Climate Adaptation Strategies for Rangeland Managers: A Literature Review

Petersen, S., Basaraba, A., Hauser, S., Kesling, J., and Malcom, A
Posted on: 11/24/2020 - Updated on: 12/21/2020

Posted by

Kathryn Braddock



Rangelands are complex, intricate, interconnected, and dynamic socio-ecological systems comprised of humans, livestock, and natural wildlife. They are an integral part of the region’s economy and provide valuable income to both tribal and non-tribal ranchers and communities. 

The climate of the Upper Snake River Watershed, and the Great Basin as a whole, is changing. While variable across the region, for the Upper Snake River Watershed, projections indicate that there will be a significant long-term decrease in snowpack, an increase in the variability of precipitation events, and an increase in temperatures across all seasons. These changes are altering rangelands and challenging ranching operations across the region. This paper provides a literature review of relevant rangeland management and water resource strategies that ranchers and rangeland managers are using to respond to the changing climate conditions. While not comprehensive, this review summarizes some of the most salient current research and actions on managing rangeland systems in a changing climate. The summary is organized around three main themes: 

  1. Grazing – By diversifying the variety, age, species, genetic source, and breed of livestock, rangeland managers can invest in cattle that have an increased tolerance to drought, heat, and parasites in order to improve the resilience of their rangeland operation. Key actions include varying stock, constructing exclosures, and using rotational grazing. 
  2. Rangeland - Natural plant diversity across rangelands minimize the risk of catastrophic events (wildfire, disease, and pests) and improve consistency of livestock production. Key actions include: improving landscape connectivity; integrating rangeland and cropland; and removing invasive species while enhancing planting of native grasses and forbs. 
  3. Water Resources - Healthy ecosystems support many essential services including: enhancing biodiversity; enhancing healthy soil and water quality; encouraging pollinator habitat; controlling erosion; providing essential water services for rangeland production; sequestering carbon; and reducing the susceptibility to climate change. Key actions include creation of beaver dam analogues, expanding water storage, and supplemental watering. 

Adapting to a changing climate will mean more than just modifying approaches to stocking, enhancing and restoring rangelands, or providing diverse and redundant systems for providing and managing water. It will require embracing some amount of uncertainty, and for rangeland managers to be willing to continue to be creative and flexible to make the most of the highly variable and dynamic environmental and socio-economic systems on a seasonal, annual, and even decadal basis. It will also require policy frameworks that enhance the ability of ranchers, and the cattle they manage, to respond to these changes in productive ways. In some cases, it may even mean abandoning certain grazing parcels or allotments that may become unsuitable for ranching. 

Regardless of the extent of the challenge, rangeland managers are creative, adaptable, and innovative people and they have a proven ability to prepare for and adjust to changing conditions. Yet, the extent and rate of change is likely to go beyond what they have experienced in the past. Climate change is just one of many factors that rangeland managers will have to balance in their quest to continue to be both profitable and sustainable. Utilizing holistic approaches that value both the economic success of a ranching operation and the long-term health and resilience of the landscape and wildlife will ensure that rangelands remain an important part of the social, economic, and cultural fabric of the Upper Snake River Watershed for decades to come