Are The Midwest’s Prairies Really Endangered?

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the prairie grasslands of the Midwest are North America’s most endangered ecosystem?

—Charlie Herbert, Boston, MA

When Lewis and Clark made their epic journey across North America in 1805, they encountered far more prairie grassland (or “tallgrass prairie”) than any other type of landscape. Today, just 200 years later, less than five percent of that prairie remains, due to the impacts of urban sprawl, rapid development and overgrazing by livestock—all of which were ushered in by the very westward expansion Lewis and Clark initiated. Hundreds of native species of plants and animals are on the brink of extinction today as a result.

North America’s unique tallgrass prairies evolved over millennia. The wide variety of grass species that make up the ecosystem’s foundation survived well along with modest rainfall and regular, naturally-caused fires. Sixty-five million free-roaming bison sustained themselves on the abundant grasses, in turn sustaining Native American tribes such as the Sioux.

Earlier this year, a coalition of non-profit groups under the banner of the Northern Plains Conservation Network (NPCN) released a report entitled: “Ocean of Grass: A Conservation Vision for the Northern Great Plains,” documenting and describing the native biodiversity of the tallgrass prairies. The report sets forth a long-term proposal for conserving and restoring prairie habitat such that, by the year 2050, the region can support 20,000 wild bison, half a million acres of prairie dog towns, and stable populations of all grassland-dependent birds.

Congress helped spur the process along in 1996 by setting aside over 10,000 pristine prairie acres in Kansas” Flint Hills region as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The National Park Trust, a non-profit conservation organization, purchased the land in 1994 and today co-manages the property with the National Park Service. Visitors can take self-guided tours on various nature trails and participate in “living history” programs that demonstrate the ecological importance of maintaining tallgrass prairies.

Believing that the establishment of the Tall Grass Prairie Reserve is a good step but not enough to sustain dwindling wildlife populations, the NPCN is calling for the establishment of one million additional acres of tallgrass prairie across the Midwest. The group is hard at work identifying key areas where replanting and reintroducing native grass species could help create safe havens for a variety of wildlife species.

CONTACTS: Northern Plains Conservation Network, http://www.npcn.net; Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, http://www.nps.gov/tapr; National Park Trust, http://www.parktrust.org.