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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:

Protect and restore grasslands to preserve the communities of humans and wildlife that depend on them, reverse desertification, improve water cycles, and sequester carbon in their soils.

Occupying approximately 40 percent of the planet’s land surface, grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems on earth. Home to bison, zebra, wildebeest, antelopes, rhinos, and numerous other wildlife species, grasslands, and savannahs comprise 80 percent of all agricultural land and support a billion people. They account for one-third of global terrestrial carbon storage, much of which takes place below ground, making it more secure than forests. In many places, grasslands are shared with human pastoralists and their livestock. However, grasslands are being lost and degraded. In the U.S., 40 percent of shortgrass and 99 percent of tallgrass prairie have been converted to cropland. Droughts amplified by climate change are heavily impacting grasslands. These losses have cascading negative impacts, including 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 South America. 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 ecosystem 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, human activities have recently degraded them (see Desertification Nexus). 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 Nexus).

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. The rate of loss is accelerating. 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 underway by ecotourism companies to reestablish their operations with projections for robust future growth. 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 or joining the organization. Conservation organizations need financial support to carry out their missions, and a donation allows groups to continue their work. BirdLife International works with local groups and landowners to restore and protect grasslands in South America and other locations around the world, improving the state of the world’s birds. Other possibilities can be found on the Organizations list 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 (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus).

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 (see Fire Ecology Nexus).

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 (see Wildlife Corridors Nexus).

  • 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 (see Desertification Nexus). 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 (see Degraded Land Restoration Nexus and Rewilding Nexus).

Plant prairie strips as a 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 insectsbutterflies, 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.

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 Regenerative Agriculture Nexus). 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 ClimeCo 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 Onsets Nexus.

  • The Land Trust Alliance developed a pilot project with the goal of permanently protecting grasslands through the use of carbon credits.
  • Here is a Grassland Protocol prepared by the Climate Action Reserve on the carbon credit potential of avoiding grasslands conversion in the U.S. and an example from a ranch in Colorado.
  • Here is a scientific analysis detailing the climate benefits of avoiding grassland 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 (see Pastoralism Nexus).

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 as the Wood Bison effort in Alaska.

Support incentive policies for landowners to continue to steward grasslands on their property. Support public and private incentives for grassland conservation and restoration. Help develop unified messaging and a shared vision for grassland protection and restoration. An example is 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 are often the result of public pressure campaigns.

Key Players

Organizations

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)

Panthera (focused on panthers)

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (elephants in Africa)

Commonland (a catalyst for large-scale land restoration projects)

Individuals

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.

Learn

Read

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)

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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