Livestock grazing not at odds, could aid grassland conservation efforts

News
May 1, 2009
by WLJ
Livestock grazing not at odds, could aid grassland conservation efforts

On grasslands of the western Great Plains, livestock grazing typically outranks conservation efforts for rangeland managers. But these two conflicting issues could have a mutually beneficial solution, according to a new research article.

In the current issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management, authors Justin D. Derner, William K. Lauenroth, Paul Stapp and David J. Augustine examine how prevailing livestock management methods tend to limit vegetation structure and undermine conservation goals, and how alternative livestock management approaches can be used to reverse this trend.

“Livestock directly and indirectly influence the availability of resources to a wide range of organisms by inducing changes in vegetation structure,” according to the authors.

Historically, patchy or uneven grazing and other disturbances have increased vegetation heterogeneity.

“Interactions of large grazers, fire, drought, and prairie dogs created and maintained distinctly different plant communities in the western Great Plains resulting in a mosaic of vegetation structure and composition,” the authors write.

In order to increase vegetation heterogeneity, current grazing management practices must mimic these patch disturbances.

However, current management practices have emphasized the opposite approach, the even distribution and use of vegetation by livestock. This has caused conflicts with conservation efforts because it has limited vegetation structures that provide habitats for diverse species.

The authors suggest that livestock managers in the Great Plains could modify animal distribution and vegetation use by varying grazing intensities, species of livestock, location of supplemental feeding sites and water sources, and patch prairie burning within and between pastures to promote vegetation heterogeneity while maintaining livestock production.

“Conflicts between livestock producers and conservationists can be reduced if regionally appropriate grazing management strategies can be identified that use the engineering abilities of livestock to enhance grassland bird habitat,” they write. “Using livestock as ecosystem engineers to achieve conservation grazing objectives and outcomes provides land managers with the opportunity to reduce conflicts between conservation and livestock production goals on these lands.”

The authors also call for a comparison between the economic costs of heterogeneity-based management and traditional management practices in order to determine the practicality of modifying the traditional approach. They suggest that incentive programs may be needed to facilitate implementation of alternative grazing management approaches. — WLJ

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