After European settlers came to North America, much of the continent’s grasslands were soon transformed into fields of wheat and its iconic wildlife, such as bison, were wiped out. The consequences were devastating. When drought covered the region in the early 1930s, wheat couldn’t grow and bare fields were swept into powerful dust storms that destroyed farms and made the land uninhabitable for years.
Grasslands have many names—prairies in North America, Asian steppes, savannahs and veldts in Africa, Australian rangelands, and pampas, llanos and cerrados in South America. But they are all places where there is too little rain for trees to grow in great numbers. Instead, these lands are covered in grasses and grass-like plants that have growing points close to the soil and can keep on growing even after being nibbled on by animals. These grasses can support high densities of grazing animals, such as zebra, antelope and bison. And these herds in turn support iconic predators, including lions and cheetahs.
Grassland ecosystems are particularly fragile because water is scarce. Grasslands in Australia, Africa and South America are often dependent on regular episodes of fire for renewal. They are also prime targets for human development, which can have devastating consequences. Humans plow grasslands to plant wheat and other crops, replace wildlife with domestic livestock, and kill predator and prey alike. Few grasslands are protected from development.