“Old growth” is a term often associated with forests, however scientists are beginning to realize that this concept also applies to other types of ecosystems, including grasslands, which provide a host of important ecosystem services. We interviewed Dr. Katharine Suding, a researcher at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Boulder, to learn more about old growth grasslands. Image credit: USDA Photo by Lance Cheung
Buisson, E., Archibald, S., Fidelis, A. and Suding, K.N., 2022. Ancient grasslands guide ambitious goals in grassland restoration. Science, 377(6606), pp.594-598. (also accessible here)
Veldman, J.W., Buisson, E., Durigan, G., Fernandes, G.W., Le Stradic, S., Mahy, G., Negreiros, D., Overbeck, G.E., Veldman, R.G., Zaloumis, N.P. and Putz, F.E., 2015. Toward an old‐growth concept for grasslands, savannas, and woodlands. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13(3), pp.154-162.
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Emile Elias: Welcome to Come Rain or Shine Podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub
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Emile Elias: Old growth is a term often associated with forests. However, scientists are beginning to realize that this concept also applies to other types of ecosystems, including grasslands.
Grasslands cover almost 40% of the earth's terrestrial biome and provide a myriad of ecosystem services, including soil stabilization, wildlife habitat, forage for grazing, and carbon sequestration. Today we're speaking with Dr. Katherine Suding, a researcher at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado: Boulder to learn more about old growth grasslands.
Welcome, Katie. Thank you so much for being here.
Katharine Suding: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm very excited. Thank you.
Emile Elias: Excellent. Yeah. Perhaps you could just start by telling us a bit more about what an old growth grassland is and how it might be different for from a more recently established or restored grassland.
Katharine Suding: Absolutely. So I think one way of starting to describe it is bringing up the concept of the old growth forest. So, When people walk through an old growth forest, they can tell that it's been around for a long time and it's been established for, you know, centuries. And you can imagine just walking through this forest and you look up and there's a lot of different levels of structure.
There's really old trees, there's snags, there's complexity, and it's great wildlife habitat, and it's teeming with life. So when you walk through a grassland, you might not get that same experience because in some ways that old growth forest got flipped over, put in the ground, and you're actually walking on top of all those amazing things.
But underground. And so the same kind of ideas apply with the old growth grassland. There's huge structural complexity, but mostly in the roots now. The, the grasses and the other types of what we call herbaceous plants. So non woody wild flowers and other types of herbs could have been around for over a hundred years.
So again, really long lived and that kind of structural complexity gives rise to the same types of value as an old growth forest. Stores a lot of carbon, is great home to a diverse set of wildlife, really biodiverse and also teeming with life. So that's why I think about an old growth grassland. The actual definition of an old growth grassland is debatable, but I have to say that a definition of an old growth forest is also debatable.
It's often thought that grasslands, some grasslands have been around for millennia. Okay? So there's no question about that, that those represent an old growth, but even a grassland that has been around for several centuries and kind of human timeline really does qualify as an old growth grasslands in most people's book because it's it's had time to establish and bring in the species that are long lived and don't colonize super quickly. But once they are there, they really establish and really give that structure.
Emile Elias: Excellent. Thank you. And you started to get into this a little bit with, with some of the components of old growth grasslands, but I'm wondering why it's important to recognize and protect old growth grasslands.
Katharine Suding: I'd say that the first thing, and I'm talking as a restoration ecologist, but that the first thing is that an old growth grassland, because it takes so long to develop and assemble that if we start disturbing it in ways that it is not evolved to handle, it can be catastrophic and that system may never, ever be able to recover.
So I think that's one of the primary reasons why we really should acknowledge the value and also think about where these grasslands are because they should be high, high priority for us to protect. If we don't, we might not ever get them back. Secondly, the other reason why this concept might be really helpful is grasslands.
You know, we use grasslands. We have used them for millennia. And so thinking about trying to manage and restore grasslands to have some of these characteristics that old growth grasslands have is. Is a really good way of thinking about how do we manage grasslands as a sustainable biodiverse multifunctional system.
And so even though we might not, we might not know, or it might, we might never get to a grassland that is, really old growth. We can still think about those characteristics as being the important characteristics to try to foster in a system that we're trying to manage.
Emile Elias: So you recently co-authored an article that was published in the Journal of Science, congratulations, and the title of that article is Ancient Grasslands Guide Ambitious Goals in Grassland Restoration. And in that article you describe looking at the paleo record to identify old growth grasslands and their disturbance history. So can you tell us a little bit about what the Paleo record is and if there are any other ways to identify old growth grasslands?
Katharine Suding: First, I'd like to say that it is super hard to, to identify whether a particular piece of grassland is old growth or not. Because if you think about it, if your definition is that it's been around for several centuries or millennia, we really don't have those records. So we have to look at indirect ways of indicating whether they have existed or not.
A lot of those are more to know whether old growth grasslands existed in a region. So one way we can use these indicators is more regionally, so maybe not at a particular point, but whether they're, they exist in these areas. These indicators can be used in a couple different ways. So when we look at the paleo record there are grass pollen, some microbial symbiotes from herbivores. Some of these records that actually get retained in the soil, and so we can, we can look at those as indicators, even that is a little controversial. The other way we can can look at it is thinking about the grass species that are there in a particular area, and whether these are grass species that have the traits that have evolved with the disturbances that we know characterize grasslands.
So grazing and fire, and sometimes in areas where we, we know that these species are endemic to an area but they also have the traits that look like they have evolved either with grazing or fire. That is, that is evidence that they probably have been around for a long, long time. And we can also look at the phy phylogenies of those of, of those groups to, to also bolster kind of the idea.
One thing that's really critical when you think about the history of these grasslands is that there are some grasslands in, in some areas that you can think of them as more controlled by edaphic factors or climate. So a lot of the US West, there are areas where if you try to grow woody plants or a tree, it's just not gonna, it's not gonna, it's not gonna happen, right?
Because it's too dry, you know, it is too hot, right? So, So you have these controls, and so we think about those grasslands as more climate controlled or edaphic controlled, and those are a little less controversial about whether it should be a grassland or not. It gets a little bit more complicated and certainly more controversial in the tropics where the, those areas could be grasslands and could have been grasslands for millennia, but they're more controlled. Those grasslands were maintained by either fire or herbivores, and so you could plant a tree in those areas and the tree. You could plant a forest and then it would become a forest. And so then you have these, and then you also have systems that are mosaic, some forested, right?
Some grassland, right? And so those are areas where the, the history does matter and particularly to be able to target. What is your reference system, right? What are your conservation goals? Should they only be forests? Should they be a mixture of some grassland, some forest? And so those are the places where it's probably a good idea to look at the evolutionary history of the grassland species that are there, as well as perhaps if you are able to, some of the paleo record.
Emile Elias: Excellent, thanks. In the publication I just mentioned you note that old growth grassland characteristics can be used to guide restoration efforts and even in some of the cultural landscapes, like the ones you just mentioned, where grasslands are created and maintained by human activity. So can you expand on that a little bit on using old growth grassland characteristics to guide restoration efforts.
Katharine Suding: When I think about restoration, I, particularly in the US West, I think about a lot of times trying to get more native representation in in grasslands. So thinking about how to get any natives into this system. So we're seeding, we're trying to introduce these, these species back. So a lot of times, We lean towards species that grow really quickly, that will seed.
So you could add seed and they'll actually grow. And so we kind of, we try to, we try to restore with that planting palate, if you wanna think about it that way. If you think about old growth grasslands, those are only a real small subset of all the different grassland species that could persist in a grassland.
And so thinking about whether in restoration, maybe that's a first good first step. Then taking some of these species that are much longer lived, probably more dependent on clonal reproduction rather than just growing really quickly from seed as really other important component of the grassland restoration.
Why that might be important is, If you wanna really encourage soil health, having the kind of this diverse below ground structure, having these species that are long lived, accumulate a lot of soil carbon, right? So all those goals that we have for grassland services are it's important to get those other species in.
So that's why I would think about the idea about maybe getting something fast in terms of restoring natives, but that probably shouldn't be our end point. We probably should be thinking about these, these other these other species that might take a little longer to get there or might not get there on their own and that we might have to assist.
But those would really make the functioning of the system far, far better.
Emile Elias: We are now in the United Nations decade on ecosystem restoration. And much of the emphasis has been on the restoration of forests, so I'm wondering if you can explain how this emphasis on forests could inadvertently present an additional challenge or threat to grasslands.
Katharine Suding: There was pretty controversial publication about five years ago where they looked globally at the restoration potential for forests, and they defined all the areas where trees could grow as places that we could restore forests. And so they used, you know, above a certain precipitation level as, for instance, as a key indicator.
So they publish this and say, Hey, we have a huge potential to restore our, our globe. You know, and they publish these maps and the, the, the grassland ecologists, particularly in the tropics were up in arms because they're, Hey, these are, some of these are great high value ancient grasslands. And yes, you could plant a tree here and it could grow, but the damage you would have by damaging this ancient grassland is catastrophic.
And so I think that's where we get to this really hard line to define where, where, if we're dealing with a degraded area, right? So we are, we're dealing with an area that we want to restore, is the reference a forest? Or is the reference of grassland and sometimes we actually don't know.
And so the idea that it could be both or that we really have to think hard about the potential that the system could be a grassland even in the tropics. So some places like Africa, it's been hit pretty hard about the idea that we really have to preserve and think about restoring the grasslands.
And it can't be just forest. So there's been renewed attempts to, to explain to people that are really excited about restoring and so they're excited about the potential that restoration isn't just restoring trees, right. And that we, if we're gonna, you know, even the campaigns, the global campaigns to, you know, buy another tree to restore the globe.
It's, it's good. It's great. But that there's another part, you know, that we're, that the globe isn't all forested and we have a ton of biodiversity and some, a lot of really important systems that we could restore in a different way.
Emile Elias: That was such a great answer. I like the, the story about the publication, which I didn't anticipate, and it's important to think, I think a little more broadly there.
So in reading your article, I learned that the most detrimental disturbances to grasslands, to ancient grasslands or all grasslands is destroying below ground structure, and so I'm wondering if you can tell us a bit about why this is and the pathway to recovery for grasslands with below ground degradation.
Katharine Suding: So we know from just human evolution as well as the idea about grasslands over the last millennia that they have evolved with grazing and with fire. And they have traits that they can handle those kind of disturbances, and they are not bad disturbances. So they, they keep their buds underground so they can be eaten or burned on the top and they will resprout, sometimes with even stronger vigor than they were before.
Right? So they, they're, they're used to, and they actually benefit from those those disturbances. On the other hand, if you think about a below ground disturbance that removes all the structure of below ground, those are actually very hard for these species to recover from. I think that many, many people probably can think of times where they've stood on a, a fence line where one side has been plowed and one side hasn't, and that that plow line can persist for tens, even sometimes a hundred years. So there's there, so there's strong evidence that once the below ground structure of a grassland gets, gets affected by By plowing or some sometimes the woody encroachment or tree planting, those types of disturbances, some species might not be able to recover once they're gone.
'cause these long lived grasses that really characterize kind of the old growth grasses, they're not really good at dispersing, spreading by seed. That's kind of a more weedy trait, if you wanna think about it that way. And so they might, once they're gone, they might not be able to get back in very easily.
And then also your, your you've changed all the below ground structure of the symbiotes, so the microbes and the soil structure and the and so all those things that really lead to a, a vibrant system. So it looks like restoration really depends on the past disturbances. If a place has been, let's say, grazed more heavily than it perhaps it should be, or maybe like didn't have the fire regime than it should, there, there seems to be little more evidence that.
Those can be restored, that the long-lived grasses are kind of maintained below ground and they can kind of reemerge that. You can sometimes substitute grazing for fire or be kind of innovative of how you wanna simulate the disturbance regime to try to foster, to foster the growth of those species.
If if you're trying to restore an area where the below ground structure has been damaged, it's a little bit harder. There's been some success at actually salvaging the top layer of the soil that has a lot of the buds and the broken up rhizomes of these long-lived plants and actually adding that to a degraded area as a way to get those species back into an area for recovery.
There is. A need. Absolutely. To better understand how we might be able to propagate these species. We really think about seeding a lot with grasslands and we know how to drill seed and we know how to propagate seed. But what about the species that don't rely on that very much? We really are. We really don't know.
And so there's a big need about knowing how can we get those species in if they're lost. And then the other element in trying to restore an area where the below ground structure is the damaged, is how do we restore all the important symbiotes, so the microbes, the micro, the soil structure. Because a lot of times that is a key for a lot of these long-lived more ancient grasslands.
Emile Elias: I'd love to learn more about that, about how to, to do that. It sounds challenging from the outside as a hydrologist and probably a big area of research.
Katharine Suding: Well, it's tough to change a microbial system or even the below ground system from the top. Right. So we can seed in some mycorrhizae. We can change things a little bit, but sometimes those changes actually aren't fundamental to change the whole system.
Right. So, and you can understand that I'm sure about how complicated the below ground structure is. So just adding something on the top, you can't really expect that it really will, will take hold and really change the, the whole system dynamic.
Emile Elias: All right, so we talked about restoring a historic disturbance regime to a degraded grassland and that that might not result in the intended outcomes. And so I'm wondering, in your research and experience, have you come across any examples of this?
Katharine Suding: Yes. And so this is really a cool thing about grasslands is that, as I said, they are co-evolved with grazing and fire disturbances. So, so there's these strong feedbacks between the species, the type of plants that are in a system and the disturbances. And so if you, if you just take a really degraded area and then say, okay, I'm gonna just graze it or I'm going to just burn it often you might, you, you might not have the intended benefits because you're not thinking about that feedback. So let me give you an example of what that could be. So if. If there's particular plants that do well with a fire and you burn, then those plants will do even better. And then if you burn again, then they'll do even better.
Then you burn again. They'll do even better. Right. So you've sent it to this trajectory where the burning and the fire regime is really supporting these, these plants. But then let's say you have some other types of plants that aren't adapted to fire and you start burning the grassland because you're like, I know that fire is really good for grasslands, but you are not gonna have those same dynamics.
The burning might create a lot of bare ground, right? It might not, it may actually create a more weedy system because you're gonna actually be not kind of fostering those plants that are good at adapting to fire because they are not there yet. So you have to think about that kind of feedback and that cycle to think about how you can create the, the, that, that more, that system that is really does respond well to grazing or fire.
In my situation, in, around, in the, in the, in the US West grasslands. One good example is that if you get, if you go into a degraded grassland and let's say cheatgrass, and you say, okay, I know that restoration, I know that great, that that grazing and fire is important for grasslands, so I'm just gonna burn this thing.
And I think everyone knows that that is not a very good idea in terms of restoration of a, of a system that's totally dominated by a species cheatgrass. Right? It'll, it'll just keep on coming back. And I don't know if you'll get many natives, but if you can get the system to be more native dominated, then that same burning management technique actually might foster a recovery pathway that's very different. So, so thinking about the disturbance leading to changes in vegetation that then can lead to ability to respond more to the disturbances is really key to, to this idea about how you manage grasslands. And I think that really speaks to this idea that old growth grasslands assemble.
Because they have been co-evolved with these, this, these, this grazing and this fire. But it's the, those species might not be there, right? So getting the species in and getting the disturbance regime in both need to be done in an iterative fashion. I, I've been thinking in terms of trying to get that trajectory to, to lead to a grassland that's more similar to these ancient grasslands.
Emile Elias: Excellent, thank you. We may have hit on this already, but I wanted to ask it again. According to the article, until recently, we've had a fairly simplistic view about how to restore grasslands, and I'm wondering what we might have learned more recently about the challenges to grassland ecosystem restoration.
Do we have new knowledge that we've learned more recently?
Katharine Suding: So when I started thinking about grassland or restoration and my research, a lot of times I would think about a restoration project where we start with bare ground. We think about a seeding mix. So we get a seed mix. We get our drill seeder out there.
We drill seed an area with the species that we think should be there, and then we expect in a couple years that we'll get what we seeded. Then we walk away. We did it. We restored this darn grassland. And so, a lot of times that didn't work, but that was kind of the thinking about how we might assemble a grassland.
So thinking about that, we're missing a whole component of the grass, grassland species that way, right? We're only seeding in the things that grow really fast and are really good at growing from seed. And so thinking about, okay, how can we change our practices? Or maybe that is a good first step, but then do we go in again and do we, do we, how do we add other species?
I think the issue there is that a lot of these long lift species that don't seed really well. We actually don't know much about. We don't know how to propagate them and we don't know how they actually function. So just their basic natural history. And sometimes I think about marine biology here. I think about, okay.
What if we, we were just trying to figure out how an ocean worked and we about the, and we only could see what happens on the surface. You know, we'd know there's fish there and there are some interesting dynamics. We would know nothing until we started scuba diving down. Right. And we realized, All this amazing stuff.
Well, with the soil, like if we could scuba dive through the soil, I think we'd find incredible different structures of roots, different ways the, the species are kind of, clonally reproducing, but we just can't. Right. And so how do we start understanding more about those traits and those, those kind, that's kind of ability to maintain, regenerate and be really resilient to to all the disturbances, but also to the climate.
And I think we're just in. We're just starting to figure that out. I just said that the dis disturbing things below ground isn't really good for an old growth grassland. But then how do we discover what's happening below ground? Like do we start digging around? You know, so like we're, I think we're just in a, in a, in a phase that we're gonna have to figure out how to propagate and just learn more about these species and then how to start bringing them into restorations to try to keep that trajectory going, to really try to build those characteristics. I think we have a 10 year old grassland pretty well down, but how do we get that 10 year old grassland to actually keep on accumulating diversity to be a 50 year old grassland, a hundred year old versus just getting stuck in the 10 year old 10 year old, you know, group of species. And I think we we're doing that fairly well.
Emile Elias: And without scuba diving through the soil, which is such a great image. And, and such a, a good way to describe the complexities of understanding some of these older systems.
Yeah. So I'm wondering about people that manage and steward grasslands. Do you have any suggestions or tips for resource managers who are working with some of these ancient or old growth grasslands?
Katharine Suding: I think that the grasslands that appear to be really high conservation value and have species in them that aren't well represented in the more younger or disturbed grasslands.
Those are areas that should be really high conservation priority. So, so thinking about those as ones that we really can't damage particularly below ground, and then expect that they would just come back. And so I think that's, that's key. The other thing is that I would think about grassland assembly and restoration is a pretty long term assembly process and that there could be goals for the first, you know, couple years, five years. But then also just thinking about patients and ways to get maybe some of these more, these species that don't just come in really readily. How do you get those in and, and having them kind of spread and that, I think, Thinking about managing a system that might take multiple decades to get to where you are, you might, you might do things differently and you also might just maybe be a little bit, maybe it's just less pressure that there is just something that will just take time. And I think that's something that is probably important to, to, to, for managers to just think about and hopefully communicate to stakeholders. The, the last thing I would say is that I think in some systems it's thought that grasslands are just this weedy system.
It's gonna be colonized by a forest. And so we really shouldn't spend any time managing it. And that is something that I would really call into question and to really think about kind of the values that grasslands bring and that managing for a lot of the just a real healthy grassland system is, is really important.
Just like managing for healthy forest systems are.
Emile Elias: Excellent. Thank you. So this next question is more of a fun one, so if you don't have an answer for it, that's okay. The United Nations has declared 2026 as the international year of rangelands and to raise awareness and advocate for the value of healthy rangelands and sustainable pastoralism.
And is there anything that you're planning on doing to take part in that?
Katharine Suding: I I think that's just a, just great that they have, have decided to set, set a year to celebrate healthy rangelands. There's, there's two things that I'm hoping that maybe 2026 will bring. The first thing is that just locally in Boulder, grasslands have actually received, A little bit of a bad rap recently because we had, we had a really catastrophic grass fire and so now the grasslands that have been really a subject to the conservation and of recreation are now think, are now people are worried about risk and hazard.
We are hoping, and we're starting a couple really fun projects. I'm hoping that we'll actually bring in grazing to these systems and thinking about conservation grazing where we might be able to think about fire risk as well as soil health, as well as biodiversity. And I'm hoping by 2026 we might be able to change the thought about whether grasslands are risky or not, but rather that we can actually achieve all these things together if we if we think about them as sustainable rangelands and under a really healthy grazing regime. So I'm hoping for that. And then the, the other thing that might happen, I'm, I'm hoping maybe around 2026, is I have on my to-do list to go to some of these more tropical grasslands.
And I'd love to see some of these species that I've only only read about. And particularly some of the the, the grasslands in, in Brazil are definitely on my top of my list that I just really, really am looking forward to just, just seeing because they, they are just, they just sound exceptional.
Emile Elias: Excellent. I, I can't wait to hear the report on the Brazilian grasslands 'cause that sounds wonderful. That'll be good. And I, I grew up around Boulder and so know, know the fire that you're speaking of well. And I'm curious about this, these grazing plans have, do, have you, do you know which animals you're planning on employing for this?
Katharine Suding: Well, so this is just starting, but we, it's, it's a great collaboration with a lot of local groups thinking about fuel loads and really realizing that our fire models don't really model grasslands very well. And a lot of times it's just one grass type, right? So not thinking about that, there's some areas super high productivity, some less.
So high fuel loads. Low fuel loads. And so we are looking to better parameterize those models to get a better assessment of where the, the fuel loads could bring in higher fire risk. And then we are going to pilot some ways of thinking about targeted grazing in these higher fuel load areas. So right now, the easiest way that managers are addressing fire risk is actually through mowing the area, the fence line areas that are between the grasslands and the neighborhoods.
So at that, that interface, that's a lot of effort and mowing repeatedly just creates bare ground. We lose a lot of grassland species and we cause a lot of soil erosion. So thinking about whether we can use grazing to kind of target some of those high risk areas. And we're we're gonna, we're gonna start, I think pretty soon exploring even some virtual fencing ideas.
So really thinking about targeting either along particular risk areas, like fence lines or actually high fuel load areas about, so really using kind of a dynamic grazing system to, to think about how we can, we can do that. So more to come there, but it's just starting.
Emile Elias: Okay, we'll stay tuned. Maybe we'll get to talk to you again.
We like to ask our experts that we get to talk to what gives them hope. And so for the, for the future, what gives you hope?
Katharine Suding: Well, I think that actually just being a restoration ecologist, I think is a way of optimistically thinking about futures and how that we can maybe direct futures in a way that we're addressing past impacts and we're making the systems you know, improving degraded systems.
I'd say in that vein, I teach restoration ecology every fall, so I'm getting, I'm getting ready for it. And that absolutely gives me joy and it gives me hope to have a ton of students that are super, super excited about really wanting to do good and really wanting to, to to, to deal with some of these issues head on and thinking about concepts in restoration as a way that they can make a really positive impact to society.
And so, so that's, That's absolutely something that, that gives me a lot of hope.
Emile Elias: Yeah, absolutely. So if our listeners remember only one thing from our conversation today, what would you like it to be?
Katharine Suding: I would like it to be that when they walk through a grassland, that they don't think about it as just a boring, not interesting system, but they think about it as a forest that's turned on its head and that there's all sorts of things happening in this grassland. And some of 'em might be a little bit more hidden than some other places that they might walk through, but there it's equally as diverse, as complex and as vibrant as some of those other systems that are just a little easier to see.
Emile Elias: Excellent. Thank you so much Dr. Katherine Suding for talking with us about old growth grasslands and, and for sharing your knowledge.
Katharine Suding: We appreciate it. Thanks. Thanks for your time.
Emile Elias: Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub
Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest CASC. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes. A special thanks to our production crew, Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.