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A corn field in Nebraska. (Photo: Richard Hurd/flickr/cc)

A corn field in Nebraska. (Photo: Richard Hurd/flickr/cc)

Goodbye Grasslands. Goodbye Birds. Goodbye Carbon Sink.

"America's Great Plains are being plowed under at an alarming rate"

Andrea Germanos

Much attention has been given to the deforestation in the Amazon and the environmental impacts that go with it.

But in 2014, the American Great Plains—an area stretching from Texas into Canada—actually lost more acreage of grasslands than Brazil lost to deforestation, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says. In fact, said Martha Kauffman, WWF's managing director of the Northern Great Plains program, "America's Great Plains are being plowed under at an alarming rate."

Putting a spotlight on the regional trend, a new report from the organization finds that since 2009, an area the size of Kansas—53 million acres—has been converted from grasslands to annual crop planting like corn and soy. In 2015, 3.7 million acres were lost. Between 2009 and 2015, the first annual Plowprint Report finds, the average rate of grassland loss was 2 percent.

And with this loss come threats to the biodiversity the grasslands hold and attacks on their functions as much-needed carbon sinks and water filters.

Birds, being "highly sensitive to landscape changes," serve as bellwethers for ecosystem health, so the loss of grassland birds, which all nest on the ground, bodes ill.

According to the report, "Grassland birds, as a group, have experienced the steepest decline of all North American birds." Four key grassland bird species, including McCown's Longspur, the publication says, have declined as much as 80 percent since the 1960s, with grasslands loss playing "a major role."

Other pollinators like the monarch butterfly and bees are threatening by the habitat loss. "Without healthy habitat that includes a mix of native plant species, many more of these irreplaceable native pollinators may soon lose ground," it states. And because "trillions of waters are filtered" through the intact grasslands, their loss jeopardizes the drinking water for millions of people.

And, according to the report, the "plow-up" ushered the release of 3.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were released into the atmosphere. That's the equivalent of about 670 million extra cars on the road.

"Today we're growing crops on the richest agricultural lands and have been for decades," Kauffman added. "A high percentage of what we’re plowing up now are poor soils in landscapes that regularly experience drought. So we're losing these valuable grasslands and the unique ecological services they provide, while getting little in return."

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