Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version

November 1996


Published in Prairie Conservation: Preserving North America's Most Endangered Ecosystem, edited by Fred B. Samson and Fritz L. Knopf. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996. Pages 149-166. Copyright 1996 Island Press.


Few North American ecosystems have been as dramatically altered by humans as the prairies of the Great Plains. Occupying the immense interior of North America, these deceiving grassland oceans hid their complexity and diversity from many early travelers who saw this area merely as an obstacle to overcome in their westward journeys. But for the careful observer, prairies hold a tremendous quantity of life, arranged in a diverse mosaic of patches ranging in scale from minute anthills to the vastness of the Nebraska Sandhills or Kansas Flint Hills. Not only is a given ridgetop subdivided into a number of areas in varying stages of succession, but this ridge varies from the hilltop adjacent to it and from the valley separating the two. On a broader scale, prairies change substantially as one progresses west and north because of variation in soil characteristics, the rain-shadow effect of the Rocky Mountains, and increasing continentality of climate to the north.

But as fascinating and complex as these prairies are, they have a characteristic that may lead to their extinction: they perfectly meet the agricultural demands of a species that does not understand the value of conservation. Thousands of years of decomposing plant matter have created some of the richest soils on earth, and the living prairie plants fulfill the nutritional needs of livestock. Today, no piece of prairie exists that has not been impacted by humans in one way or another. The plant and animal communities that have occupied the Great Plains for thousands of years have been completely restructured by humans in the last two centuries. They have been impacted by such a variety of factors both intentional and unintentional that we will never understand them all.