Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: NORTH AMERICA: Page 2

     Conservation practices improved after government programs were launched to control erosion, and agricultural subsidies have been paid to farmers ever since.  Unfortunately, the ecological effects of these subsidies have been extremely destructive to topsoil and wildlife conservation on the 294 million acres farmed in the country.  After extensive debate in Congress, a 1996 law, the Freedom to Farm Act, authorized the phasing out of subsidies, with the eventual goal of ending them altogether. 
 
      Erosion damage is even visible from space through satellite photography (Manning 1995).  Statistics in 1997 showed that conservation tillage is being practiced on 37 percent of America's farmland, while conventional deep plowing is still carried out on 107 million acres, and reduced- or no-till farming was employed on 77 million acres (AP 1998).  Erosion of topsoil continues at a rate estimated to be 17 times faster than new soil is formed (TPP 2000).  Farming tends to eliminate wildlife, which can be mitigated by the planting of hedgerows, woodland and other natural habitat areas.
    
     Water supplies for prairie farmers have also been overtaxed.  Many natural waterways have been diverted for irrigation, drying up wetlands. Beneath the Great Plains lie underground aquifers, fed for thousands of years by water seepage.  In the 20th century, farmers and ranchers in the dryer parts of the prairie region have been over-drawing water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a subterranean lake which is due to run dry in 60 years (Stolzenburg 1996).
 
     Of the original grasslands, more than 90 percent of prairies are now gone, plowed into agricultural fields or mowed for cattle pasture.  Nearly all the free-flowing rivers and streams that water prairies and drylands have been altered forever.  Government programs have straightened and drained countless natural streams and wetlands through channelization, which removes streamside vegetation, straightens the bends in these waterways and excavates straight ditches in their place.  Hundreds of miles of western rivers have been covered in stones to prevent flooding of homes on the river, but these stones destroyriparian and river ecosystems.


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