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Common ground on the prairie - World


Fortunately, we know from experience that if we take care of the land, the land will take care of us. And to best care for the land, we can learn some lessons from Mother Nature and the generations that came before.

Ranchers across the Great Plains in the United States take very seriously their responsibility to be good stewards of the land and realized generations ago that the way to survive any environmental calamity is to ranch in a sustainable way. After homesteaders plowed up millions of acres of native prairie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, drought came in the 1920s and 1930s, bringing the Dust Bowl — possibly the worst environmental disaster in modern history. In the 1930s, led by Big Hugh Bennett and the Soil Conservation Service (today the Natural Resources and Conservation Service), farmers and ranchers rallied to restore the land — work that continues today with support from groups such as World Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative.

Good stewardship of our native grasslands is one of the best ways to survive the next weather event. Grasses are rooted in the ground, which enables the soil to absorb and retain more water. That, in turn, prevents sediment, fertilizer, pesticides, and other compounds in the soil from running off into nearby water ways — good news for the millions of people who rely on those rivers and streams for drinking water. And by absorbing and storing more water, the land better withstands flood and drought alike.


Our grasslands evolved with large herbivore grazers, which created a perfect symbiosis of land and animal caring for each other. Just as bison did historically, cattle today maintain the land by pruning the grasses, aerating the soil, and fertilizing both. When cattle are managed in ways that strengthen grasses and soils, ranching communities and the wildlife that depend upon them thrive.

Healthy grasslands also serve as a check against climate change, pulling heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in the soil. Research shows that improving grazing management practices on just one acre of grassland can pull an average of 419 extra pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere each year (though it varies greatly by region, conditions, and other variables).

According to WWF’s 2018 Plowprint report, however, the Great Plains lost more than 58 million acres of native grasslands in the last decade. Still, with more than 360 million acres of intact grassland left, the carbon savings could add up if better grazing practices are applied broadly enough. Of course, cattle are also a source of emissions — about 2 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — but their ability to enhance carbon sequestration in grassland soils can mitigate those emissions.

One thing is clear: ranching can be an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable way to conserve the prairie. Well-managed working grasslands can be an economically self-sustaining solution that serves both the environment and rural communities at a large scale.


To maintain a healthy planet, including our grasslands, and to adapt to a shifting climate, we all must reconsider our demand for food, clothing, fuel, and other products, and the affects that those demands have on the land. And it’s up to all of us to do our part, from ranchers and researchers to consumers and CEOs.

This is an important message for the governors, mayors, CEOs and producers gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS). There, they will demonstrate the progress the public and private sectors have made in reducing carbon emissions and they’ll set ambitious new goals. Land stewardship will be high on the agenda, as it should be.

Indeed, the ways we use land for food, clothing, fuel, paper, timber, and other products is responsible for about a quarter of all human carbon emissions. That means we represent that portion of the solution and more.

As the participants in the GCAS grapple with these important and complicated issues, we emphasize how important and valuable cattle can be to healthy grasslands. When it comes to sustainable ranching, the prairie provides environmental advocates and ranchers with common ground we can literally stand on.

• Conant, R. T., Cerri, C. E., Osborne, B. B., & Paustian, K. (2017). Grassland management impacts on soil carbon stocks: a new synthesis. Ecological Applications, 27(2), 662-668. doi:10.1002/eap.1473

Laura Nowlin is a fifth-generation rancher in Petroleum County, Montana. She is a founding member of the Winnett ACES (Agriculture and Community Enhancement and Sustainability), a community conservation collaborative in Central Montana.

Martha Kauffman, is the managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program. Martha is based in Bozeman Montana working with local ranchers, tribes and government agencies to increase protection for the landscape, create economic incentives for conservation, and restore native species.


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