America’s Grasslands: A Threatened National Treasure

Updated : Aug 27, 2019 in Articles

America’s Grasslands: A Threatened National Treasure

(guitar, bass, ; drums
play in bright rhythm) (Carl Madsen)
The native grasslands and the
prairies of the plains states is a jewel
and a national treasure. (Jim Ringelman)
America’s native prairie really
is a phenomenal resource. It’s actually one of the most imperiled ecosystems
in the world. (Jim Faulstich)
We’ve lost just
tremendous amounts of native grass in this area. (Kurt Forman)
What we have going for us is
the partnership with ranchers. (Karen Kreil)
And the saying is, that
“Anyone can love the mountains but it takes soul
to love the prairie.” (woman)
This program is funded
in part by a grant through Ducks Unlimited, from
the MDU Resources Foundation, which is funded annually
by contributions from its member companies, MDU Construction Services Group, MDU Utilities Group, Knife River Corporation, and WBI Holdings, Inc., and by the members
of Prairie Public. (guitar ; clarinet play soly) (female narrator)
One of America’s
greatest resources is also one of its least
appreciated. That’s why native prairie
is on the list of the world’s
most threatened biomes. Native grass has been
disappearing in record amounts the last few years,
converted to cropland. The bulk of the conversion is
happening in the Prairie Pothole Region
of North and South Dakota, where there are the last great
remaining stands of grass. This is also the continent’s
most productive breeding ground for waterfowl, songbirds,
and other wildlife. Nowhere are the grasslands
more intact in this region than that landscape called
the Missouri Coteau, which is kind of that narrow
hilly area that was kind of at the terminus
of the last glaciation. It tends to be poor soils, but it’s an area that’s also
very rich in wetlands, and it’s that matrix
of wetlands and grasslands that attract waterfowl
to the region, provide the resources both
for food and for habitat for nesting in, and therefore,
they are the very best of the best habitats that we have
left in this part of the world. You could think, in Central
South Dakota, there is a tract of land that’s
2700 square miles contiguous of largely native grass with
enough wetland densities to average 100 breeding
duck pairs per square mile. That’s an incredibly unique
landscape that you can find
nowhere else on the continent. (Dr. Scott Stephens) The native
prairie areas with the wetlands are really diverse systems that
include a whole rich community of plant
life, forbs and flowers. (Mike Forsberg) Some of these
other landscapes that just knock you right
in the teeth as soon as you see them, Great Plains, these places, you have to really linger, you
have to get into ’em, you have to get to know them like you get to know a friend
and build that relationship. And it’s only then
when you start to see how remarkable they are,
how important they are, and how valuable that they are. For the last 3-1/2 years I’ve been working on a book
on the Great Plains. And basically it’s to put a face to the lingering wild
that’s left. You can look down
at a square meter of prairie and spend an entire day. There is so much life,
and that life is all around you, and it’s also at your feet. But you just don’t see it
if you don’t get into it, and I think that’s the thing. It’s the biggest conservation
challenge in the plains to me, if they can understand it,
then they can appreciate it. If they appreciate it, then
they can value it. And if they value it, then
they’ll want to conserve it. It’s not lions
and tigers and bears but it’s every bit
as remarkable. (Carl Madsen)
The native grasslands and the
prairies of the plains states is a jewel
and a national treasure the same as the redwoods
of California, the Rocky Mountains,
the great rivers. (Karen Kreil)
Once I was introduced to
prairie, I fell in love with it. It has such a subtle beauty. I think that because of that, it’s hard for people who aren’t
from here to have an appreciation for it. They drive by the prairie and
wetlands at 75 miles an hour and think that it sort of
looks all the same. But if they stepped out of their
vehicle and took a walk, they’d see 250 species
of plants, 150-plus species of birds,
including many migratory birds, insects, wildlife galore. (bird sings) I just feel such a sense
of place in the prairie. And the saying is that
“Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes soul
to love the prairie.” (Randy Meidinger)
Across the hilltops here you can
imagine hundreds of years ago, the massive herds of bison that once roamed
across the prairie here. We have dozens of teepee rings scattered across the hilltops. You can just see where the rocks
were placed in circular fashion to hold down
the buffalo hide. There’s also many wagon trails coming across the Coteau region
here that are still intact. That’s part of our history where the pioneers and homesteaders came across the prairie here. And once you destroy
that prairie, you lose that forever. Certainly you can plant grasses and native grass and forbs
back onto the prairie, but it’s taken 10,000 years
for Mother Nature to get these hundreds of
different grasses, forbs, sedges, mosses, and lichens to
be in the place that they are. (cicadas chirp) (piano plays softly) (Jim Ringelman) Just in the last
5 years, we’ve lost almost 400,000 acres of native prairie in North and
South Dakota. That’s a substantial amount, and
if that rate continues, a large percentage will be lost over a period
of a couple decades. (a cow moos) (Jimaulstich)
We’ve lost tremendous amounts of native grass in this area. A real concern I have is the amount of true native grass that’s being broke and
converted, and when I say broke, turned to farm ground and
converted to cropland. There’s a real push for more
crops, grain crops are obviously more profitable than the average cattle operation
the last couple years. (a cow moos) (Harris Hoistad)
The threats to prairie
grasslands are significant. There’s so many other economic
forces that are driving the whole grassland conversion
thing. The fuel prices right now are
driving people to break up prairie grasslands
to grow corn for ethanol. Not to say that ethanol’s bad,
it’s just that it’s adding one more factor into that
equation that is causing people to take a second look and think
maybe I suld break that up and try and grow
some corn on it. Doug Goehring)
There’s only so much margin
to work with on every acre, so ultimately
what happens is you are not squeezing enough
out of there to meet your family living,
to meet your cost of living. So those farms continually
got bigger, and there’s a point at which
you have to determine, do you continue to grow, or what are you going to do to
try to make these things work? And there’s some
tough decisions made. And the reality is about every
year things change enough that one year it might have been
somewhat economically feasible to have more cattle or to be
in a livestock operation, and the next year grain
production looks like it’s actually
a little bit better. But it does come back
to this issue of what’s my legacy going to be
when I leave this land? What are my children, what do
they want to do with this place? What are my intentions for it? (Kurt Forman)
What’s different
in recent years is that the majority of the native
grassland loss is occurring in
the prairie pothole region. For example, the last 3 years
we know that 80% of the native prairie converted
to tillage agriculture occurred in the prairie pothole
region of South Dakota. Most people don’t realize
that particularly for ducks, the majority of the birds
that we’re interested in, including upland nesting ducks,
nest in grasslands. Songbirds, shorebirds. (motor rumbles) (narrator)
Each spring in the Dakotas, scientists evaluate what effect
the loss of grassland has on how successful
nesting waterfowl are at producing
the next generation. We found 5 or six nests today,
which, just in the short time we were
searching, was pretty good. This is good nesting habitat, thick vegetation as
a result of all the rain. Having the large expanses
of grassland make it easier for the birds to disperse
their nests and make it more difficult
for the predators that would search
for those nests to find them. (Kurt Forman) What we’re interested in, bird production, bird conservation, is a strong
relationship between the patch size
of a grassland and that grassland’s ability to produce ducks, pheasants, and a wide array of songbirds. (narrator)
In North Dakota,
when the eggs begin to hatch, researchers put bands on the
legs of hens and ducklings to follow their travels. (Jacob)
We’ve captured
a hen blue-winged here. We found her yesterday and marked her nest. We’re leg-banding these birds and also putting nasal markers
on them, so that if a hunter shoots
this bird somewhere, or if this bird is found
or recaptured somewhere, that band number
is unique to that bird, and it can be reported, and then that will go
in this bird’s data file and we’ll know a little bit
about migration and also learn a little bit about
just how long these birds live and their survival rates
while they’re up here on the breeding grounds
in the prairie pothole region. We’re going to pull her nest
file up on our PDA. We have all the nests
entered in here. Once a bird is banded, that number is assigned to that
bird throughout its life. When they are in the uplands
incubating eggs, it’s a dangerous time for them. A lot of hens
become predated by predators, and it’s also
a stressful time for them. There’s a lot of food available,
but you’ve got the demands of laying eggs
and preparing for a molt, so it’s also a fairly physically
demanding time for them. And then on a year-to-year
basis, site fidelity, which is basically
how site faithful these birds are
in nesting locations. Some of these birds
we’ve been able to document over the past several years,
return to the same site to nest. We’re particularly interested
in blue-winged teal because North Dakota
is the main area where the continental
blue-winged teal population comes every spring
to nest and reproduce and subsequently raise ducklings that end up
in the fall migration. We’ve got fresh hatched
blue-winged teal ducklings. These probably hatched
earlier this afternoon, and they’ve dried off now,
and we’re going to put leg bands on these
not even day old ducklings. It’s a female. Okay now
that they’re all banded, we’re just going
to take them back and put them back in their nests
and then cover them up so that their mother
can come back and uncover them and find them and eventually lead them
to the nearest pothole, where they’ll begin feeding
and start growing. (narrator)
As the young ducks
are learning to fly, researchers in South Dakota
capture even more for banding. (Randy Meidinger)
This is an adult male
blue-winged. You can tell obviously
by the blue patch. Are we doing left foot? Left leg upsidedown
this year. Some of these birds
are pretty good travelers. We’ve banded
birds here on the Goebel Ranch in
mid September, and two days later,
they were harvested in early
teal season on the Gulf Coast, so they can
really move when they need to. (a duck call) (a duck call) (shotgun fires two shots,
a dog whines) (man) Fetch him! This is the Horseshoe Lake
Hunting Club here in Morehouse Parish,
Louisiana. Because of the type of habitat
we have, the type of food we have,
we typically see gadwall, also known as gray ducks. We shoot mallards and widgeon
and green-winged teal. (a whistle blows) The prairie pothole region, or the Missouri Coteau
of North Dakota is very important to ducks
’cause that’s where they breed in the glacial landforms,
the water and very importantly, the grasslands of North Dakota
are what’s critical to ducks. Ducks nest in the grass and they
take their broods to the water, and so that’s
what makes it important. The average gadwall or mallard
or whatever from Louisiana will make its way back in March,
in that time frame, and then they’ll breed and then they’ll come back
to us to Louisiana in October. They actually spend more time
in the wintering grounds than they do
the breeding grounds, but again,
those breeding ground times are very critical
to the population. (Randy Meidinger)
This is an example of native prairie pasture that supported livestock for the
last hundred-plus years. And just this spring, they were
sprayed down with herbicide to kill the native sod
and soybeans were planted. (Harris Hoistad)
It’s going fast. Technology has changed,
equipment has changed. It’s so easy to convert prairie
into cropland. It used to be in the old days,
in the ’40s and ’50s that you had to physically
turn the land over with some type of implement. Now you can plant
right into the sod, and the corn and soybeans will
grow right through it. (fiddle ; guitar play) From the first sodbuster
that came here, he broke the prairie to grow it, so it started changing
immediately. And you can go back
to the Atlantic Coast when the pilgrims landed, we
changed things, for the better. For those of us who eat 3 meals
a day, we’re glad it’s changed. (Karen Kreil)
Grassland birds are
declining at a rate faster than any other
bird communities. So just from that standpoint
alone, it’s a concern. But on the other hand,
I really like bread, I really like corn on the cob. (Doug Goehring)
Those farmers want to provide
a living for their families. They want to feed
a growing world, understanding that food security
means something. A country without its ability to
feed itself will be held hostage by every other country in the
world. (Karen Kreil)
It’s going to be
an incredible challenge for both conservation
and agriculture to work together to find a way to ensure
that we have grasslands and wetlands
for the future, but at the same time, meet
our growing needs for food. (Carl Madsen) I remember
in the mid to early ’70s, we had a big grain boom
at that time. We plowed up a lot of land
and said we got to meet this big market, we’ve got
to go– that did not last. We were left with a lot of
fragile lands that were broken. Now we’re looking
at the same thing, and we’ve got to ask
the question, will it last? And should we be making our
long-term plans to permanently
convert grasslands to meet this immediate
market demand? (Jim Faulstich) Between the
rocks, the potholes, we tend to be a dry area, it’s
just more conducive to raising grass than crops in
the typical scenario. I guess my concern long term is that the way the production
costs are going up, mainly fertilizer
and diesel fuel, I question how sustainable
farming’s going to be in the long run
on these marginal lands. (narrator)
A United States Government
Accountability Office report says federal farm programs may inadvertently be
encouraging grass conversion. The nonpartisan research group
says farm program payments provide a significant incentive
to convert grass to cropland. The report says federal crop
insurance in particular, takes most of the risk out
of raising crops on land less suited for farming. (Jim) When you can look at being
subsidized and have crop insurance, and you can get insurance on
grasslands as well, but a typical payment back
from insurance on grassland may be 2 to 3 bucks an acre, where on cropland
it may be 200 to 300. That’s not
a level playing field. The good Lord put grass here
for a reason, and it’s unfortunate
that the tables are tilted so far to the cropping side. Cropping is important,
we farm too. It’s just that it’s an awful
important ecosystem, not only
from a rancher’s standpoint, I mean I don’t think people want
to give up eating beef and the other products
that come from livestock. The question is how much grass
loss can we lose before the whole grassland based ag economy
doesn’t remain sustainable, and then we see a wholesale
loss of it as there’s no cattle barn to
take your cows to, there’s not enough pasture
to maintain the large herds of cows
that we have now. And if we see that, we’ll see huge detrimental impacts
on the wildlife population. (Brad Magness)
I have a concern,
not just because I’m a rancher, but because I run a livestock
auction market. When I see grass get torn up,
that’s just that many fewer cattle that might have a chance
to come through my sale. So now along comes the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service and other donors and said
we want to reward guys for good stewardship of taking care
of the grass. So it wa’t a hard decision because it really wasn’t going
to alter any of our operations. (Harris Holstad)
The Magness family came to us
a couple of years ago and expressed an interest in our
grassland easement program. And they had a very, very nice, very, very attractive piece
of property in that over 95% of it was
unbroken native prairie. If you’ll look off to my right,
you’ll see a wetland there. And way back in the day,
I don’t know if it was in the ’30s or ’20s
or when, with horses they dug a ditch across here
to drain that wetland. The Fish and Wildlife Service
filled this back in to where they feel that this was
the original grade, so that that will
hold water again, as opposed to just running on
and running on. And there’s years that that’s
the only feed you might have is in that wetland, so I’m not
opposed to preserving that. (a cow moos.
birds sing) (narrator)
Keeping the grass
in beef production is a key to protecting it. Cattle producers own the vast
majority of this region’s grass, and wildlife and livestock do a good job of sharing
the same space. Helping cattle producers stay
viable will mean the grass will still be there for cows,
wildlife, and people. What we have going for us is the partnership with ranchers. We have estimates that there’s
about 5-1/2 million acres of native grass remaining in
eastern South Dakota. Almost all of that is in
a grazing regime, so you have landowners, ranchers,
who have a vested interest in maintaining that grassland
for their reasons. And those are
the same reasons in many cases that we’re interested
in that same landscape. Keep the grass
and the water in place for grazing
and for wildlife production. There’s interest from landowners
to protect these areas that’s sort of consistent with their view of how this land
should be used, and so they’re interested in
protection of it via easement. Our science tells us these are
the most important areas for waterfowl and a whole host
of other wildlife. Really, we just need the funding
to sort of get that job done. Probably one of the greatest
feelings that I’ve ever had is to be able to do something
so positive and something that will have meaning for a very long time. (narrator)
Private donors are helping conservation groups
and public agencies work with landowners
to protect native prairie. (Karen Kreil)
It’s about the future. There’s no other way to look at things because we have a responsibility,
I think, to ensure
that all of our children, the children of the world
have wild places, they have grasslands
and wetlands so that they continue
to be able to recreate in them, to gain the benefits from them. (Michael Forsberg)
The land ethic Aldo Leopold
talked about. The soil has to be well
taken care of, the grass has to be
well taken care of, the water has to be well taken
care of and that will sustain life. And that means all life,
from the tiniest little insect to the most powerful species
on the planet– us. When we start to lose wildlife, when wildlife
becomes compromised, and when the systems that
sustain wildlife become compromised,
that’s the proverbial canary in the coal mine–
because guess who’s next. (birds sing.
cicadas chirp) (Carl Madsen) I hope that 40
years from now, we can say boy,
we were wise to hang on
to some of this because we really need it for
clean water, for clean air, for livestock production,
for wildlife, and for all the good reasons
that we have natural resources. (birds sing.
cicadas chirp) (woman)
This program is funded in part by a grant
through Ducks Unlimited, from the MDU Resources
Foundation, which is funded annually
by contributions from its member companies,
MDU Construction Services Group, MDU Utilities Group, Knife River Corporation, and WBI Holdings, Inc., and by the members
of Prairie Public.


  • @wiimaster200 I have very much dislike for what the fish and game do and i have respect for some of what thay do to but we need to conserve natural resorses like habitats because if we destry the habitats for deer antilope or what evere thay starve and die off and eventualy we will need to grow feed for wild life and we just cant we need habitats to suport the wild life and we need to grow crops to suport us but we need to do it in a inteligent way.

  • It's very unfortunate but few understand the Truth about what is really going on here. The Federal Gov's hidden agenda is to take over all family farms converting everything to Gov controlled "Factory Farms" corporations. They have NO real interest in preserving natural grasslands. They want these grasslands converted to agri crops as quickly as possible while pretending to work with local ranchers. What do they then do? They plant MONSANTO SEED GMO CROPS and destroy the soil with ROUNDUP!!!

  • It's time to WAKE UP folks. 95% of all corn, soy, and wheat is now MONSANTO GMO CROPS. These GMO foods are Deadly Toxic! Many farm animals refuse to eat them unless forced via starvation. I feel sorry for that lady in vid who said she loved eating corn on the cob she has NO idea what she is doing to her body by eating GMO corn! We Don't need Agri like that! Please watch on Google Vids the full length movie on MONSANTO and what they are really up to. Also read Seeds Of Decption by Jeffrey Smith.

  • No one cares UNTIL the GMO's DEVASTATE Your Own Personal Life and Health…THEN it will be a BIG DEAL! Ignore the problem…continue eating whatever you want…you won't have long to wait for Disease and Death!

  • If you blame everything on Cattle, don't complain about losing grasslands, the only way to make profit on grassland is grazing ruminants…

  • ……."Where's ALDO?!!!!…… (Aldo Leopold)   😀
    ……..BOYCOTT EVIL!!!!    Go VEGAN!!!!   Shoot Wildlife ONLY With a Camera!!!!!    NO More HUNTING, PLEASE!!!

  • Gorgeous scenes easily distilled from a gorgeous landscape.

    "Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco- brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter- print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fi red from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers."

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