The 3D Ranch in Colorado's San Luis Valley, in a 2019 file photo. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pastoralism, the practice of raising livestock for food, has sustained human populations, grassland ecosystems and biodiversity around the world since Neolithic times.

Not only does well-managed livestock grazing produce meat, a nutrient-dense protein source important to human health, it is also an essential economic and ecological tool in maintaining healthy landscapes, clean air, water, wildlife and open space.

The popular rhetoric floating around on the climate impacts of eating meat largely stems from a 2006 UN reportlater debunked and revised — that inaccurately calculated the greenhouse gas emissions contributed by global livestock production. 

Hallie Mahowald

Since then, calls to reduce or end meat consumption for the sake of the climate have come from groups pushing anti-animal agriculture agendas and more recently from companies producing plant-based meat “alternatives.” 

Here in the West, there is a growing number of organizations focused on the stewardship of landscapes that see a different narrative playing out on working lands managed by ranchers, farmers and other landowners. 

Cattle and other livestock are being grazed for co-equal goals of meat production and conserving habitat, including important migration corridors for wildlife.

Our understanding of these complex ecosystems has been evolving as technological advances allow both researchers and practitioners to study and observe the interactions between carbon, water, nutrients and living organisms.

We, as a land-steward community, are re-learning how to manage landscapes through a systems-based lens. Emerging evidence from the science on soil health, water quality, biodiversity, grazing practices and greenhouse gases is converging to support what many ranchers and other experienced natural resource managers have observed for a long time: Thoughtfully tended landscapes can support and even increase biodiversity.

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A key component of managing our grasslands and shrublands, savannas and forests is domestic grazers, including cattle, sheep, goats and other herbivores. Using the tool of livestock, land stewards (ranchers, farmers, and resource specialists) can enhance landscape function or the capacity of land to support living things, including wildlife, plants and human communities.

This means carbon, nutrient, and water cycles are intact and effective. Grazers eat and stomp vegetation, converting cellulose (plant fibers) into food for a wide swath of omnivores, from soil microbes to humans.

Most of the U.S. historically supported vast herds of herbivores. The Front Range of Colorado was once a shortgrass prairie and home to abundant wildlife populations that depended on a diverse plant community. 

As urban centers have grown out into suburban and rural residential communities, habitat has either been paved over or become fragmented. Much of the remaining productive land and habitat is on private, working lands. Domestic grazers serve the role those herds of native grazers once performed.    

The benefits of livestock operations across Colorado include open space, which provides the views we love, key habitat for native plants and wildlife, and rural character and heritage that as a state we treasure. It’s a form of land stewardship and economic activity that enables us to keep lands healthy and intact. 

However, livestock production is a viable land management tool only if there is a market for the meat, wool and leather that are produced through ranch businesses and if the other public benefits that these working lands provide are understood and supported.  

Hallie Mahowald of Salida is the programs director for the Western Landowners Alliance, which seeks to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species.

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Hallie Mahowald

Special to The Colorado Sun