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.
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.
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.
- Over the last 10 years, the USDA-NRCS and partners have permanently protected more than 230,000 acres of prime sagebrush rangelands in Montana through conservation easements.
- In Nebraska, landowner Dan Leuenberger created a lek on lands he enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and was thrilled to find that prairie-chickens returned to his ranch.
- The USDA recently celebrated that it has supported more than 5 million acres of conservation easements across the country – that’s an area the size of the entire state of New Jersey, protected in perpetuity!
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.
- Over the next five years, WLFW is helping states in the Great Plains significantly ramp up woody species removal efforts, with a target of treating 7.9 million acres.
- The innovative and powerful Rangelands Analysis Platform helps landowners and managers pinpoint where woody species removal efforts will have the most impact on rangeland health.
- Learn more about woody species expansion and eradication in the Great Plains from the Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project and our Ask an Expert interview with Dr. Dirac Twidwell, who helped launch the ERSLP and is a science advisor for Working Lands for Wildlife.
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.
- 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.
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.
- WLFW has trained hundreds of land managers and owners on low-tech restoration techniques that restore streams, creeks, and wet meadows.
- In partnership with Utah State University, WLFW co-produced a free, low-tech mesic riverscape restoration manual that provides detailed information on why, where, and how to use low-tech riparian restoration in the West.
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.