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Rate of prairie loss alarming; Native grasslands disappearing

Big bluestem grass stretches toward the morning sky on a recent morning at the Konza Prairie Preserve in Kansas. Keith Corliss1 / 2
The Konza Prairie Preserve sits in the middle of the largest remaining tract of tallgrass prairie in North America. Keith Corliss2 / 2

The Konza Prairie property was once part of a large ranch within an area of eastern Kansas known as the Flint Hills. Characterized by limestone outcroppings and thin topsoils, the Flint Hills represents the largest remaining chunk of one of the fastest disappearing ecosystems in the world—the tallgrass prairie.

In the 1970s, the Konza Prairie was purchased by the Nature Conservancy, a private conservation organization that recognized the need to preserve the unspoiled land. Over 8,000 acres make up the preserve which is managed and maintained today by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy.

On a warm morning last week I took the time to hike several miles of maintained trails within the portion of the preserve open to the public. Having spent countless hours in prairie habitats around this area most of the plants were familiar. It was their size, however, that caught my attention. While our little corner of the Red River Valley receives roughly 20 inches of precipitation per year, it's over 30 on the Konza. Never had I seen big bluestem grass approaching ten feet in height. Now I understand early pioneer accounts of having to stand on their saddled horses to see into the distance.

Golden indiangrass was still flowering, everywhere lacy panicles of switchgrass waved in the wind, towering over the tiny arced scimitars of blue grama. The nearly 600 species of plants known to grow here make for extremely rich diverse grassland and equally diverse bird life.

Similar habitats exist in our area but in much smaller pieces. Several noteworthy properties on the Minnesota side of the Red River preserve tallgrass prairie habitats. In North Dakota, state statutes make it very difficult for property transfers to organizations such as The Nature Conservancy so what is left of prairie is largely in private hands. And it is being rapidly transformed by market forces.

Neil Shook, the manager at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, has been carefully tracking the loss of prairie. As of May, 2012, he told me recently, 19,480 acres of native mixed grass prairie have been plowed under since 2005. An additional 92,320 acres of CRP have been converted to row crops.

"This kind of loss of grassland is going to have a detrimental effect on North Dakota's wildlife without a doubt," said Shook adding, "We are losing the habitat these animals need for nesting, breeding, for basically surviving."

So alarming is the loss of prairie habitats, that Ducks Unlimited hosted a symposium of multiple stakeholders this June called "Crisis on the Prairie" in Bismarck. The problem is not local either. "It's not just Stutsman County, it's not just North Dakota, it goes beyond the borders, it's a true crisis," said Shook.

I've always held that grassland habitats are the forgotten and overlooked cousins of more dazzling landscapes. It's relatively easy to get people excited about preserving dramatic lands like Yosemite Valley or a rocky coast on the Pacific Coast of Oregon. Speak of prairies, though, and most people yawn. To many it's just drive-through country, a boring land standing between themselves and their destination, a wretched stretch of the country causing them to spend another vacation day to cross.

The importance of prairies to the overall health of the land can hardly be overstated, however. Not only does native grassland provide forage for the cattle industry, but it provides a unique wildlife habitat for a gigantic suite of wildlife both large and small, naturally purifies and recharges our water, plays an important role in nutrient recycling, hosts a myriad of recreational opportunities, and controls erosion in ways cultivated land does not.

I blame ethanol. Few want to address this in an ag-centric state such as ours but with the artificial demand created by the federal government for higher and higher percentages of biofuel blends, it puts tremendous financial incentives in front of landowners who might otherwise leave pasture lands alone.

Regardless of the cause, native grasslands continue to evaporate before our eyes as acre after acre of soil which has never seen a plow is being turned to crops. Shook said, "It's just sad to see the loss of habitat. It's also sad to see what it's doing to the livestock industry."

It's a personal hope that our grandchildren won't have to travel to spot on the Kansas map in order to experience natural prairie and all the wonder it can provide. I'm not sure what it will take to make that hope a reality but I'm all in for at least beginning the discussion.