AoR 114: Best of AoR -- Fred Provenza on Animal-Environment Interactions (re-release)

This is a re-release of one of the first episodes on The Art of Range. Fred Provenza discusses ideas from decades of research and experience on how animals and environment affect each other. Dr. Provenza calls this interaction a dance, which he has written about in his book “Nourishment”. Discussion includes how domestic animals can be selected or trained to match their environment and how this intersects with ecological, economic, and social resilience of rangeland-based livestock operations.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on range lands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us on line at


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Today on the Art of Range, we are re-releasing a prior episode. Many new listeners have said they are not aware of the early podcast content and much of it was enjoyable enough, it's worth hearing again. So, we're doing a rerun this week of one of my favorite episodes, the interview with Fred Provenza, talking about animal behavior, diet selection, and the relationships between animals and their environment.


We also visited briefly about his new book at the time, Nourishment, which I had not yet read. I have now read most of it and can enthusiastically recommend it. Please enjoy this timeless talk with Dr. Fred Provenza.



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My guest today on this show is Dr. Fred Provenza. He has been an animal behaviorist researcher at Utah State University for many years and is somewhat retired now. We're at the tail end of a series, a mini series inside the podcast on Grazing Fundamentalists. And we want to talk a little bit today about animals that are adapted to their environment. Dr. Provenza, welcome to the show.


>> Nice to be here with you, Tip.


>> Thank you. There's a quote from Jim Corbett, who was one of the founders of the Malpai Borderlands Group a while back in a paper written by Nathan Sayer and Jim Corbett was quoted saying that rangeland-based livestock production probably represents the only true example of man's adaptation to wild biotic communities. And along those lines, Jerry Hoewecheck [phonetic] had also argued that doing this well, in other words, doing rangeland-based livestock production well with a minimum of inputs is a matter of national security. And, you know, it's success in truly sustainable range and livestock management requires some kind of ecological match between the animal and the environment, and you've spent a career studying this. What does it mean for domestic livestock animal to match it's environment?


>> Tip, I see it as a dance, actually, a dance between the organisms and the environment they inhabit. Both the environment and the creatures in that environment are participating in this dance, and they're both creating and ever changing. From the standpoint of the animals, whether they're wild or domestic animals, I think of it as how animals change form, function, and behavior to live successfully in an environment. At the same time I think it's important to realize, and I'm sure you got into this in previous podcasts, that the animals by participating are actually changing the environment. So that's where I see the dance, the environment is ever changing, the animals are changing as well, and the animals are participating and changing the environment.


>> In a 2014 paper on that topic, you state that we humans have tried really hard to modify our environment to suit our animals at great costs to us both economy and ecologically and perhaps with limited success. Can you describe that struggle and what you see as maybe a solution?


>> That writing came from actually early on in my career involved at Utah State University and working as a technician actually in the [inaudible] science department 40 some years ago, travelling around the state of Utah and looking, and this is not in any way critical of anyone, but just looking at what people have tried to do historically with those landscapes, vegetation and revegetation efforts, and in some cases certainly with success but in many cases not having so much success, huge costs and not so much success in terms of changing flat communities. And that as well as the years I spent on the ranch in Colorado make me think a great deal about what's it mean for animals to be adapted to the environments where they live, and as you say then spent 40 some years thinking about how animals change form, function, and behavior to live within environments. From the standpoint of form, or what people would often refer to as morphology, how animals are built, the size of animals, the kind of things that Kit Farrow talks about in terms of different animals and the sizes of those animals. I was exposed to that early on in my career as an undergraduate in wildlife biology at Colorado State University. We were being shown example after example of how animals within a species end up matched to their local environments. And take bison, for instance, if they're in the tall grass prairie and there's a huge amount of food available, they're going to be larger in body size then bison that are in the arid southwestern U.S. where there's not as much resource. So was exposed to many, many examples like that from all different species of wildlife. So that's the form part, and that happens with human beings as well. There's some interesting anthropological literature to show that depending on the amount of resource that our ancestors had available to them, they were either little tiny humans or big humans. So there's the whole form part, and that's the part that people like Kit Farrow have certainly emphasized, matching animals to environments as a low cost way to produce within environments. Then there's the whole business of function, which has to do with physiology and, you know, physiological kind of adaptations that have to do with internal organisms in the animal, whether that's the gut or the liver or parotid salivary glands or all these different internal organs that actually are flexible. They change in terms of their size and their function, kidneys as well, to adapt to the environments where the animals actually live. So there's form, there's function, and the third part is the behavior of the animals. And we spent so much time thinking about that and thinking about what animals learn and how they learn and how for instance that can complement form and function. For instance, there were some studies several years ago at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station where they were looking, trying to select for a band of sheep that ate large amounts of sagebrush, and they were able to do that by taking fecal analyses and simply looking at which sheep ate the most sagebrush. And we all thought, after those experiments were conducted, I did at least, that we were looking at differences in function that the animals that were able to eat a lot of sagebrush were physiological adapted. They were better able to detoxify, for instance, the [inaudible] and sagebrush and so forth. But a few later they came out with a paper that was showing that it was a behavioral adaptation. The sheep that were eating the most sagebrush had learned that if they ate an appetizer of bitterbrush first, that enabled them to eat way more sagebrush. How is that working? Well we were doing studies at that same time with foods that had, that we created, that were high on tannins and terpenes, and what we were showing was that an appetizer or food high in tannins enabled sheep to eat way more food high in terpenes. And that was a perfect analog for bitterbrush, which is high in tannins, and sagebrush, which is high in terpenes, and the sheep had simply figured out that an appetizer of bitterbrush helps the sagebrush go down. So those kind, and I won't go on, I have many, many examples of that, those kind of behavioral adaptations complement form and function in the environment, and the part that we became so interested in was the whole social cultural part of this business, how that then gets transferred from one generation to the next generation to the next, and we learn that, you know, the diet that mom's eating influences her offspring in terms of form and function, how they actually grow and develop in the womb. What mom's eating also provides cues through compounds in the amniotic fluid to what mom's eating. So the young, the young organism even before birth is already starting to learn about and become adapted to the environment. We can talk a bit more in a minute about gene expression, but genes are being expressed to enable that kind of thing. After birth, the foods that mother is eating flavor mother's milk. Those are cues to the young offspring as to what's food in the environment. And then as young animals start to forage, following mom around, they're learning what and what not to eat from what she does. So we spent a lot of time studying those kind of relationships. It's not trivial to mention that those very same things apply to human beings on our food selection. Reviewing the literature on human beings, it's striking the degree to which the same sort of things are happening with us as well. Makes sense, but it's striking to me the degree to which that takes place, and then one can think about, you know, what does it mean to be locally adapted to the environments as they change and to create with that, but then also what have we done with domestic animals and with human beings that make us not so adapted to what's happening. And that ties in with, you know, how we feed the animals in our care, whether that's on pastures or on rangelands, what kind of options do we offer them, same thing with human beings, what available to a human being in the supermarket, and to what degree does that enable health or not, and then to what degree does the culture help to further enable to health of us and the animals in our care.


>> You know, I can see how in the absence of petroleum-based production inputs, even a petroleum-based economy worldwide, this would clearly be necessary, but I think, I think we see a trend toward that now. For this is a trend in the livestock industry, but is the trend happening because we have expensive inputs already, and that demands some environmental matching, or is it because being green is en vogue, probably both things, Tip, probably both things. We both know several years ago there was quite a lot of talk about peak oil, and a lot was being written about that. I certainly was reading a lot in that literature and thinking about longer term what's that mean. You know, we've forgotten about that momentarily, I think, because through fracking and different techniques, we've been able to get around that hurdle, but I see that simply as a momentary kind of thing. And so, but there were several people at the time, livestock producers I'm talking about now, who were really taking that seriously and thinking about, you know, where do our costs come from. Where are our costs coming from, and how can we cut costs, how can we costs of production. And I think, I found very interesting the folks and still do that think about well how do wild life make a living in these landscapes, and what can we do to mimic that, to mimic natural processes, everything from selecting for animals that are a match to the environment, right on through to thinking about when do you calve or when do you lamb, and you know, those folks went down a path of saying, look, the low cost way is to think about when wildlife have their babies, and that's probably when we should be doing that as well, because we have less inputs. So I think that whole idea of inputs and fossil fuel inputs, I don't see that as something we've really gotten around. I think it's just short term that, you know, we have, we got around that whole worry about peak oil. But I think personally that there are limits to how much oil there is. The other part that I think that I take very, very, very seriously nowadays is the whole idea of climate change and what that's meaning for human beings and for all the creatures on the planet. I think that's another issue related to our use of fossil fuels, and, you know, I just, as I was writing the book, Nourishment, the last section of that book is titled, Fading into Mystery, and it has to do with the ever-changing nature of nature and the roles that all creatures including human beings play and participating in change and in that dance of change. But when you realize the impact that we're having globally on, big news just this week, insect population. Huge crisis in insect populations across the globe. People have known that for many, many years. Reviewing studies in Germany that where people had just volunteered, they'd been monitoring insect populations over about a 25-year period. And just noting, you know, insect numbers are dropping, dropping, dropping, and I think even in this roughly 70 years I've been on the planet and we're here in the Madison valley, and we've got this beautiful Madison that flows through this valley, now the fishing on that river was quite different 40 years ago from what it is today. They size of the fish, the number of the fish, markedly smaller nowadays, and I recall talking with a man 40 some years ago when we were first coming here, and I was telling, just raving about the fishing, and he told me, he said, I can't go there anymore. He said, my memory is too long. I thought, oh, my goodness. And I think to me the lesson is that change occurs, well actually not so gradually, but within your lifetime you see that, and we don't realize then from one generation to the next, just like I didn't, I understand absolutely when that man told me, my memory is too long, but to me, it's like this is great fishing. We take people fishing here now, and they may think, you know, well it's great fishing, but it's not even in the same universe. And so if I think more and more about these changes that have occurred within the last 50, 100, 150, even 200 years, which is nothing, and maybe I'm getting old, but I really wonder, and when people say we've got ten years to get it right on climate, and I think, I believe that, but I think what a massive effort for all of us, from the personal level to the level of the broader influences people might play, I take that very seriously. And all that has to do, I think, with local adaptation and participating and changing the environments we all inhabit, and then, you know, realizing and appreciating that we do that and that all creatures do when they eat themselves out of house and home, as we know, for domestic or wild animals, populations crash. And the same with human beings, I think, you know, there are limits, there are care and capacity for everything on the globe.


>> We have another project going on right now at WSU looking at various aspects of rangeland resiliency and trying to increase both operational and ecological resiliency against climate variability and future climate change, and one of the angles that we found in discussing some of these ideas with ranchers is that it's one thing to say people need to do something because it is eventually a necessity, either ecologically or economically, but most of the things they were recommending that people do to maximize or optimize rangeland resiliency or good ideas regardless of what's going on with the climate, and I think we see some of the same thing going on with matching the animal to the environment. Things like mature cow body size I think is going down on average at least among the larger ranchers who are more acutely attuned to the economic feedbacks of having to feed large cows. And I think you also see calving dates moving later and later in the spring for the same reason. It may not be an acute economic necessity at the moment, but people recognize that it works in general, regardless of whether we're being pushed by petroleum-based economics or not. I think there's some of that going on now both with range management and with animal husbandry.


>> Absolutely the case, Tip. I couldn't agree more with what you just said, and I think managing in the ways that you were talking about is a way to cut costs. When we get right down to it, it's a super way to cut costs and long-term thinking about food security and sustainability, it's certainly the way to go.


>> But there's still a couple of camps on that, and they're pretty adamant about it. Answer the skeptic, who says, you know, we have really high-powered genetics in modern, particularly beef cattle breeding stock, and we need to feed them and give them fancy minerals so that they can realize that genetic potential. You know, the argument is that that investment will be returned because we have pretty fancy animals. Is that not sustainable?


>> It's the certainly the case there are different camps on these approaches to livestock and as well as approaches to finishing livestock, feedlots versus finishing on pasture. And maybe the truth lies in between on those. Maybe there'll be some sort of a balance that takes place, depending on the amount of resource that's available. If you have enough resource and the costs are low enough, then certainly larger animals can make sense. On many of the pasture and range-based operations, I can see where smaller body size makes sense.


>> Yeah, I think there's a difference in land types. That's one of the things that Karen and I visited about briefly. You know, people hear pasture and they hear range and maybe associate them as the same things. We were trying to split that baby so to speak and kind of tease out where the differences are, and I think in my mind the pasture is the place where the entire, you know, semi-built environment is structured around raising animals. When I think of rangeland, I think of wildlands that may have livestock on them part of the time but that every aspect of that environment isn't being managed toward livestock production, and that changes things a bit. You know, if you're managing irrigated pasture that produces 12 tons of foliage per acre per year and then you move to cornstalks and then you go to a [inaudible] feeding situation and then back to irrigated pasture, that's a much different situation than somebody who is perhaps 100 percent dependent on wildlands or what I would call rangelands most of the year. There's different pressures in those different production systems.


>> Absolutely the case, and that changes the economics of the situation, the whole works changes. And I wouldn't want to say that one is right or wrong or better or not than the other one. I think they both, they both can work and they both can work to help sustain people within populations out there to provide a source of food for people within a population. But it's certainly the case that it's hotly debated nowadays, and when I read some of the literature on climate change and diet and the relationship between our diet and climate change, there's a great deal that's being written about that and written about advocates of one diet or the other or certain diets, I shouldn't necessarily say one diet or another, but that some diets are more sustainable than other diets related to climate change and fossil fuel inputs and so forth.


>> You can't see my notes, and I know you don't have a printout of what I sent you, but that's a great segue to the question that I happen to have out next. Is locally adapted animal husbandry and a system built on that only possible if American consumers revise their tastes and expectations for meat?


>> You know, I think that's a very good question, and I don't think people ask that question very often actually. We learn our dietary habits just no different from a cow or a sheep or a goat, and what we've learned, what I've learned certainly since I was a young child who has grain-fed beef that I remember from when I was a child from when our family couldn't actually afford steaks or anything like that that now when it's much more readily available, but grain-fed beef was the thing, grain-fed beef. And so the palates of people are accustomed to that, they're accustomed to eating grain-fed beef. And it's interesting to read from studies around the world where people compare whether it's lamb or beef and in different, you know, I'm thinking of studies that have been conducted in Europe, the Mediterranean area here in the U.S., if people are born and raised eating pasture reared and finished animals, that's what they prefer. If they're born and raised eating animals that have come through feedlots, that's what they prefer. And people who are familiar with eating grain-fed beef often think that the taste of pasture-reared as well as wildlife species is strong. It has a gamey flavor, a strong gamey flavor, rather than realizing that that's the characteristics of the meat. One of the things that I find really interesting, and we don't have to go deeply into this, but I wrote about it in Nourishment, and I've just worked on long and hard over the last couple years on a paper related to this, and the question was raised in this paper, is grass-fed meat and dairy better for human and environmental health? So we're really exploring this topic. We've often touted pasture-reared as better from a health standpoint because it's higher in omega 3 fatty acids. And so you see that with both dairy products and with meat. It was surprising to me over the last few years in reviewing the literature to realize that some of what has been thought about omega 3's and omega 6's, the AI purported benefits of Omega 3's, the pro-inflammatory downside of omega 6's, I don't see that reading the literature nowadays. I don't see strong cases being made for omega 3's and against omega 6's. There's a lot of studies out there, but I don't see that strong case being made. What we make a case for in this paper is that the biodiversity of plants and the diets of animals is effecting the flavor and the biochemical characteristics of meat and dairy products both. And we're arguing and marshalling together what evidence we can find that that's really what's going to be important in terms of health and in terms of the health benefits of eating animals that are finished, that spend their lives on pastures. And biodiversity becomes a absolutely critical part of that, all these different compounds, the phenolics and terpenes and alkaloids and on and on and on, all these that we don't have to go into detail on, they are all getting into meat and fat, and you can really put a strong circumstantial case that that's hugely important in terms of the health benefits of eating a piece of meat. So we argued in that paper that that's not happening when animals are finished in feed lots because the diet is so phytochemically poor as we would call it, whereas when animals are exposed, whether that's on pasture or on rangeland, biodiversity in both cases is really important because it's exposing the animals for one to the health benefits of all these secondary compounds. We know there are many of those for health. And too, and that's getting into meat and milk and fat and influencing the quality of that for human consumption.


>> You said before that particular with regard to human health and eating a diet that is phytochemically deficient results in us overconsuming primary nutrients because the body is trying to reach some critical threshold of the secondary compounds, and I was curious whether that was the case, if that carries up the chain into meat or not, and it sounds like it does, at least to some extent.


>> I think it could. We certainly are raising that question in this paper. We don't, we don't, the paper came from a study that I read about several years ago that was conducted in Australia, and these were researchers who study human nutrition and health, and what they did was to look at what's referred to as postprandial inflammatory responses. All that means is after you eat a meal, there's an inflammatory response. No matter what food we eat, there's an inflammatory response. And it's these long-term chronic inflammatory responses that are being linked so much with diseases like cancer and heart disease. And so they were interested in comparing a wild herbivore, the kangaroo, a domestic herbivore, Wagyu cattle that were finished in feedlots and looking at postprandial inflammatory responses.


>> In the animals.


>> In human beings after we eat the meat.


>> Okay, got you.


>> So, they got meet from Wagyu cattle that were finished in the feedlot, meat from kangaroos that were foraging on rangelands, and you can buy kangaroo meat in the grocery store there, you know, so they got that. But the responses were just, were just dramatic when you looked at some of these inflammatory markers that these folks like to monitor. There were night and day differences, hardly any inflammation with the meat from the kangaroo, huge inflammatory responses with the Wagyu cattle. So that's what got me thinking, well jeepers, what's going on there. And many factors can play a role, but this paper really that I, this review paper on grass-fed versus feedlot, is really trying to explore, explore that idea and say is there a basis for that. You know, and you get into some of the literature, we often, well, two things have happened with the human food supply actually. You know, foods have gotten blander over time. That's well documented. When you look at produce, fruits and vegetables, it's really well documented that the phytochemical richness of those have gone down. Meat, it doesn't take long getting in particularly to the poultry literature enough to realize that there's not flavor left, and it's the diet, how quickly we finish them, and the diets that they're on. So that's really well documented. So what do we do? We add artificial flavorings to try to enhance the flavors of bland foods, or we might add real spices to those foods. The literature that was really interesting to me related to that is when you add these different kinds of spices to meat, again the health benefits go up, the negative effects that meat can have go down when those spices are added to those things. Or, for instance, I like to have a glass of red wine with a steak. There's a real functional significance to that combination. The polyphenols in the redline counter some of the inflammatory, the oxidative and inflammatory responses in the meat. So I'm going into a lot of detail there, but it all ties back to this idea of the diets that the animals eat and the diversity, that, you know, you could start with soil health. What's that? And it goes back to me to what you were saying, you know, a lot of these things just plain and simply make sense regardless of what your belief system on climate change and whatever. Healthy soils, biodiversity of landscapes is good for animals, including domestic species, and that's good for the human beings that use the plants and animals as a food source.


>> I've had a number of ranchers tell me that the cattle that they have on rangelands, native rangelands that have, you know, say 40 or 50 species in a given grazing site, are much, much healthier than the animals that are on irrigated pasture where they have maybe four or five total species, that they have almost zero mortality and morbidity, you know, very little sick calf treatment in the animals that are on range land. Is that due to these plant secondary compounds that are providing--you know, I think of plant secondary compounds and associate them with toxins. But I suppose nearly everything that we have as medicine would be a toxin, you know, every toxicologist will say toxicity is all in the dosage. So the stuff that's in these plants at small doses is having a beneficial effect, is that right?


>> Absolutely the case. Absolutely the case. Again, I couldn't agree more with everything you just said. And I think that's, that's what we didn't realize. You know, we were doing a lot of work on pasture the last five years of my career at Utah State University. We were actually given money to do a bunch of work on pasture, and it was quite interesting, but, you know, one of the things that we did, and again this is in no way laying blame on anyone at [inaudible] and I understand where it came from, but, you know, we were trying to get a variety of different species that had reasonable amounts of secondary compounds in them of one sort or another, but that's harder than what you might think because we've really selected against secondary compounds in plants for pasture species. And we've done the same things with the fruits and vegetables that we raise. On pasture, I can see why people did that because those compounds set a limit on how much an animal can eat. That's really the thing. So if you want animals to be able to live on a monoculture of orchard grass or tall fescue or whatever it is, it makes sense that well, let's get rid of these toxins, huh? Or if you're an ecologist, you see them as feeding deterrents. Let's get rid of these deterrents. But I think what strikes me now in thinking about all of that is, you know, if you've got a diversity of different plan species, a wide diversity, and they have different kinds and amounts of these secondary compounds in them, the body can deal with that quite well because, for instance, tannins, terpenes, alkaloids, they're detoxified in different ways inside the body whether [inaudible] microbes, the liver. They're detoxified in different ways, and so animals eat a little bit of a variety of these different compounds. That allows them to meet their needs for nutrients like energy and protein by eating a little bit of a whole bunch of different foods, but then that exposes cells and organ systems to all these secondary compounds that are just huge in terms of health benefits, and not just for domestic animals but for human beings. The literature on that is amazing when you start to read about what people are studying and starting to appreciate. The secondary compounds can negate all of the seven different hallmarks of how cancer works. They can block those different things. They're good in terms of different disease states, including diabetes and so forth. My wife and I went to visit a friend, a medical doctor in Dillon, Montana, which is about an hour and a half, two hours' drive from here, this fall, and we noticed this plant that was growing. It had silver leaves, and it was loaded with these orange berries, and we thought, you know, that looks like buffalo berry. And we stopped on the way back and got a sample, and sure enough, it was silver leaf buffalo berry. We tasted the berries and they had, you know, the native plants, the fruits from those have a punch to them, right? Like meat from pasture-reared animals. They're not just sweet. They have a real punch to them. Well, I started looking in the literature about silver leaf buffalo berry, and I came across an amazing paper in one of the phytochemical journals that was talking about human health and what the Native Americans used to do with plants like silver leaf buffalo berry, choke cherry, serviceberry, and on and on and on. And, you know, they made pemmican from that, which is a way to have fruit throughout the year actually, throughout the winter season. Make it into pemmican, and there again you get the benefits of these compounds that are in the fruits as well as, you know, the meat from the animals that are eating these kinds of foods. But they were making a case for the huge number of health benefits that these compounds have for us nowadays including with issues related to diabetes.


>> About a month ago, my 12-year-old daughter, Vivian, who gets a wild hair every once in a while, was noticing this ocean of roses, wild roses, near our house, and she thought, those berries have to be good for something. So she looked up a recipe for rose hip tea and started brewing some, and then of course we read up on it. It says it's pretty good stuff, so we've been drinking rose hip tea ever since. I assume there's some health benefit to that?


>> Yes, yeah, absolutely the case. It can be a little bit daunting to people when you start to--for instance, rose hip tea, there's probably dozens and dozens of these secondary compounds that are in that if a person were to look, and I'm sure some chemist has looked into that. You know, early on in my career, I was heavily involved in trying to identify compounds in plants and look at whether they were deterrents or not and what roles they play. I don't think about that so much anymore. There's tens of thousands of these compounds. Strawberry, for instance, produces 5000 volatile compounds, 5000 volatiles. So I've backed away from trying to know all the compounds that are in these plants and in the fruits to just saying, you know, if for animals as you were saying, you know, talking with those producers and they're saying that when they have diverse mixes of species, morbidity and mortality goes down. I've certainly heard that too. I've worked with folks at the Noble Foundation, in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and for the last several years, they've told me the same thing, is people are getting into more and more diversity of plant communities, that they have live livestock foraging on, morbidity and mortality have gone down. And so to me, I think more in terms of biodiversity of different species, and I simply appreciate that that's going to lead to a whole bunch of different compounds that have nutritional and medicinal benefits for animals, and I don't worry so much about trying to know all the different compounds that are in all the different plants. Probably even when I was younger I couldn't have remembered them all. Now as I'm getting older for dang sure I can't, but I think it's just appreciating that all of those have benefits, and in the book, I talk quite a lot about, you know, what is nutrition wisdom, how does that work? And there are three facets, and we've been going all around them as we've talked. There's these flavor feedback relationships that are mediated by cells and organ systems including the microbiome, which are feeding back through neurotransmitters, hormones, and peptides, to change our liking as a function of their needs, you know. So there are these flavor feedback associations, and we did so much study of that over the years, just showing that this feedback from cells and organ systems and microbiome is really influencing like for flavors of different foods.


>> So that's learned behavior.


>> That's learned. That's a learned behavior. That's right. And then there's the availability of alternative foods, you know, what's available, what choices do animals have. So obviously the more we restrict animals, the less that ability can be expressed. The more, the greater the diversity, the greater the ability to express that. And then there's the whole social cultural part of things, the learning that begins in utero and early in life and then becomes a part of a culture that's thriving within a foodscape so to speak. Those, those are really the basic elements, and they relate whether you're talking about mule deer or pronghorn that are right out here or cattle, sheep, or goats, or human beings. It's the same kind of idea, and if any of those three links is broken, then it's not, you're not going to have a functional system in terms of nutritional wisdom being expressed, it seems like to me.


>> In humans, I've heard it said that one of the issues with obesity is that people forget what the feedback feels like with satiation, and so they just keep eating, and maybe that's probably a result of that deficient food, but can animals forget, or is that, can animals forget this behavior, and if they do, can it be taught, can it be regained? You know, you talked a little bit about forward sequencing, where eating one thing would sort of predispose [inaudible] to be able digest something else like, you know, an oil in sagebrush. Do the animals that have forgotten that, can they relearn it?


>> Yes, certainly the case, that animals because learning is such an important part of co-creating, of this dance that we talked about, animals can forget, and they can, animals can learn again, cultures can forget, cultures can learn again. You know, if you think about what's the average lifetime of a species on this planet. Obviously that varies a great deal from hundreds of millions of years to a few million years. On average, which you know it's never safe to do that often, but on average it's typically about 10 million years. Think about the amount of change that takes place on this planet in 10 million years. A deer still is a deer. A human still is a human. And so that's where I think learning becomes so important and what complements learning in a huge way is this whole field of epigenetics where people are learning about that genes aren't set. You can look at the genome kind of as the hardware, but the epigenetics is the software that enables those genes to be expressed, which genes are turned on, which genes are turned off.


>> By environmental cues.


>> By environmental cues. And that's just, that's so important, and those complement one another then, the learning and epigenetics, and the whole thing becomes part of the dance, part of making the dance.


>> I've heard you say before that nature fills the world up with individuals not with averages. What exactly do you mean by that?


>> Yeah, people say nature [inaudible] a vacuum, huh, and fills the vacuum with individuals, and no two are alike.


>> Yeah.


>> That's, I think, what has been amazing to me to--the more I went on in my career, the more I just came to appreciate when we'd look at datasets and we'd, you know, be running trials, and you'd have a treatment group and a control group, and obviously in research you hope that your treatment group is different from your control group for whatever you're studying. But what used to amaze me, the further we went along, was to look at the individuals and to look at the variation among individuals within treatment and control group and to realize that there's just this tremendous, tremendous amount of uniqueness and then to realize how does that come about. Why, you know, I think it's a absolutely safe statement to say that no two creatures on this planet within a species have ever been alike. No two creatures have ever been alike. How does that happen? Well, you have genes, and then you have ever-changing environments and genes being expressed in those ever-changing environments. And then something we don't often talk about is the role that chance plays, the role of chance in how environments change. The role of chance during the development of an individual. When you get into that literature, you realize that it becomes very tangible how at the molecular level chance plays a role in how cells and organ systems develop. And so that combination, genes plus environments plus chance means that no two of us are ever the same. And one could think about, you know, we were each conceived at a particular point in time with particular parents. You know, you could run that over and over again under exactly the same conditions, and you come to realize that because chance is playing a role, we still wouldn't turn out the same, we'd never be the same.


>> So you've got both diversity and plasticity that are necessary for resiliency?


>> Absolutely the case. Absolutely the case. And it's a marvelous, I think a marvelous thing to ponder that how natural systems do that and how all that works. For me it's been amazing, and it's, whether you're talking about animals, it's the same of thing.


>> If someone, say a rancher, was interested in learning more about how to manage a ranch toward [inaudible] animals, where would you recommend they start?


>> There are certain people like Kit Farrow, for instance. I think of Kit because he's been such a voice for this on the kinds of things that we're talking about from a rancher-applied standpoint, Kit. And people like Kit are certainly one place to gain information. The group that I was associated with, we put together a lot of extension outreach kind of information, and that's available on the behave website as another source of information. This book that I wrote titled Nourishment that'll be coming out in November is an attempt to really pull all of that kind of information together. In a very real way, I guess, it is about what does it mean to be in this dance, in this dance of co--I don't use the word adaptation very well because it's, I think, come to have a passive kind of connotation, organisms create offspring that are then selected for by the environment, the environment selects a kind of a passive, passive way of looking at it. I see it as a very creative thing. And this book, Nourishment, is really about that dance and that kind of interplay.


>> And the book is addressing both human and animal health?


>> Yes, absolutely, and it's the whole point is to really not just talk about domestic and wild animals but to talk, to bring human beings right into the conversation from the very beginning.


>> You're sort of retired, but not exactly. What all are you doing in retirement, besides writing books? It's been an interesting time of life, certainly. It's been over nine years now that I left Utah State University. It's amazing to be able to do what you want when you want to be able to do it, you know. That's been one of the most enjoyable things, and my wife and I have thought a lot about what are our priorities during this time of life, spending time together, spending time with our children and with friends is really the priority that we have, trying to do things for other people to the degree that we can do that. And then, you know, I certainly still love to write articles for scientific journals. I don't do that at the rate that I used to do it, but I still enjoy that. Working on the book over the last ten years has really been, has really been rewarding as well. But it's having the time to be able to sit down and just simply sit and watch, watch--


>> Be present in the moment.


>> Be present in the moment. Sit and watch, look at the plants, look at the animals. I have no desire anymore to study that, even though it was fantastic. I've absolutely loved doing that. It felt really, I was very fortunate to be able to do that for a career, and it made me think how little I know now, how really little, and I don't say that in just a trivial way, but what it did was open up to me the mystery and wonder of the whole thing, how absolutely amazing it is. And to be able to spend time doing that without the pressures involved when you're raising a family, helping to raise a family, you've got a job, you're flat out all the time, that's been absolutely wonderful. Now I've tried to capture some of the flavor of that as I wrote this book, of just reflecting over the years, and then we were living in the backwoods of Colorado for several years. It's only been a couple years that we moved up here to Ennis to be closer to our son and daughter-in-law, here in Montana, but that was such a marvelous place to start, kickoff a retirement, living way in the backwoods, probably 45 minutes' drive from the nearest town, no one around, and just to be able to reflect on the mysteries and wonders and the beauty, the beauty of this planet, and then to think, you know, it's all we've gut, huh? It's all we've got. I get amazed when people, even really renowned people say, well, we should be thinking about colonizing Mars or the moon or something. It's like are you kidding me, you know. This is all we've got, and we better be taking care of it.


>> Very good. Dr. Provenza, thank you for your time today.


>> Thank you, Tip. It's been wonderful to have a chance to visit with you.


>> For those listeners, who are certified professionals in rangeland management through the Society for Range Management, there are continuing education credits available for these episodes. Simply take the brief online survey at the feedback button at, and you'll find instructions for claiming your credits.




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Mentioned Resources

WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources website, Northwest rangelands and climate resiliency

2013 Provenza paper "Complex Creative Systems"

Dr. Provenza's new book, "Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us about Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom" on Amazon.

Dr. Provenza's book, The Art & Science of Shepherding", also on Amazon

Recipe for rose hip tea for the BEHAVE project is no longer active. (Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation, and Ecosystem Management)

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