A cowboy on horse moves cattle on a golden prairie.
Matador Ranch Rider on Matador Ranch © Ami Vitale

Food & Water Stories

Sustainable Grazing Lands

Livestock grazing on intact, working grasslands can help secure clean water, enhance habitat, address climate change and sustain rural communities.

From the grasslands and savannas of California to the prairies of the Great Plains and pastures of Florida, grazing lands are found throughout the United States. These iconic lands—totaling about 775 million acres nationwide—and the ranching families who care for them are the backbone of rural economies, as well as a crucial key to a healthy future. Grazing lands provide food for people, secure clean water and wildlife habitat, and store carbon in the soil, which helps to mitigate climate change.

However, grasslands are the least protected habitat on earth. They are rapidly disappearing due to a number of threats, including urban sprawl, agricultural conversion and energy development. In 2015 alone, 3.7 million acres were lost to make way for more row crops in the Great Plains. Many remaining lands are overworked and at risk of degradation exacerbated by climate change.

The Nature Conservancy is working with ranchers and other key leaders in the beef supply chain to adopt a sustainability framework that keeps grasslands ecologically intact and economically productive, safeguarding the future of ranching families and feeding a growing world.

Our goal is to improve management on 240 million acres (30%) of U.S. grazing lands by 2025, resulting in enhanced wildlife habitat, soil carbon storage, water quality, and rural economies.

To achieve this goal, we are working with ranchers and the beef supply chain to conserve intact grasslands and ensure our nation’s grazing lands benefit from improved management practices to conserve natural resources, while producing food and sustaining ranching communities. 

Two ranchers on horseback near sunset on an Idaho ranch.
Allies in Conservation Owners of Alderspring Ranch in Idaho use conservation practices that help protect a stretch of the Pahsimero River that contains as much as 40 percent of the Chinook spawning areas for the entire river. © Bridget Besaw

Growing Collaborations, Resources and Science

Our goal to effect long-term change within the beef industry is ambitious and our window to achieve it is small. To do so, we are collaborating in new and innovative ways across business, science and policy sectors. 

Specifically, TNC is working with diverse partners to: 

  • Provide producers and ranch advisors with innovative tools and resources to develop and implement sustainable management plans;
  • Foster private and public partnerships to rapidly scale up the adoption of sustainable grazing practices; 
  • Launch pilot projects to identify, test and promote science-based sustainable grazing practices; and
  • Align corporate and government policies and programs to support land managers seeking to improve their ecological, social and economic outcomes.

These strategies will expand the collaborations, resources and science needed to achieve sustainability at a scale that is meaningful for the people, wildlife and the natural communities that depend on healthy grazing lands.

Ranchers at work on the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve in Wallowa County, Oregon.
Ranchers at work on the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve in Wallowa County, Oregon. © Aaron Huey

Together, We Can Make a Difference

The Nature Conservancy—which owns 500,000 acres of U.S. grazing lands and has helped to conserve millions more through easements and collaborative management—has worked for years to develop strong, trusting relationships within the ranching community and the beef supply chain. We use our lands to work with and support neighboring ranchers and to develop and test cutting-edge, science-based management practices. 

Food companies and other supply chain stakeholders are seeking TNC’s expertise to achieve sustainability goals while driving accountability within the industry, positioning our staff to help guide national initiatives that have the potential to make a lasting impact. 

We are at a critical moment in time. Grazing has the largest footprint of any agricultural activity, making it imperative that we manage these lands for clean water, climate benefits, global food security and vibrant rural communities. Together, we can help safeguard an enduring part of America’s heritage while protecting natural resources and ensuring a sustainable future for a growing world.

Cows moving across the plain at Zumwalt Prairie Preserve.
Cattle on the Move near the Matador Ranch. © Ami Vitale

Proven Success

Grassbank

TNC's Matador Ranch in Montana is a center for scientific research and a model for collaboration. In 2002, TNC started a grassbank program, enabling local ranchers to pay discounted fees to graze their cattle on the Matador in exchange for wildlife-friendly practices on their own lands, including not plowing. More than 350,000 acres of vital habitat have been conserved. 

Sustainability Framework

TNC is a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), an initiative to advance sustainability in the beef industry. In spring 2019, USRSB members adopted a framework that includes indicators, metrics, and implementation guidance for improving sustainability outcomes throughout the supply chain. TNC provided scientific and policy perspectives on the development of the framework, ensuring conservation priorities—ecosystem health, water quality and quantity, and reduced GHG emissions—were well recognized. 

Zumwalt Prairie Preserve

TNC’s 33,000-acre Zumwalt Prairie Preserve is Oregon’s largest privately-owned nature sanctuary. TNC is helping ranchers in the surrounding region make sustainable grazing decisions to ensure the largest intact bunchgrass prairie in North America remains a place where both people and nature thrive. Managed livestock grazing, prescribed fire and protection of natural communities are used to improve plant health and diversity on the preserve.

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