Rangeland Ecology & Management

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Enneapogon cenchroides invasive grass Saguaro Nat'l Park

Ecological Restoration

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Livestock can be used to prepare a restoration site for seeding via seed burial through trampling while adding nutrients to the soil in the process (see Winkel and Roundy, 1991).

Photo by: George Ferguson
  • Anne Gondor and Austin Rutherford, University of Arizona


    The time is now, to get those ecological restoration projects started. The United Nations has declared this decade (2021-2030) the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Rangelands restoration is a focus within this effort and a parallel effort, the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists (IYRP) in 2026 promotes awareness about global rangelands and all who depend on them. This decade offers the best chance to bring ecosystems into a more resilient condition to withstand the impacts of climate change as it progresses.

    But what is ecological restoration? The Society for Ecological Restoration defines it as "the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed." It should be noted that ecological restoration is different from restoration ecology, which is the science that supports ecological restoration practices. Within ecological restoration there is a ‘restorative continuum’ as described by Gann et al. (2019). This 'continuum' is a series of increasingly complex actions from early management actions that reduce impacts to repairing ecosystem function with rehabilitation activities to the full recovery of native ecosystems using ecological theory. Ecological restoration recovers the full composition of native species as well as the ecological processes that sustain them. A continuum of actions is necessary quite often because some landscape conditions have changed so extensively that recovery can only be achieved by various restoration approaches that target ecological processes such as reconnecting the hydrologic regime, reducing erosion and increasing infiltration, or returning fire (Palmer et al., 2016).

    There are a number of natural approaches to applying ecological restoration. One called 'natural regeneration' emphasizes allowing an area where damage was low to recover naturally. This is a very cost-effective approach and can be successful when plant species remain at the site or are nearby for regeneration, there is a remnant soil seed bank, and/or habitat that remains is suitable for wildlife. If the site was more so heavily damaged, natural regeneration could take a very long time. 'Assisted regeneration' may be the better approach in areas with moderate degradation and requires some active intervention to improve the site. These active techniques may involve soil amendments/remediation, creating habitat features for wildlife, invasive species control, and/or seedling or reintroduction of species into the site. The third approach is 'assisted reconstruction' for sites that have been heavily damaged and requires the removal or reversal of the source of degradation including the reintroduction of the wildlife and plant species, where the damage resulted in an unsuitable environment for getting back the native reference ecosystem without intervention. Often, it takes a combination of all three approaches and potentially a mosaic of all three across a site. In dryland areas, techniques like 'restoration islands' (e.g., concentrated plantings in strategic locations) may be beneficial to create sources for plants to establish and spread to meet restoration goals for a site (Hulvey et al. 2017).    

    From the local to the global level, ecological restoration also aims to improve human well being through restoring ecosystem service benefits as in food and water security. By restoring damaged and/or degraded lands, ecosystem function and productivity can be returned for people around the world that depend on these ecosystems for their health and livelihoods.


  • U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region highlights the need for ecological restoration through interviews with Forest Service biologists, ecologists and other professionals.

  • Sherm Swanson presents strategies to maintain or restore riparian functions and values on rangelands at the 2018 Society for Range Management Annual Meeting. Posted by www.sagegrouseinitiative.com.


  • University of Arizona Cooperative Extension's easy to use platform to investigate potential species based on site characteristics and management…
  • The Climate Smart Restoration Tool (CSRT) considers plant genetic adaptation along with climate change projection information to map seed collection a…
  • StreamStats is an online mapping tool for water-resources planning and management.
  • The recovery wheel tool assists the evaluation of ecosystem attributes recovery through a 5 star ranking system.

Featured Resources From the Database

Further Reading

BenDor, T., et al. 2015. Estimating the Size and Impact of the Ecological Restoration Economy. PLOS ONE 10(6): e0128339.

Fargione, J.E., et al. 2018. Natural climate solutions for the United States. Science Advances 4(11).

Gann, G.D., et al. 2019. International principles and standards for the practice of ecological restoration. Second edition. Restoration Ecology 27(S1): S1–S46.

Hare, T. 2019. Field Guide to Riparian Restoration, and Upland and Arroyo Erosion: for rural and natural lands owners, managers, and restoration practitioners. Watershed Management Group.

Hulvey, K., et al. 2017. Restoration islands: a tool for efficiently restoring dryland ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 25: S124-S134.

Mansuy, N., and MacAfee, K. 2019. More than planting trees: career opportunities in ecological restoration. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17(6): 355–356.

Palmer, M., Zedler, J., and Falk, D. 2016. Foundations of Restoration Ecology. Second Edition. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Society for Ecological Restoration & British Ecological Society. 2021. Cross Society Special Feature on the Decade of Restoration. A special cross journal featuring articles on the latest research and implementation of ecological restoration.

Winkel, V., and Roundy, B. 1991. Effects of cattle trampling and mechanical seedbed preparation on grass seedling emergence. Journal of Range Management 44.2: 176-180.