New WWF Report Identifies Where, How, and Why American Grasslands Are Disappearing

Image: Brett Sayles

Approximately 2.1 million acres of intact grassland habitat in the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains were plowed under for row-crop production in 2018, according to World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2020 Plowprint Report. This means that from 2014-2018, tillage of grasslands across the Great Plains occurred at an average rate of four football fields every minute.

We’re losing a staggering amount of grassland to agriculture and even if restored, the soils hold far less microbiota and are less biodiverse than untilled prairie land. As Martha Kauffman, managing director of WWF’s Northern Great Plains program, explained, “restoration projects are our best tool for repairing disturbed grasslands, but there is no real substitute for landowners, the private sector, and government working together to keep healthy grasslands from falling under the plow.”

Why This Matters: As the University of Nebraska explained, the Great Plains once hosted native prairie grasses which covered roughly one-third of the country. Since agriculture took hold in the area most of the original grasses have been cut and the soil has been plowed. The act of plowing these ancient prairie soils releases an immense amount of carbon which is stored in the soil. Restoring and conserving these lands will not only protect one of our most precious ecosystems but can also be a powerful tool in fighting climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil.

Losing Precious Land: The bulk of America’s wheat and nearly 50% of beef cattle in the United States are raised in the Great Plains, generating a total market value of about $92 billion, approximately equally split between crop and livestock production. Yet wheat continues to be the leading cause of conversation of prairie land to row crop agriculture, with most of new wheat crops being exported to other nations. Smarter farming practices, as well as conservation efforts, are key in ensuring that the Great Plains can continue to provide food for the United States.

Growing Climate Threat: We asked Martha Kauffman how climate change is compounding the loss of prairie land and she explained that it touches aspects of everyone’s lives, including food production and livelihoods across the Great Plains and these impacts will be amplified in the coming decades.

For example, livestock producers that depend on interact grasslands are and will need to continue to adapt their operations to match increased temperatures or prolonged drought that can reduce plant productivity on rangelands. Furthermore, as extreme weather events become more frequent it will be even more important for producers to have contingency plans in place as the risk of grassland conversion to cropland is also likely to increase.

And as temperature and precipitation patterns change, so does which crops are able to be grown where. In regions with decreased precipitation, production may decrease if additional irrigation is not an option and as groundwater reserves become depleted.

What’s more, according to Yale E360, is that ecosystems in the Great Plains have shifted hundreds of miles northward in the past 50 years, driven by climate change, wildfire suppression, energy development, land use changes, and urbanization, 

Go Deeper: To get a better understanding of the areas of intact grassland, how much grassland has been lost, and how much previously converted land has returned to perennial cover check out WWF’s new tool online tool.

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