Modern science causes desertification

by Jeff Goebel

Note: Jeff Goebel has been facilitating and teaching Holistic Management for many years. His website is

How would a natural resource science develop if it weren't able to experience and observe the natural environment? Not very well! This science is called Range Management. This discipline was formed during the 1930s, with the advent of the Dust Bowl. The odd thing is that naturally functioning grassland and savannah ecosystems stopped occurring in the 1870s on the Great Plains and 1820s in California. Those are the decades when massive migrations of ungulates and associated predators were eliminated almost to extinction. Ungulates are animals with multiple stomachs, and capable of breaking down the lignin in grasses. Lignin provides plants with structure and is difficult to break down in arid climates. Examples of ungulates that can break down lignin are American Bison, Tule Elk, Big Horn Sheep, wildebeest, antelope, domestic cattle, and domestic sheep.

The American Bison of the Great Plains and the Tule Elk of the California central region were annihilated and replaced with cattle and sheep that generally remained on pastures in smaller numbers for extended times. Without the predators, there was no need for these new ungulates to move away from water. The advent of barbed wire exacerbated this situation. After numerous decades of this kind of animal behavior, range science emerged. What did they study? The grasslands of the United States, without the migratory animals!

What were the behaviors of the animals of the pre-ungulate-annihilation days? John Audubon, in his diary, writes that the buffalo along the Missouri River were so numerous that he considered it unsafe for a man to ride through the herd on horseback. He says that the riparian areas were devastated with the impact of the huge herds, with their hair caught in the brush along the riverbanks. Today, we wonder why the bosque of the Rio Grande is collapsing ecologically. The bosque is a Spanish term for the wooded area around streams and rivers of the Southwestern United States. The ecological collapse is visible in the lack of cottonwood regeneration, so there are old trees and no young trees to replace them. There are dying grass plants underneath the cottonwood woodlands and vast areas of bare ground. One has to ask oneself, why are the cottonwoods not regenerating, grasses dying, and areas of bare ground increasing when water is merely two to three feet below the surface, year-round? Yes, the annual flooding has stopped. So have the massive migrations of ungulates like antelope, often believed to be in excess of herds of the tens of thousands. The Russians in the 1700s wrote of the hills along central California literally being black with the shimmering herds of Tule elk and deer. Other explorers in the 1800s described the Central Valley of California as having as many numbers of ungulates as the plains of Africa.

The dilemma for modern American range science is that they never had the luxury to study a healthy functioning grass and savannah ecosystem. Consequently, all there was to study was the impacts of overgrazing caused by ungulates that didn¹t migrate and the effect of rest on lands that pre-historically were subject to massive disturbance, as John Audubon points out. Unfortunately, other reductionist disciplines such as botany and wildlife biology also didn't learn about the impact of migratory ungulates on the grass and savannah lands of the North American continent, so they also misunderstand the needs for a healthy ecosystem. Instead of learning from the wildebeest and pack hunting predators of Africa, our sciences have tried to impose the current scientific paradigms to the African continent. The results have been devastating to the landscape and the people.

When will we learn about history, and pre-history, as a species? The saying goes that if you don't learn from history, you will repeat it. Recommendations continually get made from universities, natural resource government agencies, and environmental communities that lead to the desertification of continents of the earth. This impact is having massive devastating effects on the ecology and financial resources of communities and nations. This impact continues to harm people, resulting in poverty, hunger, human migrations away from the rural land to the cities. Species are disappearing, water tables are dropping, and soil is washing and blowing away faster than it is being regenerated.

Is it possible for modern science to think about how plants, microbes, soils, and animals really developed together for thousands of years? Is it possible for us to save ourselves by managing these lands the way they evolved so that we can bring water back into the soil, stabilize species diversity, and restore carbon as humus in the soil? How can we learn this lesson, fast, in time to help save our species? As Aldo Leopold once noted, the same tools that are destroying our lands, can be the same tools to heal our earth. The role of the migratory ungulate can become the salvation of two-thirds of the earth’s surface, if fit back into the design of ecological processes.