By Marian Weber, for EcoServices Network
Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans receive from nature. By their very nature, various natural ecosystems, such as grasslands, provide many direct benefits to people and those benefits have direct, measurable value.
The direct benefits to people provided by grasslands include:
One of the most valuable ecosystem services from grasslands is carbon sequestration. Although they only represent about 8% of terrestrial ecosystems, temperate grasslands contain between 10% and 30% of the world’s soil carbon reserves. Canadian grasslands store between 50 – 200 tonnes of organic carbon per ha in soils, and an additional 3 – 12 tonnes of carbon per ha in plant biomass and litter far outweighing Canada’s total annual greenhouse emissions (Bork and Badiou 2017).
Importantly, native grasslands are more productive than restored grasslands or tame pasture. Soil organic carbon stored by native prairie is on average 15 tonnes per ha greater than on restored areas while carbon accumulation after 50 years of abandonment of crops did not reach levels found in native grasslands (Dodds, 2008). One study showed the amount of stored carbon stored by seeded crested wheatgrass was 25% less than native prairie and that planting crested wheatgrass may have released 3.3 to 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon stored in native grasses (Christian and Wilson 1999).
The deep root systems of grasslands build rich soils, reducing runoff and erosion. Water infiltration from natural grasslands may reduce surface runoff by up to 20% compared to cropland, attenuating flooding and maintaining soil moisture and flows during dry periods (Bengtsson et al. 2019). Because grasses are dormant there is no transpiration loss during winter which is important for maintaining seasonal flows and provision of water to downstream users.
Water storage and reduced erosion services from grasslands are particularly important for the drought and wind prone prairies which are prone to dustbowl conditions and soil loss without appropriate cover. Erosion prevention is linked to water storage, clean water supply, carbon sequestration and soil fertility. Importantly, while converting cropland back to grassland can improve local soil moisture retention, increased transpiration during re-establishment can reduce water yields and exacerbate downstream water supply issues (Li et al. 2017) – an issue in watersheds like the South Saskatchewan River which already face supply constraints.
Because many factors drive human recreation and visitation choices it is difficult to tie recreation benefits to grasslands per se. However, birding and hunting are linked to grasslands as they provide habitat for species targeted by these activities. Grasslands are also part of the history and identity of Indigenous people in Canada and key to the process of reconciliation (GCCBC 2017).
Temperate grasslands are one of the most species rich biomes. Canada’s prairie grasslands support more than 60 different at-risk species (Kraus 2016). Similarly, the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute found the status of 197 species in the Prairie Region to be on average 53% intact relative to the no footprint reference condition.
Many grassland species are currently threatened or at risk. The ABMI detected 73 species at risk in the Alberta Prairie Region. Grassland birds are particularly at risk with steep declines. In Canada, there has been an overall loss of 44% of the populations of grassland species since the 1970s, with individual species showing significant declines of up to 87% (FPTG 2010).
The conversion of cropland back to either tame or native perennials, as well as grazing management, improve biodiversity, with the largest increase for native perennials (ABMI 2020). However, restored grasslands take several years to reach pre-disturbance biodiversity levels.
Grasslands in the prairie provinces contain 96% of Canada’s rangelands and 82% of seeded pasture which supports roughly 80% of Canada’s breeding herd (Bork and Badiou 2017).
Previous studies for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta find the benefits of protecting remaining grasslands are greater than the benefits of seeded pasture or restored grasslands, particularly when restoration costs, time lags and uncertainty are factored in (Kulshreshtha et al. 2015, Adamowicz et al. 2012, Entem et al. 2013; Bruce 2017, and Lin 2019).As an example, RSA (2013) reported that native grasslands in Saskatchewan provide on average $89.55 and $828.35 per ha per year in direct (grazing and pasture) and indirect (other ecosystem service) benefits for a total of $917.90 (dollar values are 2020 CAD). The largest indirect ecosystem service values are from erosion control, carbon sequestration and pollination services. The most important values are from carbon sequestration and cattle grazing. This can be compared to opportunity costs from avoided conversion of $60.02 – $5,109.34 per ha (RSA 2013).
Ecosystem services assessments can help support both private and public investment in protection and conservation of grasslands and other important ecosystems. EcoServices Network partners are currently engaged in several projects to assess and demonstrate the value of ecosystem services and identify opportunities for functionalizing ecosystem service/conservation markets. Here are a couple of examples:
Funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, the goal of this project is to develop an integrated assessment platform to quantify the impact and effectiveness of ecosystem services. Quantifying the impact of beneficial management practice (BMP) adoption on ecosystem services will help government and non-government partners target and evaluate the performance of past and current BMP programs and provide the evidence-based framework necessary to leverage and scale up private and social investment in ES on agricultural landscapes. The project will benefit producers by supporting and improving the impact of ES incentive programs and increasing producer and public awareness of BMPs and their positive benefits for society. Learn more.
The Western Stock Growers’ Association is championing the creation of a grassland conservation exchange to provide economic incentives for land management decisions driven by sustainability and regeneration, while providing society with valuable healthy grassland ecosystems and the ecosystem services benefits they provide. The exchange is the system in which buyers and sellers trade economically, environmentally and socially relevant grasslands ecosystem services that have been combined and weighted in an index. Learn more.
Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI). 2016. Status of Biodiversity in the Grassland and Parkland regions of Alberta: Preliminary Assessment 2015.
Adamowicz, V., P. Boxall, A. Entem, and S. Simpson. 2012. South of the Divide Action Plan: Economic cost and benefit assessment. Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, The Importance of Temperate Grasslands in the Global Carbon Cycle
Bengtsson, J., J.M. Bullock, B. Egoh, C. Everson, T. Everson, T. O’Connor, P. J. O’Farrell, H. G. Smith, and R. Lindborg. 2019. Grasslands—more important for ecosystem services than you might think. Ecosphere 10(2):e02582. 10.1002/ecs2.2582
Bork, E., Badiou, P. 2017. The importance of temperate grasslands in the global carbon cycle. Ducks Unlimited Canada.
Bruce, S. 2017. Economics of Beneficial Management Practices Adoption by Beef Producers in Southern Alberta, MSc Thesis, Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. University of Alberta.
Christian J.M. and S.D. Wilson. 1999. Long-term ecosystems impacts of an introduced grass in the Northern Great Plains. Ecology 80(7): 2397-2407.
Dodds, W.K., Wilson, K.C., Rehmeier, R.L., Knight, G.L., Wiggam, S., Falke, J.A., Dalgleish, H.J., and Bertrand, K.N. 2008. “Comparing ecosystem goods and services provided by restored and native lands.” BioScience. 58:837-845.
Entem, E., W. Adamowicz and P. Boxall. 2013. Calculating net present values for grassland conservation activities within Saskatchewan’s Mile River watershed. Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology University of Alberta Research Project Number: PR-02-2013
Federal, Provincial and Territorial Governments of Canada (FPTG). 2010. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. vi + 142 p
Grasslands Conservation Council of British Columbia (GCCBC) (2017). Grasslands of British Columbia. Kamloops, BC.
Kraus, D. 2016. Why Canada’s prairies are the world’s most endangered ecosystem. Nature Conservancy of Canada Blog.
Kulshreshtha, Suren, Michael Undi, Jing Zhang, Mohammad Ghorbani, Karin Wittenberg, Ashley Stewart, Esther Salvano, Ermias Kebreab and Kimberly Ominski. 2015. Challenges and Opportunities in Estimating the Value of Goods and Services in Temperate Grasslands — A Case Study of Prairie Grasslands in Manitoba, Canada. DOI: 10.5772/59899
Li, J., Liu, D., Wang, T. et al. 2017. Grassland restoration reduces water yield in the headstream region of Yangtze River. Nature Sci Rep 7, 2162.
Lin, Z. 2019. Estimating the Willingness-to-Pay for Agri-Environmental BMP Adoption in Alberta’s South Saskatchewan Region. MSc Thesis, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology University of Alberta.
Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Inc. (RSA). 2013. What are native prairie grasslands worth? Why it Pays to Conserve This Endangered Ecosystem.