The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) was once part of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world. However, the region has changed dramatically since the days of Lewis and Clark. After settlement, grasslands in the most productive portions of the PPR were converted to cropland to feed a growing world population. Today, grassland-dominated landscapes are largely confined to areas with poor soils, steep topography, and/or climatic conditions unsuitable for crop production.
Unfortunately, a new wave of grassland conversion has occurred in the last decade, causing significant ecological and sociological impacts to the region. Current farm policy is fueling the destruction of this rare and important habitat. Congress must implement a policy in the 2012 Farm Bill to reverse this trend. Ducks Unlimited suggests calling this the "Sodsaver" provision.
Reps. Kristi Noem (SD) and Tim Walz (MN) are the lead co-sponsors of the bipartisan Protect Our Prairies Act. Watch them talk about the bill.
Of the 13.8 million acres of native prairie that remains in the eastern Dakotas, the FSA reports that 298,000 acres (2.2%) were converted to cropland during 2002-2005. Unfortunately, this 0.55% annual conversion rate may be much higher in some regions. For example, research by Ducks Unlimited conducted in the Missouri Coteau region of the Dakotas has documented annual loss rates as high as 2% in some key areas. At that rate, half of the remaining native grassland in those areas will be lost in only 34 years!
Why is this occurring?
The accelerated loss of native grassland is a combined result of technological advances and unintended consequences of federal farm policy. The current Farm Bill provides substantial price support and risk protection to crop producers. The combination of loan-deficiency and disaster payments – coupled with crop insurance – makes crop production economically viable even if high yields are never achieved. The reduction in economic risk, combined with advances in herbicides, genetically engineered crops, and large farm equipment, provides the incentive to break new ground. Additionally, because there is negligible government support for the cattle ranching industry – the current land-use for most native grasslands – subsidized crop producers have a significant economic advantage when competing to rent and buy native grassland.
Why is loss of native prairie important?
The new wave of sodbusting is gaining attention in local communities.
Temperate grasslands, like those in the PPR, are at highest risk of conversion to cropland yet have some of the lowest rates of protection of any major ecological biome on earth. The grasslands of the PPR provide critically important habitat for prairie wildlife and are the heart of the breeding range for many North American ducks and shorebirds. The region also hosts numerous grassland-dependent songbirds, species that are experiencing a steeper population decline than any other bird group in North America. Currently, only one endangered species exists in the PPR. However, a "train wreck" of endangered species listings could result if the current pace of grassland loss continues.