Western Working Lands Snapshot | Grasslands
September 24, 2019
Grasslands and blue skies in America’s Great Plains. Photo: Amy Erickson
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a new series of posts we’re calling “Western Working Lands Snapshots.” These posts will cover the natural history, wildlife, ecosystems, people, and more that make western working lands so special. For the first post, we’re featuring grasslands. The Sage Grouse Initiative focuses on sagebrush-steppe working lands, but these rangelands have much in common with the grasslands of the Great Plains farther east. We hope you enjoy this new series.
This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to grasslands, which cover one-third of America and one-quarter of the world. These unique ecosystems provide vital grazing lands for livestock and rich wildlife habitat.
Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.
Grasslands are open, un-forested areas dominated by grasses. Shrubs, wildflowers, and other herbaceous plants are interspersed among the grass species. Trees are rare and are usually only found along streams or rivers.
Grasslands cover at least one-quarter of the world’s land area and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Here are a few of the names grasslands go by:
- Savannas (Africa)
- Pampas (South America)
- Steppes (Eurasia)
- Veldt (South Africa)
- Prairies (North America)
The Great Plains are the largest grasslands in the U.S., covering one-third of the country and portions of 10 states. Farming and ranching are the main economic drivers across these prairies, supporting hundreds of rural communities.
Grasslands provide diverse and abundant vegetation that feed people, livestock, wildlife and insects. Many of the popular grains that people eat today—such as corn, wheat, oats and rice—were domesticated from wild grass species.
America’s Great Plains receive between 10-40 inches of rain annually, depending on the region. It’s drier in the west because of the rain shadow created by the Rocky Mountains, and wetter as you move east. Temperatures range from below freezing in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.
Shortgrass prairies and bunchgrass steppes—where grasses only grow 8-10 inches high—are common in the drier landscapes in the western Great Plains. Tallgrass prairies are found in the wetter regions to the east, where grasses can grow up to seven feet high. The middle of the Great Plains is a transitional zone of mixed-grass prairie that includes both short- and tallgrass species.
Grasslands also include many species of broad-leafed plants (called forbs), like wildflowers and some woody species that are most commonly called shrubs. Most native grassland vegetation is perennial, meaning the plants come back each spring after going dormant during the winter.
Native grasses and forbs play a key role in creating rich, healthy soils. Sometimes called “upside-down forests”, their dense, fibrous root systems extend three to six feet below the surface, where they cycle nutrients and help hold water on the land. These roots also supply food and habitat to burrowing animals, insects, bacteria and fungi.
Because most of their biomass grows below ground, grasslands have evolved to withstand drought, grazing, and fire. Grasses and forbs can easily grow back their above-ground stems after they have dried out or have been eaten or burned.
Historically, natural disturbances like fire or grazing helped maintain healthy, vigorous prairie habitat by encouraging plants to send up new shoots. Today, well-managed grazing and prescribed fire can help deter invasive annual grasses (like annual bromes and cheatgrass) or woody plants (like redcedar or mesquite) from taking over productive grasslands.
Grasslands feed grazing animals like elk, pronghorn, deer, and bison, whose hooves help break up the soil and disperse native seeds to regenerate the prairie. Millions of birds rely on healthy grasslands, including sage grouse, eagles, prairie chickens, hawks, and a variety of songbird species. During the spring, pollinators like butterflies and bees feast on the wildflowers. Abundant grassland rodents such as prairie dogs and voles feed predators including badgers, coyotes, and swift foxes.
The Great Plains are one of the most at-risk landscapes in North America. The main threats are the conversion of native grassland to cultivated cropland, and the loss of native plants to invasive annual grasses or encroaching woody species.
Working Lands For Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in creating resilient, productive grasslands. Strategic practices are developed on a case-by-case basis to benefit agricultural operations as well as wildlife, and include prescribed fire, sustainable grazing systems, woody plant removal, wet meadow restoration, and drought management plans.
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.