- Author: Clay Bolt
The Northern Great Plains is one of the world’s last great, remaining grasslands. Across its 183 million acres, nearly 132 million remain intact. Among those acres that are still intact, approximately 70% is privately owned, and often by ranching families.
To some, ranching and conservation may seem as far from one another as the east is from the west. However, in the Northern Great Plains, ranching plays a major conservation role. Conservation is a complicated business, and both plants and animals (including cattle) can be raised for our food in ways that are better or worse for the environment. As a result, it’s important to learn where your food comes from, how it’s produced, and the impact of wasting it so that you can make smart choices for nature when you’re at the supermarket or dining out.
The grasslands evolved to be grazed. Without grazing, woody vegetation and uniform growth take over a grassland, resulting in habitat that’s unsuitable for animals such as grassland songbirds. Some species need short, intensely grazed grasses, others, tall and thick. Without question, plains bison, pronghorn, and prairie dogs were once the primary grazers that maintained grasses across this vast region. Today, however, cattle play much of that role.
Ranching practices are evolving. Whereas in the past cattle might have been allowed to graze intensely on a plot of land for a long period of time, many of today’s ranchers are more sophisticated. They move cattle on a rotational cycle, ensuring that a pasture has time to recover and native wildflowers are there for pollinators. They protect water sources and install wildlife-friendly fencing. There is a decline in the use of pesticides, ensuring that nature’s recyclers such as dung beetles are able to return nutrients to the soil. All of these actions add up to a better outcome for the ecosystem.
There are many ranches throughout the Northern Great Plains that are thousands of acres in size. Some are as large as publicly protected areas. Like their public counterparts, they provide much-needed habitat for wildlife. When we work to find common ground with private landowners the opportunities for a better outcome for everyone—both people and wildlife—dramatically increase.