photo of a prairie
Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, the author writes, is "the quintessential prairie pothole landscape." (Paul Charland/USFWS)

As I rolled north out of Cassoday in southeastern Kansas, everything came together. I was on my Buell Ulysses motorcycle, the weather was perfect, and I was seeing the prairie as open and expansive as it exists today. Mile upon seemingly endless mile of open grasslands; the only trees visible in a few draws; butterfly milkweed blooming everywhere.

These were the Flint Hills as I expected them to be. I was so excited I had to fight the urge to roll on the throttle. I wanted to see more. I wanted to test the limits of the horizon. Unfortunately, I knew that the prairie had limits. That’s why I was there.

As a Service employee and a birder, I am consistently reminded of the loss of grasslands and their birds. Just read The State of the Birds 2011 report: "More than 97 percent of the native grasslands of the U.S. have been lost, mostly because of conversion to agriculture. As a result, grassland bird populations have declined from historic levels far more than any other group of birds."

On this two-week journey, my Prairie Pilgrimage, I wanted to see grasslands and grassland birds while they are still functioning naturally together.

My route was a narrow strip through the heart of the Great Plains. I started in northeast Oklahoma and ended in northwest North Dakota. Refuges featured prominently in the journey, specifically those in the Flint Hills in Kansas, the Sand Hills in Nebraska and the Prairie Pothole Region in North Dakota, a swath of the nation in which the Service long has had a substantial presence.

It was within the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area acquisition boundary, north of Cassoday, where I first saw a large expanse of prairie with most of the important pieces intact. There were upland sandpipers in numbers I’d never seen. Recognizing the potential for us—the Service and Americans—to conserve such high- quality prairie on a landscape scale is inspiring. The Sand Hills, too, are hope-affirming in their magnitude and quality. From the top of the fire tower at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Nebraska, the prairie did in fact seem limitless. That was why I was there. I wanted to see unspoiled grassland and to know that refuges are a seamless piece of the whole.

"I realized that our lands are not only parts of ecosystems; they are also a part of a community. The community enables wildlife refuges to exist."

Lostwood Refuge in North Dakota is legendary among birders. It’s the quintessential prairie pothole landscape. The 26,904-acre refuge is recognized as one of the best places to see Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipits and dozens of other grassland-dependent species. But by the time I got there, ticking individual species had become less important. It was no longer about particular species or even particular taxa. It was about ecosystems. I wanted to see and know that there still exist places where they all work together. I wanted to be immersed in functional grassland ecosystems, because without functional ecosystems the populations, the individuals and eventually the species cease to exist.

Refuges are important parts of those Great Plains ecosystems. But after seeing firsthand the dramatic expansion of the oil industry in western North Dakota, I realized that our lands are not only parts of ecosystems; they are also a part of the community. The community enables wildlife refuges to exist. Unless the Service gives something to the community and the citizens believe conservation is important to them, we will not have their support and America’s lands will not fully fulfill their role within the larger ecosystem.

That, ultimately, is what my 3,900-mile Prairie Pilgrimage taught me.

Paul Charland is a wildland urban interface coordinator based at Leopold Wetland Management District, WI. A blog about his motorcycle ride through the prairie can be found at http://thedeliberatebirder—blogspot—com