Carrizozo, N.M. – When Sid Goodloe bought his ranch half a century ago in south-central New Mexico, it was a dry, desertified mess. The roads leading to homesteads abandoned since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s had eroded into gullies. Overgrazing had stripped away soil-stabilizing ground cover. Where plowing had occurred, precious topsoil had dried up and blown away in the area’s fierce winds. Years of fire suppression had allowed pinyon-juniper forest to supplant grassland.

“There was little here except broom weed, cactus, and pinyon-juniper,” says Mr. Goodloe. “And yet, it had tremendous potential.”

The soil quality was good. Native American petroglyphs of beavers suggested that the area once supported a more productive ecosystem. With the proper care, the land could recover, Goodloe thought. But that would depend on bolstering its ability to retain water, the limiting factor in much of the semiarid Southwest.

Originally from West Texas, Goodloe didn’t come from a ranching family. He had no one to turn to for advice, and no preconceived notions. So when, in the 1960s, he met Rhodesian land manager Allan Savory, he was receptive to Mr. Savory’s somewhat counterintuitive proposition: To heal the land, put more animals on it, not fewer – but move them after a relatively brief interval.

If livestock mimicked the grazing behavior of wild herbivores – bunched together for safety, intensely grazing an area for a brief period, and then moving on – rangeland health would improve, Savory said.

Today, Goodloe’s land is often referenced as a model of “sustainable ranching,” a phrase many consider an oxymoron in the West. Wild antelopes bound across his pastures, which are thick with an array of grass and browse species. Water now runs intermittently though a willow-lined creek that once lay dry. And in 2004, Goodloe put a conservation easement on the property, preventing its development in perpetuity. But he nonetheless resists the “environmentalist” label.

“I’m what you would call an environmentally sensitive rancher,” he says.

Goodloe and Savory belong to – and in some ways have spearheaded – an ongoing reappraisal of ranching by ranchers in the American West. Savory’s method, dubbed “holistic management,” remains controversial. But throughout the region, the shortcomings of what some call the “Columbus method” – leaving cows to graze in one place for months at a time  – are readily apparent:

Large swaths of landscape continue to suffer loss of topsoil, invasion by weedy species, and runaway erosion.

Now, spurred by growing consumer concern over meat’s environmental impact and concerned about the long-term viability of their livelihood, a cohort of ranchers is trying to apply the understanding gleaned from the science of ecology to livestock management…

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