Ranching and How It Preserves the Prairie

In the past few years there has been an increase in media attention towards the negative effects’ cattle have on our environment. While they do have negative impacts, they have positive effects as well. I have heard varying viewpoints on animal agriculture specifically, even to the extent of eliminating the industry all together. While a reduction in production may be beneficial, complete elimination may not be the most sustainable option either. Cattle are crucial to several conservation practices for animal species and the Prairie ecosystem in general. The elimination of cattle production would cause detrimental impacts, potentially forcing an ecosystem out of existence. This is a perspective I believe has been largely ignored by the public, media, and education curricula resulting in an aspect of sustainability that has been overlooked in our society.

First off, a background in North America’s history is essential in understanding the role cattle play in the environment. North America was once roamed by three major herds of Plains bison, roughly 30 million individuals[1]. They overgrazed some areas, while leaving others creating a mosaic of plant communities in different successional stages, resulting in high diversity in plants and fauna species. Now, bison are not as abundant and cattle can be used to maintain that diversity. Cattle and bison share some characteristics in their digestive system and diet but they are different species so differences are prevalent [2]. Although, cattle can be manipulated to modify their behaviour to graze differently. As a result of Bison population declines, cattle are an effective tool to manage valued ecosystems in North America. Through grazing livestock, an essential disturbance remains on the landscape that rangeland ecosystems depend on, when executed properly [2].

Most Canadians don’t know that the prairie ecosystem is one of the most endangered systems in the world and most Albertans are living in it. Losses can be to oil and gas, urban development, and agriculture. The following images (Bottom L-R: a population density map, agricultural land use distribution, and the Species at Risk distribution within Alberta) show a high density of people and agriculture use in the southern region of the province, which is also where the majority of the species at risk reside in Alberta. 

Cattle are effective at increasing plant diversity and that is represented by the ‘intermediate disturbance hypothesis’ (shown below) which shows that at intermediate grazing levels is where the highest plant diversity occurs [3]. At low levels of grazing few species will dominate, while at higher levels it is too difficult for many species to grow, leaving few species able to tolerate the disturbance level. Consequently, at an intermediate level of disturbance a balance is created between competitive and disturbance species, maximizing the number of species able to grow in that environment. Grazing results in the creation of habitat patches which ultimately creates landscape heterogeneity in plant composition and indirectly effects habitat availability for fauna.

The above image shows the relationship between disturbance levels (X axis) and the number of species (Y axis). In higher disturbance areas larger abundances of disturbance adapted species will be observed, while in low disturbance areas species adapted for competition will be more abundant. It is when intermediate disturbance is present that there is the highest diversity in plant composition.

The most common reason species become a species at risk in the prairies is due to habitat loss. This happens through land conversion to other uses like urban development, industrial practices and conversion to tame forages. Carlyle 2019[4] stated that the unfortunate public perception is that cattle are the cause of those species decline, when in fact they are preserving it. An example is the Greater sage grouse, an endangered species in Alberta and Saskatchewan who has lost most of its habitat to industrial disturbance and conversion to tame forage; remaining habitat for the greater sage grouse is in an area utilized by cattle and cattle presence is what prevents the land from being converted[4]. Ranching (cattle production and management) supports biodiversity, in particular some species that are at risk because it keeps human densities low, prevents large scale habitat fragmentation, and uses a large land base[5]. Ranchers act as land stewards preventing habitats from being converted to other uses, keeping the area healthy, diverse and ecologically intact.

The above image is taken from Toombs et al. n.d., but was originally adapted from Knopf 1996. It illustrates the heterogeneity grazing can create and the species that correspond to certain intensities.

It is because cattle can have profound impacts on the landscape that they are an important asset to protect these ecosystems. However, they must be managed using suitable stocking rates, and three important factors must be monitored: the grazing intensity, frequency, and timing. Certain vegetation types can be grazed harder than others and some shouldn’t be grazed during certain time periods. Most cattle ranchers understand this and implement grazing systems that respect the ecological integrity on the landscape. It is the rancher’s who are driving management of the herd and are the second component to the effectiveness of many conservation plans. The combined action of cattle and the people who manage them stimulate important interactions that may not occur without them, which leads to the discussion of whether ranching is regarded as a keystone species[5]. A keystone species is a component that the ecosystem is highly impacted and dependant upon[6]. 

Cattle do have negative effects on our global environment, they use a lot of water and release large amounts of greenhouse gases among other issues. However, they do have positive impacts and uses which I feel has been grossly ignored by the media and the general public. They are essential in the conservation of ecosystems and species throughout Western Canada within the grassland region. In my opinion the art of ranching fulfills the definition of a keystone species, without it there would be a tragedy since a beautiful ecosystem could be lost.

This image was taken by myself at the Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch, owned and managed by the University of Alberta. I was on a field trip for my Rangeland Conservation and Management course.

I didn’t touch on many of the other interactions grazing has on ecosystems, but I wrote this piece to show that those positive interactions are present which often go ignored or unheard. I’d also like to note that an excellent documentary on ranching “Guardians of the Grasslands” was recently produced and was part of my inspiration to write this piece. Organizations leading in conservation efforts, Ducks Unlimited Canada and The Nature Conservancy as well as the Canadian Cattleman Association were involved in the production. The link to the trailer is below as well as other sources on the Grassland region.

Kayleigh Lien
Sustain SU Ambassador

Other Sources on the Prairie:

Trailer for ‘Guardians of the Grasslands’ (1.31 min):
The following articles and a video (2.52 min) discuss how pastures can be managed to sequester more carbon:
The greater sage grouse mating ‘dance’ (1.20 min):
The following video (8.27 min) follows Miles Anderson, a rancher who partners with Grasslands National Park, and states his perspective on ranching and how he manages his cows to conserve sage grouse.
The following papers outline the importance of local knowledge to prairie management:

Article Sources
Awmcphee. N.d. Accessed from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Awmcphee

[6]Biology Dictionary. 2019. Accessed from https://biologydictionary.net/keystone-species/ [Accessed on November 30, 2019]. 

[4]Carlyle, C. University of Alberta. 2019. The benefits of cattle for carbon storage and biodiversity in the Canadian prairie. The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute. Accessed from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c6d9be4797f740e645a4310/t/5cabb5caeef1a11582fc431e/1554757067080/2019-02-21-CAPI-land-use-dialogue_Carlyle-Paper_WEB-1.pdf [Accessed on November 27, 2019].

Government of Alberta. 2019. Accessed from https://www.alberta.ca/cultivation-intensity-index.aspx [Accessed on November 26, 2019].

Government of Alberta. 2019. Accessed from https://www.alberta.ca/number-of-species-at-risk-in-alberta.aspx [Accessed on November 27, 2019].

Grasslands National Park. 2019. Accessed from https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/sk/grasslands/nature [Accessed on November 28, 2019].

[3] Kershaw, H.M. and A.U. Mallik. 2013. Predicting Plant Diversity Response to Disturbance: Applicability of the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis and Mass Ratio Hypothesis, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 32:6, 383-395, DOI: 10.1080/07352689.2013.791501

[5] Knight, R.L. 2007. Ranchers as a keystone species in the west that works. Rangelands. 29(5): 4-9. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2111/1551-501X(2007)29%5B4:RAAKSI%5D2.0.CO;2

[2]Kohl M., P. Krausman, K. Kunkel, and D. Williams. 2013. Bison Versus Cattle: Are They Ecologically Synonymous? Rangeland Ecology & Management. 66. 721-731. 10.2111/rem-d-12-00113.1. Accessed from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260203953_Bison_Versus_Cattle_Are_They_Ecologically_Synonymous [Accessed on November 28, 2019].

Lien, K. 2019. Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch. University of Alberta.  Taken on September 28, 2019. Accessed on November 30, 2019.

Lucasia Ranch Vacations. N.d. Accessed from http://www.lucasiaranch.com/cattle_drives.htm [Accessed on November 29, 2019].

Nature Conservancy of Canada. 2019. Accessed from http://www.natureconservancy.ca/en/where-we-work/alberta/our-work/prairie-grasslands-conservation-region.html [Accessed on Novemeber 29, 2019].

New York Beef Council. 2019. Accessed from https://www.nybeef.org/raising-beef/beef-and-sustainability [Accessed on November 27, 2019].

Olson, C. AWA. Accessed from https://albertawilderness.ca//wildlife/bison/ [Accessed on November 27, 2019].

Prairie Adaption Research Collaboration. N.d. Accessed from https://www.parc.ca/saskadapt/adaptation-options/theme-assessments/forest-and-forestry.html [Accessed on November 27, 2019].

[1] The Nature Conservancy. 2019. Accessed from https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/oklahoma/stories-in-oklahoma/bison-history/ [Accessed on November 27, 2019].

Toombs T., J. Derner, D. Augustine, B. Krueger, and S. Gallagher. 2010. Managing for Biodiversity and Livestock. Rangelands. 32. 10-15. 10.2307/40802633.

Tothmeresz, B. 2013. The Dynamic Equilibrium in Ecosystems. Accessed from https://www.tankonyvtar.hu/en/tartalom/tamop412A/2011_0025_kor_5/ch05s12.html [Accessed on November 29, 2019].

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