Range animals grow wiser through experiences, says professor who takes that lesson to heart
By Esther Yardley
"'I know a priest in Logan, why don't you try there,' suggested Father Jerry, one evening when I decided I wanted to go back to school for a master's degree," recalled Fred Provenza, a faculty member at Utah State University in the department of rangeland resources.
"I didn't know where to go," said Provenza. So he trusted in the advice of a friend, Father Jerry Champlain.
And so, Provenza checked out Utah State University, where he eventually received his master's and doctoral degrees and has taught for the last 17 years.
For his work and effort at USU, last year, Provenza received the University Outstanding Graduate Mentor Award.
"Dr. Provenza is world-renowned for his work on animal grazing behavior and nutrition," said Noelle E. Cockett, interim dean in the school of graduate studies.
"He [Provenza] has achieved this distinction while working closely with graduate students during the past 15 years. His love of research has carried through to his students, as evidenced by the more than 50 student-coauthored, refereed publications," she says in the preface to a booklet "On Mentoring" written by Provenza.
If Provenza could have his way in teaching, he would teach in daylong blocks over a one- to two-week period. That approach allows for field exercises and meaningful conversation, you can accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time.
"Nobody gets burned out. Sixteen weeks [in a semester] is far too long, for students and for faculty," he said.
"Provenza makes you think about the subject," said Justin Williams a senior at USU in rangeland resources, who has taken several of Provenza's classes. Williams describes Provenza as someone who will listen, is down to earth, and is easy to relate to.
When asked what the most valuable lesson he learned from Provenza, Williams replied, "Every person has their view." His is, "Take time to listen, you don't need to change your view, but need to understand [the other side]."
"Whenever I am asked how I go interest in range science, the answer is Fred Provenza," said a former student and advisee Chandra Heaton.
Heaton is now a master's student at Texas A&M University.
"I first met Fred at the end of my freshman year when I took his principles of range management class," she said. She describes herself at that time as an enviro-nazi. By the middle of her sophomore year she had changed from environmental studies to rangeland resources and Provenza became her adviser.
Beth Burritt, his research assistant, says Provenza motivates his students by example.
"He is 10 times harder on himself than others around him." Burritt said. "He often puts his students needs above his own. For example, several times he has postponed buying a new computer for himself so we could afford additional shelters to house our lambs."
A picture of 10 armed gunmen with a caption reading, "You don't like your grade? C'mon in, lets talk" greets you as you enter Provenza's office. Inside the office you see two desks on opposite walls. On one desk sits a Dell computer and on the other a neat pile of scientific journals and other stacks of paper that he is working on. Two organized filing cabinets are next to the desks. Above the cabinets and working desk resides a bookcase that is five shelves to the ceiling and wall to wall.
Heaton recalls Provenza's office as "shelves crammed full of books; he has read all of them and remembers all of them and can always pull down something relevant to whatever you are discussing."
All this information has not been wasted. Last year he received the W.R. Chapline Research Award, from the Society for Range Management, an international organization. The synopsis in the SRM Rangeland magazine says, "[Provenza] and his graduate students have rewritten the textbook on the role of animal experience in habitat selection. He has published over 130 scientific papers and presented over 100 papers and lectures at meetings and symposiums around the world."
When Burritt goes with Provenza to meetings, she observes that he always has people talking to him. Burritt has been working for Provenza for 13 years as a research associate.
During the week of Oct. 25 he gave a seminar at Texas A&M. Heaton recounts, "It was standing room only, the biggest crowd I have seen at a seminar, and people are still talking about his visit. It was also the only seminar to combine mythology, philosophy, physics, business, and sociology in a discussion about research. It is unusual to find someone who is so truly multi-faceted."
In the mid-1980s Provenza was invited to attend a three-day conference. He was scheduled to be the very last speaker of the conference. He came back sad because he didn't talk to anyone for the first couple of days of the conference, because he didn't know them. But after he gave his talk everyone wanted to talk to him. Provenza was disappointed, because there was so much information that he could have learned but didn't.
"Provenza is an introvert," explained Burritt.
The first range seminar he gave as a master's student he practiced five times in the room it would be given in and countless times before that until he could recite it forward and backward, he said. Provenza's master's project was to increase the production of blackbrush as forage for goats in southern Utah. He worked for months to set up the experiments to test his original hypothesis that blackbrush could be used as an important range diet for animals.
He was excited to put the goats out and, he hoped, see them gobble up the blackbrush. But the goats didn't go to where the blackbrush was. He decided to herd the goats over to a lush section of the brush. One goat went up to some blackbrush and gave it one sniff. Then the herd walked away.
Blackbrush has a chemical in it that makes animals who eat it sick to their stomachs. The goats had experienced upset stomachs before when eating blackbrush and remembered.
Needless to say, "the study took a new twist," said Burritt.
Burritt said they have a saying: "Research always works! We just don't always ask the right questions or know what the animals are saying."
One of the biggest myths that has changed for Provenza is his belief that animals were rigid in their behavior. All he had to do was figure out what the animals needed and predict what would happen. He realized that animals "learn, learn, learn," what is going on. He also learned that behavior is "plastic," meaning able to change.
When he first started his research he thought that animals had no nutritional wisdom. Much of Provenza's work has been with energy and protein. His studies show that the body craves what it needs. Nerves in the body "talk" to nerves in the mouth and change preferences, he said.
For example, "Gatorade tastes the best when you need it the most," Provenza quotes the slogan. "When I exercise, Gatorade tastes great, but when not working out it tastes [only] all right."
What got Provenza started on this track in life? He says that a pivotal point in his life was working on Henry DeLuca's ranch. He started to work there during his senior year in high school, when a high school buddy, Bernie Post, convinced Provenza to haul hay for 4 cents a bale. The DeLuca ranch was established as a homestead, the original ranch was split among five sons. Henry DeLuca was the only son to keep his inheritence as a working ranch. The DeLuca ranch had 640 acres of irrigated land and 640 acres of "Homestead" -- what we would now call rangeland.
"Working on the ranch taught me to work hard and be innovative," said Provenza. Also during this time, "I got interested in range, plants and animals."
Provenza continued to work on the ranch during the summers while he was attending Colorado State University, to receive his bachelor's in wildlife. Provenza didn't comeback to Salida, Colo., just during the summer.
He returned on weekends to coach the Racing Ski Team. The team would practice on the Monarch Ski area. He and Sue Smith often continued to practice each night after the resort closed. They walked up a hill and skied down through practice racecourses, working on technique. This gave him the opportunity to meet and marry the woman who has become his wife of 25 years.
Fred, Sue and their two children, Stanley and Jessica, still like to ski. Provenza says that being based out of his office, he has lost his racing edge, yet he still enjoys the sport, just at a slower pace.
Several times Provenza comment with straightened shoulders and a gleam of satisfaction in his eye that Sue and he had gone through life together. In September they celebrated their silver anniversary.
"It has been rocky, but really neat," he said. "Over the years we have had fantastic discussion for hours on hours, days on days, and weeks on weeks." They read books aloud to each other -- read a paragraph then talked for hours.
His latest endevor is to write a book on challenges all creatures face (how they adapt), spice of life (the dilemmas of life), and teaching a dog new tricks. He would like to cover his book on four levels. The first, metaphysical-mystical level, has to do with the deep mysteries of life. The second level to explore is the cosmological --who and what we are, from the cell to the universe. Sociological, being part of a group, is the third level. The last level is personal, individual, how to follow what you love. Not just for animals but humans as well.
One thing that frustrates Provenza is when students choose a major because their parents think it is the best thing for them or for the money.
He said, "Find what you like the most and follow it," and good things will happen. Don't worry about money that will come, he said. That doesn't mean you won't have bad days, but you will get through them.
Provenza understands those bad days. When he came to USU, he never skipped a beat, he knew where he was going, and took no time to reflect. During the mid-80s he was made to answer the question, "What does it all mean?"
He describes himself as being so low at that time he "had to look up to see a worm." During this time he analized his thoughts: there has to be more then facts and figures, what is a class, and what am I doing. At times he asked, "Will I make it?"
He went through a "death and a resurrection." In the fall of 1991, when the research was gaining international attention, he went on a nine-month sabbatical to Australia.
He recalled, "I was obsessed with the various experiments. . . . I was surprised to find . . . that I thought much more about past and current graduate students than I did about the research."
"People are it," he said. He had found the answer that he had been asking during the past five years.
"Accomplishments are the bouquet of nurturing relationships."
Provenza has learned a lot of things since he took the advice to come to Logan. Next year he and Sue are going on sabbatical. They are taking this time to explore different avenues, and to plan for their future.
A year after he returns he wants to retire. That will put himself back
to the question, "Where do I go?" He now knows that he doesn't have
to go it alone, and people are what bring happiness to his life.