking it will give the grasses a better competitive advantage. To that I say, “it depends”.  If you mow the Broomweed year after year and it keeps coming back in large population sizes year after year, you more than likely have too much grazing pressure.  Not only does Broomweed populate sites suffering from drought stress, it also populates sites that have been overgrazed; which is simply the replacement of the climax or potential natural plant community by a lower, lesser plant community and the continuance of landscape dysfunction.  In either case, the problem is not Broomweed.

Dyksterhuis explored this in a 1972 symposium on rangeland management.  He writes, “to many, it must seem lazy to not fight so-called weeds.  In a single day out of Ft. Worth, Texas after a bad drought, I visited with one rancher who wanted to know whether to use sheep, a mower, or a chemical to keep down the annual broomweeds that he knew would come after the drought.  Then I visited another rancher who said without prompting that he would take all the broomweeds he could get to help put moisture in the soil, so the grass would come back.  Which one was still basically a farmer and which one was a range manager actually using knowledge of secondary succession?”

Notes:
1.  Nationwide, Bermudagrass pastures cover some 25-30 million acres.  Couple that with the approximately 40 million acres of European style lawns, along with all other sources of land fragmentation, and there’s not much room for the natives.
2.  KR Bluestem and other Old World Bluestems (Bothriochloa spp. Dicanthium spp.) are sometimes sneakily listed in seed commercial mixes as “Plains Bluestem”.  Buyer beware and know thy species; especially the scientific name!
3.  The first and well-known rule in ecological restoration is “do no harm”.

SER Conference: “Ecological Restoration in the Southwest”

The Texas Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration and the Southwest Chapter (NM, AZ, Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, and Colorado Plateau) will be having their joint conference (“Ecological Restoration in the Southwest”) this year in Alpine, Texas on the campus of Sul Ross State University. Continue reading

Finding the Bright Side

One of the nicer pleasures of working in the ecological restoration field is finding an old guard, a steady king, a still native grassland making its last stand against the onslaught of myopic human ignorance, climate change, and the invading noxious weeds that create novel ecosystems. Continue reading