The Northern Great Plains spans more than 180 million acres and crosses five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. This region is comprised of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. As large as California and Nevada combined, this short- and mixed-grass prairie is one of only four remaining intact temperate grasslands in the world.
Two hundred years ago bison, pronghorn, black-footed ferrets, and a diverse array of grassland birds thrived across the Northern Great Plains. While mapping and exploring the region, Lewis and Clark were awestruck, noting the “immence [sic] herds of Buffaloe [sic] deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains.”
The diverse wildlife that roamed these vast grasslands are not lost. They still call this place home, but their calls are muted and tracks and nests less abundant. World Wildlife Fund is working to restore this living prairie in the heart of North America. At the crux of our vision is a mosaic of private, public, and tribal lands managed in a manner that benefits wildlife and local communities. WWF works with the ranching community, public agencies, tribal nations, and other conservation partners to ensure that the richness of the prairie ecosystem is sustained and enhanced for future generations to enjoy.
People and Communities
WWF is committed to identifying conservation solutions that bolster economic opportunities for the people and communities who call this region home. WWF recognizes that conserving the Northern Great Plains is a top priority along with sustaining the rural communities who live here. WWF supports grasslands and those who live here, identifying conservation solutions that help both thrive. Three communities are most prominent in the region: the Native American tribes, the conservation community, and the ranching community.
Native Americans are this region’s original land stewards. Today, tribes manage roughly 9 million acres of the Northern Great Plains ecoregion, much of which is rich in biodiversity and astoundingly beautiful. Most tribal communities in the Northern Great Plains see a unique cultural and spiritual significance in sustaining grasslands and restoring wildlife.
Within the conservation community, there have been growing concerns about the ongoing destruction of the Northern Great Plains. Due to this, there has been an increased number of organizations and agencies joining in partnerships to coordinate their conservation work. WWF works closely with these interests through formal joint ventures, cooperatives, networks, and smaller partnerships to scale up and magnify conservation investments.
Lastly, the ranching community is a staple in the region. Most of the Northern Great Plains ecoregion is comprised of private land (approximately 77%)—over 904 million acres of which remain as intact grassland. Some families in the region have been ranching their land for more than 150 years, making it a family tradition and a key to their economic livelihood. Working with ranchers to conserve intact grasslands creates habitat for a broad diversity of birds and a suite of grassland wildlife species, mitigates run-off, increases water infiltration, and secures carbon in the soil.
The Northern Great Plains was shaped by change. Seasonal migrations of millions of bison kicking up dust and grass. Frigid winters, high winds, and blistering summers. Spring rainstorms, intense dry lightning outbreaks, and rampaging rivers or racing wildfires. But now, modern changes threaten the wildlife and land in the Northern Great Plains. The four greatest threats that face the Northern Great Plains are grassland conversion, energy development, habitat fragmentation, and climate change, like so many other regions in the world.
The process of converting grasslands entails shifting a landscape with rich grasses, watersheds, and wildflowers, into a tilled landscape for most commonly, agriculture purposes. This process encourages the degradation of native grasslands and drains waterways and watersheds. This plow-up of native grasslands will continue to reshape the landscape and push out wildlife if conservation is not considered.
Secondly, there is a lot of energy development pressure in the Northern Great Plains region, stemming both from traditional (oil, gas, and coal) and renewable sources (wind and solar). Some of the nation’s largest coal reserves exist in the region, and wind energy development is growing across every state. There have been advances in oil and natural gas extraction which allows for industries to tap into parts of the region where resources were once too difficult and expensive to access.
Another growing concern is habitat fragmentation, where a large habitat gets divided up into smaller and multiple habitats. As industries change and land use adapts to meet the needs, many landscapes and species habitats get altered as a result. From seasonal migrations across state or country boundaries to moving between nesting and feeding grounds, wildlife need the freedom to roam for survival. Changes in land use, roads, permanent fences, grassland conversion, and invasive plant species can restrict wildlife’s ability to adapt, move, find mates and food, and thrive.
Like so many regions in the world, climate change is becoming an increasing threat. In the Northern Great Plains region, it is predicted that erratic weather will result in more extreme levels of heat, snow and rain, severe floods, and droughts. Land managers will need to change how they plan, implement, evaluate and carry forward their land use plans to make ends meet in the face of climate change.
What WWF Is Doing
World Wildlife Fund leads innovative work with public agencies, tribal nations, ranchers, and other partners to create a sustainable future for the Northern Great Plains. Two main goals are to sustain and enhance biodiversity across the Northern Great Plains and to restore two flagship species—bison and black-footed ferrets—where possible within the region. Achieving these goals requires a multi-pronged approach that recognizes unique challenges and opportunities from the local level up to US federal policy and global initiatives. WWF is a leading voice for grasslands, and advocates for the incredible wildlife and communities of the Northern Great Plains.
Ranching and Conservation
WWF works with ranchers and communities to identify and implement conservation strategies that maintain grasslands and improve rural livelihoods. Ranchers in the region today face difficult choices in an increasingly complex environment, including changing crop technologies, financial pressures, diverse consumer dietary preferences, and uncertainty about future agricultural prices and markets. Even with the best intentions to maintain grassland productivity, tradeoffs and the financial bottom line are ever-present considerations. Thus, WWF’s conservation strategies work to address issues ranchers are facing that may impact grassland conservation.
The Sustainable Ranching Initiative, which started in 2011, works with landowners, corporations, industry groups, NGOs, and government agencies to protect lands from grassland conversion, improve management of working lands, and restore cropland or degraded lands back to native grassland.
WWF partners with several tribal nations throughout the Northern Great Plains to restore species, improve capacity, and build more sustainable financing for tribal wildlife programs. Many tribes are seeking to increase technical capacity to manage reservation lands for wildlife, an area where WWF can provide important support. WWF helps tribal nations in South Dakota and Montana to develop and implement comprehensive wildlife management plans. WWF also brings technical and financial resources so tribal nations can retain biologists, enhance technical capabilities, and restore wildlife in a way that can manage at scale—especially tribal bison herds and populations of the highly endangered black-footed ferret.
Public Lands Conservation
Public lands contain some of the most iconic landscapes of the Northern Great Plains, including nearly 23 million acres of intact grassland. Yet, these lands face growing threats of disturbance as energy and other development encroaches. WWF works to ensure that public land management plans protect these vast areas that serve as vital habitats for species—such as sage grouse and mule deer—and comprise some of the best remaining habitats for declining grassland bird species, like the Sprague’s pipit. Many of these lands also provide crucial grazing resources for neighboring ranching communities. Through the public lands program, WWF continues to partner with leaders in public land management at the national and local levels, bringing influence and resources to bear so that these ecosystems are adequately protected.
Science and Metrics
WWF’s science team continually refines planning models used to focus on and prioritize conservation actions. Ecoregional and landscape-level progress is tracked toward conservation goals in the Northern Great Plains. WWF uses cutting-edge techniques to model species richness, assess future threats, and predict patterns of change across the region. WWF has been a science leader, engaging a variety of partners working in this region, and continues to hold a high standard for designing smart strategies and updating planning as the world changes.