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Inspiration for Pollinator Conservation: Wildflowers on Rangelands

By Sarah Hamilton Buxton on 17. June 2024
Sarah Hamilton Buxton

For Pollinator Week this year, we are talking with Xerces staff to explore their work collaborating with people to support pollinators on different types of agricultural landscapes. Bringing native plants and natural cycles back into such places has major benefits for pollinators and agriculture. Our first interview takes us to the rangelands of the Great Plains, where wildflowers are a key part of the landscape!

 

Meet a Pollinator Conservation Specialist

Tell us about yourself and the work you do at Xerces!

Hi, my name is Sarah Hamilton Buxton (she/her/hers), and I am a Pollinator Conservation Specialist & NRCS Partner Biologist. I work with ranchers and farmers to improve, maintain, and/or create pollinator habitat on their operations throughout North Dakota and eastern Montana. I also work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in North Dakota and Montana to help integrate pollinator conservation into their conservation practices.

 

How did you get started in your conservation career?

I grew up frequently visiting my grandparents’ farm where I developed an appreciation for farmers, ranchers, private landownership, and the natural world. My parents also encouraged a love of the outdoors by taking family trips where we explored rivers, caves, and other wild places. These experiences shaped who I am in many ways, from informing my career choice to continuing to inform and influence the perspective I bring to my daily work.

Later, I pursued an education in wildlife ecology, and from there took job opportunities as they became available, eventually bringing me to Xerces.

 

A white woman wearing a flannel shirt, standing in a grassland and smiling at the camera
Prior to joining Xerces, Sarah completed a Master's degree in renewable natural resources, and worked with farmers and ranchers as a Farm Bill Specialist. (Photo: Sarah Hamilton Buxton)

 

Wildflowers on rangelands are important for both pollinators and livestock

What threats and challenges do pollinators face on rangelands?

Rangelands is a broad term, but for our work discussed in this interview, we mean grasslands or prairie of the Great Plains.  In this region, rangelands are typically privately-owned, working ranches that are grazed for livestock production. 

Across the Great Plains, the primary threat to pollinators — and other wildlife —  on rangelands is the loss of the rangeland habitat itself. This loss can happen as rangelands are developed into urban places or for energy (oil, gas, and wind) production, or to make room for more fields of crops.  For example, from 2014 to 2018 in the Great Plains, native grasslands were converted to cropland at an average rate of four football fields every minute

Native plants and wildlife can share rangelands with livestock, but when rangelands are converted to cropland, previously vibrant landscapes lose huge numbers of species. We also lose the ecosystem services that rangelands and rangeland wildlife provide, including carbon sequestration, water filtration, and pollination services. 

 

A large, gorgeous butterfly, with wings that are rusty orange with black and white patterns.
Regal fritillary larvae feed exclusively on native violets, and the adults need nectar provided by diverse rangeland wildflower communities. Replacement of rangelands and other prairie remnants with crops and development are a major cause of the decline of regal fritillaries. (Photo: Ray Moranz)

 

What is a project you worked on to help pollinators on rangelands?

To support pollinators on rangelands, we are advocating for diverse, native rangeland plant communities and the value of rangeland wildflowers to ranchers by showing how wildflowers actually benefit livestock. Wildflowers and flowering shrubs are a large component of biodiversity on rangelands, and directly provide for a myriad of pollinators and other animals which, in turn, support the food web. 

However, there is a misconception that livestock do not eat wildflowers. While the plants cattle and bison choose to graze on depends on many factors, research shows that wildflowers and shrubs are an important part of their diets. In fact, wildflowers and shrubs may comprise 20 to 30% of cattle and bison diets throughout the year!

Although a few wildflower species may be harmful if eaten by livestock, many species are not problematic.  Nevertheless, some landowners spend time and money spraying herbicides to remove all wildflowers, unaware of their value to livestock’s diet and the local ecosystem, and/or how to recognize problematic wildflower species from safe ones.

While we know that livestock eat wildflowers, there was not much information on how nutritious these plants are. So along with North Dakota State University (NDSU), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other partners, we analyzed the nutritional quality of common rangeland wildflower species eaten by livestock.  

 

A hilly grassland alongside a small river. A fence in the foreground is a hint that this a rangeland for livestock.
Rangelands, like this one in North Dakota, can be great habitat for pollinators. (Photo: Sarah Hamilton Buxton / Xerces Society)

 

What makes studying rangeland wildflowers difficult?

At the onset of this project, there were a number of unknowns, such as how soil type or rain levels may affect the nutritional quality of wildflowers. The dataset we collected was large and very complex, and at first it was very difficult and complicated to analyze. Furthermore, as this project spans multiple states, the logistics and coordination were challenging.

We are lucky enough to have great partners who collaborated with us! The NRCS Field Office staff and other natural resource professionals helped us collect plant material throughout the Great Plains. We also consulted closely with our partners who are livestock nutrition and rangeland management experts to ensure that those aspects of the project were accurate and well informed.
 

What did you discover about the benefit of wildflowers for livestock?

Our study showed that wildflowers are valuable food for livestock! We were actually surprised at the overall high nutritional value of wildflowers - they were great sources of protein, key minerals, and total digestible nutrients.

We now have great evidence that ranchers don’t need to waste their time and hard earned money to broadcast spray herbicides on their rangeland. Keeping wildflowers will provide important food for both pollinators and livestock! 

 

Several cattle grazing on a vast grassland. Dotted amidst them are wildflowers.
Wildflowers provide pollen and nectar for pollinators, and many nutrients for cattle. After being grazed on by livestock, native wildflowers can regrow more flowers later in the season. (Photo: Ray Moranz)

 

Rangelands are crucial to protecting pollinators

Why is it important to involve agriculture in pollinator conservation?

Pollinator decline is an issue that impacts us all, and our agricultural producers are no exception. In fact, because they often manage many acres, our farmers and ranchers can have a big impact on pollinator conservation by using agricultural practices that not only reduce negative impacts, but also provide more habitat for pollinators.  

Because rangelands in the Great Plains are primarily privately owned and managed for livestock production, it’s critical that we engage with ranchers as conservation partners. If we failed to work with ranchers, we would miss the opportunity to impact thousands, if not millions, of acres. 
 

How can we support pollinator conservation on rangelands?

How you make purchases can drive markets! You can support ranchers who sustainably manage rangelands by buying meats with conservation certifications. Conservation certifications, like Audubon Society’s Bird-Friendly Beef, let consumers know that these certified products come from ranchers and ranches that meet environmental sustainability, wildlife habitat, and animal welfare requirements. (Xerces’ own Bee Better Certified program provides a similar service, but for crop growers.)
 

How can folks who manage or work on rangelands get involved in conservation?

If you are an agricultural producer or natural resource professional and are interested in learning more about our research on wildflowers and livestock, please get in touch with us at Xerces! We also have many resources about pollinator conservation on rangelands (found at the bottom of this article).

 

If there was one thing you could make sure people knew about conservation on rangelands, what would it be?

Our rangelands are a highly imperiled ecosystem, yet they provide critical ecosystem services, agricultural production, and valuable habitat for countless species. In the Great Plains, ranchers are essential conservation partners that manage our rangelands and protect them from destruction.

 

A hillside covered in many colorful wildflowers amidst tall grasses.
Beyond providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, healthy rangelands provide critical ecosystem services, like carbon sequestration and water filtration, that we can’t afford to lose. (Photo: Ray Moranz)

 

Learn more about pollinators on rangelands

Resources for everyone

 

Resources for agricultural producers and nature resource professionals

 

Authors

Sarah Hamilton Buxton grew up frequently visiting her grandparents’ farm where she developed an appreciation for farmers, ranchers, private landownership, and the natural world. She holds a bachelor's degree in wildlife science and a master's degree in renewable natural resources with a concentration in wildlife science. Prior to joining the Xerces Society, Sarah worked as a Farm Bill Specialist where she gained private lands biology experience working with farmers and ranchers enrolled in USDA Conservation Programs.

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