A few changes occurred on Lama Mountain in the aftermath of the catastrophic fire of ’96. I’m not talking about houses in ruins or charred forests, but rather about the ground beneath our feet. After the Hondo fire burned 7,000 acres in one windy spring day, the open meadows of Lama rebounded vigorously from the ashes. This is because of the recycling of nutrients that fire facilitates in nature.
With fire, the good stuff that was long locked up in old vegetation becomes liberated and replaced on the ground. New growth can flourish, taking advantage of ample minerals as well as sunlight and water in a newly cleared niche. Fire plays a pivotal role in the long-term vitality of our biotope.
We live in a “brittle” environment. We don't get enough rain to sustain the microbial soil life that elsewhere serves in the same recycling role as fire. Without the little critters to rapidly rot old growth, brittle grasslands eventually choke themselves to death. Old vegetation will stand petrified for decades, holding nutrients hostage and blocking out the sun from new growth.
Brittle grasslands co-evolved with ruminant animals. Grazing animals have rumens (stomachs), which are basically big, warm, and moist sacks of bacteria. The bacteria that recycle hard to digest plant matter out on the ground in wetter areas organized themselves into a perpetually sheltered environment (elk bellies) that can rove around all day looking to process and liberate nutrients (dung) in hostile dry climates.
Why do four-legged compost bins matter? Grassland is the number one collector and converter of solar energy to meet human needs on Earth. Our survival depends on a complex community housed in a thin layer of precious topsoil. Most of the world’s grassland is brittle. And most of the world is turning to desert.
For most of history, wild herbivores roamed around freely vacuuming calories off the ground. These prey animals swarm together in tight herds for protection from predators. Grouped together, they eat and trample almost everything, while defecating and urinating with uniformity. After fouling the ground and exhausting the feed, they move on. The herd won’t return until the fertilizer from the previous visit has decomposed, which gives ample time for plants to recover from being bitten.
Once upon a time there was a place called the Great Plains of North America. This vast and complex grassland was maintained by thundering herds of bison. Buffalo are feisty, so in order to take one down for dinner, wolves developed teamwork (the same sophisticated social structures that turned them into man’s best friend). We killed all the bison and replaced them with cows. Cows are much easier for wolves to kill than bison. Wolves eat cows. Man kills wolves.
When we eradicated the wolf, life got too easy for domesticated livestock. Most cows wander around aimlessly, sampling the most delectable shoots of vegetation and ignoring the rest. As the plants grow back, they draw on energy stored in the root system to make new leaves. Soon the cow returns to again nibble on the most tender morsels (the young regrowth of the plant they just chomped last time through). This behavior selects away from the most palatable forage by overgrazing and depleting the root systems of the tastiest plants. Simultaneously, most of the other grass is ignored. Ungrazed plants eventually begin to choke themselves out with the accumulation of plant matter from previous years. Such is the case on brittle range lands the world over: plants are simultaneously overgrazed and over-rested.
We don’t have any wolves in Lama. What we do have are portable solar electric fences. The fence “bites” our ruminant animals on the nose when they try to wander from the herd. They graze a small area thoroughly, then we move them on to a new area not to return until the pasture has recovered. Hoofs trample down trash and break the hard capping of the soil, letting seeds and rain in. The animals get better nutrition, our dry acres go farther, and over time we expect to see the health of our brittle grasslands improve. Click here to learn more about range management.