Bison, Bison Range National Wildlife Refuge, Montana.

Bison, Bison Range National Wildlife Refuge, Montana. Photo by Bruce Schuette.

American prairie evokes our national spirit: expansive, exhilarating in its abundance, full of life and promise. Today—from the tallgrass prairie east of the Rockies, and westward through mid- and short-grass prairies that stretched to the Pacific coast—our native grassland legacy has been dramatically reduced to scattered remnants of its once vast 160-million-acre domain across North America.

However, these remnants, from pocket prairies that delight us with their beauty and diversity of plants, insects, birds, and other grassland wildlife to the larger tracts that support cattle ranching, antelope, and other large animals, remain vitally important to us:

  • Water Quality: It’s possible for as many as seven inches of rain from one storm to be absorbed by prairie with no runoff—helping to keep soil on the land and out of waterways. With its complex and deep roots, prairie is like an incredible sponge that helps control flooding.
  • Soil Health: Soil scientists have determined that prairie soil hosts the most diverse communities of microorganisms of any terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Understanding how these micro-biota interact with soil and plants can help improve how agricultural land is managed—and perhaps with fewer chemical inputs.
  • Carbon Storage: An acre of intact prairie can absorb one ton of carbon in its roots and soil per year. We obviously need to conserve and restore all self-sustaining processes that help neutralize our CO2 emissions.
  • Protection in Drought: Prairie plants are adapted to drought. Cattle producers have found that their livestock gain weight faster, and are healthier, when they eat prairie forage rather than non-native grasses—and prairie plants remain green and palatable in dry summers.
  • Pollinator Habitat: In the Midwest, no other ecosystem hosts more native pollinating insects than prairie. In Missouri, more than 250 native bee species occur on the totality of our remaining prairies, along with at least 200 total beetle, fly, butterfly and moth species that also play a role in pollination. Because one-third of all our food crops are pollinated by insects, protecting native pollinator habitat is crucial to food security.
  • Beauty and Spirit: Prairie is at once open “Big Sky Country,” and also replete with infinite detail—hundreds of plant species, jewel-like spider webs, complex calls of insects and birds. This aesthetic contrast is rejuvenating to the soul and exhilarating to the senses.