Hooves out of the water, please

Benefits of riparian protection for fresh water, wildlife and livestock
Cattle drinking from water system (Photo by NCC)

Cattle drinking from water system (Photo by NCC)

Riparian zones are areas along rivers, streams, wetlands or human-made dugouts. These zones play a significant role in the health of plants and animals. They are extremely sensitive to disturbance because the soil is often full of lush vegetation and saturated with water. Because of the high water content, the ground is susceptible to compaction or erosion. The lush vegetation is favoured by wildlife and livestock for grazing.

When livestock have access to riparian zones, they can disturb these sensitive areas through trampling and grazing. If grazing occurs for too long or during periods when the vegetation is vulnerable, such as early in the growing season or after winter when the ground is highly saturated from snowmelt, it can damage the riparian areas.

To keep these habitats healthy, it is important for ranchers to balance grazing their cattle with maintaining the health of their riparian zones.

For example, some ranchers use electric fencing to keep cattle out of select areas. This is called riparian-exclusion fencing, but not all landowners have these at their disposal.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) works very closely with many ranching partners across Alberta to provide them with tools to improve the health of their lands.

In 2015, NCC partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Federation to restore riparian areas on lands owned by NCC in Alberta. This project involved installing electric fences and off-site watering systems. These techniques force cattle to graze in designated areas, which results in a better distribution of livestock on the landscape and improved rangeland health by keeping them out of the riparian areas.

Benefits to fresh water   

Freshwater sources with healthy riparian zones have better water quality than those without.

Riparian areas provide a number of freshwater ecological services. Plants and their roots hold the soil in place, filter sediments from the ground to stop them from entering the water, and store water. This reduces the risk of flood damage and acts as a natural filtration system to keep the water clean. They are also highly productive areas in which forage grows, providing shelter to some bird and aquatic species.

Benefits to habitat and wildlife

Riparian areas provide critical habitat for many species in Canada. With more and more landscapes becoming fragmented, intact riparian zones can act as movement corridors for both plants and wildlife. Often, nearby uplands have been converted into cropland. Instead of crossing those croplands, wildlife travel across the riparian areas, which provide food, water and cover.

The trees and plants in these areas provide shade over the water. This helps reduce the water temperature, creating shelter and places to feed and spawn for amphibians, fish, birds and invertebrates.

East Buffalo Lake (Photo by Brent Calver)

East Buffalo Lake (Photo by Brent Calver)

A number of listed species of concern in Alberta are directly affected by riparian degradation or enhancement. Landowners can apply for grants and programs that support riparian protection. This is just one of the many ways NCC is working to improve habitat for Canadian wildlife species.

Benefits to livestock

Livestock producers have long understood that access to clean water can increase an animal’s overall health, which results in weight gain. The  Beef Cattle Research Council reported that calves with access to clean, pumped water were, on average, 18 pounds heavier at weaning time compared to those with access to less-clean water. Animal weight gain is very important for  producers, as they are paid on a price-per-pound basis for their animals.

Clean water sources have also been linked to reduced diseases in cattle. There is always a risk to livestock that drink in muddy areas, such as drowning or getting stuck in the mud. Having an alternate water source, such as a remote watering system, can eliminate the need for livestock to directly access shorelines or banks. Riparian-exclusion fencing, used in conjunction with watering systems or on its own, ensures that cattle cannot access riparian areas.

If livestock access fresh water via a bank or shoreline, the surrounding areas get trampled, which can muddy the water. This effect, over time or in high volume, can reduce water quality, so ranchers need to find ways of balancing the health of livestock and the land.

Livestock on the landscape

You may be wondering why you should keep cattle on the landscape at all and risk damaging sensitive areas. This is because cattle actually help keep landscapes intact. Crop production, such as legumes, requires the conversion of natural rangeland to cropland. Cattle are able to use landscapes not suitable for crop conversion. In areas with poor soil quality, cattle can graze where crops would not grow. As a result, cattle raised for human consumption contribute both to the increasing demand for food production in Canada and play an important role in maintaining native landscapes.

Using livestock as a tool to manage riparian areas is best achieved through collaboration between private and public sectors. With proper riparian area management, livestock can serve a role on the landscape by using rangelands and by contributing to the Canadian diet.

Some of NCC’s off-site watering system projects were funded in part by the Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program, administered by Alberta Environment and Parks.

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