The North American prairies can appear deceptively barren in winter. Many wild animals have survived harsh winters on these grasslands. They forage in the snow, shelter from the cold and bite their winds in their dens. The amber grains of the prairies of the United States are still visible today. This is what Katharine Lee Bates wrote in America the Beautiful, an 1895 book. Scientists are surprisingly unaware of today’s grasslands biodiversity, especially about the status and habits of big small mammals such as badgers.
The heartland has seen a lack of land conservation. Most estimates suggest that less than 4% of the tallgrass Prairie ecosystem, which once cover 170 million acres in North America, is still left. The population of endemic species such as prairie dogs is also affected when native grasslands are destroyed.
We have combined more than 60 years experience in using hypothesis-driven, field-based science to conserve wildlife in grasslands systems across North America and around the world. We have protected species from bison and pronghorn in North America, to wild yak and saiga in Central Asia. Scientists can help farmers, ranchers, and communities make better decisions about how to manage their lands and the species they depend on.
Two Brutal Centuries Of North Settlement
North America’s prairies extend from Mexico to Canada and westward from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. There are also grasslands in the Pacific coast ranges and Rockies.
This territory was home to many wildlife and Native Americans when Thomas Jefferson approved the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803. Millions of prairie dogs, pronghorn and bison, as well as thousands of bighorn sheep, were able to live in these vast, uninterrupted horizons of contiguous grasslands. There were many birds, including greater prairie chickens, grouse, and more than 3 million passenger pigeons.
Lewis and Clark kept meticulous records of all the animals and plants they encountered during their three-year journey. They wrote about grizzly bears, wolves, burrowing owls and black-footed ferrets, prairie chickens, and sagegrouses. These and John James Audubon’s Birds of America published between 1827-1838 confirm the fact that North America was alive before European settlement.
Over the next 100 years, this changed when European immigrants arrived west. Although market hunting was one reason, settlers also fertilized, fertilized, and fenced the land and drained aquifers.
Fate Of Prairie North Dogs
The prairies were altered by humans, and bison lost 99% of their original range. The sad fate of prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and wolves, as well as grizzly bears, was the same. Conservationists started fighting for the preservation and restoration of what was left in the middle 20th century. It’s not surprising that conservationists and wildlife agencies focused on big, well-known and economically important targets: Deer for dinner, birds for hunting, and fisheries to feed and sport.
Some of these efforts were successful. Every species Lewis and Clark saw in Montana have been preserved. After several restoration efforts in areas such as the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, in the Flint Hills in Kansas, Congress declared bison the U.S. National Mammal. The number of pronghorn antelope, also known as speed goats by Lewis and Clark, has increased from less than 20,000 in the 20th century to 700,000. They can be found across grasslands, from northern Mexico and Texas to North Dakota and Montana to southern Canada.
However, elk are still rare in grassy savannas. Prairie dogs and wild bison also remain scarce. The North American grassland birds, larks, pipits, curlews or mountain plovers, are all in serious decline or near collapse. Introduced non-native exotic fish, decreased water flows in prairie streams and rivers due to agriculture, as well as declines in water quality, quantity, and native fish species have all decimated aquatic invertebrates such freshwater mussels in grassland ecosystems’ waterways.
Where North Animals Still Roam
Other regions have intact grasslands that are functionally eco-systems, which is a contrast to North America. White-tailed gazelles (and khulan, an Asiatic wild ass), still travel hundreds of miles across Mongolia’s vast unfenced steppes. The sub-Saharan white-eared kob is a sub-Saharan antivelope that travels hundreds of miles each year through a North Dakota-sized area of southern Sudan. It’s one of Africa’s longest land migrations.
Chiru (antlope) and Kiang (large wild asses), continue their historic movements across the vast Tibetan plateau. Two national parks have been establish by war-torn Afghanistan to allow snow leopards, wild wolves, and ibex to continue their freedom of movement.
This kind of biodiversity could be restore in some parts of North American prairies. There are areas in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska’s Sandhills, and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front that have not been plow. These areas range from 1 million to 4,000,000 acres. These areas are being protect by both public agencies and non-profit conservation groups.
Knowledge Gaps Impede Conservation
Because of the destruction of grasslands in America, conservation has been slow. Scientists don’t have accurate estimates of the current abundance and population trends for many vertebrate species, regardless of whether they’re mammal, bird, or fish, despite powerful analytical tools and technological innovation.
The first step in protecting the environment is to measure remnant diversity. We do this by asking simple questions to the families that have lived on these lands for many generations. One Montana rancher said that the last time he saw a porcupine was well. It wasn’t his memory, but they used be there. In Wyoming, another rancher said that it had been nearly two decades since he last saw white-tailed Jackrabbits. This was a species that used to be common in the area.
The responses vary from Colorado to New Mexico, the Dakotas to Utah and Colorado to New Mexico. There are many questions about the status of species such as foxes and porcupines. White-tailed Jack rabbits, badgers, badgers, marmots, and beavers in the region. The trends across the continent remain a mystery.
National Parks Inventory
Good news is that some species can be analysis more thoroughly in national parks inventory and monitoring programs. Citizen scientists help by reporting the occurrences species like black-tailed Jackrabbits. Scientists will be able to see patterns in species retention and loss as they dig deeper into the databases.
Our research on white-tailed Jack rabbits, for example, revealed that they were present. In Yellowstone National Park’s northern range decades ago. They were extinct in the Tetons by 2000 and had escaped to a very small part of Yellowstone.
The U.S. has a long history of protecting its deserts and majestic mountains. We believe it has underestimated the biologically rich grasslands. Wildlife of all sizes, large and small, could thrive again on America’s fertile plains if there was more conservation.