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America's Grasslands:  A Short History of Our Common Sod by John Perry
by John Perry

The Great Plains, extending from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, was the largest and most productive ecosystem in America. Too dry for trees, too wet to be desert, grasslands historically produced far more vegetation per acre than rainforests. The open plains supported countless millions of bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, and smaller mammals. Half of America's waterfowl came from prairie potholes that were also stopovers for migrating shorebirds. Songbirds depended on the grasslands.

Experts don't agree on definitions of "plains" and "prairie." Some use them interchangeably. I prefer "prairie" for the moister eastern third, "plains" for the central and western areas. Tall grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass flourished on the prairie, growing horse-high in midsummer. The central plains, an irregularly-shaped belt extending from Canada to Mexico, was a region of mixed grasses. Short-grass species grow in the rain shadow of the Rockies.

Too dry for trees....

Settlers came first to the fertile prairie. By 1860 Missouri had over a million settlers, the Wyoming area only about five thousand. Today the prairie ecosystem is extinct, replaced by cropland and pasture. In 1961 the National Park Service proposed a Prairie National Park in Oklahoma to preserve a fragment of prairie, then abandoned its proposal. The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University cooperated in preserving 40,000 acres in the Flint Hills. Here one can see the tall grasses, but without the original wildlife it's not the same ecosystem.

In the next phase, homesteaders rushed to claim land in the central region. They came during a period of relatively abundant rain. No climate history was available to warn them. Their plows broke the soil. Dry weather returned in the 1920s. High winds blew topsoil from Texas to Vermont. The Dust Bowl made 2 ½ million farmers into refugees.

Roosevelt's New Deal created the Resettlement Administration and other programs to buy abandoned land and help the refugees make a new start. Some were translocated as far away as Alaska. The Soil Conservation Administration promoted contour plowing, hedgerows and shelter belts, farm ponds, check dams, and other soil-savers. The Bureau of Reclamation built hundreds of dams and created irrigation districts to distribute shares of water through canals.

Today the prairie ecosystem is extinct...

Ambitious plans were offered for long-term reclamation. The Forest Service proposed acquiring 200 million acres, twice the size of California, but only 11 million acres were acquired. The Forest Service was given responsibility for 4 million, now managed as National Grasslands. Then came the era of industrial farming with irrigation, giant equipment, and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. Today more than half of North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma is crop and pasture land, less than half rangeland.

Farming wasn't an option in the western dry short-grass plains. This was the Wild West, land of cowboys and sheepherder wars. Most of the region, acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, was government land over which cattle roamed freely. Only later were ranchers required to lease land from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, paying a nominal fee for each head of cattle.

With more knowledge than was then available and with greater willingness to manage than either federal agency has ever had, more of the plains could have been saved. Instead, overgrazing has been common practice. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was supposed to conserve the rangelands by establishing grazing districts, but the Department of the Interior put the districts under control of boards dominated by landed stockmen. The cattlemen have had their way. When conscientious BLM and Forest Service field men have tried to enforce grazing limits, they have often been transferred, demoted, or forced to retire. President Clinton appointed Jim Baca as director of BLM. Clinton fired him nine months later after cattlemen and western governors protested his enforcement efforts.

Pastoral painting

The general principle of grassland management is "take half, leave half." If less than half of the leaves are cropped, what remains is enough for photosynthesis to feed the roots and promote new growth. If more than half is cropped, root growth slows or stops, and the supply of moisture and nutrients from the soil is lost to the plant. In the first phase of decline, grasses give way to plant species that were present but suppressed by grasses. Then come the invaders. Today as one drives across what were short-grass plains one sees seemingly endless miles of these invaders: sagebrush, mesquite, cactus, and other shrubs, with bare soil between. Further west is a landscape of creosote bush.

Disappearance of grass has had devastating consequences. Most of the cattle and grass- dependent wildlife are gone, but grasses cannot return. Short-grasses were adapted to drought by conserving the limited moisture. Now rain and melting snow run off quickly. Once-healthy streams become dry arroyos subject to flash floods. No longer protected by grass, stream banks wash away. Driving across the dry plains today one sees abandoned homes, ghost towns, broken windmills, and unmended fences where herds of cattle once prospered. Some grassland is now desert.

I visited a Texas ranch whose owner was still trying to keep cattle. He discovered they'd eat cactus if the spines were burned off. I saw hungry cattle rushing toward the sound of the flame-thrower.

Could the plains ecosystem be restored? In the late 1960s I traveled with Forest Service range management specialists and observed experiments. The first requirement, they said, was to remove the invaders. One method was dragging heavy chains between two tractors, uprooting the sagebrush, cactus, and mesquite, which would then be collected and burned. Another was bulldozing the shrubs or crushing them with sheepsfoot rollers. Herbicides were tested with limited results. Flamethrowers took too much manpower. Even if the invaders were removed, a major difficulty remained: re-seeding and promoting regrowth. Scattering seed on bare soil was unproductive.

Pastoral painting.

By no means all of the western grasslands have been destroyed. Millions of acres still have grass, although much of it is in poor condition. This range could be restored to productivity with proper management. Despairing of ever persuading the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to restrict grazing and let the grass recover, some advocates urge that all grazing be stopped on federal land.

Here is a seeming paradox. The Great Plains grasslands supported 60 million free-ranging bison, plus other herbivores, for millennia, and grasslands thrived. When cattle became the chief herbivore, the ecosystem was disrupted. At the Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, the manager of their large bison herd explained that bison "drift" with the seasons, distributing grazing pressure; cattle are confined by fences. Cattle stay close to water sources; bison don't. Cattle are specialized grazers, feasting on preferred grass species until they are depleted. In the natural ecosystem, bison eat grasses; pronghorn prefer forbs and new shoots; mule deer include woody plants in their diet; elk favor brush and saplings.

Grasses need to be grazed, but cattle don't do it right. A few ranchers are raising bison for meat. They withstand blizzards better than cattle and don't need hay. Their meat is low in fat, but markets haven't been accepting. A hybrid, the "beefalo," was promoted a few years ago with limited success.

The condition of the Great Plains is a factor in global warming. The rapid depletion of rain forests is deplored because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Healthy grasslands, producing far more vegetation than forests, remove far more CO2. At the same time, warming is affecting the grasses. Colorado State University range management scientists report an alarming decline of native grasses in the 190,000-acre Pawnee National Grassland. They attribute the decline to rising temperatures; over a 30-year span daily low rose 6 degree Fahrenheit.

Some plains ecologists advocate a comprehensive restoration of the ecosystem, perhaps a "Buffalo Commons," sweeping together what remains of the middle and western grasslands, populating it with bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, and other herbivores. Studies in both East and West Africa have shown that harvesting native species could yield ten times more edible protein than cattle without depleting the resource.  Perhaps it is time to return to America's truly indigenous grasslands.


John Perry has written many books and articles on environmental subjects. The most recent, co-authored with the late Jane Greverus Perry, is The Nature of Florida, University of Georgia Press, 1998.  He is environmental co-chair of the Lakes Region Audubon Society and Sierra Club - Polk Group, both in Florida. At various times he has been Secretary, Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation; Trustee, The Research Ranch; Trustee, Florida Nature Conservancy; Deputy Chairman, Survival Service Commission, International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Executive Secretary, American Committee for International Conservation; Assistant Director for Conservation, National Zoological Park.

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