The world’s most threatened biome is in your backyard

Last week I visited a Nature Conservancy prairie restoration site to help a graduate student in my lab find nests (fun!) and measure vegetation (no comment!).  From far away, the restoration sites didn’t look much different than your average cattle pasture:

tall grass

In fact, many of the restoration sites have cattle grazing on them.  But up close, the restoration sites were nothing short of spectacular:

Black-eyed susan
Black-eyed susan
Sensitive briar (don't be mean!)
Sensitive briar (don’t be mean!)
White sage and hoary vervane
White sage and hoary vervane (I think)

The diversity and beauty of the place was astounding (and the plant names great – I’m looking at you purple poppy mallow).  Today, Allison made me aware of a quote from Aldo Leopold:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.*

I, for one, feel no special need to live alone in a world of wounds, and it is in this spirit that I share the following fun facts with my reader(s):

  • 99% of North American prairies dominated by tall grasses are gone.  The vast majority have been converted to row-crop agriculture.  99 percent!  I leave you to do the math on how much is left.
  • >75% of North American mixed grass (i.e., tall and short grasses and flowering plants) prairies are gone.
  • The demand for “green” fuels such as ethanol has increased the profitability of growing corn.  As a result, 500,000 hectares of midwestern U.S. grasslands have been converted to row-crops in the last five years.
  • Grassland bird populations in North America have exhibited sharper declines than any other guild (~40% fewer birds in the past 40 years).
  • Temperate grasslands are the world’s most threatened biome.    More threatened than rain forests.  More threatened than any other biome.  And it’s right in your backyard.

Right in your backyard!  Did you know it?  Do you wonder why the complete demolition of an entire biome doesn’t make the news?  Do you wonder why you are probably more familiar with the plight of the California Condor than you are the plight of an entire biome?  Do you wonder if I’ll ever stop saying biome?

If you knew all of this, this wasn’t for you.  If you didn’t, welcome to a world of wounds.  A melodramatic phrase for sure.  But, as I said, 99%.  Surely a little melodrama is in order.

If you want to know more about grasslands, such as why cattle are a part of grassland restoration efforts, a good place to start might be here.  And because I worry that my professional melancholy is overly tiresome, I end on a positive note: grassland species have shown incredible resilience in the face of massive disturbance.  It’s not too late to protect prairies against even the weediest of weedy species:

For Scoe
For my friend Scoe

*Credit due to Katie Klymus for the quote!


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