Conservation and Restoration

Because grasslands have tremendous economic value as grazing lands and also serve as critical habitat for many plant and animal species, efforts to conserve the remaining grasslands and restore grasslands on agricultural land are underway in many states and around the world. The most obvious conservation practice is the protection and management of existing grasslands. This includes both private and public lands. Probably the largest private holder of grasslands in the world is The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is a global organization that works in all 50 states in the United States of America, and in 27 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, and countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, the Caribbean, and the Latin America.

However, as mentioned numerous times, the factors that led to the establishment of grasslands and, in particular, the organic-rich soils derived from the dominant biota have facilitated the agricultural exploitation of grasslands. Consequently, many grasslands that were historically persistent have been converted to cropland. Thus, restoration of grasslands is also a very important conservation practice. Grassland restoration is the process of recreating grassland (including plant and animal communities, and ecosystem processes) where one existed but now is gone. Grassland restoration can include planting a new grassland where one had been broken and farmed, or it can include improving a degraded grassland (e.g., one that was never plowed but lost many plant and animal species due to prior land management practices). Restoration practices of existing grasslands may include reintroducing fires into grasslands following extended periods of fire suppression. On areas that have been moderately to heavily grazed (but not completely overgrazed), reducing the intensity of grazing may be required. In addition, mowing is also a cost-effective method of restoring grasslands. Mowing can be effective on sites that have been invaded by brush and forest, but the grasses are still present.

In areas where the grasses are completely absent (agriculture fields) or in a very degraded state, reseeding of grasses is usually necessary. There are proven techniques, complete with specialized equipment (seed drills) for restoration of grasslands, and, for the most part, it is fairly easy to get the dominant grasses established in an area. Indeed, some of the earliest examples of restoration ecology come from efforts to restore native tallgrass prairie in North America. As a result, the market for restoration of grasslands (at least in North America) has developed to the point that obtaining enough grass seed (sometimes even local native seed) is not a problem. A bigger challenge, however, in restored grasslands is increasing establishment of the nongrass species which are so critical for biodiversity. Seeds may be more difficult to obtain (especially for rarer plants), and then getting the forbs to survive and reproduce in many grassland restoration projects has been challenging. Further research is needed regarding what management techniques are important to their establishment and growth in these restored areas.

In addition to the prairie flora that is at risk, grassland animals (particularly birds and butterflies) suffer when grassland quality declines. In North America, grassland birds were historically found in vast numbers across the prairies of the western Great Plains. Today, the birds of these and other grasslands around the world have shown steeper, more consistent, and more geographically widespread declines than any other group. These losses are a direct result of the declining quantity and quality of habitat due to human activities like conversion of native prairie to agriculture, urban development, and suppression of naturally occurring fire.

See also: Agriculture Systems; Fire; Savanna; Tropical Seasonal Forest.

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