Act for Grasslands

Grasslands are an iconic part of the American landscape. The vast prairie once stretched from Ohio to Texas and North Dakota, as far as the eye could see.

Now, virtually all of it is gone.

Protecting what remains – and restoring what once was – is critical for stewarding our natural resources, preventing the worst impacts of climate change, and preserving a foundational element of American culture.

Learn more about why grasslands matter – and how you can help save them for future generations.

Videos

Learn why grasslands are important, why they're disappearing, and what you can do to help. (3 minutes)

Since 2007, more than 50 million acres of grasslands have vanished. The North American Grasslands Conservation Act can save these vital ecosystems. (2 minutes)


Articles

Preserving Grasslands for Future Generations

By Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director • Excerpted from "Outdoor America" 2021 issue #4

Map of grasslands - credit Land Use PolicyMost eastern grassland regions have been converted to agriculture while some intact grasslands remain west of the Mississippi. (Click for larger version.)

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.

Farm Lands 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.

Working with the National Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever and other conservation groups, the League is also advocating for Congress to enact a North American Grassland Conservation Act. Modeled after the highly successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act, this legislation would provide a bold new national policy to support grasslands and provide funding to help tribes and other landowners conserve and restore threatened grassland systems around the country.

America’s grasslands are in trouble, but the solutions are at hand.

A Vital Home for Fish and Wildlife

By Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director • Excerpted from "Outdoor America" 2021 issue #2

Prairie pothole in North Dakota - credit USFWSPrairie potholes like this one in North Dakota rovide essential breeding grounds for migrating birds and other wildlife.

Growing up a city kid in Nebraska, I was lucky to spend many a holiday on my grandparents’ farm in southwest Nebraska or the farms my uncles and aunts operated in South Dakota. If you were a careful observer, you could spot rabbits in the woodlands, pheasants in the fields, deer in the pasture and the occasional rattlesnake down by the irrigation canal where mom told us not to go.

America’s farms and ranches have always provided important habitat for our fish and wildlife. More than 40 percent of the United States is privately owned farm and ranch land, totaling more than 900 million acres. In states like Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, farms and ranches make up more than 75 percent of the land base, compared to less than five percent set aside as public parks, refuges and wildlife areas.

About 85 percent of hunters in the U.S. hunt privately owned land, much of it on farms and ranches. There they find a wide variety of game species: deer, elk, turkey, quail, ducks, geese, pheasants and many more.

About half of the wildlife species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened and endangered list depend heavily on private land, much of it farms and ranches. That land is home to most of the wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region of the northern Great Plains, dubbed “America’s Duck Factory.” But these small ponds and wetlands are also breeding grounds and stopover areas for more than 60 percent of the migratory bird species in the U.S.

Loss of Habitat = Loss of Wildlife

Our grassland birds are in sharp decline, largely the result of lost habitat. Millions of acres of grassland have been converted to cropland. Some remaining grasslands have been degraded by overgrazing and poor management. Fish and amphibians have also suffered as wetlands have been drained and filled, and waterways of all kinds grow more polluted by fertilizer, pesticides and manure.

The implications are clear. To have healthy fish and wildlife populations we cannot focus only on our national and state parks, refuges and wildlife areas. We need to expand programs that help landowners make a place for wildlife on their farms and ranches and better protect our streams, lakes and wetlands.

The League Seeks Solutions

The Izaak Walton League of America is a strong supporter of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which was introduced in Congress in April. This bill would provide states and tribes $1.4 billion annually to restore essential habitat and implement conservation strategies outlined in each state’s Wildlife Action Plan. Those state plans focus in part on restoring and protecting wildlife habitat on farms and ranches.

The 2018 Farm Bill provides $6 billion per year to help farmers and ranchers adopt conservation practices, including many that provide habitat for birds, mammals and pollinators. About $2 billion of that supports the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which rewards landowners who set aside environmentally sensitive farmland. That program now provides 21 million acres of grassland and wetland habitat. That supports a variety of wildlife, boosting the duck population by about 2 million per year, increasing pheasant numbers by 22 percent and providing much-needed habitat for pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies.

The CRP has also prevented more than nine billion tons of soil from eroding and provided buffer strips to protect 170,000 miles of streams. The program also stores an average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases in the soil each year.

The Farm Bill’s conservation easement program has restored several million acres of wetlands and provided permanent protection to more than five million acres of grasslands, wetlands and other farmland.

All told, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) major working lands programs have helped landowners improve the management of their grasslands, adopt wildlife-friendly farming practices and better manage their woodlands.

Climate-friendly is Wildlife-friendly

This year, Congress is considering a variety of bills to address climate change. That could provide an opportunity to double funding for USDA’s suite of conservation programs because many of the practices that benefit fish and wildlife also address climate change.

Restoring and better managing grasslands and woodlands will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon in the soil and in trees. Providing permanent protection for wetlands, grasslands and woodlands will keep the carbon stored there for decades to come.

By expanding USDA conservation programs that have a long record of success, Congress could promote climate-friendly agriculture while doing more to make a place for fish and wildlife on America’s farms and ranches.

Over the past century, America has done much to restore to the landscape the species that we hunt and fish. But many other species are in trouble.

For the century ahead, we must expand programs that conserve land and water and help make a place for wildlife on farms and ranches for the generations to come.

You can help save grasslands.

Take action now