In Oregon, an effort to build grassland biodiversity while helping ranchers succeed

In eastern Oregon, an experiment is underway to determine whether conservationists and ranchers, two groups often at odds, can work together to stave off development, support ranch economies and preserve biodiversity on the Zumwalt Prairie, America’s largest remaining bunchgrass prairie.

As Lynne Curry reports in FERN’s latest story, published with The Guardian: “The high, rolling Zumwalt, which stretches 500 square miles between the glaciated Wallowa Mountains and the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, is gouged by rivers that plunge into Hells Canyon, forming Oregon’s border with Idaho. This diverse ecosystem supports key populations of raptors, songbirds, bees, butterflies and rare native plants, along with elk herds and other wildlife.

“In 2000, TNC established the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve with the goal of conserving the rich biodiversity within its 51-square-mile sanctuary. But TNC lands comprise just one-tenth of the Zumwalt prairie, which have been prized grazing lands for generations of local ranching families. Over the past decade, the nonprofit has cultivated relationships with a dozen landowners who raise cattle in an effort to promote sustainable grazing practices throughout the entire Zumwalt.

“Over the past 150 years as much as half of all U.S. grasslands may have been lost, mainly to farming and real-estate development. With just 775 million acres of public and private rangeland left, much of it in the West, conserving this unprotected tract of the privately-owned Zumwalt is a priority for the conservancy.”