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.

Up Next

Melting Russian Permafrost Threatens Buildings and Infrastructure

Melting Russian Permafrost Threatens Buildings and Infrastructure

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer The earth is collapsing under Russia’s northeastern towns as global warming melts the permafrost beneath them. Permafrost occupies 65% of Russia’s landmass, making this massive thawing particularly destructive.    “There isn’t a single settlement in Russia’s Arctic where you wouldn’t find a destroyed or deformed building,” said Alexey Maslakov, […]

Continue Reading 280 words
New WWF Initiative Supports Black Land Ownership

New WWF Initiative Supports Black Land Ownership

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer Heirs’ property is a type of land ownership whereby property is passed down without a will, and it’s one of the main reasons Black families in the US are losing their land. But the Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property Support Initiative announced yesterday could help families in Mississippi’s Mobile Bay […]

Continue Reading 435 words
Biden Reinstates Protections for Three National Monuments

Biden Reinstates Protections for Three National Monuments

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer The White House announced Friday that President Biden will use his executive authority to restore protections for three national monuments drastically reduced during the Trump Administration. He will reestablish and increase the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, both of which are in Utah. The orders […]

Continue Reading 396 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.