The Prairie of North America

Today, when we think of the different biomes facing extinction, it probably goes along the lines of Rainforest, Coral Reefs, Temperate Forests. However, the most endangered ecosystem in the entire world is the tallgrass prairie, native to North America.

Historically, the prairies of North America covered land all the way from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico. These prairies were home to diverse and unique wildlife and encompassed the majority of the historic ranges of many animals today. The most recognizable animal of the prairie would have to go to the Bison. Bison numbered between 50,000,000 and 60,000,000 in the 1800s. These animals migrated throughout the prairies, grazing on the land and providing a food source for the many predators whose ranges extended in this area, such as the Gray Wolf, the Grizzly Bear, and Mountain Lions.

The prairies had significant importance in the North American ecosystem. The grasses of the prairie had roots that could go 12 feet deep, helping store carbon and keep topsoil rooted which prevented desertification and erosion. Many unique animal species call the prairies home, such as the prairie chicken, prairie falcon, and prairie dog.

So, what happened to the prairies. Well, even today if you drive out into anywhere once covered by prairies, you will see what happened. Human development. As you may recall from history class, the governments of Canada and the U.S. introduced policies that benefited settlers who would farm on the prairie. Massive ranches were established, causing habitat loss and overgrazing. For the predators of the prairie such as the gray wolf, grizzly bear, and cougar, massive hunting campaigns took place in which thousands of the animals were killed and driven away from the prairies. These animals were seen as a menace to livestock and farmers. The indigenous nations of the prairies such as the Blackfoot and Lakota were forced onto reservations, meaning that their constant stewardship and respect for the land no longer existed. Millions of bison were killed and were driven to near extinction over the hunt for their fur, meat, and hides. The land of the prairie that had once been teeming with wild grasses was now destroyed, taking its place were cereal crops such as corn, barley, oats, and of course, wheat. Because of this process, less than 10% of the original prairie remains in North America. This has left the prairie as one of the most altered ecosystems in the world.

What can we do to help bring back the prairie. All ecosystems are important and each one adds a different component to the earth and all of its natural features and functions. Every ecosystem deserves to be protected an equal amount, and the endemic species there should all be recognized and given protection. Protecting the prairie doesn’t mean that we stop protecting other lands on earth, like the rainforests, coral reefs, and deserts. There are some strategies that scientists have implemented to bring back the priarie. If we could bring the prairie to around 25% of it’s historic range over the next 10–15 years, that would be tremendously helpful in our fight against biodiversity loss and climate change. Prairies are a carbon sink and prevent desertification, as previously mentioned. To do this, sites must first be evaluated. These sites are most likely farms and ranches. The soil quality must be good and the range must be hundreds of thousands of acres. There must be alot of adjacent land and protected range in order to prevent the problem of habitat fragmentation. This problem occurs when human development prevents migrations and takes away habitats of the original species, and although a lot of land may be protected, the species suffer as they cannot move freely between different areas of the protected land. Native prairie grasses must be planted, as agricultural or foreign plants may outcompete the prairies. The trees in the area should also be removed, as trees may outcompete the native grasses as well, and trees are not supposed to be growing in grasslands. Once the grasses have been restored, it’s time to reintroduce the native caretakers of the prairie, the bison. Bison are a keystone species for the prairie. They help keep grasses in check by eating them wherever they go. Their manure helps fertilize the grasses and allow for growth of new grasses. And they do not overgraze as they are constantly migrating and moving between new areas, meaning that grasses can replenish. Bison herds could be introduced with maybe 100, and in 5–10 years could number in the thousands. They would nurture the prairies and continue it’s growth. The second caretaker of the prairies would be fire. Now, burning prairies may seem bad, but burning prairies and burning old-growth rainforests in the Amazon or on Sumatra are very different things. When grasslands are burned, it clears the area of vegetation and allows new, healthier grass to grow. Prairie fires are a regular occurence, and they often aid the prairies in their continued growth and maintenance. Now, you may be asking, what should we do with all the human lands. I’m not advocating for the complete removal and destruction of all ranches and farms. They are an imporant part of many states’ and provinces’ economies. However, ranches and farms can conduct themselves in a more sustainable manner, and allow for migration of animals such as the Bison. Farmers and ranchers could also resist killing predators like the Gray wolf that migrate alongside the bison and other prairie animals, like the Pronghorn Antelope. Ranchers could also utilize their cattle in a way similar to bison. If cattle are allowed to do more free grazing on natural prairie habitats and a sustainable number is kept, they can function similar to bison. Ranch economics are to have as many cattle on a ranch as possible, leading to overgrazing and soil erosion. If a more sustainable number is kept, and they allow for native grasses and animals to coexist, ranches and farms should still be in fine condition. Now that the prairie has been somewhat restored, predators and other prey will be required to keep the ecosystem in check. Animals such as the gray wolf, grizzly bear, mountain lion, coyote, prairie falcon, black footed ferret, badgers, swift fox, prairie rattlesnake, and many others could serve as predators for the abundance of prey. This prey would include the bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, prairie chicken, prairie dog, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, meadow vole, prairie vole, grouse and many other prey animals. This restoration of the prairies would help protect and bring back a lost ecosystem, that once dominated much of the North American wilderness.

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Hi! I'm Angad, a Grade 9 student from the University of Toronto Schools who loves learning anything and everything!