WWF Report Finds Accelerating Destruction of Great Plains Grasslands

Lyle Perman on his family ranch in Lowry, South Dakota. © Day’s Edge / WWF-US

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor

Today, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its 2021 Plowprint Report, which tracks the amount of grasslands lost to plow-up each year. This year’s study found that plow-up across the Great Plains has only continued to accelerate, releasing exorbitant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The report concludes that to “bend the curve” on climate change, swift effort must be taken to protect the nation’s grasslands and their critical ecosystems.


Why This Matters: “Like forests, grasslands play a critical role in sequestering and storing carbon,” said WWF in a statement, “and similar to global deforestation, destruction of grasslands can also have devastating climate impacts.” The health of the nation’s grasslands is crucial to the health of the environment and the health of food systems, which are threatened by monoculture and drought. Despite their dire conditions across the world, grasslands are some of the least-protected biomes globally. 


Taking the Plains

The 2021 Plowprint Report found that in 2019, an estimated 2.6 million acres of grassland were plowed-up to make room for agriculture, a 500,000 acre increase from the previous year. The Northern Great Plains region, one of the world’s only remaining intact grasslands and home to species like the black-footed ferret and the plains bison, suffered losses of 600,000 acres primarily for wheat, corn, and soy. 


“When you see images of devastating deforestation it invokes an emotional response and an immediate connection to the climate impacts of that destruction,” said Martha Kauffman, the vice president of the Northern Great Plains program at WWF. “But during each year over the last decade, we’ve seen the grasslands of the Great Plains being replaced by croplands at comparable rates to the clearing of the Brazilian Amazon.”


WWF said that to protect grasslands, policymakers, Native nations, ranchers, companies, and nonprofit organizations must come together to take action, including:

  • Supporting the proposed North American Grasslands Conservation Act, which will help kick-start the protection and restoration of grasslands.
  • Expanding the Sodsaver program, which lowers crop insurance subsidies on cropland converted from native prairie to reduce the negative impacts of crop insurance. 
  • Rethinking renewable fuel standards and policies to discourage the conversion of grasslands for biofuel production and incentivize planting perennial grasslands.
  • Backing the Central Grasslands Roadmap, a collaborative effort which will increase the conservation of North America’s central grasslands.


“There’s never been a more important time to reinvest in America’s backyard,” said Kauffman. “By supporting policies and initiatives that keep grasslands healthy, we all benefit, whether through more sustainable agricultural systems, a stable climate, and a future in which the iconic wildlife of the Great Plains continues to thrive.”


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