Understanding grassland loss in the Northern Great Plains

ONLY 53%
Approximately 42% of the grasslands have been converted to crops. The remaining 5% of the land area holds water or has been developed by humans. Temperate grasslands are threatened worldwide, due to their ability to provide food and fuel for a growing human population. These grasslands are habitat for wildlife, store carbon, stabilize the soil, and provide clean water for thousands of people.
Growing crops on marginal soils can require a greater use of fertilizers and other nutrients to make those lands productive. Marginal soils are more susceptible to erosion, leading to runoff that carries pollutants and sediment into waterways, potentially harming both people and wildlife.


Each year, WWF uses data from the USDA to track the conversion of grasslands to cropland across the Great Plains of North America and compare the loss to that of previous years. We also track the kinds of crops that are being grown on converted lands and the quality of the soils that are being plowed.

This information can be found in WWF’s annual Plowprint Report.

The findings help us analyze trends in grassland loss, understand the impacts of this loss on biodiversity, figure out why this conversion is taking place, and pursue strategies to protect grasslands for future generations.

What we have found is that high-quality soils that remain intact (42.7 million acres in the Great Plains) are at highest risk of conversion, but that low- and moderate-quality soils are also being converted at alarming rates.

WWF believes that low- and moderate-quality soils are not good farmland and shouldn’t be plowed. They provide the last stronghold for many plants and animals native to the Great Plains.

Six songbird species, including the lark bunting, are found only in the Great Plains. Populations of these species have each declined by 65%–94% since they were first counted in the 1960s. The loss of habitat—via conversion of grasslands to crops and other threats—negatively impacts grassland birds.

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