Saving America’s Broken Prairie

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Author:   | Published: April 26, 2017 

Out near wear the continent divides, up on a ridge carved by ice over millennia, among blazing star, blue aster, purple prairie clover, harebell, and smooth brome — grasses all yet untouched by the plow — Neil Shook balls up some purple pasqueflower, shoves it into his nostril, and snorts.

He loves to do this.

“Mash it up really good,” Shook says as he hands me a piece of flower. “Really good.” And I, too, shove pasqueflower up my nose and snort.

“Did you get it?” Shook asks. I do. It’s a burn that is supposed to be just the thing for clearing a stuffy sinus, and while I’m not yet a convert, I get Shook’s larger point, too: This plain land is home to strange and wild life.

Shook is the manager at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,385-acre expanse of federally protected grasslands and wetlands in east-central North Dakota. Each year, tens of thousands of pelicans, cormorants, gulls, herons, and others come here to nest, and I’ve come to learn more about a place Shook calls “heaven.”

On this stretch of grass, he bounces from plant species to grass species with a boyish exuberance that defies his years of work toward conserving America’s grassy core — a battle that has been, by almost every measure, a losing one.

This is as good an entry point as any into the complex, highly altered and highly threatened ecosystem that stretches some 1.4 million square miles down central Canada and through the U.S. heartland down to Mexico. Shove pasqueflower up your nose. Touch the grass as it waves in the wind. Hear the insects’ blanket drone. There is no etymological connection between “prairie” and “prayer,” but at times it seems there ought to be.

“Every plant out here has a purpose, and every animal or insect that’s found here has purpose,” Shook says. “There’s a relationship between those plants and animals, and we don’t understand what that relationship is — or we may not understand the importance of it — but it’s there for a reason. And when it’s gone, who knows what we lost?”

I went to North Dakota to see what I thought was the region’s defining story: The shale oil boom and bust that has reshaped the heartland’s economy and upended energy geopolitics just about everywhere. But it turns out that oil is just one part of a great transformation now underway in North America’s Great Plains and Central Lowlands, the likes of which has not been seen since the Dust Bowl. A biome that can be, in some spots, every bit as diverse and complex as a rainforest sits in the country’s backyard, and it’s coming undone.

This is flyover country. It’s easy to view North Dakota’s unending flatness as boring, empty, untamed. There’s a long tradition of seeing the prairie — this vast stretch of fertile, grass-dominated land — as negative space with no purpose other than to be transformed into something with purpose.

The famed naturalist Aldo Leopold saw it differently. “Prairie was, in fact, a community of wild animals and plants so organized,” he wrote, “as to build, through the centuries, the rich soil which now feeds us.”

In other words, all that pasqueflower, ragwort, indigo, and milkweed — all those bison, prairie dogs, pronghorns, daphnia, water boatmen, and eared grebes — have lived and died across the millennia, cycling nutrients from sun to leaves to soil to flesh and back into soil again. The soil that remains is packed with deep energy we turn into food for ourselves and the animals that feed us. Increasingly, this old, flat land provides fossil fuels, wind, and corn that we turn into modern energy and use in our homes and cars.

The prairie’s commodification has served as a tremendous boon to civilization, but not without costs. The grasslands of central North America have declined by approximately 79 percent in area since Europeans began arriving in large numbers in the early 1800s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In some places — particularly in the wetter, and more fertile, eastern tallgrass prairies — grassland cover has declined 99.9 percent since 1830.

It turns out that oil is just one part of a great transformation now underway in North America’s Great Plains and Central Lowlands.

“Every plant out here has a purpose, and every animal or insect that’s found here has purpose,” Shook says.

New pressures threaten to wipe out what’s left. Budgets for federal conservation programs are being cut. President Trump’s budget proposal would reduce Interior Department spending by 12 percent. Biofuel mandates, farm subsidies, and crop insurance give farmers incentive to put more land into production. Genetically modified seeds give them the technology to grow crops where they previously could not. An emergent middle class in China and across the developing world increases demand for the kinds of row crops that can feed nations. Oil production has creeped in from the west, spurred on by the fracking revolution, though low oil prices have tempered its advance. Wind power takes up space, too.

Throw climate change into the mix and it’s no wonder scientists call the American prairie one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.

“I’m always amazed that I can get on an airplane, pick up the [in-flight] magazine and have someone tell me about the crisis in the rainforest,” says John Devney, vice president for U.S. policy at Delta Waterfowl, a habitat conservation group focused on hunting. “Nobody tells this story,” he adds, gesturing to the grasslands behind him at a ranch outside Wing, North Dakota. “This is way more proximate to a hell of a lot of more people in the United States of America. What happens here in land use has implications — not just if you’re a duck hunter and you want to shoot a gadwall in Louisiana that’s produced in Sheridan County, North Dakota. It has implications [for] what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico. It has consequences [for] what’s happening in Sioux Falls — with water quality, carbon sequestration values, [and] incredible biodiversity richness.”

The tension here is between maintaining the capacity to feed billions of people and maintaining the land that makes it possible. Soil is considered a finite resource, and can be revived only if given the time and space. Conservation science and holistic land management practices can help, but they compete with economics and policies that encourage liberal use of the plow.

When Neil Shook arrived at Chase Lake in 2010, he started seeing plumes of smoke on the horizon. Commodity prices were rising rapidly, and landowners rushed to convert as many acres as possible into agriculturally productive land. First they burned the grass, then they plowed the land and planted it with corn, soybean, or other crops. By 2013, it looked like “the apocalypse,” he recalls. “It was just like somebody dropped a nuke,” Shook says. “Just ‘boom.’”

It’s called “breaking” prairie when farmers turn grassland into cropland. And once broken, the prairie is hard to fix.

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