My brother Jeff has been working in eastern Oregon for The Nature Conservancy for much of his adult life . This story is about his work in restoring a large native grassland, managing it with local landowners and ranchers. (All pictures are screenshots from the original story.)
Jeff Fields stands on a ridge overlooking the prairie on a bright June day. The carpet of spring-green grasses and wildflowers looks timeless and wild. But Fields, a biologist who manages the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, is quick to correct that perception. “It’s been a grazed landscape for a very, very long time,” he rHe points to clumps of bunchgrass interspersed with geraniums, cinquefoils, lichen, and patches of bare soil. These plant communities, he explains, are dependent on “ecological disturbance” to stimulate regrowth year after year.
Throughout history, herbivores – from early antelope to the Nez Perce horse and cattle herds – have browsed the prairie’s bunchgrass, providing that crucial disturbance. “The prairie evolved with herbivory,” Fields says.
Managed grazing is an attempt to replicate that historical relationship using commercial livestock. It has become a central piece of regenerative agriculture, an umbrella term for a range of farming and ranching practices that capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to stimulate plant growth, boost organic matter in soil, and foster greater biodiversity both above ground and below.