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Saving Oklahoma’s Prairies, a Vital Weapon Against Climate Change

PAWHUSKA, Okla. — The late October morning is so bitterly cold that the vaccine a hardy Oklahoman cowboy is trying to administer to an impatient bison has frozen.

The rancher, Harvey Payne, tries to defrost the liquid against a small heater pumping out hot air in the office that faces the corral, but it’s not working.

“We’ll have to head back in for a couple of hours and wait for the sun to warm up,” Payne says as he squints at the sun rising above the tallgrass prairie. “Can’t vaccinate bison with frozen antibiotics.”

The group that’s gathered at the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve trudges back to headquarters to wait until the temperature rises.

Oklahoma’s 39,650-acre preserve is the world’s biggest protected remnant of a massive grassland ecosystem that once stretched across 14 states, covering 170 million acres. But the grassland has been decimated, and only about 4 percent of the ecosystem remains, most of which is contained in the preserve in Osage County, home to the Native American Osage Nation.

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Soil Is the Magic Word

Author: Marianne Landzettel | Published on: December 7, 2016

2016 is the hottest year the world has ever experienced. In the discussion about climate change, greenhouse gases are mentioned a lot, as is rain – too much or too little of it. Reading Judith Schwartz’ excellent new book ‘Water in Plain Sight’ has helped change my focus. Instead of simply measuring rainfall we should think about water and the cyclical movement of water, she suggests. ‘Hope for a Thirsty World’ is the book’s subtitle and Schwartz does show that there are solutions even in drought stricken areas seemingly devoid of all moisture like the Chihuahua desert that stretches from Mexico into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. To solve the problem we need to understand ‘the influence of water on climate’. Water on the ground can ‘do’ four things: it can go up through evaporation or transpiration through plants – the latter being a very good thing as it provides a cooling effect. It can go sideways which is a bad thing as this is surface runoff and usually takes topsoil and the nutrients it contains (like nitrogen fertiliser) with it – the algae bloom and dead zones in lakes and oceans attest to that. It can go down into aquifers and it can be held in the soil before moving into any other direction.

So here’s the magic word: soil. Good soil that is, soil with a crumbly structure and tilth. Such soil contains lots of organic matter, myriads of living organisms, insects, worms and fungi, in particular the mycorrhizal fungi. And it’s this structure that absorbs and holds the water. Compare it to bare, compacted, ‘degraded’ soil: rain turns it into mud, more rain washes the top soil off, leaving fissures and cracks that will speed up further soil erosion. Schwartz quotes the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification which has declared a quarter of the world’s land to be either moderately or highly degraded. The cause often is poor land-management practices as opposed to holistic land management which can transform desert like land into fertile, bio-diverse (grass)land. Judith Schwartz revisits the ecologist Allan Savory. Grassland and grazing animals co-evolved, says Savory, and if cattle is left to graze a paddock for the right amount of time it will stimulate ‘biological processes that promote soil fertility and plant growth and diversity’.

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New Report Shows Continued, Dramatic Losses of American Grasslands

Published: November 23, 2016

For years, grasslands across the country have been plowed up to make way for the production of commodity crops, such as wheat, alfalfa, corn, and soybeans. The loss of grasslands is devastating for local ecosystems, and also has long-term, negative effects for ranchers, the hunting industry, and for communities that depend on them for flood prevention and water filtration.

Last week, the World Wildlife Fund published its annual Plowprint report, which uses National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) data to track grassland conversion. The report’s primary finding is striking:

“Since 2009, 53 million acres of grassland—an area the size of Kansas—have been converted to cropland across the Great Plains alone. That represents almost 13% of the 419 million acres that remained intact in 2009…In 2015, 3.7 million [additional] acres were converted to cropland.”

The highest conversion rate over the last year was found in northern Texas, which is in the southernmost portion of the Great Plains. Grassland conversion rates were also high in parts of North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Kansas.

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