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Importance of Plant Biodiversity in Rangelands

Updated June 15, 2020
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Krista Ehlert

Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Range Specialist

healthy rangeland with a diverse variety of grasses and plants throughout

We often think of biodiversity in the context of animals, such as those that are threatened or endangered; however, biodiversity is equally important among plants, which are found throughout South Dakota and in particular, in our rangelands. Biodiversity is defined as the variability among living organisms, and quite simply can be thought of as “the spice of life.” It can exist at multiple spatial scales, which means we can talk about biodiversity at small scales (species) or extremely large scales (across an ecosystem or landscape). Biodiversity is not static and can vary over time. Without biodiversity, our ecosystems across the world would look and function very differently, including those found in South Dakota.

Aesthetics, economics, and ecosystem services are some of the key reasons why biodiversity is important. Most people appreciate the look of a rangeland covered in perennial grasses such as Western wheatgrass that is scattered with purple coneflower. This heterogeneous mix of plant species creates visual interest and is great to enjoy during recreational pursuits such as hunting or hiking. At the same time, there are direct benefits to having a heterogeneous or multi-species mix of plants. Obvious benefits include food and fiber production and forage for grazing animals, which have tangible economic benefits. Less obvious, but equally important benefits include the functioning of key ecosystem services such as mitigating climate and moderating weather, soil creation and stabilization, nutrient cycling, and water storage and purification. Without a diverse mix of species, these benefits are negatively affected, which can have consequences for forage production, wildlife habitat, and overall ecosystem health.

Biodiversity is important for ecosystems and should be included in things to consider in managing rangelands and has been recognized as such by the Society for Range Management. However, rangeland biodiversity is under threat due to conversion to cropland, fragmentation, improper grazing practices, and the influx of invasive plant species, to name a few. The role that grazing has on biodiversity is discussed in this article.

Reference:

Society for Range Management. Biodiversity of rangelands: An issue paper. Hidinger L, editor. Denver (CO): Society for Range Management.