Indigenous, native temperate grasslands are the most altered ecosystem on earth with less than half remaining intact. Less than one tenth of one percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains. However, nativegrasslands remain significant sources for habitat for bobwhites and other grassland bird species.
Recent estimates report 612 million acres of grassland pasture[i] and rangeland[ii] in the contiguous United States. Within the 25 NBCI statesthere are 91 million acres of pasture, 150 million acres rangeland and 10.3 million acres CRP grass predominate practices.
Introduced species dominate the eastern U.S. grass pastures – by definition the 91 million acres of grassland pasture in the 25 NBCI states are all introduced species. Tall fescue occupies the Corn Belt and mid-south states, bermudagrass the southeast and mid-south and old world bluestems the rangelands of the Great Plains. None of these introduced species provide bobwhite or grassland bird habitat.
The economic value of grasslands has yet to be fully calculated and appreciated. Grasslands provide direct value through forage, contributing $78 billion annually to the U.S. economy through grazing alone. Value estimates of ecosystem services soar into the trillions of dollars, providing nutrient recycling, carbon sequestration, soil health, water quality and quantity, erosion control, wildlife and biodiversity. Recreational values related solely to birds, both hunting and non-consumptive uses is estimated to produce $4.6 billion in retail sales revenue. We are only beginning to explore the potential value of grasslands as a source of biofuels. Then, what is the value of aesthetics and open spaces?
Grazing is the most widespread land management tool in the world. Grasslands evolved with fire and grazing. Grazing is a critical component for grassland management to support healthy soil, plant and animal biodiversity. However, it must be done appropriately to achieve the benefits provided by grasslands. Done incorrectly all the grassland benefits are lost or severely diminished.
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[i] Grassland pasture – managed primarily for the production of introduced forage plants for livestock grazing.
[ii] Rangeland – the climax or potential plant cover is composed principally of native grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs suitable for grazing and browsing, and introduced forage species that are managed like rangeland.