America's disappearing backyard

A tractor plows a vast field with a rain storm in the distant background

From 2014 to 2018, tillage of grasslands across the Great Plains occurred at an average rate of four football fields lost every minute. This means that millions of acres of America’s temperate grassland, one of only four left in the world and a critically important ecosystem, is being plowed up for crop production. This is the type of shocking conversion rate that, sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about when we talk of the destruction of the Amazon or melting arctic glaciers. These problems are devastating of course but can often feel as though they are happening far away and out of our reach. But how many of us were aware that another environmental catastrophe of similar proportions is occurring right here in America’s backyard?

A patchwork of plowed brown land next to some remaining intact green grasslands

World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 Plowprint Report has revealed that in 2018 alone, 2.1 million acres of grasslands were tilled up across the Great Plains of the US for row-crop agriculture. 550,000 of those acres were plowed up within the Northern Great Plains (NGP), a subset of the greater region that contains some of the healthiest remaining grasslands in the world. With this conversion happening, birds, wildflowers, pollinators, pronghorn, black-footed ferrets, and even rural communities that all depend on healthy grasslands for food, water, and shelter are finding it increasingly difficult to rely on these precious places to sustain them.

On a positive note, 2 million acres across the Great Plains were returned to what is called perennial cover during 2018 — 444,000 of those acres within the NGP. Perennial cover is tilled land that is no longer used for crop production. This is important news for species that simply need a place to raise young and find shelter. Perennial cover is vastly better for wildlife, water filtration and storage, and preventing erosion than tilled ground. However, without question, the very best option is allowing undisturbed grasslands to remain intact and unplowed.

A growing amount of research suggests that the diversity of plants, insects, and soil microbes that are found within untilled grasslands vastly outnumbers that which can generally be achieved through restoration. Grasslands, which are also known as prairies, are slow to recover and plant and animal populations can take decades or longer to return once they’ve been erased from the land for agriculture. Native grassland seeds are expensive and often hard to come by so most seeding restoration projects use only around three to seven plant species, whereas plant diversity on native grasslands can range as high as 305 plant species.

A sunflower bee pollinates a yellow flower

Once tilled, it is also difficult to regain similar levels of the ecosystem services provided by intact grasslands, such as water filtration and belowground carbon storage. Intact prairies with a high number of native species maintain nutrient cycles, soil fertility, and generally provide a higher degree of ecosystem services than tilled ground.

Private landowners and Native nations remain the biggest defense against grasslands loss. The vast majority (~90%) of the remaining intact grasslands across the Great Plains are not protected in national parks, but are under the management of the individuals and communities who inhabit this vast region. Now, more than ever, policies and programs are needed that incentivize grassland stewardship and address the needs of rural and indigenous communities who call the Great Plains home.