America's Prairies: A Historic Opportunity for Conservation Action


A male Greater prairie chicken "booming" on the prairie.


A male Greater prairie chicken "booming" on the prairie.

America’s tallgrass prairie once rivaled Africa’s Serengeti for its richness in wildlife; a staggering number of pronghorn, bison and elk made their home in our wide, open grasslands. Shoulder-high grasses stretched west from Indiana, into Kansas and Nebraska, north into Minnesota and the Dakotas, and south into Texas.

Today, less than 1 percent of this once-expansive tallgrass prairie remains, making it one of the most imperiled natural systems in the world. With so little remaining, The Nature Conservancy and its partners are trying to address threats to grasslands, while protecting remaining grasslands and restoring some of what was lost.

Amid America’s tallgrass prairie landscape, a tremendous diversity of plant and animal life once thrived—so much it is almost hard to comprehend. In an area the size of an acre, up to 300 different plant species and up to 3 million individual insects lived.

Grasslands then and now provide numerous ecological benefits—from controlling erosion, to protecting water quality and providing essential habitat for wildlife. Beginning a century ago, however, America began to lose its grasslands. Many of the species that thrived in them suffered, including grassland birds.

Grasslands Face Many Threats

The loss of the world’s grasslands began thousands of years ago with the advent of farming and intensified with the development of the steel plow and industrial-scale farming. The deep roots of prairie plants are responsible for making Midwest soils tremendously rich, which helped turn this region into an economic powerhouse for agriculture. Millions of people depend on the corn, soybean and other crops grown here, making these grasslands, in many ways, the breadbasket of the world.

A complex system of government agriculture policies also affects grassland loss. New technologies—such as herbicide-tolerant soybeans that allow planting into prairie sod—also encourage conversion.

The challenges to grasslands, however, extend beyond agriculture. They include the encroachment of harmful, non-native species, changes in how fire shaped this landscape, and pressures from development. Roads, fences and urban sprawl, for example, fragment what once was a whole, inter-related ecosystem into small, isolated remnants, making it more difficult for plants and animals to thrive.

Despite existing threats, the Conservancy believes that by working together, in partnership, both humankind and nature can thrive.

Restoring What Was Lost and Protecting What Remains

Because so little native grassland remains, prairie restoration is critical, though expensive. A higher quality restoration can cost as much as $5,000 an acre, according to Princeton, Minn.-based Prairie Restorations Inc., which helps the Conservancy with various restoration projects throughout the state.

The benefits, however, are many. By strategically restoring lands that connect with existing prairies, the Conservancy and its partners can create larger landscapes that are capable of supporting a diversity of life, which science tells us is important for the long-term health of plants and animals.

The Conservancy is making great strides toward connecting existing prairies to create these larger landscapes, exemplified by the recent formation of the 35,000-acre Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, which has at its center the Conservancy’s Glacial Ridge project.

  Prairie Restorations
The Conservancy is working to protect and restore prairie landscapes across the Americas. These projects include:
Glacial Ridge, Minnesota
Niobrara Valley, Nebraska
Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois
Wah'Kon Tah Prairie, Missouri
Tallgrass Prairie, Oklahoma
Texas City Preserve, Texas



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