The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The enormous threat to America’s last grasslands

North Dakota grasslands. (Ryan Schuessler.)
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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.

Regionwide, between 2006 and 2011, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa combined lost more than 2,000 square miles of grass-dominated land — a habitat loss rate equal to that of high-profile deforestation rates in Brazil and Malaysia, according to a 2013 study from South Dakota State University.

Now, amid market lulls, North Dakota’s researchers are tallying the ecological cost of the state’s recent economic boom and warn that the ecosystem could be nearing a tipping point as corn and soybeans continue their march north into the last vast stretches of prairie pothole grassland in the eastern Dakotas — more than 90 percent of which is privately owned.

Federal conservation policies have softened the blow, but are only as effective as they are funded.

The prairie pothole region supports more than half of the United States’ migratory ducks, as well as more than 100 other species of birds. The ecosystem is also home to dozens of species of plants — including rare orchids — as well as various insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. The wetlands are teeming with small fish and invertebrates.

North Dakota has seen significant losses of its CRP acres — a program where the federal government leases tracts of privately owned farmland to be repurposed into conservation acres, thus trying to create incentives for preserving ecosystems. Not only does single-crop agriculture bring in more money than CRP during market booms, but the last Farm Bill also capped the number of CRP acres at 24 million acres nationwide.

“Losing CRP or lowering the cap will reduce the amount of habitat for grassland birds or other species,” said Larry Igl, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, N.D. “It’s the equivalent to removing grass from the landscape.”

“Grassland birds are one of the fastest declining [groups] of birds,” he added. “In some cases, when CRP was added to the landscape, for some of these species there was a reversal of the decline. Now, we’re seeing a reduction of CRP on the landscape, and that’s going to result in the decline of some grassland birds. We don’t have much grassland left in this area. Eventually you’re going to reach a point where [the grassland birds] disappear from the state completely.”

The McCown’s longspur, a bird once found throughout most of North Dakota, is now known only on a single 640-acre piece of land in the state’s southwest. The western meadowlark, North Dakota’s state bird, has also declined. Statistical models run by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center have found that a loss of CRP land in the prairie pothole region also causes a significant reduction in amphibian habitat.

When biodiverse grasslands are converted to one-crop farmland, pollinators also suffer. North Dakota is home to 600,000 of the country’s approximately 2 million registered beehives. Many North Dakota hives are taken to farms in places like California so crops can be pollinated.

“As the landscape has begun to change, beekeepers have noticed a greater rate of mortality,” said Zac Browning, an apiarist near Jamestown.

Pollinators provide an estimated $15 billion in ecosystem services — such as pollinating food crops — annually, said Clint Otto, an ecologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. Of that amount, $12 billion alone can be attributed to honeybees.

“Or, one in three bites of food,” Otto said.

The prairie pothole region also serves as a significant carbon storage mechanism. Statistical models run by the U.S. Geological Survey show that a hypothetical loss of 100 percent of the region’s CRP acres could result in a release of more than 12 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

It’s not just grasslands that have been uprooted — the region’s glacially formed wetlands are being drained to make room for corn and soybeans. The Fish and Wildlife Service also has money to purchase acres for conservation from landowners, called easements, where the service pays landowners to not plow, drain, burn, or fill certain tracts of prairie or wetland, indefinitely.

But North Dakota’s oil boom has also eaten up a sizable chunk of this protected land. In the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lostwood Wetland Management District — made up of the state’s five northwestern counties that are also in the heart of the Bakken oil boom region — oil rigs are being built on wetland easements.

Even though the federal government paid landowners for the easements, mineral rights — what’s below the soil — have legal precedent over surface areas. Nearly 7,000 oil wells have been drilled in the district since 2005 — 900 of them on easements, the vast majority of which were protecting wetlands.

“Things just happened so fast,” said Kory Richardson, the refuge manager.

This report was supported by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.