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Saving US grasslands: a bid to turn back the clock on desertification

As grasslands diminish on prairies and savannas around the world, an innovative ranching technique that reverses the environmental damage of desertification makes its way to the US.

By Judith D. SchwartzContributor / October 24, 2011

Cattle nibble grass on a Montana ranch. A grazing strategy that mimics the movement of buffalo is among methods used to undo damage.

Francis Joseph Dean/Newscom

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Three years ago, the grasslands of Mike Livingston's Colorado ranch were drying out.

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In the hills north of Hell Creek "you could see the sand between the sagebrush from a mile away. Whenever we got hard south winds, you could see the sand blowing."

For a rancher whose livelihood depended on those diminishing grasslands, it was an oncoming economic and ecological disaster in slow motion. For the wider world, it was one more example of how prairies and savannas from Alberta to Africa are inexorably being swallowed by growing global wastelands.

Desertification caused by climate change and human activity now threatens the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people worldwide, according to the United Nations. Globally, 52 percent of land used to grow food has been affected either moderately or severely.

But on that patch of Colorado prairie, something different happened: The grass came back. Today, "the grass has covered the sand," says Mr. Livingston. A dozen or more sandy, wind-blown basins have become lush and green.

What made the difference was a simple idea with tremendous global consequences. In short, Livingston tried to turn the clock back on his land by moving his cattle around the land in a way that mimics the movement of buffalo centuries before. The idea is called Holistic Management, and users say it is a powerful tool to undo the damage that humans have inflicted on grasslands worldwide.

"Human beings are a desert-making species," says Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. But Holistic Management "is a game changer."

Developed by an African rancher, Allan Savory, over several decades and established on a Zimbabwe ranch in 1992, the Holistic Management model is now making inroads in the United States. Backers say it has the potential to revitalize broad swaths of the American West. To do so, however, would require a change in decades-old ranching practices, which means that the revolution, for now, is starting small.

The idea behind Holistic Management is that grasslands were healthier before modern ranching began. The reason: As huge herds of herbivores roamed the landscape, they revitalized it, nibbling plants to stimulate root growth, trampling the ground in ways that broke apart caked earth to allow seeds to germinate and water to seep in, and fertilizing the ground with their dung.

As grasslands have been fenced off, however, herbivores have become sedentary, and these processes have been impeded. Holistic Management (HM) involves using livestock as though they were the grazing mammals of old, herding them across property according to a planned schedule. The approach is now being applied to more than 40 million acres around the world – about the size of the state of Wisconsin. In the US, interest has grown since Mr. Savory won the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Prize, which rewards "a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity's most pressing problems," according to the website.

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