New Rangeland Atlas reveals the importance of healthy rangelands to wildlife and humans

Healthy grasslands in Lowry, South Dakota

Close your eyes and imagine that you're looking out across vast undulating waves on an ocean of grass. As the waves approach, each divides and dances around you before moving on. As they draw nearer the sound of their approach, like wind in a sail, envelopes you.

The softness of the moment is pierced only by the surprisingly loud “tee-tie-toe-tiddleum” of a western meadowlark. You search for the bird, certain that it is nearby, only to recognize its stocky silhouette in the distance, perching on sagebrush the color of a crisp one-dollar bill. Then, there is a sudden hush. The steady chirp of crickets obscured within the darkness of the vegetation below is the only remaining indication of animal life. This is a peek-a-boo landscape.

Grasslands, along with other types of rangelands, are secretive places demanding patience. There have been many attempts to describe them over the years: prairie, shrubland, llano, rangeland, steppe, savannah, veld, cerrado, and plains are but a few. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and set the stage for many of the world’s most spectacular wildlife gatherings and migrations. Humanity arose from the grasslands, and many of the plants and animals found within these unique biomes are found nowhere else on Earth.

Like a body of water punctuated by a jumping fish, the casual observer may be offered glimpses of the life within grasslands, but to dive beneath the surface requires dedication. Even with careful observation, it can be challenging to get to the root of some of the most important functions that they provide. Improved air quality, water filtration, and carbon sequestration are all gifts that healthy grasslands and other types of rangelands provide to us at no cost. But these benefits only occur if these ecosystems are allowed to function properly. Each year the pressures of a growing population make these benefits increasingly more difficult to produce.

An elephant roams a savannah in South Africa

Dusk over the Brazilian Cerrado

Around the world, rangelands of all types are threatened by agricultural expansion and development. A prime example can be found within the US Great Plains. Since 2009 these grasslands have lost 33 million acres of grassland to plow-up for row crop agriculture, which equates to half the size of Colorado. Although rangelands comprise a large percentage of the planet’s total land area, less than 10% are protected, and climate change compounds the impacts on these landscapes. The conversion and degradation of grassland habitats reduces their ability to maintain healthy habitats for wildlife and clean air and water for people.

Until now, grasslands have rarely been a target of international conservation agendas. Just 10% of national climate plans (as part of the Paris Climate Agreement) include references to grasslands; comparatively 70% include references to forests. Although they provide key habitat for wildlife and critical ecosystem services, part of the reason they have been undervalued is that we have not invested the necessary resources to calculate their benefits to people and nature.

The Rangelands Atlas fills part of that void. The atlas has been jointly published by WWF, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Food and Agriculature Organization of the United Nations (FAO), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Land Coalition (ILC). It will serve as a starting point for gathering more detailed data on the exact ecosystem services and economic and social benefits that rangelands deliver to people and nature.