A grassy, amber landscape decorated with far-off clusters of aspen and pine trees surrounds you. At your feet, you find a sampling of the 100+ native wildflower species that grow here. Looking out over a seemingly endless rolling prairie, you see herds of elk and cattle grazing nearby. And when the wind calms, you hear the songs of meadowlarks or grasshopper sparrows from perches hidden deep in the grasses.
You're standing on Oregon's Zumwalt Prairie. It's pronounced "zoom-walt" and is the United States’ largest remaining bunch grass prairie habitat and the site of The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Preserve.
Our Zumwalt Prairie Preserve is a place where people and nature thrive. Nearly 4,500 acres of the prairie is a designated National Natural Landmark, highlighting a combination of management that maintains the health of the prairie and livelihood of nearby ranchers.
Our latest work at Zumwalt includes using satellite images to detect and evaluate grazing rates and groundcover. The tools we build from this data could help ranchers better understand how grazing impacts the overall condition of their land—a big step towards solving a problem that has bedeviled grassland managers for decades. Increasing this understanding is good for the rancher and good for grasslands.
Efforts at Zumwalt are one example of how the Conservancy is working to protect and transform grassland habitat—the least protected habitat in Oregon and across the globe. Guided by science, these efforts not only find solutions that protect habitat but also solutions that secure livelihoods.
Sometimes it takes being a "freak of nature" to find these solutions. We think that's just fine and hope you do, too.
As the largest remaining bunch grass prairie in North America, Zumwalt Prairie is 2.5 times the size of Portland!
Approximately 1/4 of the Earth is grassland habitat.
Grasslands and forests in the West sequester 100 million tons of carbon per year— the equivalent to 83 million passenger cars in the United States.
There are over 300 species of birds that either permanently live or migrate through grasslands.
Better Monitoring = Better Grazing
For the past 80 years, land managers in the Zumwalt Prairie have been relying on time-consuming and tedious methods to monitor the grazing patterns of cattle. The Nature Conservancy is using remote-sensed imagery to estimate the productivity and vegetative cover of the Zumwalt Prairie at scales that are useful to land managers.
This Zumwalt Prairie hosts nearly a dozen native bunch grasses and fosters species diversity. Grasslands, like the Zumwalt Prairie, provide important services and roles including as water catchments, biodiversity reserves, for cultural and recreational needs, and potentially a carbon sink to alleviate greenhouse gas emissions.
The Conservancy's Ecologist Rob Taylor, Ph.D., works alongside staff at the Zumwalt Prairie to leverage research surrounding remote-sensed imagery. He says, "I look at this project as a way of coming up with something to measure a very basic indicator of grassland health. If we can measure that, then we can start to manage for it. So, if The Nature Conservancy wants to create habitat for things like Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, then we can manage the land in a way that builds up the vegetative cover they need."
"I've been a rancher my whole life, and my family has ranched for five generations." The Nature Conservancy is working with ranchers like Dan to improve technology.
Rob Taylor says, "You cannot come here and not see a Horned Lark." In addition to the Horned Lark, Zumwalt Prairie is home to 57 species of butterfly, more than 100 wildflower species and various types of large mammals, including elk, mule deer, black bear and cougars.