Written collaboratively by Krista Ehlert, Jamie Brennan and James Bolyard.
It is frequently said that “water is life,” and few places demonstrate this as well as the semi-arid and arid portions of the western United States. Livestock and wildlife are heavily dependent on streams and reservoirs for water for much of the year, as precipitation is often scarce and unpredictable from year to year. Riparian areas (the lusher, green areas alongside streams and frequently wetted areas) are extensively utilized by livestock. Riparian areas make up only 1 to 2% of the land in many areas in the western United States, but they produce a disproportionate amount of the available forage (e.g. Reid and Pickford, 1946; Roath and Krueger, 1982).
Benefits of Riparian Areas
During the heat of summer, when upland pastures swelter, the shade, forage and water in wooded draws and gallery forests along larger streams provide animals with refuge from the heat and sun. In the winter, they provide shelter from blowing wind and snow. Some producers prefer pastures with wooded riparian areas for calving, as the shelter they provide can reduce stress on both the cow and the newborn calf. These direct benefits are crucial for many livestock operations.
Riparian areas also have a multitude of indirect benefits for livestock producers. They serve as sponges when water is available, soaking it up, and then slowly releasing it as the season goes on. The storage and delayed release of water helps to slow water down, which can lessen flooding downstream and allows excess nutrients and pollution to settle out of the stream, making it safer for livestock to drink. The slowing of water also lengthens the duration of stream flows and provides water for vegetation long after the uplands have become dry. The thick line of vegetation that grows along the banks of a healthy stream serves as a filter, catching soil and excess nutrients before it can wash into the stream, decreasing erosion and improving water quality.
Wildlife is also attracted to riparian areas. Deer, pronghorn, pheasants, ducks and many other wildlife species are reliant on them, with 75 to 80% of wildlife in some areas using riparian areas at some point during their lives (Chaney et al., 1990; Thomas et al., 1979). Even species that are more often associated with upland areas rely heavily on riparian areas to feed and shelter their young until they can survive the uplands. This abundance of wildlife can be important for producers, either as a personal resource for enjoyment with family and friends, or as a potential source of diversified income through ecotourism and hunting leases.
Challenges Facing Riparian Areas
Despite their importance to livestock, many riparian areas in the western United States and around the world have become degraded. Altered flows and heavy runoff from historical overuse have caused many streams to dig themselves so deeply into the streambed that the roots of streamside plants can no longer reach water for much of the year, and instead of providing water to riparian areas, these streams now serve to remove it from the land. Over half the streams in the Northern Plains Region have significantly decreased or altered plant communities, and most are considered to be impaired to some extent (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). For many producers, riparian pastures are essential to their operation. However, land managers need to balance grazing and utilization needs with riparian health for the long-term benefit of their operation.
Repair and Restoration Efforts
Efforts to slow or repair the damage done to riparian areas are becoming more common with each passing year. Each stream and ranch are different, but there are an increasing number of management options to improve riparian areas. Changing grazing strategies, temporary or long-term exclusion of grazing, off-stream watering, improvements to water infrastructure, stream restorations, and other strategies, such as low-cost, low-tech restoration practices, can be balanced with producer needs and have been used successfully to repair or restore riparian areas.
- Chaney, E., Elmore, W., & Platt, W. S. (1990). Livestock grazing on western riparian areas. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Reid, E. H., & Pickford, G. D. (1946). Judging mountain meadow range condition in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. United States Department of Agriculture.
- Roath, L. R., & Krueger, W. C. (1982). Cattle grazing and behavior on a forested range. Journal of Range Management, 35(3), 332-338.
- Svejcar, T. (1997). Riparian zones: 1) what are they and how do they work? Rangelands, 19(4), 4-7.
- The Nature Conservancy, South Dakota State University, U.S.D.A. Natural Resource Conservation Service,. (2022). Understanding western South Dakota Prairie streams: A guide to stream health, classification, and management.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2006). Wadeable Streams Assessment.