Midwest Region
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Ecological Services
1 Federal Drive
Fort Snelling, MN 55118
Phone: (612) 713-5467
E-Mail: Tom_Magnuson@fws.gov

Imperiled Ecosystems | Invasive Species | Water-Related Issuesdesign only
Emerging Issues | Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region Priority Species

Imperiled Ecosystems

The Northern Tallgrass Prairie

The Northern Tallgrass Prairie (NTP), one of the Midwest's largest and most biologically productive Ecosystems, has become functionally non-existent over the last 100 years. Physiographically spanning 38 million acres across parts of Manitoba, Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas (3 million acres in Manitoba), it is estimated that less than 200,000 acres of prairie remain today in the U.S. portion of the NTP. Of what prairie does remain, most are small scattered parcels with little or no value for wildlife.

Photo of big bluestem - Photo credit: Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Big bluestem

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Photo of purple prairie clover - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Elise Smith
Purple prairie clover

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Photo of switchgrass - Photo credit: Larry Allain @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Switchgrass

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Photo of blazing star - Photo credit: Clarence A. Rechenthin @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Blazing star

For years following the initial conversion of native Midwestern prairies, many prairie remnants were surrounded by agricultural grasslands (haylands and pastures) which helped support their structure and natural function. However, few of these agricultural grasslands remain today, causing many remaining prairie remnants to become isolated islands surrounded by row-crop fields and other development.

Likewise, over the years many prairie-dependent wildlife species remained relatively stable through their ability to colonize agricultural grasslands. However, 20th century agricultural grassland loss has followed similar path of decline for native prairie in the 19th century and in many parts of the Midwest, agricultural grasslands are at their lowest level in more than 100 years. As a result, most remaining tallgrass prairie habitat is highly fragmented and dominated by human activity.

Ground nesting birds that utilize these remaining prairie fragments must now concentrate their nesting effort in small scattered parcels of habitat with large amounts of linear edge, where predators such as red fox, striped skunk, and raccoon easily forage. Large native predators (wolves, cougar and bear) which historically preyed on bison, deer, and livestock within this ecosystem, have been eliminated from the area and naturally replaced by medium-sized predators (fox, skunk, raccoon) that prey extensively on birds, their eggs, and their young. Further, fire control and woody plantings have favored increases in numbers of forest-edge birds, historically only present in mid-western oak and eastern deciduous forests (Samson and Knopf 1994), thus adding to the competition for remaining habitat.

Photo of a bobolink - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / S. Maslowski
Bobolink

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Photo of a bison in the snow - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Steve Maslowski
Bison

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Photo of a Western painted turtle - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Gary M. Stolz
Western painted turtle

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Photo of a savannah sparrow - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Dave Menke
Savannah sparrow

Without restoration and management, these prairie remnants will continue to degrade due to their size, isolation, absence of natural processes such as fire, grazing and hydrologic cycle maintenance, and inadequate buffers protecting them from surrounding agricultural and urban land uses.

Loss and fragmentation of prairie landscapes combined with changes in natural processes have had negative consequences for many grassland plants and animals. Currently there are 55 grassland species in the U.S. considered threatened or endangered. Grassland birds have shown steeper, more consistent, and geographically more widespread declines (25-65%) than any other group of North American birds.

Moving the conservation community toward active, expressed support for the recovery of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Ecosystem is not a biological problem. It's a marketing problem. Recovery of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie depends on the cooperation and support from the diverse stakeholders who affect, are affected by, and ultimately influence land use decisions.

At least 25 different Federal, State, local, and non-government organizations with similar missions are working independently within the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Unfortunately, most activities are not carried out in the context of a comprehensive and coordinated strategy. Stakeholders within the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Ecosystem are diverse and have multiple goals for the land, including agriculture, recreation, conservation, and habitation, all of which are not mutually compatible.

The Service is working with a variety of conservation stakeholders to enhance communication and collaboration through the development of a landscape-scale conservation vision for the Northern Tallgrass Prairie. Having a conservation blueprint to guide future restoration and preservation of the ecosystem's essential resources represents an important tool in hand.

For information about the Northern Tallgrass Prairie and what you can do to help in its recovery, contact Tim Yager, at 612-713-5365.


Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands

Coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes are composed of a variety of habitats, including open ponds, cattail and reed marshes, earthen dikes, barrier beaches, delta flats, and woodland swamps. Collectively these habitats are known as the coastal marsh community.

Coastal wetland communities are among the most productive areas on earth. These diverse ecosystems provide the biological interface between the aquatic and terrestrial communities, which multiply their function and contribute to their dynamics. Coastal wetlands are characterized by a diversity of emergent, floating-leaved, and submersed aquatic plants, which provide more food and shelter for wildlife than any offshore habitat in the Great Lakes.

Photo of a great blue heron - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Herb Stein design only

Within the coastal marshes, invertebrates, insects, gastropods, and other organisms living among the vegetation provide an important food source for fish and mammals. Waterbirds and other wetland wildlife rely on marsh plants for subsistence, nest sites, and cover, while other wetland wildlife utilize fish and invertebrates which inhabit the vegetation. Each habitat component within the marsh attracts its own species of plant, bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and fish. Within the marshes where natural processes are still occurring, zonation and succession in response to environmental conditions are among the important community processes. Water level fluctuations and the resultant plant and animal response are often the most significant driving forces in the coastal marsh community.

In healthy coastal marshes, the most important source of primary production is from macrophyte vegetation. The ultimate source of energy for marsh ecosystems is the sun. Energy flow through coastal marshes possesses two basic complexes of interrelationships that support the living components in this region: 1) invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals which utilize the living plant material, and 2) organisms which utilize detritus or dead plant material.

The ecological and social value of Great Lakes coastal wetlands is immense, but not often recognized by the public. Some functions and values associated with Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands include:

Biological Functions
  1. food chain production and energy transfer
  2. fish production, spawning and nursery
  3. waterfowl and waterbird migration, wintering and nesting
  4. invertebrate, amphibian, reptilian, and mammalian habitat
Physical Functions
  1. groundwater recharge and flood storage
  2. sedimentation basin
  3. pollution control by waste assimilation, toxic substance absorption, and nutrient uptake
  4. coastal protection from waves
Economic Values
  1. agricultural uses (peat, blueberries, etc.)
  2. commercial and sport fishing
  3. trapping and furbearers
  4. waterfowl hunting
  5. non-consumptive recreation (birdwatching, canoeing, etc.)

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's role in protection and restoration of Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands is in developing innovative partnerships with local and statewide land trusts and other conservation partners to identify and protect some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat and species in the Great Lakes Basin through the This link opens in a new windowService's Coastal Program.

For more information about Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands and what you can do to help in their recovery, contact Craig Czarnecki at 517-351-2555.

For more information, please visit these sites:

  • This link opens in a new windowGreat Lakes Coastal Wetlands Consortium
    The Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Consortium consists of scientific and policy experts drawn from key U.S. and Canadian federal agencies, state and provincial agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other interest groups with responsibility for coastal wetlands monitoring. This is an unprecedented assembly of coastal wetlands expertise.

  • This link opens in a new windowGreat Lakes Coastal Wetlands ? Science and Conservation
    The Canadian Wildlife Service prepared this fact sheet to convey the importance of coastal wetlands in maintaining the hydrological and ecological health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to encourage wider acceptance of wetland values.

  • This link opens in a new windowUpwellings Online - Valuing Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands
    The extensive coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes are unique in ecological character, size and variety. In Michigan, they range from shoreline wetlands and marshes along our northern coastline, to the extensive wetlands of Saginaw Bay to the freshwater delta marshes of the St. Clair River. These coastal wetlands offer habitat and ecological values that are critically important to sustaining Great Lakes ecosystems and enrich our own coastal communities.

  • This link opens in a new windowUpwellings Online - Where's the Beach?
    Low water levels in the Great Lakes have helped create a critical coastal habitat referred to as an ?emergent wetland.? These areas are characterized by large expanses of vegetation and sometimes a soft mud zone, separating upland from water. These fertile wetlands have returned in dramatic fashion to the shoreline in some areas of the state, most noticeably in the Saginaw Bay region.

  • This link opens in a new windowGreat Lakes Coastal Wetlands Working Paper - State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) 1996
    This paper expands on the paper Aquatic Habitat and Wetlands of the Great Lakes (Dodge and Kavetsky, 1995) given at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) in 1994. That paper provided a general evaluation of the state of aquatic, inland ,and coastal wetland habitats in the Great Lakes basin. The goal of this paper is to provide a more focused synthesis of the state of Great Lakes coastal wetlands.

  • This link opens in a new windowGreat Lakes Coastal Wetlands Project (EPA)
    Research plan, fact sheet, selected coastal wetland study sites in the Great Lakes Region, and posters.
Last updated: September 24, 2012