Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Management of rangelands is based on ecological principles that ensure sustained health and productivity of range ecosystems. Rangeland is a noncultivated land type on which the native vegetation includes grasses, sedges, broadleaf herbaceous plants, and shrubs. It is the dominant land type in the Great Plains, comprising about 50 percent of the total land area. Livestock grazing has been the primary rangeland use in the Great Plains since the beginning of European American settlement, and range management has always been closely linked to the livestock industry. The livestock industry started in the Southern Plains in the 1700s and in the early 1870s moved into the Northern and Central Plains. By the mid-1990s, Great Plains rangeland supported about 40 to 50 percent of the beef cattle of the United States and about 75 percent of Canada's. With proper range management for livestock production, the integrity of rangelands and the potential for other uses are not compromised. Great Plains rangelands are important for wildlife habitat, watershed protection, recreation, and preservation of genetic diversity. Management targeted toward such uses or values is critical on public lands, and ecotourism, wildlife viewing, and fee hunting are important sources of income for private landowners in many states.

Most rangelands in the Great Plains are grasslands, although other range types, such as savannas, shrub lands, woodlands, and wetlands, are important regionally or locally. Great Plains grasslands include tallgrass prairie, mixed prairie, shortgrass prairie, and fescue prairie. Distribution of grassland types is largely related to gradients in annual precipitation from east to west (ten to forty inches) and, to a lesser extent, temperature gradients from north to south (68ºF to 85ºF in July). The tallgrass prairie once covered the eastern quarter of the Great Plains and was dominated by warm-season grasses, including big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans). Today, most of the tallgrass prairie is cultivated for rowcrop production, except for the Flint Hills of Kansas, where the shallow soils have restricted cultivation. The mixed prairie occupies the central third of the Great Plains and is dominated by cool-season grasses in the north and warm-season grasses in the south. The mixed prairie is the most important range type for livestock production in the United States, although small grains are also grown on much of the area. The shortgrass prairie extends west from the mixed prairie to the Rocky Mountains and is recognized by its low stature and the dominance of two shortgrasses, buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Plant and animal production is limited by water availability. The fescue prairie is on the northern boundary of the mixed prairie in Canada and is extensively cultivated for crop production.

Condition of rangelands is evaluated based on measures of ecosystem health and production (e.g., soil surface conditions and species composition). Range condition generally was low in the Great Plains by the early twentieth century because livestock mismanagement, cultivation and abandonment, and drought resulted in low plant cover, wind and water erosion, and proliferation of invasive and low quality plants. Aggressive management efforts by the private and public sectors have improved range condition significantly over the past sixty years. Only 6 percent of the rangeland in the Northern Great Plains is classified in poor condition, although 25 percent in the Southern Great Plains is in the poor category.

Tools used to maintain or improve range condition include proper grazing management, prescribed burning, herbicide application, and reseeding. Proper stocking rate for the various range sites is the key to successful management of grazed rangelands. Development of grazing systems involving rotation of livestock through two or more pastures also plays an important role in maintaining or improving range condition. Rotational grazing provides forage plants with critical rest periods that allow for recovery after grazing. Fire, a natural component of most range ecosystems, is commonly used under prescribed conditions to control invasive plant species, such as junipers (Juniperus spp.) and introduced bromegrasses (Bromus spp.). Herbicides are an important alternative for control of many broadleaf herbaceous plants and such woody plants as honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) in the Southern Great Plains. Although expensive, reseeding native species may be an alternative for extremely depleted sites; however, risk of failure increases under drier conditions. Overall, range ecosystems such as the Nebraska Sandhills demonstrate that when management practices are properly applied, range ecosystems can be used for production purposes while sustaining ecological integrity.


Walter H. Schacht University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Holechek, Jerry L., Rex D. Pieper, and Carlton H. Herbel. Range Management: Principles and Practices. Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

Samson, Fred B., and Fritz L. Knopf, eds. Prairie Conservation. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996.

Vallentine, John F. Range Development and Improvements. San Diego: Academic Press, Inc., 1989.

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