World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Rancher on his horse looking across the Northern Great Plains.

Supporting Ranchers for Grasslands Conservation is More Important Than Ever

  • Date: 27 May 2021
  • Author: Alexis Bonogofsky, Program Manager, WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative

“This is a land where the sky comes down the same distance all around, and those who live in it love it - most of the time.” - K. Ross Toole, Uncommon Land

I’ve always thought there are two kinds of people in the world, those who feel like they can take a deep breath in the wide-open spaces of the prairies and those who are wondering where the mountains are.

I, for one, feel most at home in the great swaths of open space in the rangelands of the Northern Great Plains (NGP) and although I can appreciate the majesty of the mountains, I tend to feel a little claustrophobic in them. I’m certain that Montana got its nickname, Big Sky Country, because of the plains of central and eastern Montana, where you can see a storm coming for hours before it is upon you and the sky ‘comes down the same distance all around.’

People who aren’t familiar with grassland ecosystems often think there is nothing there, just grass and sky. This is wrong of course; you just have to know what you’re looking for. The misconception that all wildlife worth seeing live in the mountains seems to have pervaded popular thinking, a misconception I have spent a lot of my life trying to correct.

Grasslands are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and the value they have for both people and wildlife cannot be overstated; grasslands sequester carbon, filter water and provide important habitat for species such as songbirds, sage grouse, and pronghorn. They also support the livelihoods of rural and agricultural communities. They are worth our time and our attention. A new atlas which WWF has co-authored puts their importance in context: More than half of all our planet’s land is grass-dominated ecosystems, yet less than 10 percent of these are protected. That’s why WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative is working toward a future where thriving prairies and abundant wildlife help sustain the economy and the agriculturally based communities of the people who live in the NGP.

WWF supports ranchers because we recognize the critical role that play in keeping grasslands intact and wildlife populations healthy. Good grazing management facilitates the coexistence of livestock with native wildlife, promotes productive vegetation, ensures healthy root and microbial systems, and protects soil from erosion. Ranchers use grazing management plans to manage grasslands while also promoting carbon sequestration and improving soil health and water filtration.

With funding from Cargill, McDonalds, and the Walmart Foundation, WWF is working with ranchers across the NGP to support them as they undertake these conservation projects and increase their skills and knowledge about the management of grasslands through Ranch System and Viability Planning network, RSVP for short. The RSVP network is a comprehensive system of support for ranchers to develop sustainable grazing management plans with assistance from on-the-ground technical specialists, and access to continuing education in order to improve ecological outcomes at scale. Participating ranchers will be able to make changes to ranch infrastructure through cost-share funding, track progress over time through ecological monitoring and holistic social and financial self-assessments and learn from other producers through our peer-to-peer ranch network.

The project, which officially launched in September 2020, will focus our efforts in the rangelands of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Over the next four years, WWF aims to enroll over a million acres of ranchland in the program, while working with up to 180 ranches. To enroll in the program, ranchers agree that any acres they enroll with us will not be converted to cropland for ten years, offering assurance that the restored acres have time to heal. Currently, 16 ranchers with over 150,000 acres have enrolled in the program.

Rangelands, which include grasslands, savannahs, deserts, shrublands and tundra, support the livelihoods of millions of people, are seriously threatened, and often overlooked. The new Rangelands Atlas puts a fine point on why it is time to pay more attention to grasslands and why programs like RSVP are needed to ensure they will be around for generations to come.