The landscapes of our dreams

  It's an awful job, but somebody has to do it - register an afterthought to Kathie Durbin's story on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, "Cows depart, but can antelope recover?" (HCN, 11/24/97).

I have no problem accepting as fact that livestock grazing wrecked the place, that cows broke the cryptogamic crust, that Eurasian cheatgrass has spread everywhere, that human meddling from ranching to setting fires has changed vegetation, and that coyotes are now killing off antelope, even though we know the two species evolved together. The question remains, "What the hell's really going on?"

It's my position that we will never find the answers unless we stop viewing grazing as a one-dimensional phenomenon associated with a single species, whether wild or domestic. There are, in fact, five dimensions - numbers, density, animal impact, the season in which plants are grazed, and how long a plant bitten during the growing season has to recover before being regrazed. The effect on the land and on vegetation can be radically different for any mix of these factors, no matter whether the grazers are elk in Jackson Hole or sheep and goats in New Mexico. Numbers are probably the least important influence.

People who wouldn't dream of arguing that a wildfire at the height of a summer drought has the same effect as a controlled burn on a damp autumn day often simply refuse to acknowledge any subtleties in grazing at all.

I suggest that we start by depoliticizing the cryptogamic crust. I recommend the work of a British scientist, David Mitchell of the University of Wolverhampton (e-mail:, who studied crusts in the Gobi Desert, blissfully ignorant of the charged American atmosphere. He discovered that indeed crusts absorb moisture and fix nitrogen, but, being hard and inherently selfish, they don't share either. In fact, they create the worst possible environment for the germination of seeds and the deeper penetration of moisture and contribute mightily to flash flooding. They are still a positive asset for establishment of grasses, but only after being broken. Then, roots can penetrate, and moisture and nitrogen is released to the soil.

Then we should look at exotic species in context. Last summer I saw cheatgrass growing on degraded rangeland in southern Russia, where it isn't exotic, exactly as it does here, and people cursed it in exactly the same terms. It will explode where some combination of dysfunctional grazing (see the five dimensions above), overburning, and the stagnation of over-rested perennial plants opens a niche for it. Get those factors right, and it goes away - here, as in Russia.

After we've done those two relatively simple things, we should assume that relationships between species are always multidimensional. As in the grazing case, predation on antelope fawns is almost certainly not just a function of numbers (coyotes or cows) any more than it would be if we were raising sheep. I don't know, but I would suspect that some other species is missing from the coyotes' potential food sources - rodents, rabbits, bug larvae, etc. - or from the ideal antelope habitat.

I'm not making a case for cattle ranching, but for more thought and less dogma when it comes to promoting and maintaining the landscapes of our dreams.

Sam Bingham

Denver, Colorado

The writer is the author of The Last Ranch, a book about Colorado's San Luis Valley.