The Semi-Arid Rangelands Are Often Utilized for Grazing

Rangelands include sparse vegetation and and are located in arid or semi-arid climates. Philippe Colombi/Getty Images

Rangeland is a collective term for native grasses and shrubs that cover an arid or semi-arid area. Rangeland can include ecosystems such as forests, woodlands, savannas, tundra, marshes and wetlands.

Much of these rangelands are unsuitable for land uses such as cultivating agricultural crops due to soil quality and low rainfall levels. Less rainfall means grasses and shrubs will not grow as tall and thus often have deep roots. This is the difference between rangeland and other types of grasslands. Soils in arid areas typically have less organic matter than in other ecosystems, which greatly decreases their capability to support agriculture. Instead, rangelands are largely used for livestock grazing or reserved as part of a conservation program. Over half of the land worldwide is rangeland, more land than any other type of ecosystem.

Rangeland in the United States and Abroad

In the United States, rangelands are mostly found in western states due to climate. The United States Bureau of Land Management surveyed both public and private lands for their vegetation cover and type and found over 91 million acres of rangeland in the United States alone in their 2000 inventory. National parks such as Yellowstone National Park and Big Bend National Park are prime examples of rangelands in North America.

Australia's rangelands cover almost 81% of the continent's total land. Like other rangelands, they can be found in several types of ecosystems such as grasslands, savannas and wooded areas. These lands too are generally not suitable for growing agricultural crops. Although some lands have been set aside for conservation purposes, much of Australia's rangelands provide opportunities for ranching, mining and tourism. Over 1800 species of plants and 605 animal species are found in Australia's rangelands, many nowhere else in the world.

The majority of ranching that occurs worldwide occurs on rangeland. This is due not only to rangeland's prevalence over the physical landscape but also because the land is otherwise not suitable for cultivating agricultural crops. Most privately-owned ranches have hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres due to the heavy impact that livestock grazing can have on the land. If a rancher grazes livestock in too small of an area the land can take years to return to its natural state. Ranching is not profitable if over-grazing occurs. As a result ranchers must carefully manage programs to ensure their land will remain sustainable for grazing their livestock.

Some in the agriculture business argue that grazing rangeland helps promote conservation. In one case, 1500 acres of rangeland in San Mateo County, California was deliberately not grazed for a period in the 1980s and 1990s in hopes of encouraging rare native vegetation species to grow freely. Surprisingly, after a few years conservationists noticed that the adjoining grazed property had significantly more desired species than the non-grazed land. After grazing was reintroduced the desired species returned. Grazing actually helped encourage sustainable native vegetation by removing non-native vegetation.

Environmental Impacts and Conservation of Rangeland

In addition to promoting native vegetation, rangelands also help sequester carbon in their soils. Specific management programs have been created to help this continue effectively. They do not allow significant amounts of soil to remain undisturbed and vulnerable to emitting carbon into the atmosphere.

Similar management programs have shown a significant increase in carbon storage annually in rangeland soils. With rangelands covering so much of the world's land surface conserving soils and protecting native vegetation is key to long-term sustainability.

For more information about rangelands please visit the Society for Range Management's website.

Special thanks to Tony Garcia, Rangeland Specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for providing rangeland facts.