Washington State University scientists, along with the U.S. Department of Defense and the nonprofit center for Natural Lands Management will conduct a study to find how “working landscapes,” including grazing cattle, might help with habitat conservation.

The state’s remaining native prairie lands are mostly found in southern Puget Sound, including on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Thurston County. These prairies are home to many species that are at risk of extinction, including Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and the Mazama pocket gopher, Kantor reported.

Cattle could help with prairie habitat conservationThe three-year study, titled the Sentinel Landscape pilot project, focuses on these prairie lands. The project is a federal, local and private collaboration that hopes to preserve agricultural lands and restore and protect more than 2,600 acres of prairies, both public and private, and wildlife habitat.

The study also includes plots on Fred Colvin’s black and red Angus cattle ranch, which spans 550 acres. Certain fields are fenced off and managed to improve native plant diversity and cover. Others are managed for a mixture of non-native species such as orchardgrass and tall fescue, Sylvia Kantor of Washington State University reported.

“They’re trying to figure out whether cattle can be part of a commercial operation plus help as far as the prairies are concerned,” Colvin told Kantor. “Frankly, if you don’t have ag on these prairies, you might as well write the prairies off. Because what’s the other alternative use? Forestry? That won’t work. Pavement? I’ll tell you the pocket gopher can’t live under pavement.”

Colvin wants to make sure the needs of the landowner are given priority and that farming operations can still produce profits as the project moves along.

Lucas Patzek, director and agriculture faculty for Washington State University Thurston County Extension, has developed a three-part managed intensive grazing course to help introduce the concept of integrating livestock with prairie habitat conservation to livestock producers.

Colvin took the course, along with more than 60 other people, this summer. The participants learned about the importance of creating designated areas for livestock to graze when native plant pastures are dormant.

Patzek expects the findings to show that through prescribed management, cattle will selectively graze non-native perennial grasses. Those non-native grasses limit the growth of native species, Kantor reported.

He anticipates cattle hoof action will help improve organic matter’s return to the soil and help seed contact with soil for better germination rates of native plants, including golden paintbrush.

Patzek also thinks that the research will continue as part of a long-term restoration and management project, because native plants can take a couple years to get established, Kantor reported.

The idea that cattle grazing and trampling on lands is actually beneficial is shared by Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean biologist, farmer and environmentalist. Savory says that healing the land and reversing climate change can be started by returning cattle to the lands to graze. Read more of Savory's ideas in the articles below: