Grassland birds such as this dickcissel are the most imperiled species in North America.
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Whether referred to as “prairie” in the United States, “pampas” in South America, “steppe” in Central Eurasia or “savanna” in Africa, grasslands are found across the globe.They often conjure images of vast, open land blanketed in soft grass. But, the truth is, today few grasslands resemble this image.
Today, grasslands are the most imperiled ecosystem, with only five percent protected globally. In Illinois, the "prairie state," only one-tenth of one percent of prairies remain. Most have been lost to urban development, timber production or agriculture.
That said, grasslands still support livelihoods for 800 million people on the planet, help clean our air and water and provide critical habitat for grassland birds such as bobolinks and prairie chickens and wildlife from bison to ornate box turtles. The Nature Conservancy recognizes the viability of this ecosystem and has made its protection a global priority.
The Super Hero Habitat
Grasslands may appear simple and may not be quite as striking as mountain ranges, but just like Clark Kent, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Most of a grasslands’ biomass —living material— is underground. The root systems of some plants extend nearly 20 feet below the surface, reaching groundwater sources.
A grasslands’ deep root system not only ensures its survival for decades, it serves as a storage area for carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to clean the air we breathe. The deep roots also hold soil in place during heavy rains, which reduces erosion and keeps our rivers and streams clean of excess sediment.
Though grasslands provide many benefits to people, they are also a critical habitat for grassland birds, which as a group is the most imperiled species in North America. Forty-two bird species in North America depend on grasslands for breeding, making our work to protect this habitat imperative to their survival.
The Nature Conservancy's Work
The Nature Conservancy works across the globe to protect grasslands, with projects in Kenya, Mongolia, Argentina and across the United States. In Northern Kenya, Conservancy staff is working to create a mosaic of conserved and connected private, communal and public grasslands. Through these efforts, African wildlife habitats and freshwater sources are protected, and the well-being of traditional pastoralist communities is sustained.
For the past 25 years, The Nature Conservancy in Illinois has protected critical grassland habitat at the Nachusa Grasslands Preserve. What began as remnant prairies and oak savannas interspersed with corn fields, Nachusa has been carefully restored to more than 3,000 acres of high-quality prairie habitat, holding a total of 700 native plant species and 180 species of birds.
In the coming years, the Conservancy hopes to add more land to Nachusa and reintroduce bison. Nachusa is considered one of the top places in Illinois for this reintroduction and would be among a small number of bison herds being managed for the genetic conservation of this iconic species, which were at the brink of extinction in the early 20th century.
Not only will this reintroduction be good for preserving the bison species, it will also be good for the prairie. Fire and grazing are the ecological drivers of prairies, and coupled with the work of many helping hands for seed harvesting and invasive species control, a healthy future is in store for Nachusa Grasslands.
Lessons learned from bison management at Nachusa will influence Conservancy grassland programs across North America and throughout the world.March 10, 2012
Written by Julia Bourque, Conservation Writer for The Nature Conservancy