NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ranches Help Preserve Grasslands

September 12, 2002

For decades environmentalists have suspected ranching of chewing up ecosystems in the western states. They have tried to limit grazing on public lands, where cattle and sheep ranchers lease pastures from the government. But some scientists and conservationists are now saying that cattle ranches may be the last best hope for preserving habitat for many native species. The ranches could also be the best way to preserve grasslands and the periodic fires that keep brush and cactuses from taking over.

In recent studies published in peer-reviewed journals like BioScience, Conservation Biology, and Environmental Science and Policy, scientists have concluded that large, intact working cattle ranches are crucial puzzle pieces holding together an increasingly fragmented landscape.

Richard L. Knight, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University, recently did just that, comparing 93 sites on ranches, in wildlife refuges and in subdivided ranches with about one house per 40 acres.

  • He found that the ranches had at least as many species of birds, carnivores and plants as similar areas that are protected as wildlife refuges.
  • Ranches also had fewer invasive weeds.

When ranches are subdivided into "ranchettes" of 40 acres or less, invasive species move in along with people and their pets, and fewer native species can live on the land.

And it becomes much harder, if not impossible, to let fires burn across the land periodically, a process that is now thought to be essential in many ecosystems. Private ranch lands are often the most productive lands in the West, too. Ranches are usually located at lower elevations and have richer soils and more water than surrounding public lands.

Source: Jon Christensen, "Environmentalists Hail the Ranchers: Howdy, Pardners!" New York Times, September 10, 2002.


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