Grasslands and rangelands are an important ecosystem providing food, income for rural families and communities, recreation, wildlife habitat, soil carbon sequestration, plant and animal biodiversity, and water filtration. Thus, grasslands and rangelands contribute to all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. Grazing is often assumed to negatively impact the natural ecosystem and that removal of grazing would result in more pristine rangelands. To the contrary, grazing has had minimal effects on plant species richness over long periods of time, e.g., 13 to 65 years. Additionally, lack of grazing created grasslands with greater shrub cover dominated by fewer species. In contrast to plant species, continuous grazing in general has a negative impact on wildlife populations, because different wildlife species require different types of habitat varying widely from tall and dense to short and sparse.
Grassland and rangeland management practices influence the benefits received from these ecosystems. Heavy grazing decreases animal productivity and income for ranchers, increases soil erosion, decreases plant biodiversity which decreases wildlife habitat, and less forage production decreases soil carbon sequestration and water filtration. But, proper grazing management allows forages to store reserves during times of abundant precipitation, increase water-holding capacity, provide wildlife habitat at critical times of rearing young, and create a shifting mosaic with both old and new growth vegetation all the while maintaining animal productivity and income for ranchers. And patch burning regimes can be used to direct cattle grazing to specific sites within rangelands further producing numerous habitat structures for diverse wildlife species.
Prior to European settlement, rangelands were ‘managed’ by periodic fire and grazing by wild ungulates (bison, deer, and elk), which function as ecosystem engineers creating a diversity of plants and vegetation structures promoting wildlife habitat. Today, we have smaller areas of privately-owned rangelands interspersed with towns, cities, and cropland rather than wide open expanses for ungulates and fire to roam. And we generally use cattle rather than bison as the primary grazer. Some differences exist between cattle and bison in grazing behavior and how they utilize the landscape, but many of these differences are more a part of human management (fences, lack of predators, etc.) than inherent differences between bison and cattle. The many ecosystem services of grasslands and rangelands can be achieved by managing smaller privately-owned ranches using proper grazing management and fire regimes that promote all three pillars of sustainability.