Sustainable Ranching Initiative

Two women stand on prairie with cattle herd

WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative (SRI) was established in 2011 with the goal of developing long-term partnerships with ranchers, rural communities, and landowner-led organizations in the Northern Great Plains (NGP) to benefit the grassland ecosystem. The NGP spans over 180 million acres (about twice the area of California), five US states—Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska—and two Canadian provinces—Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is one of only four remaining intact temperate grasslands in the world.

About one fifth of all US beef cows originate from ranches within the NGP’s five US state region. These ranches overlap with the areas that have been identified as supporting the region’s highest levels of plant and wildlife biodiversity. In other words, both the ranching community and wildlife depend on well-managed, intact grasslands.

However, millions of acres of grasslands in the NGP are being destroyed every year. Grasslands are one of the least protected and most at-risk biomes on the planet, and as they disappear, so do the wildlife habitat and critical ecosystem services they provide. The NGP provides critical habitat for a diversity of endemic and migratory wildlife species, including a variety of grassland-nesting birds, migratory ungulates such as elk and pronghorn, and pollinators.

 

Savannah Sparrow and Cow, South Dakota

Since 2009, over 33 million acres of grasslands were plowed to make way for crop production across the US and Canadian portions of the Great Plains. At times, this rate of habitat destruction has rivaled deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Because over 94 million acres of the NGP are privately owned and managed, mostly by ranching families, ranching operations provide one of the best lines of defense against grassland loss. Sustainably managed grazing systems are often beneficial to wildlife species, providing a variety of plant communities and habitat structure throughout the year.  

Grasslands evolved to be grazed. The feeding activities of herbivores provide patches of vegetation across the landscape which wildlife utilizes, breaks dry ground allowing water to be absorbed into the soil, and returns nutrients and organic matter to the soil through manure. Without an abundance of grazing animals to manage plant growth, grasslands become threatened by the spread of invasive plants and can trend towards monocultures of more aggressive and non-native plant species. Intact grasslands not only conserve biodiversity, but ensure cleaner streams, and more carbon stored in the soil. Sustainable beef production also provides many social benefits by supporting rural communities that can provide consumers with ecologically conscious and nutrient dense food options.

Livestock producers in the NGP face many natural and economic challenges. Climate change, which has resulted in increased periods of sustained drought and other extreme weather events, causes many financial challenges for ranching families. Livestock producers also face limited options on where to sell their beef, as the meat packing industry becomes more consolidated. In addition, US agricultural policies, additional market pressures, and new technologies that incentivize grassland plow-up for cropland, have led to accelerated grassland loss and conversion.

 

What WWF is Doing

SRI works with landowners, rancher-led local organizations, corporations, industry groups, NGOs, and government agencies to protect grasslands from conversion to cropland, increase adoption of regenerative grazing practices, support forward thinking land managers, and restore cropland or degraded lands back to native grasslands.

WWF’s SRI geographic focal region is north-central and eastern Montana, northwestern South Dakota, the Nebraska Sandhills, and northeastern Wyoming due to their intact nature, high biodiversity, and existing relationships with rancher-led organizations.

SRI helps to protect existing intact native grassland, increase sustainable grasslands management, and restore degraded habitat through:

  • Partnering with local ranching and landowner groups to increase their capacity to develop long-term conservation agreements, innovative land management strategies, and rancher education programs
  • Incentivizing grassland conservation practices through educational scholarships, land health and ranching with wildlife workshops, tailored management recommendations, cost-share for ranch infrastructure improvement, and technical assistance
  • Leveraging funds for on-the-ground conservation projects on private lands
  • Promoting systems-oriented ranch management, peer-to-peer learning, and exemplary land stewards

 

Purple coneflowers on working rangeland, 33 Ranch, South Dakota, USA

How is WWF working with producers?

RSVP – Ranch Systems Viability Planning 

The Ranch Systems and Viability Planning (RSVP) program supports ranchers who want to improve their grazing management practices, increase education and skills related to ranch and grass management, monitor ecological changes over time and network with other producers on similar paths. Operations must be in WWF’s SRI focal area.

The RSVP program aims to make lasting positive impacts across the NGP by avoiding grassland conversion and supporting management improvements across one million acres over 5 years. The program explores the potential of carbon sequestration and storage through grassland management practices as well as provide support to livestock producers who wish to improve water infiltration, biodiversity, and vegetative productivity on the landscape. Through the RSVP program, WWF hopes to facilitate community resilience in rural areas by supporting the grass-based economy.

Ranches enrolled in RSVP are provided with educational scholarships, access to cost-share dollars, technical assistance, and in-depth rangeland and ecological monitoring. The monitoring project is the largest of its kind that is conducted on privately owned grasslands in the US. Monitoring crews measure soil organic carbon, soil stability, ground cover, vegetation characteristics, water infiltration, and grassland bird species. The ecological data is gathered in partnership with Resource Environmental Solutions and the Intermountain Bird Observatory. This data helps producers put numbers to the natural resources they manage as well as help communicate the importance of well managed working lands to the NGP ecosystem.

Learn more about the RSVP program and how to apply here.  

 

Cattle on the Brady Ranch, Winnett, Montana

Native grassland reseeding program

SRI is also leading several NGP grassland restoration programs, with the goal of restoring once-plowed lands back to native plant communities reminiscent of natural  prairies to benefit wildlife and people. WWF’s goal is to reseed 26,000 acres in the NGP over three years. To accomplish this, SRI staff works directly with landowners to create a native seed mix that is suitable for their location and soil type. We then purchase the native seed mix for planting and provide technical support for successful establishment.

One reseeding project is the One Square Foot initiative, which is the result of a partnership with Botanica by Air Wick, Air Wick® Scented Oils, and WWF have launched a three-year partnership that will reseed 1 billion square feet (~23,000 acres) of previously disturbed grasslands and wildflower habitats in the Northern Great Plains. The “One Square Foot” campaign aims to provide food and shelter for pollinators, grassland birds, and the many other species.

If you are in north-central and eastern Montana, northwestern South Dakota or the Nebraska Sandhills and are interested in reseeding cropland back to native grass and forbs, please email [email protected]