Grazing Gone Wild

Grassland terms of endearment that define when grazing is good for birds and wildlife
Graphic: Julie Rossman/Audubon

When you think of grasslands, do you think of words like disturbance? Biomimicry? Habitat mosaic? If these terms don’t ring any bells, then it’s time to dig into a way of ranching and grazing that’s better for birds and other wildlife.

In the Audubon Conservation Ranching program, it’s all about grazing that is modeled on how nature designed it, mimicking the way grasslands naturally evolved. Grazing that, in partnership with private landowners, is creating wildlife habitat, as opposed to destroying it.


In the context of grasslands, disturbance refers to any event or process that disrupts the existing ecological conditions or patterns within the grassland ecosystem. Historically, the major disturbances in grasslands were drought, fire, and grazing.

Grasslands need these disturbances, which shape the structure, composition, and dynamics of grassland ecosystems. With each disturbance, some plant and animal species survive while others are suppressed or die. The disturbance cycle upsets the competitive balance, creating opportunities for new plant growth and regeneration. This sets the stage for species diversity and promotes ecological processes such as nutrient cycling and seed dispersal.

Disturbances also help control the encroachment of woody vegetation and maintain the open nature of grasslands. Of course, this open nature makes a grassland a grassland!


Biomimicry involves observing and emulating natural processes, structures, and behaviors to solve human problems or improve human systems. In the case of cattle grazing, the concept of biomimicry comes into play when the management practices are designed to replicate the natural grazing patterns of wild herbivores, such as bison, that once roamed the land.

By incorporating biomimicry-inspired grazing practices, cattle grazing can have positive ecological outcomes, such as improved soil health, increased plant diversity, enhanced nutrient cycling, and better wildlife habitat. These approaches aim to restore and maintain the functionality and resilience of grassland ecosystems, much like the roles that wild herbivores played in shaping and maintaining grassland ecosystems in the past.

Rotational Grazing

The biomimicry-inspired practice the Audubon Conservation Ranching program centers on is rotational grazing, which (bio)mimics the natural movement of wild herbivores across the landscape. Rotational grazing is part of a broader approach to regenerative agriculture that seeks to restore ecosystem health from the soil upward.

Rotational grazing involves dividing grassland pastures into smaller sections and moving cattle between them periodically. This allows the vegetation in one area to recover while the cattle graze, or disturb, another area. Mirroring the grazing and migratory patterns of wild herds prevents overgrazing while dispersing dung and promoting plant regrowth.

In addition to the environmental benefits, rotational grazing can have positive impacts on our animal habitat helpers. Cattle can exhibit their natural behaviors, including grazing and social interactions, in a more natural and spacious environment.

A Habitat Mosaic

Grassland habitats can vary in characteristics, such as vegetation composition, structure, and moisture levels. Examples of grassland types include tallgrass prairies, shortgrass prairies, savannas, and meadows. Each of these grassland types supports a unique collection of plant and animal species adapted to specific environmental conditions.

A grassland habitat mosaic describes the patchwork of various grassland types and associated ecosystems that exist near each other, creating a mosaic-like pattern.

This grassland habitat mosaic is beneficial for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem functionality. It provides a range of habitat types and niches, allowing for a greater diversity of plant and animal species to thrive, including birds.

Different grassland birds have different habitat needs, and rotational grazing is an effective tool to create the habitat mosaic that helps numerous species flourish. In practice, short periods of high-intensity grazing on a ranch may provide patches of short cover favored by the Horned Lark and Vesper Sparrow, while other areas can be rested from grazing for long periods, leading to the higher plant structure preferred by species like the Savannah Sparrow.

Ultimately, the grassland habitat mosaic is the desired outcome Audubon Conservation Ranching works toward. It is accomplished with well-designed and well-managed rotational grazing, in practice on more than 100 ranches that have enrolled in the program and earned the Audubon Certified bird-friendly habitat certification. This collective is proving possible a unique way to conserve and enhance the ecological integrity of grassland ecosystems and support the birds and biodiversity they sustain. And it brings to mind another term desperately needed on the grassland conservation front: success.