Healthy Rangelands Store Critical Carbon Above and Below the Surface

March 31, 2021

Rangelands are critical carbon storage ecosystems, storing 12% of global terrestrial carbon stocks. Keeping rangelands intact and healthy is a key mission of Working Lands for Wildlife.


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. 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.

Rangelands store 12% of global terrestrial carbon, making them one of the most important and valuable carbon-storage ecosystems on the planet.

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.

Conservation easements are one of the best tools for keeping rangelands intact, resilient, and productive. This keeps carbon in soils and plants, where it can’t exacerbate climate change. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

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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. In addition to preserving soil carbon stores, these efforts maintain and improve imperiled grassland songbird populations.

Conifer encroachment into sagebrush-steppe is a threat to sage grouse and a significant management challenge. Woody species contribute to more severe rangeland fires, which add carbon to the atmosphere and reduce how much carbon native species store. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

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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.

Rangelands with cheatgrass infestations are twice as likely to burn in a wildfire, since the annual invasive grass dries out early, ignites easily, and spreads fire quickly. This adds carbon to the atmosphere and reduces the carbon-storage capacity of native plants. Photo courtesy of Kari Greer, USFWS.

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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.

 

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.

With strategic restoration and conservation strategies, we can enhance precious water resources, like this wet meadow in the Gunnison Basin of Colorado. Photos: Claudia Strijek

With strategic restoration and conservation strategies, we can enhance precious water resources, like this wet meadow in the Gunnison Basin of Colorado. Photos: Claudia Strijek

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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.


 

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.