Grass, Desertification, Allan Savary and Carbon Storage

Allan Savory is brilliant. He talks about grass. Believe every word he says, but if you live in Western North America don’t believe a word of it.


 If you would like to see Savary on Ted Talks (It’s worth it. He speaks well and from a deep base of knowledge), here you go, just to whet your whistle. Below this video, I will explain why, for the critical western grasslands in which I live his message is both dangerous and wrong. Here you go:

Sav0ry’s talk is based on two assumptions. They’re not unreasonable assumptions, but they’re assumptions nonetheless. The first is that grasses form sods. They do, but not here in the west. Here they form bunches. That is a huge difference. The second is that apex predators of grasses are large ruminants, like cattle, and their predators are lions and wolves and such things. Again, that’s great. It works on the Canadian prairies. It doesn’t work in the west. Here, apex predators of grasses do this kind of thing:

mouselogging2Logging Pile, Ready for Hauling into Winter Storage

Well, winter came too quickly, I guess, before the work got done.

Some of these apex predators of grasses build cities of crystal under the warm, sunlit snow, with long highways, streets, sleeping areas, waste disposal grounds, and so forth. Others just go underground and do the carbon sequestration and organic decomposition work that Savary applauds his ruminants for:

till2Sun Over a Tilled Field, Turtle Mountain

Here’s a closer view of that tillage:

tillNotice How Tilling and Grass Keep the Sagebrush at Bay

Put cattle on this ground in large numbers and the sagebrush gets way too thick. Soon there is no grass and grazing is a disaster. If you concentrate too many cattle where cattle want to go, you get this:

cowviewCows Love a View!

No grass, though. Just rock. They ate the grass. Note all the sagebrush. That’s there because they ate that grass, too.

Granted, good pasture management would just keep the cows off of hilltops like this. Here’s what a 5-year-old, naturally-seeded rock slope can look like without cows:

wallBunchgrass Will Grow Anywhere…

… but cows pull it up by the roots. It doesn’t grow well that way. It does not grow back, in fact. It is, by any measurement, the end.

Now, part of Savory’s argument is that grass does best when grazed quickly by large numbers of large animals, who trample it, urinate on it, defecate on it, and move on. It works excellently on sod-forming grasses. Here, in contrast, is bunchgrass without grazing:

bunchhillBunchgrass Hill, Okanagan Landing

No cows required. 

In fact, there are large animals that use that slope, but they just use it as a trail area. They don’t like eating grass. Here’s one of them:


Deer Above Okanagan Lake

That’s a not-unmanageable balance of sagebrush and bunchgrass.

Deer eat this stuff:


Wild Cherry, Deer-Chewed

It grows here and there in the grass, in hollows and arroyos. The only thing you have to worry about with deer on the grasslands is that humans don’t get the idea that they like grass and fence them off from lowland shrubs. Deer love to move up and down the slopes with the seasons, to access shrubs as gravity and temperature ripen them at various times. It takes a shrub 10 days to put out a new shoot and many weeks to put out new buds. Deer need to move down the grass to maintain a foraging regime.

What do humans do? they plant lush deer browse and then force the deer onto the grass.


Note the Fence in the Foreground

Ouch. It’s like a supermarket with a locked door.

All that food, and what is a deer left with?


Deer in the Grass

Nothing to eat here. All that happens is that the deer are so concentrated that their sharp hoofs wreck the soil structure.

Deer like to make trails. That’s their thing. When the trails lead nowhere, they make thousands of trails, crisscrossing the whole hillside and eroding it to bits.


Thousands of Deer Trails With Nowhere to Go

It’s like pacing in a cage in a zoo.

There is, however, much truth in what Savory says, as long as we keep in mind two things. First, the apex plant in this landscape is bunchgrass. It is like the canopy of the rain forests on the coast: the structure on which the real, organic life of the place is based.


Rain Forest, Wos, Vancouver Island

The trees are carbon storage towers on which the real life of the place is anchored.

Here’s the real life…


Campbell River Mosses, Campbell River, Vancouver Island

This is where the rainforest is alive. This is where carbon moves.

It’s the same with the bunchgrass. Its dead stalks must not be trampled, because they collect rain and snow to support the plant through drought, prevent the growth of other plants in the intervening space, crowd out sagebrush, and allow for flowering plants, who harvest subsoil water, bloom briefly, then hibernate for most of the year, and keep the whole thing going. Don’t look to the grass for carbon. Look to the microbes in the soil, look to the flowers…

maripos2Mariposa Lily, Farwell Canyon

Taking its turn. As flowering plants succeed each other in the spaces between the grass, they support all the insects and birds — and humans — of the grass. Cows eat these things first of all. Then they eat the grass.

Here’s a cow, placed on a recently burnt grassland by a man who should have stayed home and fed it a lettuce…


The Tragedy of Human Arrogance …

… and the fascination with fire. Okanagan Landing

Fire might have been a traditional control for such grasslands, and was used by the Syilx and Secwepemc people for many thousands of years, but it isn’t any more, because with the introduction of cheat grass, and 90 years of a burn ban, the fires burn too hot. Here’s what that grassland looks like now…

burnt Burnt Grassland, The Next Spring

It’s not dead. It’s just that no native plants are thriving here. What is coming back is this:


Cheat Grass

This is no answer. Cattle won’t touch it (it’s sharp), it uses all water, denying it to the natural plants of the hillsides, and it’s a dead carpet by mid-July, creating just the kind of oxidizing, global-warming enhancing mat that Savary warns against.

Savory is right, though. If we support our apex grass predators, in large numbers, the grass will thrive. Really. But it’s not cows. It’s people who live here:


City Alley After The Sunlit Snow Streets Melted Away

Here is one of the apex predators, one of the loggers from early on in this post, in the clutches of its own predator, two days ago on the back side of Turtle Mountain …


Vole, at the End of Its Logging and Tunnelling Days

And here is what the voles can do on the grassland, just like Savory says…

(This is a repost of a post from December, 2011.)

Amazing Vole Gardens

If you’re going to plant a garden, it’s a good idea to dig around and till the soil a bit first. Here’s a meadow vole doing just that, affectionately imaged by the US Forestry Service, and better than I could ever manage with a dog leashed to my arm:

Meadow Vole Coming Up for Air

Meadow voles are the true unintentional gardeners. They find a patch of fine soil, they dig down, build tunnels, snuggle in and keep warm, drag all kinds of plants in to store for the winter, nibble on them, spit out the sharp bits, and, being rodents and not too attentive to detail, forget stuff and drop things, and the result is much like this:

Vole Garden at Season’s End

Most of the vascular plant species of the grasslands are found in gardens like this. Without the voles sorting and concentrating plants, many pockets of deep soil would support a diminished number of species.

I once had a colony of voles that felled my spring wheat, laid the stalks evenly like timber in a log loading yard, then came back in the night and took it all underground. Where the voles haven’t settled and then wandered down to the riparian areas and dragged things back and packed them into their holes, it looks like this instead:

Anything But a Vole Garden

Only a few species brave these dry, shallow soils on their own.

But that’s not the whole story. Let’s look at the location of this vole garden, because that’s part of the story, too. First, downhill, we find a riparian area:

Riparian Area in the Grass

Various vole gardens lie in and above the area of light grass in the upper left of the photograph.

I suspect that the voles are well-enough established that they can feed adequately off of the lush gardens of flowers surrounding their dens, but that they are using these stream beds as gene banks and delicatessens. My evidence? Ah, this, for one:


Growing wild on a high grassland slope without water, that isn’t mint’s first choice. I think there’s a vole out there with a sweet tooth who dragged mint from the riparian area on a happy day, and now it has established itself — although not long enough to go to seed just yet.

And, of course, if voles are altering landscapes, fertilizing soil, moving plants around and pushing the limits of where they will or will not establish, it’s not likely that they will go unnoticed for long. And indeed, they aren’t:

Coyote Trail Slipping Down to the Riparian Zone from the Vole Garden

A well-beaten path!

And this guy, too:

Hawk Checking Out the Vole City at Dusk (And Sizing Up the Photographer)

Hey, you never know.

Now take a look at what humans can manage when they look at a grassland slope and consciously and with all good intentions try to duplicate it:

Two Species, One Planned

Because nobody thought of the voles, there’s nothing here but a desert. The deer don’t even eat this stuff.

Voles are moving the water around in intriguing ways. The story doesn’t end here, though.

For sure. Here is a vole garden, sprouting the next spring (from this May 9, 2012 post):

Here it is a few years down the road:

Just like Savory said.

Hug a vole today. Your life depends on it.

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