Riparian areas in the Great Plains evolved with the impact of large grazers, especially bison. The accounts of aboriginal people and early travels often described heavy impacts on the whole landscape and riparian areas in particular. But the first lesson of riparian grazing is that grazing pressure was never a year round constant on the land - after there was grazing, there was rest.
Small bands of bison resided year round in certain parts of the landscape but the major impact of the large herds was temporary. The big bison herds spent spring and summer months in the plains and then returned to the foothills and parkland for winter shelter and more abundant forage supplies. The pattern and intensity of use also varied with climatic cycles, especially drought. Predators and population levels were variable. The bottom line is that grazing was not always heavy and every year. For most riparian areas, after grazing there were variable amounts of rest, enough to sustain riparian systems.
During the winter of 1792-93, Peter Fidler travelled across the treeless plains near present day Calgary, the uplands being devoid of trees from repeated bison grazing and fire. Yet, the rest cycle for the better-watered riparian areas was sufficient to support woody riparian cover, the sole source of woody fuel for lighting Fidler's buffalo dung fires along the way.
Grazing and Rest - Nature's Way
In a settled and fenced landscape, there is a greater risk of imposing constant grazing pressure on riparian areas. When grazing is too intense, happens too often, during vulnerable periods and without rest, riparian health and functions will decline.
With planned periods of grazing and rest, riparian functions and health will be restored.
When we graze too many, too early, too long, too often, there is not effective rest to allow the riparian plants to regrow and store essential energy (carbohydrates) so the plants can grow again next year.
Basic principles of range management include:
- balance animal needs with available forage supply
- distribute livestock evenly
- avoid or minimise grazing the area during fragile or vulnerable periods
- provide effective rest during the growing season
For more information on riparian grazing management, see real producer profiles in Caring for the Green Zone or got to:
Community and Producer Stories - stories about communities and producers who have implemented successful riparian management strategies on the range.
Demonstration Site and Profile Site fact sheets - tips for development of successful riparian demonstration, profile and reference sites.
Checklist for Action - a two page factsheet offering some quick tips to manage your riparian area.
Agricultural Links & Resources That You Will Find Useful:
Range and Pasture Management / ASRD - Official web site for Public Lands in Alberta. Range and Pasture Management information, tools and reports provided by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. Provides detailed information on action plans and services.
United States Department of Agriculture - Natural Resource Conservation Service -
Since 1935, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (originally called the Soil Conservation Service) has provided leadership in a partnership effort to help America's private land owners and managers conserve their soil, water, and other natural resources.
Society for Range Management - The Society for Range Management is the professional scientific society and conservation organization whose members are concerned with studying, conserving, managing and sustaining the varied resources of the rangelands which comprise nearly half the land in the world. Established in 1948, SRM has over 4,000 members in 48 countries, including many developing nations.
Prairie Conservation Action Plan - The Prairie Conservation Action Plan (or PCAP) has formed a blueprint for conservation of native prairie ecosystems in western Canada. Implemented over a five year period from 1989-1994, the PCAP was one of the major components of World Wildlife Fund Canada's Wild West Program which resulted in almost 90 projects expending nearly one million dollars in support of prairie conservation across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The Stockman's Guide to Range Livestock Watering from Surface Water Sources - produced by the Prairie Agriculture Machinery Institute. Call 1-800-567-7264 to order this booklet ($10 CDN).