The word "overgrazing" conjures powerful images of barren landscapes that were once lush and fruitful pasture ecosystems. Most often livestock are blamed as the culprits and simple logic associates the destruction of once vital land with overeating, too many cattle, over trampling, and too much pooping. The desertification of the American West is often attributed to cattle and environmentalists erroneously propagate this information.
Although I do recognize that livestock can cause serious damage to land, I also recognize that livestock is not inherently destructive. Rather than blaming livestock for desertification and degradation, I find more fault in how humans improperly manage both livestock and land. As a result, I would like to challenge the use of the word "overgrazing" and explain why we should be referring to land degradation by livestock as "improper grazing".
Let me first begin by mentioning that before humans dramatically impacted the environment, we know that the earth was covered by herds of large animals for millions of years. In the early 1800's there was over 70 million bison blanketing the continent of North America! Amongst these enormous herds of bison, the land was also occupied by millions of other large herbivores like elk and caribou (Just for reference, there are only 59 million cattle in the US today).
The massive herds that covered the continent for millions of years moved as one giant organism. They would feast, poop, and trample the earth as one unit. Never staying in a single area too long, these large herds had to continuously move in order to evade large predators such as mountain lions, wolves, and primitive man. As a result, pasture land was consumed, trampled, and pooped on. Unlike conventional livestock practices today, large herds kept moving which allowed the earth to regenerate/rest. As a result ecosystems evolved symbiotically. Healthy lands depended on large groups of herding animals, and the animals depended on the endless supplies of native grasses.
In modern day ranching, we tend to see predators as "enemies" and most ranchers do their best to hunt and kill any animal that might threaten their livestock. As a result, animals like cows are no longer needing to bunch together in tight herds for protection. Additionally, without predators livestock has very little reason to continuously move. Once predators are removed a cow might stay in a favorite pasture and never allow the land to rest. The inevitable degradation of the land is NOT the fault of the cow, but rather mismanagement of the land by the rancher. This system should be referred to as "improper grazing".
When livestock is managed in a way that reproduces natural herding patterns, land will thrive and also recover from abuse and desertification. Modern ranchers can accomplish this by thoughtfully keeping herds bunched together while out in pasture. Most importantly, by continually moving livestock to fresh pasture, ranchers allows previously consumed areas of land ample time to make use of the nutrient rich manure, urine, and hoof prints (both soil aeration and spread of seeds). In the brilliance of mother nature, soil health will improve and land will flourish.