GAITHERSBURG, Md. July 27, 2022 ---- The Izaak Walton League urges Congress to enact the North American Grassland Conservation Act which was introduced in the U.S. Senate today by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
The bill would encourage voluntary conservation of grasslands recognizing the collaborative role of ranchers, farmers, Tribal Nations, government agencies, and outdoorsmen and women. Modeled after the highly successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act, this legislation would provide funding through a landowner-driven, voluntary, incentive-based program to conserve and restore threated grasslands.
Jared Mott, Conservation Director, Izaak Walton League of America, commented
“This investment in grassland conservation will benefit everyone. It will improve soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat and help reduce some of the worst impacts of climate change.”
Specifically, the bill would:
- curtail additional conversion of native grasslands and loss of sagebrush shrub-steppe and sustain these systems as working lands by creating a flexible, voluntary, and innovative program;
- improve grassland and rangeland health and management;
- support rancher stewards and tribal partners;
- improve biodiversity and habitat for grassland and sagebrush birds, pollinators, and other wildlife;
- increase carbon sequestration; and
- provide increased recreational and hunter access opportunities, strictly at the discretion of private landowners.
Background: Preserving Grasslands for Future Generations
By Duane Hovorka, Izaak Walton League Agriculture Program Director, excerpted from Outdoor America, 2021 issue #4.
America’s grasslands provide a long list of benefits – and those benefits aren’t confined to the Great Plains region.
They provide habitat for a wide range of wildlife, from deer, elk and grouse to the butterflies that pollinate the plants that grow our food. Grasslands nurture cattle and sheep that help feed our nation.
They protect soil from erosion, reduce flooding by absorbing and holding rainfall, buffer wetlands and capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil.
Grasslands serve as a massive carbon sink for the entire country – the mid-Atlantic as much as middle America. Consider this: one acre of healthy grassland – including on League chapters – can hold 40 tons of carbon. Yet grasslands are also our nation’s most endangered landscape. Ninety-nine percent of the tallgrass prairie that once extended from eastern North Dakota and central Texas to parts of Ohio have been lost, converted to row crops or urban areas.
More than 70 percent of the mixed-grass prairie that dominated the central Great Plains has also been lost. As a result of this habitat loss, the population of grassland birds has dropped by more than half just since 1970 – a loss of more than 720 million birds.
To address the losses, the League is working on several fronts to restore and protect America’s grassland legacy.
What Once Was
The grasslands that once blanketed the Great Plains in the central part of the continent are well known. But Dwayne Estes, executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative and biology professor at Austin Peay State University, says the Great Plains was not the only place dominated by grasslands when Europeans arrived on the shores of North America.
“Today, based on a combination of historical evidence, we now believe there were in excess of 120 million acres of naturally open landscapes in the southeastern U.S.,” says Estes.
Those grasslands extended from eastern Texas across the southeast and north into Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and they supported a diverse array of plants and animals, many of which are disappearing.
Looking at a longleaf pine savanna in eastern North Carolina, Estes describes it as “the richest plot of land north of Costa Rica in North America in terms of plant diversity,” with 52 plant species in a single square meter. “We’re talking about the rarest of the rare, Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, sun dews, orchids. About six species of plants that can eat animals occur in this single plot.”
Today, most southern grasslands have declined by at least 90 percent, converted to cropland or overgrown by forests as a result of fire suppression.
In the West, 44 percent of sagebrush habitat has been lost. As a result, greater sage-grouse populations have declined by 80 percent since 1965. From the grasslands and meadows of California to the dry prairie of Florida, America’s grasslands are being lost at an alarming rate.
But there are solutions.
Farmlands Are Key to Restoration
Farmers and ranchers own about 440 million acres of America’s grasslands, and much of it supports cattle, sheep and other livestock. The League is helping lead an effort to double the federal investment in conservation programs that help farmers and ranchers be better land stewards. Part of that increase would help landowners permanently protect grassland and help ranchers set up grazing systems that restore the health of those lands.
This investment in grassland conservation will benefit all Americans. It will improve soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat. It will reduce some of the worst impacts of climate change. And it will help ensure that future generations can enjoy the long-term benefits of preserving this vital natural resource.
The League has also asked Congress to provide dedicated funding for the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If we are successful, ranchers will have better access to education on grassland management and technical advice from experts, and they could receive support for the organization of rancher networks that let farmers learn from each other.
Intact grassland ecosystems remaining in the United States
Most eastern grassland regions have been converted to agriculture while some intact grasslands remain west of the Mississippi. Chart credit Land Use Policy.
For details about the vision see www.iwla.org/vision. To learn more about the League’s history, visit www.iwla.org.
Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League fights for clean air and water, healthy fish and wildlife habitat and conservation of our natural resources for future generations. The League plays a unique role in supporting community-based conservation and volunteer science and has a long legacy of shaping sound national policy. See www.iwla.org.
Michael Reinemer, Director of Communications, Izaak Walton League of America