Parts of northwest South Dakota look much the same today as they did hundreds of years ago, with breathtaking expanses of grass, plains, buttes and sky.
Within just four counties in South Dakota’s northwest corner, there are nearly 9,000 square miles of virgin sod.
Globally, however, about a fifth of the world’s native grasslands have been converted to crops.
That’s troubling for people like Pete Bauman.
“God’s not making native prairie anymore,” Bauman said. “Once there’s iron in the ground, it’s something different than it ever has been, and ever likely will be again. And this number doesn’t go up and down. It only goes down.”
Bauman is a natural resources and wildlife specialist for South Dakota State University Extension. He uses aerial imagery and land-use data to identify intact grasslands in the state.
Grasslands have numerous ecological benefits. They act like giant sponges, filtering water and preventing floods. They support communities of insects, birds and wildlife. They store carbon in the ground, where it can’t trap heat in the atmosphere.
That’s why some of the world’s largest organizations are undertaking an effort to protect the Northern Great Plains by working with ranchers who own grasslands.
The World Wildlife Fund is creating the Ranch Systems and Viability Planning network with help from Cargill, McDonald’s and The Walmart Foundation. They’re contributing $6 million to improve the health of grasslands, with a focus on parts of Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota. They want to improve the health of 1 million acres of grassland in the next five years.
In a news release about the project, the World Wildlife Fund said it wants to help wildlife, protect water and store carbon. And the organization thinks it can do that by helping ranchers take care of grasslands.
But when ranchers hear the names of the organizations involved, it can be a tough sell.
Ray Gilbert ranches near Buffalo, in the northwest part of South Dakota. He’s worried the big companies might use the project to exert greater control over the cattle industry. He sees examples in pork and poultry production, where many producers are under contract to big food companies similar to Cargill. Gilbert wants cattle ranchers to stay independent.
“When you get Cargill and Walmart and McDonald’s all together, what is their end goal, you know?” Gilbert said. “If you’re just here to help rejuvenate the ground and do some good that way, fine, I think it’s a good idea. But like I said before, I still need to know what your end goals are.”
Some ranchers are also wary of the World Wildlife Fund. The nonprofit wants to help ranchers protect grasslands. But it also tells people to “eat for the planet,” with an instruction to “moderate our animal product consumption.”
Cargill, meanwhile, carries a damaged environmental reputation into the effort. Its environmental record, including purchases of soybeans from deforested Brazilian land, prompted the environmental group Mighty Earth to label Cargill the “Worst Company in the World.”
Cargill now has a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 10 years. Storing carbon in grasslands could help, but it'll take cooperation from ranchers.
Kevin Ellison works for the World Wildlife Fund in Montana. He aims to get cooperation in a roundabout way. Instead of creating new programs and asking ranchers to sign up, he's looking for existing groups and programs that he can help.
“We're looking at working with partners – primarily those that have boots on the ground, a presence in local communities – to provide technical assistance towards new practices that they can implement on their ranch,” Ellison said, “and then we would monitor the outcomes of those new practices.”
Examples of local partners could include cooperative grazing associations, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Pheasants Forever, to name a few.
Ellison wants to work with those kinds of groups to offer training. That could include developing sustainable grazing plans. He wants to help implement the plans with cost-sharing for things like fencing and livestock-watering systems.
One test project is already underway in northwest South Dakota, where six ranchers have created the Castle Rock Water Corporation. They’re working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to drill a well and install watering tanks for livestock. They’re also planting 1,280 acres of cropland back to grass. The World Wildlife Fund is helping with money from Cargill and Burger King.
Markus Erk is one of the ranchers in the water corporation. He said the World Wildlife Fund works as a go-between.
“They’re the ones that work with Cargill and Burger King, and they’re the ones that get the money, and they in turn distribute that money to the ranchers and the landowners,” Erk said. “And though I'll probably never ever see or talk to anybody from Burger King or Cargill, my relationship is really pretty good with the World Wildlife Fund.”
Erk said he appreciates the environmental benefits of grasslands, like carbon storage. But cattle producers are under fire for their role in climate change. Research shows that cattle produce the greenhouse gas methane, and the EPA says livestock contribute a quarter of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions.
And yet, scientists also know that grasslands store carbon. In the Great Plains, up to 90 percent of the ecosystem’s organic carbon is in the soil. And in some cases, the only thing keeping that soil intact is a rancher using it to graze cattle, instead of growing crops.
That’s why Pete Bauman, of SDSU Extension, said ranchers can play a major role in climate-change solutions.
“Cattle on the ranch means the ranch exists,” Bauman said, “which means the grass is still there.”
-Seth Tupper is SDPB's business and economic development reporter.