Community Agriculture Alliance: Rangelands are a renewable resource
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
What is a rangeland?
Rangelands span nearly 770 million acres across the U.S. and comprise about half of our national forest public lands — yet, common definitions for what a rangeland is often fail to encapsulate their true nature and the benefits they bring to our society.
Rangelands are dynamic, wild and open landscapes spreading over diverse climates and landforms. They can be grouped into broader categories that include grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, deserts and even tundra. Their dynamic nature is most often influenced by their relationship to and dependency on water, which is the primary factor in determining the type and abundance of vegetation on a particular landscape. The annual variation in precipitation drives the dominant flora communities in rangelands, which in turn directly influences the dominant fauna communities that occupy those areas.
Various disturbances — such as fire and grazing — have also co-evolved alongside the development of these ecosystems. These events are not only necessary for landscape productivity and for defining dominate plant cover on a large scale, but also highlight the need for rangeland managers to incorporate highly dynamic and testable methods to determine what each ecosystem needs in response to annual changes.
A common and proven method of managing rangelands begins with measuring and assessing options for manipulating the overall mass, height and cover of vegetation on a particular landscape. Working within the natural limits of the rangeland system, the objective is to promote the production of native species and reduce noxious weeds. Plants that are introduced, lack natural predators and degrade native habitats.
Livestock management, which prescribes the number, type, duration, frequency and distribution of grazing animals, helps achieve specific land management and production goals. Not only do grazing livestock consume plant material, but they also facilitate carbon breakdown in their movement across the landscape and provide nutrients through deposition of urine and excrement.
Rangeland managers — supported through scientific research — have also found many other tangible benefits to managing rangelands with livestock, which include the following.
- Improved native plant biodiversity when compared to nongrazed systems
- Reduced populations of unfavorable pests and noxious weeds — livestock behavior and foraging preferences can be taught to target specific species
- Increased conifer growth in select areas by reducing competing or encroaching vegetation
- Decreased risk of wildfire by reducing fine fuels that can carry fire into or through woodland areas
Healthy rangelands are truly a renewable resource when considering the cycle of energy produced from the sun is captured by plants which are in turn consumed by grazing animals, such as livestock. With proper management, these diverse lands supply us with food and fiber at very low additional costs, and they continue to support a multitude of societal values by reconnecting people with a beauty that is otherwise difficult to perceive.
The legacy of livestock ranching on rangelands has greatly shaped the west, and the values that rangelands bring ecologically and culturally can be seen in our own Yampa Valley.
Kelsey Crane is the rangeland management specialist at Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District for the U.S. Forest Service.
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