Grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. Home to bison, zebra, wildebeest, antelopes, rhino, and livestock, grasslands and savannahs comprise 80 percent of all agricultural land and support a billion people. Around the world, grasslands are being lost and degraded and must be protected and restored.
Grasslands occupy approximately 40 percent of the planet’s land surface. They account for 15 percent of global terrestrial carbon storage, 90 percent of which takes place below ground, making it more secure than forests. Grasslands and savannahs are rich habitats to herds of grazers, predators, flocks of birds, mongoose, ostrich, and more. In many places, they are shared with human pastoralists and their livestock. Grasslands are under threat. In the U.S., 40 percent of shortgrass and 99 percent of tallgrass prairie has been converted to cropland, and acres continue to be lost. These changes have cascading negative impacts, including on carbon sequestration, and need to be countered with protection and restoration.
Learn why grasslands are threatened and why it is important to protect and restore them. Temperate grasslands include the prairies of North America, the steppes of Eurasia, and the Pampas of Argentina. Tropical grasslands include the savannahs of Africa, northern Australia, and the Cerrado of southern Brazil. All types are characterized by abundant grass species, carbon-rich soil, and diverse wildlife, including many types of birds. Grasslands provide multiple ecosystems services, including food for livestock, water infiltration, pollination sources, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration, as well as recreational uses. Although grasslands have existed for millions of years, they have only recently been degraded by human activities. Threats to grasslands and their wildlife include:
- Conversion to crop agriculture, in which the diverse, complex ecology of natural pastureland is replaced by simplified farming systems.
- Implementation of industrial agricultural practices, such as tilling, monocropping, and the use of toxic chemicals, which deplete soil fertility, reduce plant and animal diversity, create erosion, and release stored carbon from the soil.
- Land fragmentation as a result of urban encroachment, road construction, housing subdivisions, and the erection of fences.
- Invasive plant species can outcompete native species in grasslands, resulting in further habitat loss.
- Overgrazing livestock can reduce the vitality of grasslands, reduce species diversity, and cause erosion.
- Disruption of natural fire cycles, on which grasslands depend for renewal, can have adverse ecological impacts.
- Illegal hunting of wild herbivores, such as elephants and rhinoceros, and the killing of lions and other predators, can disturb ecological balances.
- Trade and sale of bushmeat (from wildlife) and the illegal trade in animal parts, such as ivory, harm wildlife populations.
- Prolonged drought amplified by global warming can transform grasslands into deserts as rainfall patterns change and water becomes scarce.
- Soil erosion can be caused by roads, vehicles, and development.
- Overharvesting water resources and inefficient irrigation methods can deplete lakes, rivers, and water holes.
- Inappropriate tree planting can damage grassland ecosystems.
Volunteer with local conservation groups. Many grasslands and savannahs around the world have local or regional groups that work to protect and restore them and offer a wide variety of activities. You can help remove invasive weeds, grow and plant a native species to assist pollinators, take part in a wildlife survey, or participate in restoration work (see Degraded Land Restoration).
- Here is a resource guide to organizations conducting conservation work on native prairies in the Midwest, including Prairies Forever, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, the Tallgrass Prairie Center, and the Katy Prairie Conservancy in Texas.
- Wildflower restoration is a focus of many conservation projects, including this one in the UK. You can grow wildflowers at home, or start a wildflower meadow near where you live (after choosing a site carefully), or participate in a community garden or restoration project.
- Many hunting organizations conduct habitat conservation work as well as purchase threatened grasslands for permanent protection. Examples include Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Quail Forever, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,
- If you live near a grassland, become a birder—there are many resources for identifying grassland-dependent birds and raptors, including annual surveys that involve volunteers.
- Grow and plant native species where you live to support birds and pollinators. Here is a database maintained by the Audubon Society.
- Here is a report from the Audubon Society on the state of grasslands in North America and how citizens can get involved.
- Here and here are volunteer conservation opportunities in Africa. Global Volunteers has projects in grassland regions.
- Many international and regional groups have opportunities for people who live on or near a grassland or savannah to participate in volunteer work (see list of Organizations below).
Get involved with wildlife issues connected to grasslands. In addition to the endangerment of their habitat, many species of wildlife are in jeopardy as a result of human activities, including poaching, illegal hunting, bushmeat markets, and the spread of chemicals and pollution. Understanding the threats and then taking action at home or abroad can assist animals in peril.
- Learn which African grassland species are being poached, and avoid purchasing medicines or products that contain animal parts acquired from poaching, such as ivory. Be aware of efforts to hold corporations and social media sites accountable for their role in facilitating the trade of banned products. Here is a “buyer beware” guide from the World Wildlife Fund.
- Support projects that protect and restore endangered grassland species, including shutting down tiger farms, the protection of rhinos in South Africa, the scientific monitoring of cheetah populations, bicycles for park rangers, and Pampas restoration in Paraguay.
- Find crowdfunding and online platforms that allow you to support conservation work financially, or locate volunteer opportunities, such as GVI, Giving Compass, Global Giving, or learn how to start a fundraiser.
- Join a social media site that is focused on grasslands conservation and wild animal protection, such as Africa People & Wildlife, African Wildlife Conservation News, Birdlife International, Southeastern Grasslands in the US, the Grass Fed Meat Association of South Africa, or sites like the Google.org-funded Wildlife Crime Technology Project, which tests innovative technologies.
Participate in ecotourism and travel to destinations on or near grasslands and savannahs. Ecotourism takes visitors to natural environments with the goal of supporting local conservation efforts, observing wildlife, and supporting a green economy. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ecotourism was thriving in many places around the world, including the tropical grasslands of Africa. The financial hardship caused by the pandemic to conservation efforts has been severe. Efforts are under way by ecotourism companies to reestablish their operations. Here are some examples:
- African safari companies are offering a variety of experiences, including participation in research, antipoaching patrols, wildlife population counts, and rhino conservation activities.
- Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition (U.S.)
- Green Safaris in Zambia
- Great Plains Conservation (Botswana)
- Here is a list of ecotourism/safari opportunities.
- Here are ecotourism opportunities in South America.
- Stone Horse provides ecotourism trips to Mongolia.
- Ecotourism in Uzbekistan and Armenia.
- Earth Changers providers a variety of ecotourism trips.
Buy products that support the protection, management, and restoration of grasslands. Farmers and ranchers, often in partnership with conservation organizations, have implemented marketing campaigns that promote their regenerative agricultural practices, many linked to grasslands. Purchasing these products supports the farm or ranch and encourages others to adopt similar conservation programs on their land. Examples include:
- Bird-friendly beef, such as Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program, Blue Nest Beef, and American Farmland Trust’s Sustainable Grazing Project.
- Here is a buying guide from the Audubon Society.
- Grass-fed, organic, and regenerative food products, such as Panorama Meats, Farm Foods Market, Crowd Cow, Belcampo; grassland beef from US Wellness Meats; exotic meats from Fossil Farms, Silver Fern Farms (NZ), Verde Farms (Uruguay), Finca Sarbil (Spain), Bloomplaats (South Africa).
- Here is a directory of farms and ranches in the U.S. and Canada that produce and sell grass-fed meat, dairy, and other products.
Support organizations that actively protect grasslands and wildlife and work on their protection and restoration by making a donation. Conservation organizations need financial support to carry out their missions and a donation allows groups to continue their work. As an example, BirdLife International works with local groups and landowners to restore and protect the Pampas grasslands of South America and other locations around the world. Here is their report on the state of the world’s birds. Other possibilities for financial support can be found on the Organizations list below.
Speak up. Add your voice to many others advocating for grassland and wildlife protection, such as this Action Center hosted by the World Wildlife Fund. Write an op-ed to a newspaper or social media site advocating restoration work as a climate change solution. Consider writing longer pieces for online sites, including Medium, such as this one about grassland restoration.
Join a social media site run by an advocate for land protection and restoration (see Key Players below).
Farmers, Ranchers, and other Landowners
Protect native grasslands and savannahs from loss and fragmentation. A significant amount of grasslands around the world have been lost, degraded, or are no longer intact due to human activities, especially the conversion from pasture to crop agriculture. Every effort needs to be made to stem further loss. In the northern Great Plains, over 130 million acres of grasslands remain intact, 70 percent of which is privately owned. In Africa, the conversion of savannahs to farming is pushed by banks and governments as rural economic development. Instead, public, private, and community owners of grasslands should:
- Refuse to convert grasslands to crop agriculture, especially if it involves ploughing or other forms of soil disturbance.
- Sell or gift your land to a conservation organization, agency, or community trust in order to protect it from development.
- Place your grassland under a conservation easement that prohibits development, or put it in a government conservation reserve program.
- Band together with other landowners and livestock producers to fend off subdivisions and other land conversions, such as the South Rift Association of Land Owners in Kenya, the Western Landowners Alliance in the U.S., and the Grassland Alliance in the Southern Cone of South America.
- Work with a conservation group to create new business opportunities and markets for grassland-related products. The World Wildlife Fund has a Sustainable Ranching Initiative that works collaboratively with landowners in the northern Great Plains.
- Join a community-based conservation effort, such as those piloted by the African Conservation Centre in Kenya, this one in Mongolia, this one in New Jersey, and this one in Argentina focused on jaguars, a result of partnerships between conservationists, landowners, scientists, financial institutions, and agencies.
- The Climate Action Reserve has developed a Grassland Protocol to provide guidance to landowners and others on how to quantify, monitor, report, and verify greenhouse emission reductions associated with avoiding the conversion of grassland to cropland.
- Here is a guide from the USDA on conservation practices that protect grasslands.
Improve livestock grazing practices. Grasslands and savannahs are home to large herds of native herbivores, such as bison, which have evolved their grazing behavior over millennia. Mimicking the “graze-and-go” behavior of native herbivores with domesticated livestock supports the biological health of these ecosystems, improves water cycling, reduces erosion, and can increase the amount of carbon that can be sequestered and stored in grassland soils.
- Control the timing, intensity, and frequency of livestock impact through short-duration rotational grazing. Methods include holistic planned grazing, mob grazing, adaptive high stock density grazing, and adaptive multipaddock grazing. For a good review of the positive role livestock can play in reducing their carbon footprint see this article. Learn about multispecies grazing and its various benefits to the land.
- Use a herder to control livestock. Pastoralist communities, such as the Maasai in east Africa, the Fulani in west Africa, the Navajo in the American Southwest, and yak herders on the Tibetan Plateau have employed herders for centuries. Herders are used in the French Alps to control sheep, in Idaho, in Spain, and for llama in the Andes. For cattle, a low-stress method for moving animals has been developed.
Conduct controlled burning of your grassland. Ecologically, many grasslands and savannahs are adapted to dry-season fires, which remove dead and dry plants, stimulating new growth, and cycling essential nutrients back into the soil in the form of ash. Periodic burning can also remove invasive species that are not adapted to fire. Fire can be used to restore degraded grasslands. Letting natural fires (such as lightning-ignited ones) burn is often not practical, so most burning is conducted in a controlled manner. There are options for landowners who wish to do a controlled burn, including working with conservation organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, that have experience in the field. Ranchers can collaborate on implementing fires, such as a group in the Flint Hills of Nebraska. Controlled fire is a tradition of Indigenous knowledge in many regions. Here is a resource guide to grassland burning.
Employ conservation technology to monitor wildlife and help improve connectivity between different parcels of land. Land fragmentation and climate change pose challenges to the ability of plants and animals to adapt to changing conditions, particularly along established wildlife migration corridors. Technology, including camera traps, drone surveys, DNA analysis, and data tools can help wildlife avoid poaching and mitigate conflicts with livestock.
- The Wildlabs.net project collects, analyses, and shares data collaboratively with landowners, NGOs, and agencies.
- Inventory and monitor your prairie, grassland, or savannah. Work with researchers to catalog. One example is the Grassland Vegetation Inventory in Alberta, Canada.
Restore degraded grasslands. Soil erosion, overgrazing by livestock, invasive and noxious species, extended drought, and extreme weather events are sources of grassland and savannah land degradation. Practices that heal degraded areas include controlled burning, improved livestock grazing, seeding native plants species, as well as riparian and stream restoration strategies that can repair damaged water cycles and stop soil erosion.
- Here is a guide to prairie restoration in general.
- Here is a guide to prairie restoration in Minnesota.
- Here is a guide to climate proofing prairies.
- Here is a guide to restoration of annual grasslands in California.
- Here is a study about reversing grassland degradation in Kenya.
- Here is a project in Australia involving Aboriginal use of fire.
- Here is a landowner-directed savannah restoration in Minnesota.
- Here is a story about savannah restoration in Brazil’s Cerrado.
- Here is a research article on restoring Russian steppe grasslands.
Plant prairie strips as low-cost conservation practice with multiple benefits. In the U.S., a prairie strip is a narrow band of vegetation placed on a farm to act as a sponge for water moving downhill, buffering the soil against erosion and reducing the amount of fertilizer that enters waterways. Prairie strips are seeded with a mixture of native grasses and other perennial prairie plants. The captured sediment improves soil health, which boosts plant growth, sending roots deeper into the soil and enabling additional carbon to be sequestered underground. Prairie strips increase the number of grassland bird species, and enlarge populations of beneficial insects, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.
- Prairie strips were developed by researchers at Iowa State University. The university published an introduction to prairie strips and a FAQ guide.
- The Soil and Water Conservation Society has a resource guide to prairie strips.
Develop and sell products from your farm or ranch that protect and sustain grasslands. For examples see Individuals (above).
Remove the destruction of grasslands and savannahs and their wildlife from your supply chain. The conversion of grasslands to soy and corn production continues around the world, especially parts of the Amazon Basin and Brazil’s Cerrado savannahs (see Bad Actors below). Corporations can protect these ecosystems from further loss by refusing to buy agricultural products from companies that destroy grasslands.
- Conversion-free beef is gaining momentum among companies that are concerned about the climate change consequences of converting grasslands to soy production.
- Here is a proposal by the World Wildlife Fund on how Argentina can lead the market on conversion-free beef.
- Here is an article on conversion-free efforts globally.
Use onsets to achieve carbon emission reduction goals focused on credible land protection and restoration projects that improve soil carbon in grasslands and savannahs. Onsets are carbon credits that create a net reduction in greenhouse gases. Organizations such as Gold Standard and the Carbon Fund provide verified onsets via their financial support of projects that improve carbon levels in the soil through regenerative agriculture and reforestation. For more information see Degraded Land Restoration.
- The Land Trust Alliance developed a pilot project with the goal of permanently protecting grasslands through the use of carbon credits.
- Here is an Issue Paper prepared by the Climate Action Reserve on the carbon credit potential of avoiding grasslands conversion the U.S., and an example from a ranch in Colorado.
- Here is a scientific analysis detailing the climate benefits of avoiding grasslands conversion and the potential for carbon credits.
- The Working Lands Investment Partners brings together private capital and landowners to ensure payments for practices that protect grasslands and sequester carbon in their soils.
Make a donation and/or partner with a conservation organization to protect and restore grasslands, savannahs, and their wildlife. Apple Inc. is partnering with Conservation International to restore degraded grasslands in the Chyulu Hills of Kenya in order to sequester carbon dioxide in soils, protect a wildlife corridor for elephants, and support local Maasai cattle herders.
Support ecotourism companies and other economic development projects as opportunities for private investment. In Mozambique, a private investment firm has worked to restore and fund a wildlife reserve with private capital using a business model that sees financial returns from ecotourism. Care, however, must be taken to honor local economic and cultural concerns. Other efforts are being explored to move beyond ecotourism to achieve conservation goals using private funding, including pilot projects being developed by the African Leadership University in South Africa.
Support Indigenous groups and their rights. Many grasslands and savannahs historically were home to an Indigenous tribe or group who were dispossessed of the land by theft, treaty, or forced displacement. There is a growing movement to reacquire stolen land, called Landback. Many of these lands are publicly owned, which means lawmakers need to hear from citizens. For example, over a century after the land was taken from them, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana recovered the 18,000-acre National Bison Range by an act of Congress in 2020. Among many Indigenous groups that hold title to grasslands, there is a movement to reintroduce native species, such as bison. The Lakota people have been leading an effort to return bison to their reservation in South Dakota. Cooperation between agencies and tribes is key to a successful reintroduction, such the Wood Bison effort in Alaska.
Develop carbon markets that support regenerative agricultural practices. Trading carbon credits to reduce greenhouse emissions was embedded in the 2015 Paris Accord. Governments at a variety of levels, locally and internationally, are either becoming directly involved in fostering markets for carbon credits or considering how to get involved. In 2021, China opened a national carbon market, the world’s largest, with assistance from its government.
Support incentive policies for landowners to continue to steward grasslands on their property. Support public and private incentives for grassland conservation. Help develop unified messaging and a shared vision for grassland protection and restoration. An example: the Edwards Plateau and Oaks and Prairies Bird Conservation Regions in Oklahoma and Texas.
Encourage land management agencies to enter into partnerships with universities, NGOs, landowners, and private businesses to facilitate restoration work. Multistakeholder alliances are often enhanced with governmental partnerships, such as has happened in Canada. These partnerships often as the result of public pressure campaigns.
Degradation of grasslands and savannah ecosystems often involve the actions of multinational corporations. Since 2009, over 50 million acres of prairie on the Great Plains of the U.S. have been converted to corn, soybean, and wheat production, a rate roughly the equivalent of four footballs fields every minute. It is a similar story in the Pampas and other grasslands of Brazil and Argentina, led by conversion to soy production. Corporate agribusinesses that benefit from this conversion include:
- Cargill, a family-owned agribusiness behemoth at the center of the global industrial production of soy, corn and other commodities on former grasslands and implicated in a wide variety land degrading activities. The CEO is David MacLennan. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: (952) 742-4507
- ADM and Bunge, two major food commodities traders and suppliers, are failing to protect land from degradation in their supply chains. The ADM CEO is Juan Luciano. His email: email@example.com His Phone: (312) 634-8100 (HQ). The CEO of Bunge is Greg Heckman. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone: (314) 292-2000 (HQ)
- Bayer/Monsanto, a large agribusiness that produces a variety of chemicals, including the herbicide glyphosate (e.g. Round Up), that are sprayed on croplands. Bayer Ag CEO is Werner Baumann. His email: email@example.com. His phone: 49 214 30 47720
- DuPont, an international chemical manufacturer whose products have been used in industrial agriculture and food production for decades and linked to a variety of harmful effects. The CEO of DuPont is Edward Breen. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone: 302-774-1000.
- McDonald’s is an international food corporation and a significant purchaser of beef produce on former grasslands. McDonald’s USA CEO is Chris Kempczinski. His email: email@example.com His phone: (630) 623-3000 (HQ)
The illegal trade in African ivory and other animal parts depends on a black market that utilizes the internet as an online bazaar for buyers around the world, including social media giants Facebook and eBay as passive intermediaries. In response, a coalition of organizations have banded together to form the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which includes Facebook, eBay, Google, Twitter, and WeChat.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature is a global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
USDA/Natural Resource Conservation Service provides assistance to farmers and ranchers to put conservation on the ground in the U.S.
CIGAR delivers critical science and innovation to transform the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis.
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was established to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for conservation and sustainable use.
Society for Ecological Restoration is an international organization working on the science, practice, and policy of ecological restoration.
CITES (Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species)
Wildlife Trusts (UK)
The Jane Goodall Institute (worldwide)
Panthera (focused on panthers)
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (elephants in Africa)
Commonland (a catalyst for large-scale land restoration projects)
Lucy Waruinga, Executive director of the African Conservation Centre
David Jonah Western, savannah biologist
Jonathan Lundgren, prairie biologist, Blue Dasher Farm
Marissa Ahlering, prairie ecologist for the Nature Conservancy
Data Providers and Online Tools
This interactive map shows global grassland extent.
NatureMap.Earth: shows maps of natural resources, including a global map of potential natural vegetation and habitat types.
FAO’s Soil carbon sequestration map: shows estimates of potential increase in soil carbon associated with changes in conservation agriculture.
The Grasslands Biome (11 mins)
The Grassland Ecosystem (6 mins)
Grasslands as Carbon Sinks (1 hr)
Rangeland Health Restoration Initiative for “One World—One Health” (1hr 45 mins)
Restoring Grasslands in South Africa (7 mins)
Grasslands, Outside Beyond the Lens, PBS (26 mins)
The Plight of the Grassland Birds, PBS (56 mins)
The Value of Grasslands, Nature Works Everywhere, PBS (6 mins)
Grassland Sparrows, PBS (26 mins)
Plains, Earth a New Wild, PBS (54 mins)
Wyoming Grasslands, Wyoming Chronicle, PBS (28 mins)
Soil Erosion 101 (NRDC)
Land Degradation Neutrality (UNCCD)
Land Degradation and Restoration (IPBES)
Habitat Restoration Fundamental/pollinators (Xerces Society)
Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization by David Montgomery
Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson
Goodreads list of books about grasslands (fiction and nonfiction)
Goodreads list of books on plains, savannahs, and prairies (285 titles, including many works of fiction)
Center for Grassland Studies podcasts (University of Nebraska)
Grassland Groupies podcasts (love letters to grasslands)
Native Plant podcasts (grassland episodes)
Grassland 2.0 podcasts (Upper Midwest)
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