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Monday, December 5, 2011

Integrating rangeland ecosystem services and ranch economics

The Colorado State University Western Center for Integrated Resource Management's 2011 Nick Petry Workshop

Colorado State University
Western Center for
Integrated Resource Management

Profitable ranches integrate land stewardship and economics. Rangeland ecosystem services, and payments for them, were the focus of the annual Nick Petry Workshop, held by the Colorado State University (CSU) Western Center for Integrated Resource Management at the National Western Complex in Denver on Dec. 2. 

The highlight was rancher Kelly Bader’s perspective on ranching for ecosystem services. The Bader Ranch in southeastern Colorado now produces more than when the family bought it in 1990, thanks to changes in grazing and fire management. Bader used existing fences to implement rotational grazing, where a single herd grazes pastures sequentially rather than having continuous access to the entire property. Each pasture has a short grazing period, and most of a growing season to recover. Thus the palatable plants are maintained in the pasture, and animals are not anywhere long enough to develop patches of degradation. Desirable tall grasses such as bluestems, and palatable cool season grasses such as wheatgrasses, have returned to what had been a pure shortgrass prairie of blue grama and buffalo grass under continuous grazing.  Large game animals and other wildlife are thriving, he said.

Bader showed a fence-line contrast where his pasture was diverse and productive, and a neighbor’s continuously grazed pasture had only a few short grasses left. A recent fire burned through much of the Bader ranch’s lush vegetation, setting back juniper encroachment into grasslands—“the best thing to happen to the land in 120 years,” according to Bader. The flames stopped at the fence because the continuously grazed pasture could not carry a fire. 
A fire burned through much of the productive vegetation of the Bader Ranch, including the rotationally grazed pasture on the left.  The continuously grazed pasture on the right did not have enough grass to carry a fire.
Photo courtesy Kelly and Randy Bader

Bader said stocking rates should fluctuate with forage production. His average stocking rates are similar to neighboring ranches, but his management is producing more ecosystem services. 

Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, with the CSU Department of Forest and Rangeland Resources, gave an engaging presentation on applying ecological site descriptions to ranch management. Ecological sites are land units with similar potential kinds and amounts of vegetation, but can exist in multiple stable states, some with more production and diversity than others. Transitions between states may be driven by climate, fire, grazing, or other management actions. For instance, sagebrush-grassland ecological sites in Colorado can degrade from a diverse state with high forage production to a dense sagebrush state with low forage production, due to drought, overstocking, or a combination thereof, based on state-and-transition models developed by Fernandez-Gimenez's former PhD student Emily Kachergis[1,2], now with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). 

Workshop participants used laptop computers to simulate different stocking rates, and in some cases spraying the sagebrush with brush-specific herbicide, and calculated their economic returns in a session with economist Jay Parsons of the CSU Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Generally moderate stocking rates yielded the highest returns, because high stocking rates tended to cause decreases in forage production and livestock performance. On sites in the degraded state, low stocking rates tended to yield higher long-term profits because they maximized the probability that the land could return to the productive state given a few years of favorable moisture, and in some cases brush treatment. 

Livestock are ecosystem engineers [3], said Justin Derner of the USDA-ARS High Plains Grasslands Research Station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Grazing and other disturbances influence vegetation structure and composition. For instance, season-long grazing combined with prairie dogs or patch burning every several years maximized habitat for mountain plover, a bird which requires low-statured vegetation and patches of bare ground—conditions not generally considered desirable for rangeland health or large grazing animals.


Rangelands October 2011
Ecosystem services are provided at different rates depending on how land is managed, but are a classic case of market failure because users to not directly pay for them, according to Josh Goldstein of the CSU Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources. Optimal outputs of goods and services are more likely when the beneficiaries—usually the public at large—pay for them. Goldstein said there is an “umbrella” of emerging opportunities to market ecosystem services, giving the example of ranches in the Florida Everglades receiving payments from state agencies for water retention and phosphorus load reduction [4,5].

The Trigg Ranch in New Mexico received payments for rangeland soil carbon sequestration before the Chicago Climate Exchange market collapsed, as detailed in a case study [6] in the October 2011 special issue of Rangelands magazine on Rangeland Ecosystem Goods and Services, published by the Society for Range Management. The special issue also features the work of Goldstein and colleagues at CSU [4,5].

The excellent research and the computer simulation model presented at the workshop, for the sake of scientific rigor, do not yet incorporate Bader’s adaptive management with multiple-paddock grazing and flexible stocking. On the land, the ecological challenge is to address nature’s complexity with planned grazing and adaptive management; the economic challenge is to develop markets to pay land managers for those services directly.

  

Literature Cited

1. Kachergis, E., M.E. Rocca and M.E. Fernandez-Gimenez. 2011. Indicators of ecosystem function identify alternate states in the sagebrush steppe. Ecological Applications 21: 2781-2792.
2. Knapp, C.N., M.E. Fernandez-Gimenez, E. Kachergis, and A. Rudeen. 2011.
Evaluation and integration of local knowledge and ecological data-driven state-and-transition models. Rangeland Ecology & Management 64: 158-170.

3. Derner, J.D., W.K. Lauenroth, P. Stapp and D.J. Augustine. 2009. Livestock as ecosystem engineers for grassland bird habitat in the western Great Plains of North America. Rangeland Ecology & Management 62:111-118.
4. Goldstein, J.H., C.K. Presnall, L. Lopez-Hoffman, G.P. Nabhan, R.L. Knight, G.B. Ruyle, and T.P. Toombs.  2011.  Beef and beyond: paying for ecosystem services on western US rangelands. Rangelands 33(5):4-12.
5. T. Toombs, J.H. Goldstein, C. Hanson, N. Robinson-Maness, and T. Frankhauser.  2011.  Rangeland ecosystem services, risk management, and the ranch bottom line.  Rangelands 33(5):13-19.
6. Gosnell, H., N. Robinson-maness, and S. Charnley.  2011.  Profiting from the sale of carbon offsets: a case study of the Trigg Ranch.  Rangelands 33(5):25-29.

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