Minnesota - North Dakota - South Dakota

Nature Now: Grasslands

As an undergraduate student, Marissa Ahlering planned to become a marine biologist. Instead, she studied grassland butterflies and fell in love with the subtle beauty of America’s prairies.

Today, Marissa is a prairie ecologist for The Nature Conservancy and works to enhance and protect the diversity of plant and animal life in grassland ecosystems across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. spoke with Marissa to learn about the challenges grasslands face, what the Conservancy is doing to protect them and why they are important to all of us.

What do you love most about prairies?

Marissa Ahlering:

You have to walk into a prairie to really see it. When I’m there, I love their subtle beauty and astonishing diversity. You can stand in one spot and see so many species of plants, insects, butterflies, and birds, and also see how they are all connected.

Why do prairies and other grasslands matter to people?

Marissa Ahlering:

As I said, prairies are full of life. Prairies harbor 40 percent of North America's bird species. The tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota provide habitat for plants and animals that live only in grasslands, including bison, elk and burrowing owls as well as grassland birds, such as western meadowlarks and bobolinks, whose populations are in steep decline. They also provide a number of “ecosystem services” to people. Prairies built the soil we use to grow our crops today. Like big sponges, prairies hold water to reduce flooding. Prairie plants capture and store carbon and their deep roots help prevent soil erosion and pollution of streams.

What are the big challenges prairies in our region face today?

Marissa Ahlering:

With high corn and soybean prices, new technologies and outdated conservation policies and programs, prairies and working grasslands are being plowed up and planted into row crops at an extraordinary rate. Half of the remaining prairies in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota could be lost in the next 30 years.

How is The Nature Conservancy working to protect prairies?

Marissa Ahlering:

Where intact prairie still exists, we’re working with partners to protect it by buying it or placing a conservation easement on it that will keep it planted in grass. In other places like Glacial Ridge, we are restoring former agricultural lands to grassland. We’re also looking for ways to make grassland conservation economically attractive to private landowners. For example, instead of converting prairie to crops, they could lease it out for grazing or harvest the prairie seed, which is becoming increasingly valuable as more people become interested in prairie restoration.

How will a gift to the Conservancy’s Nature Now campaign protect grasslands?

Marissa Ahlering:

Grasslands are the most under-protected and under-valued ecosystems in the world. We desperately need to protect what remains. The Conservancy has a plan to protect thousands of acres of remaining prairie and restore thousands of acres of degraded prairie and prairie/wetland habitat in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. A gift to the campaign will help leverage additional state and federal dollars, which will go a long way to making our plan a reality.

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