The enormous threat to America’s last grasslands

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STUTSMAN COUNTY, N.D. — Over the past few years, Neil Shook has watched his world burn acre by acre.

“I could tell something was happening,” Shook recalled, when he first noticed the plumes of smoke in 2011. By 2013, fires were raging every day, sending smoke billowing into the air — imagery that reminded Shook of Kuwait’s burning oil wells during the Persian Gulf War.

Hundreds of acres of rolling green grasslands in North Dakota were being intentionally burned, plowed and planted in a matter of days. Shook, who manages the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding conservation area, watched as landowners backed out of federally funded conservation programs, opting instead to cash in on the state’s economic boom.

“This was all grass,” Shook shouted as he wildly gestured toward a vast expanse of plowed, brown farmland near the wildlife refuge in June. “Now, what do you see?”

In the mid-2000s, a perfect storm of conditions led to a decade of grassland destruction in North Dakota’s share of the prairie pothole region, a vast expanse of grassland and wetlands that stretches from eastern Alberta to northern Iowa. Corn and soybean prices were high, climate change had extended the growing season and genetically modified crops could now survive in the northern plains. And then the oil boom hit.

Between 2005 and 2015, more than 160,000 acres of Stutsman County mixed grass prairie — an ecosystem that can support more than 100 plant species per square mile — was converted into single-crop farmland. In just six years, North Dakota lost half of its acreage that was protected under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as biodiverse grasslands fell to the plow.

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