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Photo of sun setting through the cactus at JE Canyon, near Trinidad, Colorado.
JE Canyon Cactus JE Canyon, Storage Tank Burn Unit, in Las Animas County 50 miles northeast of Trinidad, Colorado. In February 2017, The Nature Conservancy's Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module (based In Colorado) traveled to south eastern Colorado near the town of Branson to do prescribed burns in the short grass prairies and pinion juniper savannah. Burn unit was approximately 200 acres and intended to reduce woody material encroacing on the prairies and promote regeneration of native species in this historically fire adapted ecosystem. Contact the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy for more information. © Bruce Paton /TNC Photo Contest 2019

Priority Landscapes

The Southern High Plains Initiative

Five Western states working to protect the nation’s grasslands

When you talk to people who have devoted their careers to conserving grasslands, you’ll immediately sense their passion—and you’ll start looking closer at the little things in nature.

“Those high plains, the short grass, big vistas, mesas in the distance. People should spend more time there, in that quiet, windy place, and they would see the beauty in it,” says Katie Gillies, TNC’s Director of Conservation in Oklahoma.  

At the intersection of five western states—Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas—lies one of the largest opportunities for grassland conservation in the country: the Southern High Plains. 

If you picture “prairie” or grasslands, like many you might consider it flyover country. This perception has led to grasslands and prairies being historically under-resourced for conservation, even though they are one of the most threatened landscapes globally and provide critical habitat for a broad diversity of wildlife.  And in the case of the Southern High Plains, it is anything but flyover country.

Many people who love this area will tell you that it can take time to see the beauty in grasslands, to see the small intricacies of life within the overwhelming scale of the distant horizons.

“You have to put your feet on the ground and walk through these areas to really appreciate them,” says Matt Bain, Western Kansas Conservation Manager for TNC. “If you just drive by, it’s harder to appreciate.”

The diversity of life, and the potential to make huge gains for conservation, is why we’re working to prioritize this landscape and highlight the beauty that lies in the plains. 

TNC staff looking for bighorn sheep in the canyonlands of JE Canyon Ranch.
JE Canyon TNC staff look for bighorn sheep at JE Canyon, a 50,000-acre ranch in southeast Colorado protected by TNC in 2015. © Lauryn Wachs/TNC

“We’re standing on the edge of some of the most dramatic conservation opportunities I’ve seen in 22 years at TNC."

Conservation Business & Partnership Development Advisor at TNC CO

The Southern High Plains cover a staggering 71 million acres (that’s slightly larger than the state of Colorado). Home to pronghorn, bighorn sheep, grassland birds, and more, the Southern High Plains contains large, connected natural areas and watersheds. The region includes more than 30 million acres of intact prairie grasslands, cliffs and canyons, forests, and riparian corridors along rivers and streams with high conservation value. TNC is working with partners to conserve a network of lands and waters across state boundaries that will boost climate resilience, preserve biodiversity, and support sustainable agricultural communities.

Western meadowlark perched on a stick
Western meadowlark Many grassland birds depend on a broad variety of native plants to survive. © Sidra Monreal/TNC Photo Contest 2019
Mule deer at sunrise.
Mule Deer Large mammals (deer, elk, pronghorn, & bighorn sheep) need room to roam. Their success depends on big, connected areas of land where they can move, find forage, & raise young. © Wolfe Repass/TNC Photo Contest 2019
Western meadowlark Many grassland birds depend on a broad variety of native plants to survive. © Sidra Monreal/TNC Photo Contest 2019
Mule Deer Large mammals (deer, elk, pronghorn, & bighorn sheep) need room to roam. Their success depends on big, connected areas of land where they can move, find forage, & raise young. © Wolfe Repass/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Grasslands may be underappreciated — but they’re critical for life

As a result of grasslands being less loved than some of their more dramatic counterparts -- picture the craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains -- there is often less funding, support, and excitement around protecting grasslands. This has led to wide-scale disruption and conversion of native grasslands. While there have been dedicated efforts across the country to preserve these places, it hasn’t happened at the scales we need to protect the diversity of life that thrives in grasslands.

Katie Gillies, Director of Conservation for TNC in Oklahoma, explains how grasslands have not received appropriate attention, even within the conservation community. “I think that's a real shame because the grasslands are really part of the American ethos,” says Gillies.

Chris Hise, Associate Director of Conservation for TNC in Oklahoma, agrees. “There's a tendency to look at grasslands as a resource to be exploited and not one that needs to be protected,” says Hise. “We've seen pretty tremendous losses over the years and the time is now to circle the wagons and protect them at a scale that we haven't done so far in the Great Plains.”

Early morning downstream on Smoky Hill River at Smoky Valley Ranch in Kansas, United States, North America.
Smoky Valley Ranch This 18,000-acre ranch in Kansas supports tremendous plant and wildlife diversity while continuing its long history as a working cattle ranch. © Harold E. Malde

Finding Solutions to Shared Challenges

Of course, there are challenges to conserving land at a large enough scale to make a difference. Landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife do not adhere to state boundaries. The Southern High Plains Initiative brings together TNC leaders and partners from across five states.

While each of the five states faces its own challenges and opportunities, there are common themes that are playing out across the landscape. For example, land protection in this area is closely connected with local economies and communities. In Kansas, around 80% of the state’s grasslands have been converted to some other use, mainly cropland.

“What we’re focused on in this landscape is that 20% that’s left,” explains Matt Bain. “That 20% fuels a multi-billion-dollar beef industry in Kansas and is critically important to ranching economies. It's the ranchers who are taking care of what’s left of the last wild places in Kansas. You can’t go on conserving that 20% without partnership with ranchers.”

People who work on the land have strong connections to it and are critical to any successful conservation strategy. 

“ln predominately farming and ranching communities, people generally have deep ties to the land. They make their living off of it, but they also appreciate and it’s in their interest to conserve it."

Project Director for TNC in West Texas

Partnerships are what will power this initiative to reach its ambitious goals. By working closely with local communities, land trusts, and others who know and depend on the land, we can support projects already happening on the ground and link them together as part of a broader vision.

“Being able to work across borders on these projects and take advantage of the staff capacity and funding to get a broader regional ecosystem approach is essential to the success of protecting this area,” says Bob Findling, Director of Conservation Projects for TNC in New Mexico. 

A Turning Point for Conservation

This opportunity to work together in the Southern High Plains comes at a key time in the history of land protection. The world is suffering massive ecosystem degradation, unprecedented wildlife decline and extinctions—all in the face of climate change. This has spurred a large movement for land protection.

“There is palpable energy and momentum pointing towards a different future for grasslands, where we’re able to really affect conservation at the scales we need,” says Galen Guerrero-Murphy, Land Conservation Program Manager for TNC in Colorado. 

Through protecting habitat, we can help the world’s species be more resilient to climate change and other human disturbances, such as pollution or agriculture. To have the greatest impact on biodiversity, we need to protect lands with a variety of habitat that support wildlife now and into the future. TNC has developed a mapping tool to identify exactly those places in the U.S., called the Resilient Connected Network.

The Southern High Plains is a high priority within the Resilient Connected Network. This region has the most opportunity for conserving large, connected landscapes that can allow flora and fauna to move and adapt to climate change. The resilient areas in the Southern High Plains are only 11% conserved today.

By building on TNC’s work around the globe, we can make a big impact in the Southern High Plains.

Connecting the dots for conservation and climate

As we focus on land protection at a massive scale, climate change is at the forefront of planning. In this region, more renewable energy development is on the horizon. A major piece of the puzzle in protecting connected lands will be to plan strategically where the best places are for renewable energy to be built.

At the same time, grasslands hold huge potential as a carbon sink. Across the United States, natural climate solutions—or increasing carbon storage through methods such as growing taller trees, improving soil health, and restoring coastal wetlands—could remove 21% of the nation’s carbon pollution from the air.

Protecting land at this scale would also help ecosystems build resilience to climate change impacts. By focusing on current and future wildlife migration corridors and dispersal patterns, we can provide wildlife the space and variety in habitat that they need to adapt to changing climate conditions.

“In a dry climate like the Southern High Plains, nature doesn’t work at the level of a single property. You need acres and acres to create corridors for plants and animals to change with the climate, to ebb and flow, to provide nature what it needs,” says Matt Moorhead, with TNC in Colorado.

For the benefits to wildlife, the climate, and the communities that live in the region, it is crucial to come together and conserve the Southern High Plains. This opportunity for conservation at the scale of the landscape is unique, and we’re gaining momentum to make it happen.