Carbon sequestration in Idaho’s rangelands: An introduction to good stewardship of our landscape
BLACKFOOT — Blackfoot rancher Mark Pratt digs a hole in a mountain meadow to check on the soil and look at the roots of plants.
It’s been a wet spring, so the meadow is quite green and brimming with life.
Pratt and his wife Wendy have been testing the soil in regular intervals to check on temperature, soil organic matter and carbon.
“This area has 13 percent organic matter and 7.8 percent carbon,” Pratt says. “As part of our beef cooperative, we’re working on regenerative agriculture. As part of that, we’re trying to get some baseline information. So we did six sites across the ranch, and two of them are here.”
Carbon is a big topic these days with mounting global concern about climate change and greenhouse gases.
Rangelands store about 12 percent of the terrestrial carbon world-wide, according to scientific research. About 13 percent of the carbon is stored in plants and 87 percent is stored in the soil.
Bigger picture, world-wide, carbon is stored in sedimentary rocks, oceans, fossil fuels, soil, the earth’s atmosphere and plants.
If carbon storage could be maintained or increased in rangelands, it’s seen as a climate solution. Wendy Pratt understands that.
“The key part about capturing carbon on the range is that if there’s enough of us doing it, it’s such a large percentage of our land mass, about half in Idaho, and half worldwide, so collectively if we can all do some, it really can add up. And make a big impact.”
Indeed, rangelands occupy about 55 percent of Idaho’s landscape, and 54 of the landscape worldwide.
What is carbon?
Carbon is the 15th most abundant chemical element on earth, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium and oxygen.
Carbon dioxide is a major concern with climate change because CO2 represents the largest man-made contributor to greenhouse gases.
Early research indicates that if rangelands are well-managed and grazed by livestock and wildlife, plant vigor increases, stimulating root systems and increasing carbon levels.
“This soil is held together by carbon,” Pratt says. “Photosynthesis is occurring on the top, putting carbon down into the roots, and that’s feeding the microorganisms that are below-ground. There’s a conversation going on here that we’re just starting to understand.”
The roots of healthy native range plants grew deep into the ground. The roots of a mature sagebrush plant, for example, can extend more than 10 feet into the ground.
And then there’s a whole ecosystem of microorganisms that thrive amid deep and diverse root systems – things like earthworms, fungi, nematodes and bacteria.
“These are beasties eating beasties. That’s how it was described to us at a field day with a professor from North Dakota State. He talked about protozoa, nematodes, fungi and bacteria, and it boils down to beasties eating beasties,” Pratt says. “There’s a whole food chain going on down there. It’s a grocery store, a supermarket happening below ground.”
As longtime wholistic ranchers, Mark and Wendy Pratt think more now about how management above ground might affect the soil and carbon levels below ground.
“In our interest with grazing management, it was all about the grass,” Wendy Pratt says. “And getting the time and the timing right, to clip the grass but still allow recovery. And so that was our focus.”
Looking at the big picture of good stewardship of Idaho’s rangelands
But looking at the bigger picture now, good management and stewardship should lead to higher carbon levels in the soil, she says.
“The really cool thing about it is, if you’re trying to capture carbon, you’re going to be doing all of the right things,” she says. “You’re going to improve the water-holding capacity, you’re going to improve biodiversity, you’re going to lessen erosion, both wind and water, and you’re going to have more production.”
“By production, I don’t just mean grass for cows. All of the abundance of elk and songbirds and sage grouse and badgers … life begets life.”
Kris Hulvey, lead scientist for Working Lands Conservation, agrees.
“How you graze your vegetation is going to be really important,” she says. “Plants are like little carbon pumps that take carbon dioxide out of the air, and through their roots, get that carbon into the ground. So how you manage the vegetation is really important.”
As a scientist, Hulvey has been closely tracking the topic of carbon sequestration in rangelands.
Some things you can control, and some you can’t. Annual precipitation from water and snow, for example, can play a big factor in soil-carbon levels. Soil types can be a big factor, too, in how much carbon they store.
But grazing management also makes a difference, she says.
“Definitely grazing can make a difference as to how much carbon is getting into the soil,” Hulvey says. “The roots are really important. If you overgraze, that can harm how much roots go down into the soil. But if you graze well, make it so the roots get nice and strong, you can encourage additional carbon getting into the soil.”
Bre Owens, stewardship coordinator for the Western Landowners Alliance and a rancher, agrees.
“Through our grazing management, we can influence the way the carbon and energy flows through the system,” Owens says. “Depending on how we’re grazing, we can enhance that flow or degrade that flow.”
Increasing carbon storage could mean more income opportunities for Idaho ranchers
Beyond the health of the land, there is potential value in increasing carbon storage in rangelands in the form of carbon credits and potential extra income for landowners.
This is a new, emerging topic for ranchers to watch and track, experts say.
“So if they do manage their grazing to increase carbon in the soil, there’s potential to sell that increased carbon in the carbon markets, and that money can come back to doing ongoing stewardship and management on the landscape,” Hulvey says.
“Yeah, people are getting pretty excited about getting involved in carbon markets,” she says. “There’s a ton of action happening in those markets right now. It’s a little bit of a wild West.”
One of the challenging issues, however, is the way carbon markets are structured now, they reward ranchers with degraded rangelands who could make significant gains in carbon storage through improved management.
If a rancher’s range is well managed now, however, it’s hard to increase carbon levels.
“For example, if you were a rancher, and you’ve already changed your practices and getting good carbon sequestration, by a lot of the rules that exist now, you couldn’t get into carbon markets because you have already done the action,” she says.
“So that could exclude people you’re talking about like the Pratts who are early innovators and adopters who are thinking about these ideas. That can discourage some people from doing good stewardship and moving forward. So, some of the new organizations coming online are really thinking about how to reward ranchers that are already doing good stewardship on the landscape.”
Mark and Wendy Pratt aren’t looking into carbon markets yet. But through more in-depth range monitoring, they are gaining a greater understanding of rangeland health and how they might contribute to carbon storage in the soil.
“As you’re managing grass, and try to do the right things by grass and wildlife, to find out that there’s another dimension there that might have implications to mitigate against climate change – that’s pretty cool,” Wendy Pratt says.
Hulvey recommends doing research on the carbon topic, and ranchers can decide if it’s a good fit for them.
“Yep, now’s the time to start learning about it,” she says. “There’s going to be a lot more resources available in the next year. There’s a lot to learn.”
In addition, she’d like to see more research done on the potential for rangelands across the West to contribute to climate solutions.
“Rangelands are diverse and some may have more potential than others based on things like management history, climate and soil type,” she says. “Learning more about how different rangelands are likely to increase carbon storage with changes in management could help ranchers understand how they might change management practice to increase soil carbon sequestration.”
For people to find out more information about carbon sequestration in rangelands, she recommends tapping into workshops offered by the Western Landowners Alliance or Society for Range Management.
In the meantime, Wendy Pratt recommends keeping rangelands intact.
“One of the main things we can do for carbon as ranchers is to keep these lands not only working, not only being grazed, but keep them from being converted to farms, to tillage or to development. That’s one of the biggies,” she says. “Keep our operations healthy.”
That also means working to prevent large range fires, which would release many tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere.
To the Pratts, it’s the right thing to do.
“We have to figure out how to inspire one another and do it together. It’s really about what intrinsically, you can work towards,” she says. “You’re going to run into disappointments and failures. But if you have that land ethic, in here (your heart), then things are going to be OK.”