Cattle Ranching—a “best bet” for Alberta’s native prairie?
What are the grasslands?
Alberta’s Grassland Natural Region (often called simply “grasslands,” or “prairie”) spans from south-central Alberta to the USA border, from the edge of the foothills in the west to the Saskatchewan border in the east. The majority of the region has been altered by various land-use interests, including industry, urban development, and cultivation, leaving about ¼ of native grassland behind. Although this region makes up only 14% of Alberta’s overall land-base, over 75% of the province’s Species at Risk call the prairie home including burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, prairie rattlesnakes, swift foxes, and various other animal and plant species.
What’s so special about the grasslands?
Besides the fact that the prairie supports a vast array of wildlife (many of whom are considered “at risk,”) native grasslands play a critical role in nutrient cycling, site stability (i.e. soil erosion control), carbon sequestration, and water storage. As such, this landscape is easily the most productive in Alberta. Intensive land-use or improper management of what remains of native prairie can disrupt the important ecological functions it carries out.
How can ranching help keep our grasslands healthy?
It’s important to note that Alberta’s prairie (including its wildlife) has evolved in a system of grazing. The cattle of today are essentially doing the job that roaming bison did hundreds of years ago through trampling, munching on grasses and forbs, and leaving behind their tell-tale cow patties. Therefore, in the face of major competition for land use, ranching may actually prove to be the best bet for long-term sustainability of our grassland landscape.
What do ranchers actually DO to help maintain healthy grasslands?
Because individual plant species react differently to grazing pressure during various times of the year– some plants grow better and some decrease under pressure—an understanding of how cattle affect vegetation growth and productivity is key to proper management. Ranchers can assess the health of their land according to various benchmarks, such as type and abundance of certain plant species, amount of left-over plant matter from the previous year (often called “carry-over” or “litter”), and amount of bare ground. Based on the resulting health score, ranchers have control over how many head of cattle they put on a certain section of land, how long those cattle stay there, and even where the cattle typically hang out within that section of land by strategically using salt blocks, water sources, and gates.
In terms of wildlife, ranchers can use their cattle as a tool to help improve the habitat for a specific animal species. For instance, the Sprague’s pipit—a songbird Species at Risk—prefers moderately high vegetation in order to best hide their ground nests from predators. They are not fans of woody vegetation nearby.
Burrowing owls prefer short vegetation around their burrows because short, sparse grass allows them to better scout for predators and catch prey. However, the owls benefit from longer, denser vegetation near watering sources, as that increases their prey population of mice and voles. Burrowing owls also line their burrows and nest chambers with dried cattle manure. Theories as to why they do this vary, but it’s thought that the manure might absorb moisture and/or carbon dioxide.
Because of the various habitat needs of wildlife species and productivity differences in plant species, Operation Grassland Community recommends a heterogeneous matrix of vegetation; undergrazing can be just as problematic as overgrazing.
With the right management practices, ranching in Alberta can be a sustainable form of land-use, helping to maintain the health of our remaining native prairie while supporting the Species at Risk within it.
For more information on range health, sustainable ranching, or other resources, contact Mara Erickson—Communications Director for Operation Grassland Community—at email@example.com
Check out our newly launched film—the Conservation Caravan—at grasslandcommunity.org!