Nature Tech

Space Cowboys: A New Generation of Prairie Keepers

February 21, 2017

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How many cows can you graze and maintain a healthy prairie? Where and for how long? These are important questions for ranchers and scientists interested in sustainably supporting cattle and protecting prairie habitat for wildlife.

The answer relies on complex and changing variables (precipitation, vegetation, soil, herd characteristics, etc.); results are difficult and tedious to monitor on the ground. That’s why The Nature Conservancy in Oregon is partnered with other private landowners, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the University of Idaho to use satellites to monitor vegetation cover on the Zumwalt Prairie. Yes, satellites.

Satellite data allows conservation geographers to accurately assess vegetation cover. Looking at imagery over time can reveal changes in the density of plants.

“If you see that a pasture two years in a row is decreasing in the amount of cover,” Vincent Jansen, a doctoral student working on the project says, “[ranchers] might be able to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to put less cows in there this next year.’”

These changes can give the prairie a chance to recover — restoring an area for future grazing and maintaining important habitat for wildlife like elk, horned larks, and many more species that call Zumwalt Prairie home.

Efforts at Zumwalt are one example of how the Conservancy is working to protect and transform grassland habitat—the least protected habitat in Oregon and across the globe. Guided by science, these efforts find solutions that not only improve habitat but also maintain ranching livelihoods.

Angus with single Charolais (Bos taurus) at Zumwalt Prairie in Oregon. Photo © Rick McEwan
Angus with single Charolais (Bos taurus) at Zumwalt Prairie in Oregon. Photo © Rick McEwan
Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. Somebody’s got to be the watchdog over our lands and environments. . . . We need a lot more good people and organizations to protect our lands and the creatures that inhabitate them.