How Regenerative Ranching is Revitalizing Rangelands

Duke Phillips, a third generation rancher and the CEO & Founder of Ranchlands, has spent his life on working lands. When people learn this, they generally have one of two notions—a romantic and glamorized one where he spends his days surveying the landscape while chewing on a piece of grass or that he works in an extractive industry that takes from the land and is anti-ecological.  Both are false. Phillips aims for his ranching business to regenerate ecosystems, improve the quality of life for people living near and working on ranches, and to help the public better understand the American ranching legacy. During Regenerative Travel’s webinar How Regenerative Ranching is Revitalizing Rangelands, the panelists aimed to demystify ranching, and to share how this tradition can help to conserve our most biodiverse landscapes, reverse climate change, and deepen a connection between people, animals, and land. 

Duke was joined by other who have spent their lives living on and stewarding land—Lesli Allison, Executive Director at Western Landowners Alliance, Neovitus Sianga, Community Conservation & Environment Program Officer at African People and Wildlife, Charles Trout, Co-Founder & Chief Program Officer at African People and Wildlife, and Delane Atcitty, Executive Director at Indian Nations Conservation Alliance. O’Shannon Burns, Regenerative Travel’s Ecosystem Steward, moderated this installment of the monthly series, focused on regenerative practices, travel, and climate change.

What is Regenerative Ranching?

Regenerative cattle and bison ranching, or farming livestock in a way that mimics how ruminants live in the wild, can help to regenerate rangeland ecosystems. “At the highest level, it’s leaving the world, the ranch, and the community in a better place than it was found,” argued Allison. Regenerative ranching can also be described as a mindset where the entire ecosystem is considered, acknowledging the link between people and natural systems. As Allison describes, regenerative ranchers “contemplate those different angles and how they fit together”. On a pastoral level, regenerative ranching requires that rangeland managers monitor the health of those ecosystems and design systems that intersperse periods of disturbance and rest using tools like rotational grazing and hoof action. 

Although these tools are used by rangeland managers across the world,  Allison stressed the importance of adapting them to a location’s distinct constraints and needs. A fundamental cornerstone of ranching is constant adaptation and learning, and so practices cannot be overly prescriptive. “You have to be able to practice adaptive monitor management. You have to be able to monitor and adjust. Sometimes rigid grazing policies and federal land management policies don’t allow that kind of flexibility so that we [ranchers] can adapt to the latest science or a changing climate. We’re really pushing for policies that give greater flexibility, but with retained accountability.” 

The Power of Indigenous Knowledge and Experience

In Tanzania, rangelands are communal, and often border the 40% of land in Tanzania that is formally protected. Charles Trout at African People and Wildlife explains how rangelands are communal. “We have these areas set aside purely for wildlife, but surrounding all of those areas are indigenous communities that are predominantly pastoralists. The wildlife migrates out of that protected area from anywhere between a couple of months to more than half the year where they will share the resources with the local communities. You end up with a scenario where natural resource management is critical. For us it’s about empowering communities with whatever tools are necessary to really reinvigorate their cultural and traditional practices the way they used to manage these landscapes and coexist with wildlife.” Mirroring Trout, Sianga argues “one of the biggest challenges we see is the degradation of the traditional systems.” The only way to solve this “complex puzzle” unique to each location, is to allow communities themselves to generate the solutions. African People & Wildlife focuses on empowering communities to make these complex decisions by adding smartphone technology and citizen science that helps them to adapt their traditional knowledge for the context of today.  

Delane Atcitty helps tribal farmers and ranchers across the western United States to care for and strengthen the circle of life through native agriculture. Their programs bring indigenous perspective to conservation and open up economic opportunity for tribes through farming and ranching. Their youth conservation programs combine skill development in ranch management and natural resource conservation with opportunities to learn traditional knowledge and practices. “Tribal elders in the community came and told stories about natural resource management in the past and how they remember things when they were young.” Atcitty hopes by implementing and expanding these youth programs, the 55 million acres of tribal trust lands will be managed and protected for years to come while creating new jobs and sustainable income streams for each tribe with whom they partner.

More Than Cattle

“Historically, one of the big problems with ranching is that, economically, it’s a very thin margin business. It’s not where you want to go if you want to make money. It’s a lifestyle,” Phillips states. While the ranching lifestyle is often romanticized, experiencing drought, a market downturn, and tough times can be fiscally brutal. Instead, Phillips believes ranchers need to look at the land as a “multi-dimensional resource,” one where cattle will still be the predominant source of income, but include other assets. “How can we use amenities that are intrinsic to a piece of land, like a river, or a beautiful mountain, or the proximity to a town? Every piece of land is unique.” Phillips founded Ranchlands to prove this diverse economic model could work, adding  hospitality, outdoor recreation, art, and even a leather shop, to increase the viability of the business. This diversification means that Phillips has more options if conditions are not favorable for ranching, and he is better able to reduce stress on the ecosystem if conditions require—“We don’t have to keep the cattle, bison or sheep on the land.”

Atcitty agreed, and stressed that there is also uncaptured opportunity in selling beef from regenerative ranches. He is working with tribes to develop a Native American branded beef program that would draw higher prices. “One thing we’re not touching on is telling the history behind our ranching heritage and letting people know the story of where this animal came from and how it came to be. A lot of our cattle never use antibiotics or growth hormones.”

Opening the Door to More

If regenerative ranching practices hope to continue to grow and flourish in the future, all panelists echoed the importance of opening this world up to those who otherwise might miss or forego the opportunity, including through travel. Inviting the outside world into ranching is what Phillips describes as a way to “build bridges between the urban and rural environment because we’re not going to get anything done, unless we have some kind of support from people who are living in greater society, in cities”. Taking the physical steps onto the land is key to creating connection during a time when “the chasm between the rural nature and cities is growing bigger and bigger”.

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