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Cattle as ecosystem engineers: New grazing management enhances rangeland biodiversity

Derner, Justin D., Augustine, David J., Kachergis, Emily J.
ARS USDA Submissions 2014 v.2014 no.1 pp. 10
Cynomys, biodiversity, birds, cattle, climate, economic valuation, ecosystem engineers, ecosystem services, ecosystems, forage, foraging, grasslands, grazing, grazing intensity, habitats, land management, landscapes, livestock production, managers, mangers, markets, prescribed burning, products and commodities, rangelands, soil, topography, vegetation structure, weight gain, wildfires, Western United States
A confluence of factors has shaped the composition and structure of vegetation on rangelands in the American West. These factors include climate, soils, topography, history of grazing and fire (both wildfire and prescribed fire) as well as legacy effects from prior land management practices. Despite the inherent differences in vegetation of rangelands resulting from these factors, sustainable management practices involving matching forage availability to forage demand have resulted in managing large acreages in a similar fashion for livestock production. Due to the focus on sustainable grazing practices and livestock production, there is often high similarity in vegetation composition and structure within local landscapes. In contrast to management that increases “sameness”, and in an attempt to increase desired habitats for grassland birds that need low or high vegetation structure, livestock can be used as a tool to “engineer” rangelands to produce differences in vegetation Attaining greater use of livestock as ecosystem engineers to obtain differences in vegetation composition and structure can be accomplished with current management practices. Livestock managers can alter timing and intensity of grazing, length of rest periods, and type of livestock as well as combining grazing with use of prescribed fire and/or existing colonies of prairie dogs. Livestock mangers can control when livestock graze certain areas, for how long, and how much vegetation is left ungrazed (to a certain height or residue level). Using livestock to engineer rangelands entails focusing grazing management activities to create desired levels of differences in composition and/or structure of vegetation with decision-making encompassing both provision of ecosystem services and livestock weight gains. Providing the economic markets for these ecosystem services is the nexus for facilitating more widespread engineering by livestock of rangeland ecosystems in the American West. What is needed is a confluence of conservation and production outcome goals into marketable commodities from these rangelands in the American West. Then, development of markets to place economic value on these commodities for the land manager, as well as for the general public, should provide the foundation on which to foster more engineering of rangeland vegetation by livestock.