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Ranching and Prairie Streams: What Healthy Riparian Areas Mean for Your Ranch

Ranching and Prairie Streams: What Healthy Riparian Areas Mean for Your Ranch

The ecosystem services provided by prairie streams and riparian areas can be critical to a ranch. Healthy riparian areas act as “speed bumps” that slow down, spread out, and reduce the force of water during high flows. This translates to less impact on ranch infrastructure, with less risk for culvert washouts, dam blowouts, and flooding. This can help a ranch to weather drought, as the water that healthy riparian areas work to slow and spread can be stored and held on the landscape, helping to raise water tables and increase forage production, tree cover, and overall landscape drought resilience. Further, they can filter and cool water supplies, reducing stagnation, salinization, and deadly algae blooms. Degraded riparian areas are less capable of slowing, holding, and retaining water (Figure 1), greatly reducing the services mentioned.

Within the stream itself, healthy riparian areas can stabilize streambanks and prevent erosion, because they have enough vegetation to cover the soil and hold soil in place. Riparian plants protect soil, streambanks, and shorelines from excess erosion and enhance the absorption of water, nutrients, and energy from high-flow events. They tend to be tough, with strong, dense root systems and stems that can slow floodwaters and filter upland runoff. Depending on the stream, they may also produce woody debris that provides instream structure. Further, the forage produced by riparian plants often holds higher levels of crude protein until the first frost, making them an excellent source of nutrition for growing cattle and calves and adding to the services they provide for ranchers.

Wildlife Services Intact, healthy, and properly functioning riparian areas also provide services associated with wildlife, even wildlife species that are commonly more associated with the surrounding uplands.

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Photo Credit: gettyimages-tlillico

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