Grass banks aim to protect prairies and help ranchers

Hoping to preserve both the prairie and the livelihoods of ranchers, green groups like The Nature Conservancy have created “grass banks” by buying up land and allowing ranchers to graze there for cheap. In exchange, ranchers agree to conserve habitat on their own land for ferrets, curlews, and other species. The New Mexico-based Quivira Coalition created the first grass bank in 1997; four or so others exist, and another five or six are in startup phases. So far, these programs have been lifesavers for endangered ranchers, but conservation benefits are not as clear. Critics say that grass banks encourage overgrazing, are cost ineffective, and are temporary: if the program ends, nothing keeps ranchers from dropping their conservation efforts. Says Stephanie Gripne, who studied grass banks as part of her doctoral program, “It’s not a good strategy, but there aren’t a lot of other strategies.”