What Does Habitat Look Like on a Ranch?

I’ve had several recent conversations with people who were surprised to learn that rangelands (native grasslands grazed by livestock) are prairies. I guess they just assumed that only grasslands that sit idle count as natural areas. In reality, of course, the vast majority of North American prairies are grazed by livestock. It’s the biggest reason those prairies still exist – they produce enough income to justify their existence.

Konza Prairie, in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where livestock grazing is helping to create patchy wildlife habitat while sustaining plant diversity. In this photo, ungrazed leadplant and purple prairie clover are surrounded by short-cropped grasses.

While some are overgrazed, most rangelands support a strong diversity of plants and wildlife. As a group, ranchers tend to be conservative in their grazing of prairies – after all, their livelihood depend upon healthy grasslands. Most ranchers also have families they hope to pass the ranch on to. Above all, the ranchers I know take their responsibilities as stewards of the land very seriously. To most, it is a kind of calling.

In my experience, however, while ranchers care deeply about providing habitat on their ranches, many have an incomplete knowledge of what that really means. That’s hardly surprising, since the advice they get on the subject is often varied, conflicting, and continually evolving. (“Plant trees! Wait, no…Kill Trees!”)

Briefly, just to clear up the plant/kill tree topic… In almost all cases, wildlife that lives on ranches is not being limited by a lack of trees. Patches of shrubs can be helpful in places, but don’t usually need to be planted – just allowed to exist. Most wildlife on ranches depend most upon large expanses of open grassland. Trees in prairies tend to cause more problems than they solve (increased predation rates, avoidance by ground nesting birds, and a place where invasive plants get a foothold, etc.) But I digress…

On the subject of wildlife habitat, the most common perspective I hear from ranchers goes something like this: “I moved the cows out of that pasture a little early to leave some habitat out there.” Leaving extra grass out there certainly does create good habitat for some wildlife species, but sustaining a diverse community of animals means providing a wide variety of habitat types. Maintaining plant diversity, which builds resilience and productivity, also requires thoughtful management treatments.

Northern bobwhite, along with ring-necked pheasants and various grouse species, are examples of wildlife that need multiple habitat types, including short vegetation, tall vegetation, and a mixture of short grass and tall forbs (broadleaf plants). Many ranches tend to provide a limited range of those habitat patch types.

There is no particular grazing strategy or approach that best balances habitat and livestock productivity on all ranches. Every ranch has its own unique mixture of soils, topography, rainfall, infrastructure, labor availability, and other factors. Ranchers tend to do a great job of shaping a ranch management plan that meets their individual situation. Because of that, what I think ecologists like me can do to be useful is to simply help build ranchers’ understanding of what habitat can look like. Then those ranchers can figure out ways to tweak what they’re doing to improve habitat – in ways that fit their unique situation.

Accordingly, I’ve put together some guidance I hope will be helpful to ranchers (and other land managers). It is in two forms, a downloadable PDF and a web page attached to this blog (tab at the top of the page). I tried to keep the information pretty general and applicable to most ranches across the Great Plains of North America, but the principles should really work just about anywhere. I also included lots of photos to help illustrate all the varied types of wildlife habitat found in prairies.

The selectivity of cattle as they graze gives ranchers and land managers tremendous flexibility in how they can create habitat structure by varying stocking rate, timing, and duration of grazing .

I’d very much welcome feedback from ranchers, as well as from other ecologists and anyone else, on how to improve this information and make it as useful as possible.

Link to the PDF: https://theprairieecologist.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/ranchingforwildlife-1.pdf

Link to the Website: https://prairieecologist.com/ranch-management-for-wildlife/

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

6 thoughts on “What Does Habitat Look Like on a Ranch?

  1. Very important posting, Chris. Thank you. I don’t interact much with ranchers, but this material will make it more productive, when I do.

  2. I am curious about:
    1. No mention of how buffalo grazing maintained the prairie?
    2 No mention much about how fire plays a role in maintaining a prairie. We suppress fires
    thoughts?

    • Good questions, Mark. It has to do with the specific audience for this information.
      1. I didn’t mention historic bison grazing because I’m focusing on what ranchers can do today and most are grazing cattle. Looking at history can provide interesting context, but figuring out what habitats and growing conditions (for plants) are needed today – in a very different world – is what’s most important.
      2. I thought about adding in fire, but I didn’t want the guidance doc to get too long and I’m really fine with ranchers not using fire if they can find other ways to manage for a shifting mosaic of habitats and control tree encroachment – both of which I did talk about. Also, we’re working on encouraging the use of fire by ranchers through other more targeted means. But some aren’t comfortable with fire at all and I didn’t see a need or reason to alienate anyone with what I’m hoping is accessible and general helpful information.

  3. I wish cattlemen in Illinois demonstrated the self control you discuss and show in your post. I was at a conservation property a few weeks ago where they continued to grazing cattle because it was thought a rare species that was present might need it. After seeing the result of the grazing, I commented that I felt like I should get out my putter. The steward said many more cattle were put into the area for much longer than was suppose to happen. I was told consequent surveys found the rare species was only in areas with tall grasses where grazing had not occurred. Can you teach a person to do something when it is in their very nature to do the exact opposite?

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