Grasslands are being lost at a far faster pace than they are being conserved.
In the last 10 years alone, we have lost more than 50 million acres of grasslands. Habitat loss from factors such as agricultural conversion and, compounded by , threaten the health of grasslands. Agricultural cultivation, development, and invasive species have led to a loss of at least 80% of these grasslands, including a loss of 99% of tallgrass prairie.
Of the 20% of Great Plains grasslands that remain undisturbed, 93% of it is unprotected and at risk of conversion. Conversion of grasslands to agriculture and forests is reducing biodiversity, and invasive grass species, which account for 13-30% of the grass species in the Great Plains, further influence biodiversity loss. When native grasslands disappear, so do the benefits they provide.
In January 2022, an article published in Conservation Science and Practice, The last continuous grasslands on Earth: Identification and conservation importance, identified the Wyoming Basin Steppe and Nebraska Sandhills as two of the last seven intact grassland regions on Earth, and specifically noted the Sandhills as "the most intact temperate grassland in the world." Conservation efforts in this region demonstrate not only the importance of conserving these threatened landscapes, but also the opportunities to learn from successes seen in Wyoming and Nebraska.
When grasslands disappear, so do the benefits they provide.
No matter where we live, we are all dependent on the survival and health of grasslands.
- Grasslands are home to imperiled species, serve as safe corridors for migratory birds and mammals, and provide services that are critical to our way of life – from agriculture and recreation to responding to climate change. Home to hundreds of bird, mammal, fish, reptile, amphibian, plant, and invertebrate species, this landscape is not only vital for these animals, but to the people and communities who live, work, and thrive in these areas.
- The agricultural value of our grasslands cannot be overstated, producing food and critical resources for the entire country and people around the world.
- Grasslands support thousands of pollinator species, including bees, birds, and butterflies. In the United States, wild pollinators provide services estimated at four to six billion dollars annually. The use of agricultural pesticides is contributing to the decline of grassland birds and pollinators.
- Grasslands provide critical nesting habitat for waterfowl. Hunting, particularly waterfowl hunting, and other recreation and tourism opportunities throughout these lands support local communities and further conservation efforts.
- Grasslands play a critical role in storing carbon in their deep root systems, helping the global effort to slow the effects of climate change.
Grasslands provide numerous ecosystem services:
- Agricultural and ranging livelihoods
- Habitat for wildlife & pollinators
- Clean air and water
- Climate change resiliency
- Drought, wildfire, and flood resiliency
- Recreational opportunities
- Soil conditioning and erosion protection
- As much as 80% of the continent’s ducks have historically relied on breed habitat in the Prairie Pothole region
We need substantial collaborative efforts to effect policy interventions to encourage grassland conservation.
These efforts must include working with a broader diversity of partners to increase the pace and scale of strategic conservation investments in North American grassland systems. The Service must also identify where our efforts would be most effective in achieving grassland conservation goals.
Recognizing what’s at stake, the Service is pursuing an innovative, results-oriented effort to proactively conserve grassland ecosystems. Working across programs and disciplines, and in close collaboration with our public and private partners, the Service is leading an internal science-driven, landscape-scale campaign to invest our conservation resources in those actions that support our partner efforts and offer the highest return on that investment for declining migratory birds and their breeding habitat in the heart of the grassland andecosystems.
This approach is strategic, accountable, and adaptive: we are focused on identifying and protecting the highest quality core habitat, targeting conservation actions on the Service’s – and our partners’ – priorities, and adjusting our approach based on new information, including biological response from conservation treatments on the ground.
Ultimately, our goal is to slow, stop and reverse the loss of grasslands and arrest downward trends in grassland bird and other grassland associated animal populations to reduce the need for future federal regulatory intervention in these landscapes. Together, our collaborative conservation efforts will reverse the trend and conserve this vital landscape.
About the Central Grasslands
The Central Grasslands are further divided into major types of grasslands based on regional patterns in climate (from cool and moist to hot and dry) and soils. Tallgrass prairies occur in a north south belt in the eastern portion of the grasslands, from Manitoba to east Texas. Mixed-grass prairies dominate the Canadian prairies, extending south throughout the central Great Plains to central Texas. Both shortgrass and sand prairies, occurring on loamy and sandy soils, respectively, predominate the western and southern Great Plains. Finally, semi-desert grasslands occur throughout the Chihuahuan Desert in southern Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas, and extend south and east to San Luis Potosí and Nuevo León, Mexico. Comer, P.J., Hak, J.C., Kindscher, K., Muldavin, E., Singhurst, J., 2018. Continent-scale landscape conservation design for temperate grasslands of the Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert. Natural Areas Journal 38, 196e211.