Encompassing 142,000 acres south of Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota, Conata Basin is one of North America’s most intact remaining grasslands.
Among the most imperiled and least protected areas on Earth, grasslands are a priority for the Conservancy. Only a fraction of the once vast sea of grass that covered 95 percent of South Dakota remains, the majority having been plowed.
Since November 2007, The Nature Conservancy has purchased thousands of acres along the western edge of Conata Basin.
The acquisitions included federal grazing allotments. The allotments are significant because they are home to relatively large numbers of black-footed ferrets, one of the rarest mammals in North America.
With reintroductions of native wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets and swift fox, Conata Basin is now one of the most complete Great Plains ecosystems in the United States.
The area harbors rare and imperiled species like the fringe-tailed myotis bat, Barr’s milkvetch and Dakota buckwheat.
The Basin also contains black-tailed prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs are a critical food source for the ferrets and other wildlife. The “towns” are also home to 250 pairs of burrowing owls, more than the entire known population in the rest of the state.
Sylvatic plague is decimating prairie dog towns and imperiling the black-footed ferret. A new oral vaccine is currently being field tested in 29 locations throughout the western United States, including a site near Conata Basin, that could provide a more effective, less expensive way to protect prairie dogs against plague.
How the Conservancy Works in Conata Basin
In Conata Basin, the Conservancy has worked in partnership with landowners and others to conserve habitat for black-footed ferrets and other wildife.
Ranching is an important economic activity in the Basin, and grazing is compatible with the long-term health of this grassland system and the wildlife it sustains. The Conservancy is conserving native grasslands across the Great Plains and, for more than two decades, we have been involved in raising cattle and grassland and rangeland issues in the region.
“The Conservancy’s acquisition of land in the Basin helped secure conservation of the rare black-footed ferret while providing grazing opportunities for area ranchers,” said Bob Paulson, former director of the Conservancy’s Black Hills Area Program.
With the help of donors, local landowners and other partners, we have used our extensive expertise in grassland conservation and science-based planning to protect this vital piece of the Great Plains and its rare inhabitants and ensure that future generations will continue to experience South Dakota’s rich prairie heritage.
Angus cattle with single Charolais
Bighorn sheep in the Badlands