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Animals of the Northern Great Plains

America’s amazing grasslands and the species that depend on them

One of only four remaining temperate grasslands in the world, the Northern Great Plains ecoregion spans five US states and two Canadian provinces across 279,000 square miles of mixed-grass prairie. Two hundred years ago, bison, black-footed ferrets, pronghorn antelope and grassland birds thrived on the landscape alongside Native American tribes, the region’s original land stewards.

Today, the sights and sounds of the prairie are threatened by habitat fragmentation, resource extraction, and plow-up for crop agriculture. In many places, the species that shaped the American West are struggling to adapt and survive.

Since 2000, WWF has worked in this part of the country to conserve and restore the region’s natural heritage and native wildlife.

So which animals call this beautiful region home, and why do they matter?

 

Bison

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Strong and majestic plains bison once numbered 30 million to 60 million in North America, but their population plummeted during westward expansion in the 1880s. Today, WWF works with Native Americans and other partners to establish and grow herds so they will once again flourish in parts of the region.

 

Black-footed Ferrets

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Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) family group being prepared for release. Captive breeding facility, Colorado, USA

About 500 of these masked bandits still live in the wild in the Great Plains—a vast improvement considering they were once thought to be extinct. Habitat loss and disease still threaten the species, but WWF and partners help maintain existing ferret sites, establish new sites and research ways to address the non-native disease the black-footed ferrets battle. Black-footed ferrets are largely dependent on prairie dog towns for shelter and food.

 

Pronghorn

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Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Custer State Park, South Dakota, United States

Pronghorn are the fastest terrestrial animals in North America and can clip across the plains at 60 miles per hour. But they’re running into trouble migrating; many of the corridors they use year after year are now fragmented by roads, fences and energy development. WWF studies pronghorn migrations to ensure their travel routes remain viable.

 

Greater Sage-Grouse

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Male greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) displays his feathers and dances for the female as part of the mating ritual. WWF project site, Montana, Northern Great Plains, United States.

These dignified prairie birds perform elaborate mating dances on areas they have used for hundreds of years. Habitat degradation associated with energy development, such as wells, roads, power lines, and buildings decrease, sage-grouse nesting success. WWF has modeled how climate change conditions will impact these animals and their habitat, and is working with government agencies to ensure they remain viable into the future.

 

Mountain Plover

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Birders who try to find Mountain Plovers refer to them as ‘Prairie Ghosts’ as they disappear into their surroundings with their coloration. The Mountain Plover is just larger than an American Robin and is one of nine grassland bird species that breed nowhere else other than the Great Plains. In the northern Great Plains, Mountain Plovers nest primarily in prairie dog towns. Mountain Plovers have lost much of their breeding habitat due to the removal of prairie dog towns by humans and disease.

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