Sustainable Grazing TNC Staff monitor grazing at Zumwalt Prairie © Padraic O'Meara

Stories in Oregon

Space Cowboys

Using Satellite Imagery for Sustainable Grazing

We're helping ranchers make sustainable grazing decisions on our Zumwalt Prairie Preserve to ensure the largest intact bunchgrass prairie in North America remains a place where both people and nature thrive.  

Space Cowboys We're using satellite images to detect and evaluate grazing rates and groundcover at Zumwalt Prairie.

Hard-Working Grasslands 

Dan Probert leans on a fence pole and surveys the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, a grassy, amber landscape decorated with far-off clusters of aspen and pine trees. At his feet, one could find any number of the 100+ native wildflower species that grow here. Looking out over the seemingly endless rolling prairie, Dan watches a herd of elk grazing not far from his herd of cattle. The songs of meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows ring out from hidden locations across the otherwise quiet scene. A raptor takes flight, surveying the tall grass. 

Grasslands like Zumwalt Prairie provide critical habitat to an incredible array of biodiversity, including birds, bees and butterflies. They also store carbon and can help alleviate greenhouse gas emissions, and filter and clean drinking water. On top of that, grasslands often function as working landscapes for cattle ranchers. If not sustainably managed, grazing can cause permanent damage to the ecosystem. Non-native, fire-prone weeds and grasses can take root and force out the bunchgrass, causing increased risk of fire, loss of habitat and poor grazing for livestock. 

Using Science and Satellites to Guide Strategy

To advise ranchers like Dan about sustainable grazing patterns, The Nature Conservancy is using satellite images to detect and evaluate grazing rates and groundcover. The tools we build from this data will 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.

"I look at this project as a way of coming up with something to measure a very basic indicator of grassland health,” says TNC ecologist Rob Taylor Ph.D. “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.”

Efforts at Zumwalt are one example of how TNC 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.