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Sunlight on grasslands in the Tibetan Plateau at an elevation of over 13,000 feet.

Sunlight on grasslands in the Tibetan Plateau at an elevation of over 13,000 feet.

Credit: Heather Angel/Nature Picture Library

Grasslands

Call to action:

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.

Action Items

Individuals

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:

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).

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.

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:

Become a Master Naturalist with an emphasis on grassland and savannah ecology and restoration. Here is a list of Master Naturalist programs by state in the U.S. Here is a Master Class on Savannah Restoration offered in Texas.

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:

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).

Groups

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:

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.

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).

Companies

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.

Governance

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.

Bad Actors

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:

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.

Learn

Read

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)

Listen

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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