Across the world, they go by many names: downs, prairies, pampas, rangelands, steppes, savannas or velds. But what all of these landscapes have in common is that grass is their naturally dominant vegetation. These “grasslands” occupy what I like to call “the spaces between”: they exist where there is not enough regular rainfall to support the growth of a forest, but not so little as to form a desert.
Where I live, in the Midwest, I often hear others refer to our grasslands as “flyover country.” But much like the great taiga biome, grasslands are far from being just lackluster scenery. And, unfortunately, we’re losing them—and letting go of a lot more along with them.
The gravity of grasslands
In the United States, only 5 percent of the original grasslands remain; or about 358 million acres. At the time of European settlement, however, shortgrass, tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies blanketed the middle of the continent from Canada to Mexico, and spread green and gold from the foot of the Rockies to the deciduous forests of the East.
Spanning five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, the Northern Great Plains is one of the largest grasslands in the world. Its 180 million acres are filled with rolling bluffs, one-of-a-kind badland formations, lush grasses, meandering streams and brilliant wildflowers. Up until the 19th century, millions of bison, elk and pronghorn antelope could be seen grazing on its endless sea of grasses. But since that time, an array of threats has coalesced into a perfect storm raining down on grasslands.
One of those perils is the spread of massive-scale agricultural production, causing native grasslands to give way to fields of corn and wheat, which can decimate the natural habitats of wildlife.
Because of this type of farming, populations of birds are suffering. In 2017, corn made up 68 percent of the harvest of major U.S. grains and oilseeds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s up from 47 percent in 1968. But compared to grassland, cropland provides few or no resources for breeding birds. Most species won’t nest in corn, and corn production requires high inputs of toxic, chemical herbicides and fertilizers; because where only one crop is grown, pests and disease can spread easily.
As the blue grama grass and buffalo grass, the big bluestem grass and the Indian grass, go, so, too, do the bobolinks and longspurs, and greater prairie chickens and ferruginous hawks.
In fact, three out of four grassland bird species have declined in abundance over the last 30 years. Fully 40 percent of the entire continent’s declining bird species are those that depend on grasslands. The prairie potholes in the Northern Great Plains alone are critical to the survival of more than 50 percent of North America’s waterfowl.
Conversion of grasslands to corn, ironically, can lead to more global warming. Although a significant portion of the U.S. corn crop is grown for ethanol as an alternative fuel, according to World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2016 Plowprint Report, 3.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were released into the atmosphere due to the plowing of grasslands between 2009 and 2015—the equivalent of 670 million extra cars on the road.
Climate change itself presents another threat to grasslands, as weather patterns and water cycles begin to change. Grasslands rely on what little water they get to sustain the life that depends on them. When water becomes more limited, wildlife is put at risk. Grazing animals won’t have fresh food to sustain them and will begin to perish. Predators, then, are denied their main food source, throwing the whole ecosystem out of balance.
And while wildfires are a natural process of purge and regrowth in the grasslands, too many wildfires can be detrimental to the area. When climate change affects the water cycle, there isn’t enough moisture to prevent frequent fires. The already dry grasslands become even drier, and fires start to become more frequent each season.
Industrial activity is also taking a toll on grasslands. In North Dakota and Montana, hydraulic fracturing for oil development is spreading, using massive amounts of water and fragmenting the landscape with roads, pipelines and other infrastructure. Greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse hesitate to nest near roads or tall structures, such as power lines. And humans can also spark wildfires through their machinery. When humans migrate to grassland areas, the chance of wildfires grows exponentially.
Suburban sprawl is increasingly cutting into grassland habitat. Every day, America loses about 4,000 acres of open space to development. That’s about three acres per minute. According to the American Bird Conservancy, we’ve lost more grasslands than any other habitat type on the continent.
The sublimeness of space
Despite habitat and species loss, opportunities exist to conserve and restore some parts of this unique ecosystem. Grasslands are one of WWF’s priority places, and progress is being made. Efforts include: continuing public education on how to protect the soil and prevent erosion; the restoration of wetlands, which are an important part of grassland ecology; and conducting dry season burning to obtain fresh growth and to restore calcium to the soil.
Grasslands look like the America of our dreams. They are home to North America’s largest land mammal (bison), biggest cat (mountain lion), fastest land animal (pronghorn), and smallest canine (swift fox). They are the America of the Assiniboine and Sioux, and of Lewis and Clark.
No matter what we label them, grasslands speak to all of us. Grasslands are where land, sky and light intersect; where we return to a natural state of calm; and where we gain greater perspectives—that are all the better for the wide, open views.
Places like that are worth protecting.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,