Sunday, June 22, 2014

Musings on Grass and Economics

Dave and I attended the wonderful Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington, North Dakota, June 11-15, and then headed south and farther west to Pierre, South Dakota, and the Missouri River to do more birding on our own. I'll post separately about some of the great birds and other sights we saw. But first, I feel impelled to write about grass. Grass -- and economics.

Prairie and pothole country, central North Dakota

I've written before about our vanishing grasslands (for example, the fact that only two percent of the original, pre-European-settlement tall-grass prairie in Minnesota remains, in fragmented and isolated pockets) and the profound effect the loss of that habitat is having on grassland birds like bobolinks, meadowlarks, and many others. With that consciousness firmly in mind, this trip was both elating and sobering.

Site where we saw a Sprague's Pipit "skylarking"

It was exhilarating and reassuring to see that miles upon miles of empty, rolling grasslands do still exist in some places -- to look around and breathe the clean air and see almost nothing but prairie and sky in every direction.

A never-cultivated prairie area on "school land" in North Dakota

So it was elating, but it was also sobering. That's because although much remains in some areas, grasslands are being converted to croplands at a pace not seen for decades. Record prices of corn and other commodities are leading many landowners to take land out of grazing or out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Almost everywhere we went, we could see what we were told by our guides were newly cultivated and planted fields.

Abandoned houses are a common site in the Northern Plains

Once sprayed and cultivated, even if the land is eventually turned back to a more natural state, and despite any restoration efforts (helpful though they can be), it will never have the rich mix of native plants that once existed. A prairie plowed is a prairie lost. If one believes that the current demand for corn-based ethanol will be a short-lived phenemenon, as many do, it's particularly painful to think of these lands being converted for short-term gain, and their original inherent habitat and grazing value not regained in probably many lifetimes.

American White Pelicans in flight in prairie-pothole region, North Dakota

Grazing is another traditional economic use for grasslands, of course. We heard from our birding guides and workshop instructors -- including prairie expert Stephen R. Jones -- that grazing (ideally by migrating bison, but also acceptably by well-managed cattle herds)  is essential for the maintenance of healthy grasslands, as is fire. Without these controls, invasive species move in and you get an inevitable progression of the grassland ecosystem toward more shrubs and trees. 

Grass and sky, North Dakota

Grass-fed beef and bison are increasingly popular food choices these days, which is an encouraging development for the future of grasslands. However, we also heard from knowledgeable people that in the modern era it's just plain easier to be a crop farmer than a rancher. When you ranch, you are responsible for the well-being of the animals year-round, while crop farmers can go to Florida in the wintertime if they like. And in the Dakotas, some winter respite is quite naturally welcomed by many.

Bison above the Missouri River near Pierre, S.D.

So it's evident that economic benefit is a hugely important consideration in how land is used or set aside. We can't just wring our hands and wish people would nobly leave the grasslands unplowed. People who live in this important ecosystem still need to support their families and aspire to a decent quality of life. Economic incentives -- whether in the form of new or different subsidies, and/or the creation of new land conservancies, and/or the sale of conservation easements, and/or rising demand for grass-fed beef and bison, or other incentives -- will be an essential consideration in saving these lands, if they're to be saved. It's an issue I'll continue to follow closely. And I hope to return many times to this beautiful region.

High country near Pierre, S.D.

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