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. Finding grasslands like these gives restoration practitioners hope and the ol’ pat on the back they need to keep on keeping on in the face of disturbing ecological trends; many that are downright depressing. As the famous Aldo Leopold wrote in the 1940s, “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen”.
I found one grassland on the bright side today while treading westward through the long rolling hills between the Apache and Davis Mountains. It is one of a handful of nice, strong, mostly healthy desert grasslands remaining in the Trans-Pecos. But their days are numbered and have been since the early Spanish and later European settlers began introducing non-native livestock into these lands. As they employed grazing habits that were not in concert with the evolutionary ecology of these southwestern grasslands, a cycle of negative change began; creating disruptions, inflicting damages, and eventually destroying habitat of the native flora and fauna.
In many areas, the same pattern continues today: graze as much as possible with as many as possible and give no forethought at all, because the land taxes have to be paid and myopia makes the dollar signs crisp and clear between the narrow confines of human vision. I.W. Tourney noticed the negatives of livestock grazing in Western grasslands way back in 1890s and wrote “The Gradual Disappearance of the Range Grasses of the West” (1894). It is a short article, and to find words published that long ago about the concerns then of livestock grazing is another bright side. Tourney wrote, “Many are deceiving themselves in thinking that a few rainy seasons will bring back the rich perennial grasses of the years gone by. It seems to me, under the present condition, the time can never come when our western range will be as rich in forage as it was ten or more years ago. Under the most favorable conditions, with cattle entirely excluded, it would take many years for these grasses to get the foothold they formerly held.”
Unfortunately though, for many semi-arid and arid rangeland systems, their grassland component is long gone, having been replaced by Creosotebush (Larrea tridentata) monocultures on gravelly sites and Mesquite (Prosopis spp.) scrublands on loamier sites. No amount of cattle exclusion will bring back those grasslands to any sustainable extent. Furthermore, some areas no longer support the growth of those two ubiquitous woody species, due to such severe alterations within the system through overgrazing and other improper land management practices. They have been replaced with communities of rock and bare ground, and the soils have degraded from thermic to hyperthermeic temperature regimes – no grassland will ever be restored on those sites.
Hopefully the one I saw today will stick around – they’re not making any more new land, and the bare ground and scrubland communities are increasing daily.