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Grasslands: The forgotten landscape

Written by Kate Wilkins, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Graduate Degree program in Ecology and the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

At a dinner party, an important person (who shall remain anonymous) asked me, “Why do grasslands matter to people living in New York City?” I felt paralyzed by the question and began to fumble for a response: “Grasslands store carbon, which reduces greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.” The person looked thoroughly unimpressed, and I have made it my mission since that interaction to convey (to anyone who will listen) the importance of grassland ecosystems, and more specifically, the Great Plains of North America.

Grasslands, from North America’s Great Plains to Africa’s savannas comprise 40.5% of the land on Earth1, providing food for wildlife and livestock and rich soils for agricultural production. A recent study also found that strips of native prairie in Iowa help reduce run off into streams from agricultural fertilizers by slowing the flow of water and nutrients through the system3.

Human development, overgrazing from livestock, and deep-soil tilling from agriculture have threatened grasslands across the globe. In the United States and Canada, humans rely on farms located across the Great Plains to grow food, yet people seem to overlook this productive and beautiful landscape. The Great Plains of North America stretch from northern Canada to the tip of Texas and offer majestic, open spaces filled with grasses, flowering plants, shrubs, birds, lizards, prairie dogs, and pronghorn, in addition to domesticated crops and livestock. Amid the diversity of life in the Great Plains, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) stands out as a grassland icon with the potential to increase awareness and support for this forgotten landscape.

Elected as our national mammal4 in 2016, the bison, along with fire, helped shape the Great Plains that we see today. Before the late 1800’s, around 30-60 million bison grazed and wallowed in the Great Plains, which helped prevent trees and shrubs from growing, thus creating grassland habitat for various birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. The feces from these numerous bison herds also served as a rich, natural fertilizer for grassland soils5. However, Bison populations rapidly declined after European expansion westward, due to overhunting and the deliberate massacre of bison by the U.S. cavalry in a brutal attempt to destroy an important resource and cultural icon of Native Americans6.

The extirpation of bison, coupled with human development, agriculture, and livestock production, had devastating social and ecological consequences, including the marginalization of Native Americans and the loss of habitat for many wildlife and plant species across the Great Plains. Species such as black-footed ferrets, swift fox, burrowing owl, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs have not yet recovered from this massive habitat loss. In addition, grassland birds have experienced the largest and most rapid population declines of any other bird group over the past 25 years7. In an effort to restore grassland habitat and cultural connections, a wave of bison reintroductions have occurred across the Great Plains in Alberta (Canada), Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Illinois to name a few. These reintroductions can be used as a tool to help reconnect people to grasslands and foster an appreciation for these systems.

So, why ARE grasslands important to people living in a city? To elaborate upon the paltry answer I provided at the dinner party, grasslands provide the ingredients for the food people eat every day, help to clean the water people drink, maintain a cooler climate, and provide critical habitat for various species, including our national mammal (bison). To better understand the benefits grasslands provide and how humans can preserve this disappearing landscape, scientists, such as myself, study interactions between bison, plants, and other grassland animals. Grasslands create a healthier, more biologically diverse planet in which humans, plants, and wildlife can thrive.

1. http://www.fao.org/docrep/008/y8344e/y8344e05.htm
2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/grassland-map/
3. http://harvestpublicmedia.org/post/strips-native-prairie-plants-could-re...
4. https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/bison-bison-bison-americas-new-n...
5. https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-10-6-16.htm
6. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/the-buffalo-killers...
7. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pifcapemay/vickery.htm

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