Conserving the Nature of America

News Release

Weathering the Perfect Storm in the Grasslands of the Northern Great Plains

September 27, 2013


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

A perfect storm is hitting the Dakota Grasslands as record crop prices, advances in technology and equipment, and federal farm subsidies are creating incentives to plow up grasslands and drain wetlands for cropland. This is nothing new but the pace has grown rapidly, and the loss of this habitat has had devastating effects on many migratory birds and other fish and wildlife.

The rapid and extensive loss of native prairie throughout the Great Plains is a major focus of America’s Great Outdoors–for example, less than 5 percent of the nation’s tallgrass prairie remains. The Dakota Grasslands is one of three areas within the Grasslands of the Northern Great Plains AGO Initiative. The other areas are the Rainwater Basin and the Northwest Plains. As with other AGO initiatives, building on existing partnerships and shared goals is key.

In the Dakota Grasslands this means work in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota and South Dakota. This area contains more than 50 million acres, including native prairie with embedded wetlands, providing highly productive habitat for many migratory birds. This area is known as the "duck factory" because of its importance to waterfowl throughout the continent. The Prairie Pothole Region also provides spectacular habitat for migratory and nesting shorebirds, waterbirds, and grassland songbirds.

The healthiest areas of the Dakota Grasslands are those large blocks of native prairie grasslands with a diverse mix of embedded wetlands. These are typically managed by livestock producers, with cattle ranching as the primary industry. To conserve these areas, private landowners must have a seat at the table.

Many do, and they are seeing real benefits from conservation on their land. "Our family ranch was able to add our daughter, son-in-law and their family into the operation,” says Jim Faulstich, a rancher in South Dakota, “thanks to the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, conservation easements and the expertise of the biologist..."

Public-private collaboration is certainly not a new focus, but AGO has accelerated this focus.

The Dakota Grasslands has been a focus area for the Service for many years. The Service's Realty Program has accumulated more than 1.5 million acres of wetland easements in the Dakota Grasslands, as well as nearly 1.3 million acres in grassland easements since Fiscal year 2010. AGO brought additional funds, which provided more opportunities for the Service and key partners.

America’s Great Outdoors became the perfect opportunity at the ideal time. Conservation partners were all having discussions about the need to accelerate efforts to deal with this "crisis in the prairies." AGO helped bring all the right people to the table to focus resources to maximize our conservation successes. The Service can’t do it all, but the combined efforts have achieved tremendous biological outcomes that will be sustained for many years to come.

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