By Colin Searl, Nebraska Land Trust Intern
Over the past two hundred years the American Midwest, like much of our country, has been cut up, paved, and transformed into something unrecognizable to the settlers and Native Americans of the past. However, there is one group of people who have lived with the land and done more to conserve our native ecosystems than any other group or organization. These conservationists are ranchers.
Before Europeans settled the Great Plains millions of bison, elk, and other grazers roamed freely from Texas to Canada. Nowadays, much of the native grasslands have been replaced by row crops, but Nebraska’s ranchers have maintained large swaths of native prairie that are unique in the Midwest. The Nebraska Sandhills offer a prime example. Through the careful stewardship of ranchers over several generations, conditions have actually improved from the late 1800s when it was said that a person could walk from Valentine to North Platte and never step on a blade of grass. Essentially, cattle have replaced the ecological niche that bison once held which is important, because an ungrazed prairie is an unhealthy prairie.
There are over twelve million acres of rangeland located in the Sandhills and it is arguably the largest, most pristine prairie ecosystem left in North America. This diverse ecosystem holds over seven hundred different species of plants, most of which are native. These plants help sustain over a half million head of cattle, as well as over three hundred species of animals and many migratory birds.
So the next time you get a chance, thank a rancher. Without them, Nebraska could have easily lost its prairie heritage forever.
Additional Information and Citations:
UNL – The Nebraska Sandhills
UNL – Grazing Systems for Nebraska Sandhills Rangeland
US Fish & Wildlife Service – The Sandhills