When Betty Pellatz first saw Wyoming’s eastern prairie, she thought to herself, “There’s nothing out here!” The wide landscape looked empty, hardly a tree to break the view. Now, after more than 50 years living in Wyoming’s eastern grasslands, Pellatz feels differently. “To some people it may look desolate, but to those of us who live here, we really love the land.”
Stretching in a thick ribbon from Canada all the way to Mexico, grasslands fill your eyes with endlessness as the land rolls away into the horizon and grasses sway and whisper in the wind.
Grasslands are often misunderstood. It’s easy at first glance to believe they go on forever—or miss them entirely while hurrying down the highway. But people who live and work in these lands of wide, lonesome vistas know better. They know that grasslands provide an array of services, including food, forage for domestic livestock and valuable wildlife habitat.
Temperate grasslands hug Wyoming’s eastern half, covering a large swath of the state. But with less than two percent of their total area under at least some sort of formal protection around the world, grasslands are among the least protected habitat types on Earth.
Compared to many of the highly impacted regions of the Great Plains, grasslands in Wyoming are relatively healthy throughout much of their historic range. That’s because large, untilled tracts of private land still exist here in Wyoming.
Unlike other areas, where native grasslands have all but vanished, Wyoming holds onto some of the country’s last remaining short- and mixed-grass prairies—and the unique opportunity to protect them.
Working with farmers, ranchers, and other landowners, we can help continue their tradition of conserving Wyoming’s native grasslands.
Anatomy of an Ecosystem
Grasslands are subtle landscapes with much more complexity than first meets the eye. Born of interactions between climate, geography and drought, temperate grasslands were also shaped by grazing animals and fire.
In North America, millions of bison trampling and grazing their way across the Great Plains gave grasses an advantage over competing plants. Lightning-sparked wildfires swept the plains clear of woody vegetation and helped many grass species germinate and reproduce.
In Wyoming, our grasslands are dominated by short- and mixed-grass prairies. Here, grasses often grow short yet pack in a powerful amount of nutrients for grazing animals.
Small mammals like prairie dogs and pocket gophers feed on vegetation, roots and, along with microrganisms, help aerate and fertilize the soil.
These habits and life cycles are important for the survival of other prairie species, including black-footed ferrets, mountain plovers, burrowing owls, swift foxes, McCown’s longspurs, long-billed curlews and ferruginous hawks.
Conversion and fragmentation of grasslands to residential development, invasion by noxious and non-native plants, and loss of naturally-occurring patterns such as fire, all affect the viability of Wyoming’s native grasslands.
In a unique partnership between the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, the Conservancy has invested a quarter of a million dollars in matching funds to the Trust for conservation projects in Wyoming’s Shirely and Thunder basins, both identified as areas of high biological significance.
Designing a network of high-priority conservation areas provides a roadmap for our science-based efforts in Wyoming’s grasslands.
Conservancy scientists have identified the following as areas of the highest biological significance and priorities for the Conservancy’s efforts over the next decade.