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USU scientist Fred Provenza has no trouble keeping listeners' interest.

LOGAN — Less than five minutes into Utah State University wildlands scientist Fred Provenza's short course on range management, it's obvious why previous audiences almost always use the word "provocative" to describe the session.

More than a few of the 40 or so land use experts on hand from around the world are looking at the syllabus and literally scratching their heads: Newtonian mechanics, quantum theory, relativity theory, nonequilibrium, mathematics, significant of mythology and the unity of all things.

What kind of home on the range can this guy possibly be talking about?

Provenza smiles wide through his thick beard and assures his audience the topics will be as difficult and probably as bewildering as they imagine. He also promises that things will definitely be more than a little out-there for people in professions as down to earth as they come.

The former Colorado sheep rancher has been through some pretty formidable terrain, literally and academically. And he's done it so well so many times that he was given the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award this spring — the most prestigious research accolade given by USU.

First, he herds his flock away from traditional thinking toward a new science:

• Nature is relative, not absolute.

• Change is not an exception to the rule, it is the only rule.

• Life for all animals — humans included — is composed of periods of instability, choices in the face of uncertainty and interludes of tranquillity.

• Behavior is absolute, but there can be no absolute characterization of behavior.

"In other words, nature is knowable but not predictable," he says, smiling again, fully realizing that he has just stood the foundation of all science since Newton on its ear. Behavior of individual animals, human beings or the ecosystem follows predictive laws such as the gravity that made the apple fall on Newton's head. But any system is ultimately unique and self-organizing.

That in turn means life is a series of changes caused by action and feedback from that action, and over time, that give and take irreversibly changes the animal and the environment.

"To put it another way, things never were the way they were and they never will be again."

Provenza lets the laughter die down and proceeds to show them there is a lot more truth than humor in the statement.

Provenza, who his dean calls "the most unlikely rebel you'll ever meet," says the classical Newtonian notion of cause-and-effect must be supplemented with a fact of life Provenza calls "self-organization." Life is constant transformation, or, as the philosopher said more than 2,000 years ago: The only constant in life is change.

Newton and libraries full of what scientists have found out since that famous bonk on the head would propose that nature is a big clock and if science can properly understand the gears and how they interconnect, humans will understand, predict and control it.

Patterns definitely occur, Provenza says. Seasons come and go, and the likely behavior of a storm at certain times of the year can be fairly accurately predicted. Ultimately, the weather behaves in a less than expected way, despite the tremendous and remarkable effort of science and technology to forecast it. Salt Lake's weather patterns and modern technology gave not even a second's warning that a tornado would touch down about noon on Aug. 11, 1999.

Weather is just one force Provenza takes into account in conducting research on the behavior of foraging animals. Math and physics researchers may predict that Provenza's research into the to and fro of rangeland livestock is mundane and perhaps irrelevant. But they would be as off the mark as the weatherman that August afternoon.

His nearly 30 years of looking at how sheep and cows "make a living" has led to some startling revelations of how all creatures of habit — humans included — survive in a world whose only habit is change.

"Habits provide a sense of predictably and security in an unpredictable and dangerous place," Provenza says.

The deeper question — the one that informs Provenza's research — is why creatures will stick to old habits or do their best — even die trying — to hang on to something familiar when change comes along.

Life for all animals, humans included, is a rock and hard place, he says. In between, the power of habit and the force of change are constantly colliding. The ongoing crash can be seen in livestock walking a fence to get "home" after being moved to a new range or pasture. It can be seen in the face of a lost and hungry American tourist who has just spotted a McDonald's in a foreign country.

The best that both the herbivore and tourist can do is act based on past experience in an attempt to find order or comfort in a strange situation, he says.

"Foraging is as vital and dynamic to the animals as making a living is to the guy overseeing them," he says. "Life for both exists at the boundary between order and chaos. In the meantime, we learn over and over that a lack of cautious regard for novel environments or strange food is risky. So, we'll stick to what we know, even if we know doing so isn't in our best interest." Nature teaches over and over that any individual, population, organization or species that hangs on to old ways too long and cannot adapt become extinct. Climate, soils, plants, herbivores and people are interrelated parts of systems that change constantly.

"Habit is in a way phantom comfort because even those we have developed to try to make order out of life eventually must change."

As with herds of animals, people who break the habit of the group — about 10 to 20 percent are adventurers — go their own way and do their own thing. Just as most lambs are neophobic and regard novel foods with caution, some have little fear of eating novel foods or being in novel environments where most would never tread.

True, the adventurers who have little fear of the unknown can often end up dead, he says. But hey can also discover new resources that eventually allow the entire group to keep going.

Among human beings, people who weigh information carefully and seek to optimize their behavior provide stability and efficiency in society. However, the smaller number who behave randomly and ignore conventional rationality enable the system to adapt creatively to new challenges, he says.

Provenza's focus is range animals, but all of life participates, he says. "Whether we think about it or not, if you're eating, your life is made possible through death, and you're part of it."

Whenever any environmental conditions worsen, animals are forced to explore new options, Provenza says. "In a way, necessity becomes the mother of invention."

Jim Winder, a New Mexico cattle rancher who has put Provenza's approach into practice, has developed a creative combination of supplemental food, water, sirens and motorbikes to keep his cattle on the move, thriving in a desert landscape and away from streams that bring fishers to his ranch.

With encouragement and taking into account behavior, "we allow the cows to be cows while teaching them that when the siren sounds, the old watering troughs and the salt licks are now available in the new grazing area and no longer available where they've been."

Winder, a fourth-generation rancher, says he is personally and professionally embracing change and innovation instead of bucking it.

"Fred's work my seem like it's only for the adventurous, but it's what will save the West — which is a house on fire — and maybe help the world adapt our behaviors in ways that will let us keep going."

Which brings up Newton again. Provenza has no quarrel with him, but when you get right down to it, nature does not dictate, nor can ranchers nor scientists ever adequately predict it. Provenza believes nature is more like a river than a clock.

"From its headwaters to where it enters the sea, it is moving constantly and at all points along the way. Physics and mathematics have greatly expanded human understanding of the world, but nature is not a collection of independently operating parts. We're part of a web that ultimately extends from cells and organs to social systems and ecosystems."


E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com