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Making Waves — North Dakota

April 15, 2024

Climate problems may seem overwhelming, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This week we’re looking at NORTH DAKOTA and the question is: What role do grasslands play in North Dakota, and why is their protection important to us all?

The Western Meadowlark is North Dakota’s state bird (same for five other states), but it is a disappearing grassland species. Time will tell if being a state bird for multiple states will ultimately keep the meadowlark from extinction. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative estimates that since 1970, we’ve lost 29% of bird species overall in North America. Some species have lost up to 80% of their numbers. In particular, North Dakota has seen a 53% loss in grassland bird populations over the past 50 years.

Native prairies are the old-growth form of grasslands. Primary production is the function of these ecosystems: grasses take the natural inputs of soil, air, water, and sunlight, and convert them into biomass (grass and other plants) which in turn support many other life forms. Grasslands provide a mixed-cover, healthy habitat supporting biodiverse plants, insect and bird populations (and larger creatures as well), high-performance carbon storage, and replenishment of the underlying soils and groundwater. Ranchers use grasslands for livestock grazing. Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts use grasslands for recreation.

So what is happening to our grasslands? They used to extend 1000 miles from Illinois to Wyoming, and 2000 miles from Texas to Manitoba. One billion acres of grassland stretched across North America before European settlers showed up. The Audubon Society reports that by the 1800s, US grasslands included 200 million acres of Tallgrass Prairie and 265 million acres of Shortgrass Prairie. At the end of the 19th century, homesteaders were given lots throughout the prairie, cut the prairie to build sod houses, and tilled the land for farming. Now only 11% of that Tallgrass Prairie remains, and more than half of Shortgrass is gone. Most of these losses are from conversion to agricultural cropland. The conversion has been accelerating in recent times.

For a quick history of grasslands on planet Earth and their ecological role, listen to this short podcast from National Public Radio:
Podcast: Short Wave (Sept. 28, 2022)
Grasslands: The Unsung Carbon Hero [13 mins]

Grasslands, we learn, are like old-growth forests that have taken hundreds of years to mature. They are the inverse of tropical rainforests – the canopy equivalents are not the blades of grass stretching toward the sun, but the root systems that extend deep into the soil and protect the water-holding properties of the land. They also store massive amounts of CO2 (carbon dioxide) far more effectively than trees/forests.

The US Forest Service manages the national grasslands within North Dakota’s borders – 1.1 million acres (roughly 3% of the land area in the state), most of it in the Little Missouri National Grasslands which cover the badlands in western ND. 90% of the state’s non-public acreage is in ranchland and agriculture, and farming activity employs about a quarter of the population. Organizations that work on conservation issues are finding that grasslands converted to new croplands are not as productive as regular croplands, and that typically the cost/benefit analyses private landowners might use do not take into account the ecosystem services that grasslands provide. With a new tipping point looming – the loss of many species dependent on native prairies – something has to give.

In researching this column, I found many references to the North American Grasslands Conservation Act of 2022, a bold move in the 117th Congress to protect America’s prairies. It was introduced in the US Senate in July 2022 and, as S.4639, it was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Evidently, it died there. I found no sign of resurrection yet.

On the bright side, North Dakotans are passionate about their role as stewards of the land. Over three dozen natural resource conservation organizations are active in North Dakota, with additional numbers in related fields such as water quality and wetlands (11), and land conservation groups (7). Many of them work under the umbrella Meadowlark Initiative.

This second podcast is about an Audubon program to improve habitat on ranchlands. It is especially helpful in drawing the connection between healthy habitat and healthy foods, and the importance of supporting producers who subscribe to conservation practices. If you have internet access, try the audio program below. So many interesting food-related topics in this podcast, all with an eye toward connections with the environment that produces the food.
Podcast: Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg by Food Tank (Jan. 20, 2022)
Episode 300: Marshall Johnson talks about the National Audubon Society’s Conservation Ranching Initiative [33 mins]

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest County News Journal 02-01-2023. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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