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Northern Great Plains

Overview

The Northern Great Plains spans more than 180 million acres and crosses five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. As large as California and Nevada combined, this short- and mixed-grass prairie is one of only four remaining intact temperate grasslands in the world.

  • Continent
    North America
  • Species
    Plains bison, Black-footed ferret, Pronghorn,

Two hundred years ago bison, pronghorn, black-footed ferrets, and a diverse array of grassland birds thrived across the Northern Great Plains. While mapping and exploring the region, Lewis and Clark were awestruck, noting the "immence [sic] herds of Buffaloe [sic] deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains."

The diverse wildlife that roamed these vast grasslands are not lost. They still call this place home, but their calls are muted and tracks and nests less abundant. WWF is working to restore this living prairie in the heart of North America. At the crux of our vision is a mosaic of private, public and tribal lands managed in a manner that benefits wildlife and local communities. We work with the ranching community, public agencies, tribal nations and other conservation partners to ensure that the richness of the prairie ecosystem is sustained and enhanced for future generations to enjoy.

How Bison Survive Winter in the Northern Great Plains

Despite roaming vast distances in the Northern Great Plains, bison do not move south as the weather grows cold and inhospitable, though they may move to lower elevations where snow is not so deep. Temperatures plummet well below zero, bitter winds whip across the landscape, and bison still remain.

bison covered in snow

People & Communities

Lyle Perman on his family ranch in Lowry, South Dakota.

A South Dakota rancher riding in the grasslands.

WWF is committed to identifying conservation solutions that bolster economic opportunities for the people and communities who call this region home. We recognize that conserving the Northern Great Plains goes hand-in-hand with sustaining the rural communities who live here. WWF supports grasslands and those who live here, identifying conservation solutions that help both thrive.

CONSERVATION COMMUNITY

Growing concerns about the ongoing destruction of the Northern Great Plains has resulted in an expanding number of organizations and agencies joining in partnerships to coordinate their conservation work. WWF works closely with these interests through formal joint ventures, cooperatives, networks and smaller partnerships to scale up and magnify our conservation investments.

RANCHING COMMUNITY

Most of the Northern Great Plains ecoregion is comprised of private land—94 million acres of which remain as intact grassland. Some families in the region have been ranching their land for more than 150 years. Keeping ranchers in business leaves grasslands intact, creates habitat for a broad diversity of birds and other grassland species, moderates run-off, and secures carbon in the soil.

NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES

A member of the Lakota First Nations performs a traditional dance at the opening ceremonies celebrating the Black-footed ferret release at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Celebrating a black-footed ferret release in Saskatchewan

Native Americans are this region's original land stewards. Today, tribes manage roughly 9 million acres of the Northern Great Plains ecoregion, much of which is rich in biodiversity and astoundingly beautiful. Most tribal communities in the Northern Great Plains see a unique cultural and spiritual significance to sustaining grasslands and restoring wildlife. WWF helps tribes achieve conservation success while improving the lives of their communities.

Threats

Environmental degradation of the Northern Great Plains from oil extraction.

Environmental degradation of the Northern Great Plains from oil extraction and energy development. 

The Northern Great Plains was shaped by change. Seasonal migrations of millions of bison kicking up dust and grass. Frigid winters, high winds and blistering summers. Spring rainstorms, intense dry lightening outbreaks and rampaging rivers or racing wildfires. But now modern changes threaten the wildlife and land in the Northern Great Plains.

Grassland Conversion

Originally the region was a sea of rich grasses, watersheds and wildflowers. Today, demand for agricultural commodities and new, drought resistant bioengineered crops encourage the degradation of native grasslands and drain waterways and watersheds. This plow-up of native grasslands will continue to reshape the landscape and push out wildlife if conservation is not considered.

flower

Habitat Fragmentation

Tractor in NGP

Large tractor seeding newly plowed prairie.

From seasonal migrations across state or country boundaries to moving between nesting and feeding grounds, wildlife need the freedom to roam for survival. Development, roads and fences, habitat clearing and invasive plant species restrict wildlife's ability to adapt, move, find mates and food and thrive.

Energy Development

Oil Well in NGP

An oil well in the Northern Great Plains.

Energy development pressure in the Northern Great Plains comes from both traditional and emerging sources. Oil and gas extraction taps parts of the region that were once believed to be empty of resources. Energy companies have their sights set as far west as the Rockies. Some of the nation's largest coal reserves exist in the region and wind energy development is happening along the eastern edge. As technology improves, oil and gas development will continue to boom in the region and wind farms will move west.

In the Northern Great Plains, WWF predicts erratic weather will result in more extreme levels of heat, snow and rain, severe floods and droughts. Land managers will need to change how they plan, implement, evaluate and carry forward their land use plans to make ends meet in the face of climate change. 

"Right here in America is one of the world's most threatened natural systems. The Northern Great Plains is as important as the Amazon or Arctic, and deserves our attention."

Martha Kauffman Managing Director, Northern Great Plains

What WWF Is Doing

Observing the Snake Butte bison pasture at Ft. Belknap Reservation, Montana

Observing wildlife on Snake Butte bison pasture at Ft. Belknap Reservation, Montana.

WWF leads innovative work with public agencies, tribal nations, ranchers and other partners to create a sustainable future for the Northern Great Plains. Our two main goals are to sustain and enhance biodiversity across the Northern Great Plains and to restore two flagship speciesbison and black-footed ferrets—where possible within the region. Achieving these goals requires a multi-pronged approach that recognizes unique challenges and opportunities from the local level all the way up to US federal policy and global initiatives. WWF is a leading voice for grasslands, and advocates for the incredible wildlife and communities of the Northern Great Plains.

Science and Metrics

WWF’s science team continually refines planning models used to focus and prioritize our conservation actions. Ecoregional and landscape-level progress is tracked toward our conservation goals in the Northern Great Plains. We use cutting-edge techniques to model species richness, assess future threats, and predict patterns of change across the region. WWF has been a science leader, engaging a variety of partners working in this region, and we continue to hold a high standard for designing smart strategy and updating planning as the world changes.

Ranching and Conservation

WWF works with the ranching community to make livestock production more sustainable for the environment while identifying and promoting new market opportunities for sustainability across the beef supply chain. We currently work with a group of ranchers in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota to collect baseline information to drive improvements in management of lands grazed by cattle. Our work will inform market-based efforts for sustainably produced beef nation-wide and within guidelines agreed to globally.

Moving forward, our goal is to build strong partnerships with ranchers, providing them with the resources needed to sustainably steward their lands as part of the broader ecosystem. This will improve the ecological function of large grassland landscapes and contribute to the economic viability of their operations.

Learn more about our Ranching and Conservation work.

Tribal Partnerships

WWF partners with several tribal nations throughout the Northern Great Plains to restore species, improve capacity, and to build more sustainable financing for tribal wildlife programs. Many tribes are seeking to increase technical capacity to manage reservation lands for wildlife, an area where WWF is able to provide important support. WWF helps tribal nations in South Dakota and Montana to develop and implement comprehensive wildlife management plans. We bring technical and financial resources so tribal nations can retain biologists, enhance technical capabilities, and restore wildlife in a way that can manage at scale—especially tribal bison herds and populations of the highly endangered black-footed ferret.

Public Lands Conservation

Public lands contain some of the most iconic landscapes of the Northern Great Plains, including nearly 23 million acres of intact grassland. Yet, these lands face growing threats of disturbance as energy and other development encroaches. WWF works to ensure that public land management plans protect these vast areas that serve as vital habitat for species—such as sage grouse and mule deer—and comprise some of the best remaining habitat for declining grassland bird species, like the Sprague’s pipit. Many of these lands also provide crucial grazing resources for neighboring ranching communities. Through our public lands program, we continue to partner with leaders in public land management at the national and local levels, bringing influence and resources to bear so that these ecosystems are adequately protected.

Experts