SDSU study analyzes East River native grasslands
BROOKINGS, S.D. -- In South Dakota, ranchers are some of the best conservationists, as cattle often rely heavily on rangeland as a feed source. The use of that land, as evaluated in a report by the South Dakota State University Extension, has imp...
BROOKINGS, S.D. - In South Dakota, ranchers are some of the best conservationists, as cattle often rely heavily on rangeland as a feed source. The use of that land, as evaluated in a report by the South Dakota State University Extension, has implications for the future for ranchers.
"No cows, no grass, no birds," is how rancher Lyle Perman sums it up.
Native grasslands provide grazing for cattle, sheep and bison. They also support pollinators and wildlife, and increase plant diversity, soil quality and water infiltration and quality, among other benefits.
Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension range field specialist, led the project that began in June 2014 and concluded October 2016. The recently-released report, "Quantifying Undisturbed (Native) Lands in Eastern South Dakota: 2013," evaluates the native or undisturbed status of land use in the eastern 44 counties.
The native, undisturbed grasslands were determined by Bauman and other researchers using deductive analysis.
"It's not as simple as figuring out where it's at - we do the opposite," Bauman says. "We can say what definitely is not native, by evidence of historical disturbance. It's not to be determined as 100 percent certain."
A total of 22.6 million acres was analyzed overall, with 5.5 million acres, or 24.2 percent, identified as potentially undisturbed. Of this potentially undisturbed land, 214,981 acres showed signs of possible disturbance and were flagged for further analysis. The other 72.8 percent of all land analyzed showed a proven history of disturbance.
Less than 1 million of the 5.5 million undisturbed acres had some type of permanent conservation status. In terms of the land in eastern South Dakota, undisturbed land under protection from conversion totals 4.3 percent.
"Regardless of the numbers on this report, we will never gain more native grasslands," Bauman says. "We will never have more than we do right now. It's a one-way slide."
Land close to the Missouri River had a greater amount of native grasslands in comparison to the farthest east side of the state, where the most fertile crop land is.
The study establishes a baseline to which future evaluations may be compared.
Jim Faulstich, chair of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, supports grasslands projects in the state.
"It's much cheaper and more efficient to keep the native grasslands than try to recover them," he says.
Both Faulstich and Perman are concerned about the loss of grasslands and number of species. Losing diversity can lead to species eventually being candidates for an endangered species list, which could increase limitations and become a major economic driver.
Perman, a rancher as well as a member of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, South Dakota Grassland Coalition, South Dakota Farm Bureau and National Cattlemen's Beef Association, compares the resource of native grasslands to the disappearing rainforest.
"This is a resource we are fortunate to have," he says. "What are we going to do to keep it intact? It doesn't just restore. We need to continue to educate and make sure people understand the value of it within our communities and ecosystem."
Bauman states the next phase of the project will be mapping and analyzing the 22 counties on the western side of the state.
This project was the result of support from federal, state and non-government agriculture and conservation organizations.