Western Working Lands Snapshot | Grasslands

Grasslands and blue skies in America’s Great Plains. Photo: Amy Erickson

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a new series of posts we’re calling “Western Working Lands Snapshots.” These posts will cover the natural history, wildlife, ecosystems, people, and more that make western working lands so special. For the first post, we’re featuring grasslands. We hope you enjoy this new series.


This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to grasslands, which cover one-third of America and one-quarter of the world. These unique ecosystems provide vital grazing lands for livestock and rich wildlife habitat.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.

Definition

Grasslands are open, un-forested areas dominated by grasses. Shrubs, wildflowers, and other herbaceous plants are interspersed among the grass species. Trees are rare and are usually only found along streams or rivers.

NM Grasslands

Grasslands in New Mexico. Photo: Andy Lawrence

Range

Grasslands cover at least one-quarter of the world’s land area and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Here are a few of the names grasslands go by:

  • Savannas (Africa)
  • Pampas (South America)
  • Steppes (Eurasia)
  • Veldt (South Africa)
  • Prairies (North America)
Grassland Map

This map, from WikiCommons, shows the worlds grasslands in brown.

Great Plains

The Great Plains are the largest grasslands in the U.S., covering one-third of the country and portions of 10 states. Farming and ranching are the main economic drivers across these prairies, supporting hundreds of rural communities.

Ecosystem Role

Grasslands provide diverse and abundant vegetation that feed people, livestock, wildlife and insects. Many of the popular grains that people eat today—such as corn, wheat, oats and rice—were domesticated from wild grass species.

Pronghorn on grasslands

Grasslands support wildlife and agriculture. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

Climate

America’s Great Plains receive between 10-40 inches of rain annually, depending on the region. It’s drier in the west because of the rain shadow created by the Rocky Mountains, and wetter as you move east. Temperatures range from below freezing in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.

Vegetation Types

Shortgrass prairies and bunchgrass steppes—where grasses only grow 8-10 inches high—are common in the drier landscapes in the western Great Plains. Tallgrass prairies are found in the wetter regions to the east, where grasses can grow up to seven feet high. The middle of the Great Plains is a transitional zone of mixed-grass prairie that includes both short- and tallgrass species.

Grasslands also include many species of broad-leafed plants (called forbs), like wildflowers and some woody species that are most commonly called shrubs. Most native grassland vegetation is perennial, meaning the plants come back each spring after going dormant during the winter.

Coneflower and butterfly

These purple coneflowers (echinacea) and the clouded sulfur butterfly are examples of forbs and insects found on grasslands. Photo: Ken Brunson.

Roots

Native grasses and forbs play a key role in creating rich, healthy soils. Sometimes called “upside-down forests”, their dense, fibrous root systems extend three to six feet below the surface, where they cycle nutrients and help hold water on the land. These roots also supply food and habitat to burrowing animals, insects, bacteria and fungi.

Western roots postcard

This postcard, available for download on SGI’s site (click photo for more about western roots), shows how deep native plant roots penetrate into the soil. Many of these plants grow in prairies in addition to sagebrush-steppe.

Resilience

Because most of their biomass grows below ground, grasslands have evolved to withstand drought, grazing, and fire. Grasses and forbs can easily grow back their above-ground stems after they have dried out or have been eaten or burned.

Historically, natural disturbances like fire or grazing helped maintain healthy, vigorous prairie habitat by encouraging plants to send up new shoots. Today, well-managed grazing and prescribed fire can help deter invasive annual grasses (like annual bromes and cheatgrass) or woody plants (like redcedar or mesquite) from taking over productive grasslands.

LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners for voluntary conservation practices like prescribed grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire. Photo: Stan Bradbury

Wildlife

Grasslands feed grazing animals like elk, pronghorn, deer, and bison, whose hooves help break up the soil and disperse native seeds to regenerate the prairie. Millions of birds rely on healthy grasslands, including sage grouse, eagles, prairie chickens, hawks, and a variety of songbird species. During the spring, pollinators like butterflies and bees feast on the wildflowers. Abundant grassland rodents such as prairie dogs and voles feed predators including badgers, coyotes, and swift foxes.

Bison in KS

Bison, like these in Kansaas, played a key role in grassland ecology historically. Today, cattle, pronghorn, and deer, help maintain grassland health. Photo: Ken Brunson.

Conservation

The Great Plains are one of the most at-risk landscapes in North America. The main threats are the conversion of native grassland to cultivated cropland, and the loss of native plants to invasive annual grasses or encroaching woody species.

Working together

Researchers, natural resources professionals, and landowners work together to restore and maintain productive grasslands. Photo: David Haukos.

Working Lands For Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in creating resilient, productive grasslands. Strategic practices are developed on a case-by-case basis to benefit agricultural operations as well as wildlife, and include prescribed fire, sustainable grazing systems, woody plant removal, wet meadow restoration, and drought management plans.