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In-Depth

Exploring the inner-workings of the Northern Great Plains

The Northern Great Plains, or NGP, is an ecoregion—a large area of land or water that has distinct species, biological communities, and environmental conditions. At roughly 180 million acres, it’s a particularly big one. And there’s a lot happening inside its borders—ecologically, socially, and economically.

Land use

TRIBAL LANDS

More than 15 million acres of the Plains are under tribal stewardship; Native Americans are leading wildlife restoration efforts for bison, as well as for other species of cultural and economic importance.

tribal lands
ranch

PRIVATE LANDS

Private landowners, including ranchers, own the majority of the Northern Great Plains— 142 million acres. Ninety-three million acres of that land are still intact grassland.

FEDERAL AND STATE LANDS

A balanced approach to the use of state and federal lands provides value to the public, while also ensuring that large patchwork areas owned by multiple stakeholders can be managed holistically.

How the NGP works

illustrated bison

Ecosystem Engineers

Prior to the introduction of livestock, bison were the dominant grazers on the prairies of the NGP, and their behavior heavily influenced the ecosystem. Prairie dogs preferred to dig colonies in areas grazed by bison because the shorter grass helped them see predators. Many migrating birds built nests and raised young in taller grasses the bison left ungrazed. Myriad plants flourished in the soil these huge mammals disturbed with their hooves. And wolf packs followed the bison herds for food. These symbiotic relationships still exist to a lesser degree today.

CARBON CONTAINER

The NGP’s grasslands store massive quantities of carbon. Keeping those grasses from being plowed under prevents that carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

PRAIRIE SANCTUARY

The NGP is biologically rich as well as huge: It shelters roughly 1,600 plant species, 95 mammal species, 220 species of butterfly, and an astounding 300 species of bird.

RIVERS RUN THROUGH IT

The Northern Great Plains isn’t just ecologically important at a regional level; its health affects much larger natural systems. For example, it contains the most intact portion of the Mississippi River watershed—the largest in the country—essentially  serving as the kidneys for this vital North American landscape.

prairie dogs

UNDERGROUND INFRASTRUCTURE

Prairie dogs also historically played a central role in the NGP ecosystem. Their underground colonies (called prairie dog towns) provided shelter for a host of other species, and they were a key food source for numerous carnivores— including endangered black-footed ferrets.

Threats

Not all of the NGP’s habitats and wildlife are thriving. Below, a few of the key threats to their well-being.

Grassland Conversion for Crops and Biofuel

Plow-up of native grasslands has increased significantly in recent years. More than 1.4 million acres of intact grasslands were converted to farmland in 2014.

Oil and Gas Development

New developments in oil and gas extraction—like fracking—have caused the industry’s activity in the region to spike dramatically in the past decade. That expansion is fragmenting grasslands and threatening wildlife.

Wind Energy Development

The NGP’s high winds in many places have earned it the nickname “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” and turbine fields are expanding throughout the region. Wind energy presents a more sustainable alternative to oil and gas, but it can also cause bird and bat mortalities and habitat fragmentation.

Learn more about how WWF is addressing these challenges in "Partnering for America's Plains."

Wildlife

Black footed ferrets

Black-footed ferrets

They’re one of North America’s most endangered mammals, and rely almost entirely on prairie dog colonies for food and shelter.

 Pronghorn antelope illustration

Pronghorn antelope

The fastest hoofed mammals on the continent, they can run at up to 60 mph.

Greater sage grouse

These large, striking birds are famous for their elaborate mating dances. They live among and feed on the sagebrush they’re named for.

Sage grouse illustration

Sprague's pipit

This rare, endangered songbird winters in southern US states and migrates to NGP grasslands to breed. Males perform a courtship ritual that includes hovering and diving high above the prairie for long periods of time—sometimes more than half an hour.

Swift fox
Yellow bumble bee
Burrowing owl

Explore more of this issue's coverage of the Northern Great Plains:

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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