Home on the range (science)

Erin Beck

It’s a well-kept secret on campus, a secret that five freshman have recently discovered here at SDSU. It’s a major that most students simply don’t know about – Range Science

Range science, though one of the smaller majors in the College of Agricultural and Biological Sciences, covers a wide base of sciences and careers.

As described on SDSU’s website, the range science program equips students to manage rangeland. Rangeland is the foundation for livestock production operations, watershed management areas, outdoor recreational activities and wildlife habitats.

According to Lora Perkins, an assistant professor in range science, many people make the assumption that range science deals with cattle and cowboys. She points out that range science actually deals with the natural environment and focuses on how environments work.

“Range science looks at a bigger picture,” Perkins said. “From soil to plants to animals to precipitation and climate.”

Senior range science major Emily Helms describes range science as a management system that utilizes the native prairies to feed livestock.

Sophomore range science major Cady Olson stresses land management as a major component to range science. Trying to improve the land, coming up with different programs and management styles to get the best production possible from forages, and working with ranchers to create grazing plans that best suit the livestock and forages that are present—all of these hinge on how the land is managed.

Alexander Smart, a range science professor in the natural resource management department, takes a step back when evaluating range science.

“Range science is basically managing the natural vegetation for the purposes of ecosystems and conservation,” Smart said.

In the Midwest, and especially western South Dakota, most rangeland is grassland. For students interested in range science, the motivation for entering a range-related career boils down to a love and passion for the outdoors, the environment and its natural resources.

“You’re really a manager of habitat,” Smart said. “It could be habitat for cattle or for wildlife.”

According to Smart, another draw to range science is the rural lifestyle setting as well as the rugged landscapes of the western United States. He cites the outdoors and the wide-open spaces as the keys to bringing students into range science.

Smart sees the size of the range science program at SDSU to be beneficial. With about 30 students in the program this year, SDSU can offer a major that many colleges don’t often get the chance to give their students.

“We’re small, but that’s a good thing,” he said. “You get to know your students really well. The classes are small, and that’s kind of neat.”

The coursework touches base across several sciences at SDSU, including animal science, plant science, chemistry and biology. Courses include grazing management, plant identification, ranch management and grassland fire ecology.

Smart considers range science to be a very practical, applicable science.

“A range person knows a little bit about everything,” he said. “That’s part of our job. I like that the research I do is applied and helps producers. The grazing studies, the fire research that I do, studying how grasslands respond to climate change, there’s always something that producers can use to make their operations better.”

Job placement is a major bonus for range science majors coming out of college. While the field of competition is stiff for many college majors, the range science program at SDSU and across the nation is small enough, and the demand for those in the natural resource department high enough, to warrant promising placements for graduates.

“We’ve had a good program, and I know employers like our students coming from the Midwest,” Smart said. “Our students have a good work ethic. We’ve got a good reputation.”

Students are already prepared to put their education to the test after graduation.

“I grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota and want to get back to where I came from,” Helms said. “Now I can go back home and use my knowledge.”

For others, getting into the heart of their coursework, range science offers many opportunities.

“I was very involved in range judging in FFA in high school,” Olson said. “I learned about the range science program here and fell in love with it and thought that I could do that for a living.”

Not only do range science majors have career options lined up for the future, they have plenty to keep them active and involved right now while they’re at SDSU. The Range Science Club offers a chance for students in the major to further explore the career field they’ve chosen as well as get to know other students in their major.

The club gives students the chance to engage in annual competitions and travel across the nation to participate in the plant ID contest and undergraduate range management exam. Out of 1800 people at the convention brimming with professionals and university faculty, 400 are undergrads, which Smart sees as a testament to range science’s devotion to education and a better future.

With the first meeting on Sept. 12at 7p.m. in SAS 126, Helms, the former club president, invites any and all to come, as the club is not reserved for range science majors.

“It’s fun to meet new people,” Helms said. “That’s the best part about clubs.”