Healthy Rangelands Store Critical Carbon Above and Below the Surface

Globally, rangelands store 12% of terrestrial carbon, making them a critical carbon sink and a key ecosystem for mitigating climate change.

Underneath the range where the deer and antelope play, an upside-down forest plays a critical role in capturing and storing carbon.

Rangelands globally contain 12 percent of terrestrial carbon, with about 87 percent in the soil. Plants are responsible for the remaining 13 percent. Native plants in healthy sagebrush country and grasslands send their roots deep into the soil – seeking out moisture, holding soil place, and storing carbon in these intricate root structures.

West of the Mississippi River more than two-thirds of rangelands are privately owned. In the Great Plains, nearly 90% of the landscape is private. Most of these acres are grazing lands that support families and communities, catalyze agricultural economies, and provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife species.

Healthy grasslands help store carbon, provide wildlife habitat, and are the foundation of rural communities throughout the Great Plains. Photo: Amy Erickson

Keeping these rangeland soils intact is the most important action for preserving this natural carbon storage. The USDA-NRCS – through Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) – is marshaling the power of the Farm Bill to keep rangelands productive, intact, resilient, and healthy. Doing so not only benefits the hard-working families that steward these lands and the wildlife that depend on them but also maintains carbon in the soil.

Most of the carbon in rangelands is stored undergound in soil. Healthy native grasses are the key to this important carbon-storage, which is why WLFW works to keep rangelands “green side up.”

Accomplishing this goal requires WLFW to strategically address the primary drivers of rangeland loss and degradation, including the following actions:

Preventing Rangeland Lost 

The primary mechanisms for preventing rangeland loss and depletion of rangeland carbon are transitioning expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts to working grazing lands and securing conservation easements. These actions result in the storage of deep pools of soil carbon, conserve critical wildlife habitat and migrations corridors, and make additional grazing lands available for American ranchers. In addition to preserving soil carbon stores, these efforts maintain and improve imperiled grassland songbird populations.

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Grasshopper sparrow (Alan Schmierer), eastern meadowlark (John Sutton) and Cassin’s sparrow (Alan Schmierer) are some of the songbirds that showed impressive population gains following the implementation of conservation practices through LPCI and CRP.

Halting Woodland Expansion into Rangelands 

The expansion of woody plants is causing rangeland loss at a rate equivalent to that of cultivation. The USDA-NRCS is tackling this threat head-on through preventative management and targeted restoration. These actions improve climate adaptation by increasing the resiliency of rangelands, reducing wildfire danger to rural communities, and preventing loss of livestock forage.

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Nebraska is on the front lines of an eastern redcedar invasion as illustrated by this photo from the Loess Canyons area. Woody plants crowd out native wildflowers and grasses and jeopardize these plant’s carbon-storage capacity. Additionally, when they burn in wildfire, the release large amounts of carbon into the air. Photo by Dirac Twidwell, UNL

Controlling Invasive Annual Grasses 

Below-ground carbon stores are also lost when annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass displace deep-rooted perennial plants. Combating this threat requires preventative management and targeted restoration. Benefits include conserving wildlife habitat for the imperiled sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, reduced wildfire risk, and enhanced plant and soil carbon storage through deep-rooted native perennial grasses.

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  • Led by the NRCS in Idaho, the Cheatgrass Challenge launched in 2020 to focus precious resources on protecting relatively intact rangelands and then expand those core areas into zones where cheatgrass is present but not dominant.
  • The Western Governors’ Association, with support and participation from WLFW staff, recently launched its “Toolkit for Invasive Annual Grass Management in the West” helping western states proactively address this growing threat.

Japense Brome, pictured here, is an invasive annual grass that is impacting the northern Great Plains. Cheatgrass is also a growing threat to Great Plains grasslands. Photo: Patrick J. Alexander, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Restoring Waterways and Wet Meadows 

Degraded floodplains and meadows reduce carbon-storing capabilities and exacerbate the impacts of changing climates such as fire and drought. The USDA-NRCS is spearheading strategies to restore mesic areas that reconnect floodplains and store water in soils. These actions improve carbon storage in valley bottoms, increase vegetative productivity for ranching and wildlife, and reduce downstream flooding.

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Low-tech mesic restoration projects are catching on across the West. These “cheap and cheerful” projects help make grasslands more resilient to fire and help make water available for plants, wildlife, and livestock later in the year when they need it most. Photo: Jeremy Maestas, SGI/NRCS

Whether preventing rangeland conversion, removing encroaching woody species, treating invasive annual grasses, or restoring critical wet habitats, the WLFW approach helps keep rangelands intact and healthy. Furthermore, these actions help preserve carbon storage above and below the shimmering sagebrush sea and the swaying grassland prairie.