Monday, June 20, 2016

The Enormous Threat to America’s Last Grasslands

Dakota Prairie Grasslands (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
In the mid-2000s, a perfect storm of conditions led to a decade of grassland destruction in North Dakota’s share of the prairie pothole region, a vast expanse of grassland and wetlands that stretches from eastern Alberta to northern Iowa.  Corn and soybean prices were high, climate change had extended the growing season and genetically modified crops could now survive in the northern plains.  And then the oil boom hit.

Between 2005 and 2015, more than 160,000 acres of Stutsman County mixed grass prairie — an ecosystem that can support more than 100 plant species per square mile — was converted into single-crop farmland.  In just six years, North Dakota lost half of its acreage that was protected under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as biodiverse grasslands fell to the plow.

Regionwide, between 2006 and 2011, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa combined lost more than 2,000 square miles of grass-dominated land — a habitat loss rate equal to that of high-profile deforestation rates in Brazil and Malaysia, according to a 2013 study from South Dakota State University.
The prairie pothole region supports more than half of the United States’ migratory ducks, as well as more than 100 other species of birds.  The ecosystem is also home to dozens of species of plants — including rare orchids — as well as various insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.  The wetlands are teeming with small fish and invertebrates.

North Dakota has seen significant losses of its CRP acres — a program where the federal government leases tracts of privately owned farmland to be repurposed into conservation acres, thus trying to create incentives for preserving ecosystems.  Not only does single-crop agriculture bring in more money than CRP during market booms, but the last Farm Bill also capped the number of CRP acres at 24 million acres nationwide.
The prairie pothole region also serves as a significant carbon storage mechanism.  Statistical models run by the U.S. Geological Survey show that a hypothetical loss of 100 percent of the region’s CRP acres could result in a release of more than 12 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Read more at The Enormous Threat to America’s Last Grasslands

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