Menus Subscribe Search

Grasslands Preserve the Lonely Prairie

• November 23, 2010 • 5:00 AM

North America’s grasslands filled an ecological role that goes mostly unfilled in their hugely reduced state.

West from Sioux Falls, hundreds of miles of rolling South Dakota corn eventually morph into one of this country’s largest remaining national grasslands, a portion of what is now the North American continent’s largest endangered ecosystem.

Miles beyond the wide Missouri River, a small sign announces the beginning of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland’s 600,000 acres; part of nearly 4 million acres of national grasslands administered by the U.S. Forest Service. The Buffalo Gap grassland is just one integral part of a tenuous sea of grass that stretches from southern Canada to Mexico; ranging from the eastern slope of the Rockies to the 100th meridian.

To the north, the Buffalo Gap grassland’s panoramic carpet of dirty brown is set against a mostly clear sky. To the south and west, South Dakota’s infamous Badlands lie in the distance.

“For most people, the grasslands are something you fly over or drive through,” said Pete Bauman, director of community-based conservation at the Nature Conservancy’s Clear Lake, S.D., office. “In the middle of summer or heart of winter, the prairie is miserable; a damned inhospitable place. They don’t hold real strong appeal for people that weren’t raised here. The prairie only offers up its treasures in spring and fall; at sunset and sunrise.”

But the grasslands serve a larger eco-purpose — as natural buffers between forest and desert. Over millions of years, the grasslands evolved as the Rocky Mountains continually squeezed out moisture over what is now the Great Plains. Today, nearly all of this semi-arid region receives less than 24 inches of rainfall per year.

With its deep roots, tall grass like bluestem, switch- and Indian grass, can be shoulder-high in summer. In contrast, even in a good year, short grasses, like blue grama or buffalo, rarely grow above a few inches.

When Lewis and Clark first passed through the Northern Plains in 1805 and 1806, the prairies were thriving and pristine, although so open and so vast it’s hard to imagine crossing them by wagon, much less by foot.

With the Homestead Act in the 1860s, however, 160 acres of federally administered land were given over to any qualifying individual (over age 21, not a Confederate soldier) who would “improve the land.” In large part, this improvement — i.e. farming — saw the loss of as much as half of the northern grasslands.

Today, 98 percent of the tall grass historically present in the Northern Plains is gone. The loss is more than meets the eye — because 90 percent of the prairie’s biomass important root system lies underground, its contribution to the ecosystem largely goes unnoticed.

“The grasslands act as a natural water filtration system,” said W. Carter Johnson, an ecologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings. “Without our having to pay for it, grasslands ecosystems provide hay for cattle, clean surface and ground water, organisms used for medicines, and plants for pharmaceuticals. If we just allowed nature to function, it would provide these for us without cost.”

The first priority is simply stopping virgin sod prairies from being converted, Bauman says. But as he points out, its future largely depends on the few farmers and ranchers who value range land and grassland enough to protect it.

About 98 percent of the Buffalo Gap grassland acreage is grazed via permit; mainly by cattle and a small number of bison. But the Forest Service is also willing to acquire land adjoining grasslands directly from owners who are willing to sell. John Kinney, district Forest Service ranger for the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, notes that his district has picked up about 10,000 acres in the last decade.

However, convincing the farmer to switch from cultivation to grasslands for grazing or biofuel production (switchgrass is a favorite topic) comes down to economics. Less intensive uses are a tough sell, especially in tough times and especially when corn prices are setting records.

“If biofuels [from grasslands] present an opportunity, the Farmers’ Union would like our members to take advantage of it,” said Chris Studer, communications director for the 10,000-member South Dakota Farmers Union. “But at this point, I don’t see that happening on a large commercial scale. Acre per acre, corn and soybeans are going to make more money.”

However, in this age of climate change, grasslands also serve as important natural carbon sinks.

“Prairie soils are pretty rich in organic matter,” Johnson said. “Once you cultivate it, you oxygenate it, turning it black. That organic matter decomposes to carbon dioxide and water. Land use change is always one of the factors that contribute to higher carbon dioxide levels and climate change.”

Without the grasslands, Johnson says, there would be darker soils, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and slightly warmer temperatures.

“Ten years ago,” Bauman said, “we’d say a parcel of land was unfarmable due to rocks or topography. But with large equipment that can roll across just about any landscape and drought- and pest-resistant seeds, the technology has advanced so that you can plant crops just about anywhere. Money talks, so [cultivation] is something that the conservation community has a very difficult time combating. Are we making progress? Yeah. Is it adequate? Probably not.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Bruce Dorminey
Bruce Dorminey is an award-winning U.S.-based science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets beyond the Solar System. A former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week and Space Technology and former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper, he's covered everything from potato blight to dark energy.

More From Bruce Dorminey

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.