Photo ©: WWF-US / Clay Bolt

One of the greatest hopes for protecting remaining healthy grasslands from conversion doesn’t lie in the hands of government agencies or private reserves, but family landowners, including relatives of some of the same settlers who carved out a life here over 100 years ago. Today, over 70% of the Northern Great Plains is privately owned, and significant portions of these landowners are ranchers.

If you aren’t very familiar with grasslands, it might seem strange to read of a conservation organization praising the efforts of ranchers. After all, isn’t beef production one of the leading contributors to climate change? Or a driver of habitat loss in many parts of the world? In some cases, the answer is yes, but like many complicated questions, the full story is far from simple. 

Raising beef can be detrimental for nature in places such as the Amazon, but grasslands such as the Northern Great Plains evolved to be grazed. In other words, without grazing, grassland habitats would become overgrown and unsuitable for both the plants and animals that require wide-open spaces for their survival. Simply put, grasslands can’t be left alone: they must be grazed. 

5 min read
By Clay Bolt, WWF Northern Great Plains Program

In the past, bison and other large grazing animals maintained the grasslands. Today, this is no longer an option for most of the Great Plains. Instead, cattle have become one of our best options for keeping grasslands healthy. World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program recognizes the critical role that ranching families, and their cattle, play in protecting the grasslands from other uses. Some of the most wildlife-friendly and healthy grasslands in the Great Plains exist right alongside—and in many cases thanks to—cattle. This is due, in a big part, to the evolving ways in which ranchers manage their herds, working in harmony with nature, and mimicking the actions of native grazers. Working lands can work extremely well for wildlife.  

Photo credit © WWF-US / Clay Bolt

In an effort to shine a light on the work ranchers do to conserve grasslands of the Northern Great Plains, WWF is proud to launch “Rangelands Alive!,” a new journalistic series highlighting working lands, the families that manage them, and the abundance of wildlife that live within these grasslands. Not only do we hope to showcase the overlooked and wild beauty of one of the last remaining grasslands in the world, but also increase your awareness of the families who work tirelessly to maintain them. Join us each month for a new installment of this series where we will be sharing stories from ranchers, ranches, and wildlife found throughout the Northern Great Plains.