The purpose of this project is to learn about the wild grasslands of the world, their wildlife and threats to them. One particular region will be selected and its original extent, wildlife, and present status will be described. The ways in which this grassland is being conserved or destroyed will be a major focus.
Just a century ago, grasslands covered much of central North America, from southern Canada through Texas to northern Mexico, and from west of the Rockies east to Midwestern and northeastern states. Tall-grass prairie, with grasses up to 12 feet in height, grew from Ohio west to the Mississippi River area. This savannah grassland had groves of oak and other trees. It had extremely rich soil and was plowed by American settlers into farmland. Today, less than 1 percent of the original extent remains, making it an extremely endangered natural ecosystem. West of the tall-grass prairies, a mixture of tallgrass and short-grass prairies existed, and further west, short-grass dominated. The short-grass and mixed prairies have also been plowed for crops, but some sizeable areas remain, primarily kept as pasture for cows. These grasslands have been greatly altered, leaving few examples of the original ecosystems. Vast herds of American Bison once grazed throughout these grasslands, with prairie dog towns covering millions of acres in the short-grass prairies.
The savannahs of East Africa, grazed by a great diversity of hoofed animals, represent a classic example of grasslands that are still in natural, intact condition. Although under stress from growing human populations, large reserves and national parks protect much of this region. By contrast, the dryer grasslands of southern Africa have been severely damaged by the introduction of large numbers of domestic cattle and the fencing off of wildlife from waterholes and prime grasslands to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease to cattle. This has resulted in a large decline in overall numbers of both herbivores and carnivores. This is a repetition of the overuse of the Sahara and Sahel regions to the north, centuries before, by great herds of domestic camels and sheep, turning grasslands into sandy desert. Ethiopia, Somalia and countries to the north and east of the Serengeti in East Africa's horn were once covered in lush grasslands. Wildlife species found only in this region became threatened when Europeans introduced livestock, which infected wild ungulates with rinderpest and other diseases, causing massive mortalities.
In vast steppes that once stretched from the Black Sea to western China, livestock now far outnumber native ungulates, such as the Saiga antelope, a species that once thundered in herds of millions. Overgrazing and plowing of this dry land for crops has further degraded it, causing massive dust storms, similar to those that resulted from plowing the American prairie in the 20th century. South America has extensive grasslands in Venezuela and south-central Brazil, many of which become wetlands during rainy seasons. In Argentina and Chile's Patagonian grasslands, rheas, deer, Guanacos and other wildlife once abounded. After centuries of overgrazing by sheep and cattle, this wildlife has declined greatly, and the grasslands are turning to desert. Australia's grasslands have also been converted to use by livestock, displacing the varied marsupials and rodents that once thrived here.
Preservation of grasslands and their wildlife is now taking place in many parts of the world, including the United States, southern Africa and Australia. Reserves of remnant grasslands, with their great diversity of wildflowers, grasses and other plants, are being set aside and native wildlife reintroduced. This trend may spread to parts of Asia as well, but the pressures of human populations requiring farmland and grazing for livestock may prevent restoration in most areas.
o Read "Epitaph for America's Lost Species and Environments" in Chapter 1 to learn about the travels of Lewis and Clark through these prairies early in the 19th century, followed by the extermination of the great herds of bison, deer and Pronghorn. Read the Grasslands, Shrublands and Deserts chapter with references cited for more information on North American and other grasslands around the world and their endangered species. Write a short paper describing the changes in grasslands in North America since colonial times and the effects on wildlife.
o Select a grassland from the following list to study its wildlife and present status:
- North America's Tallgrass Prairie
- North America's Short-grass Prairie
- Central Asia's Steppes
- Australia's Grasslands and Drylands
- Saharan and Sahel Drylands
- East Africa's Serengeti
- Southern Africa's Grasslands
- Horn of Africa's Grasslands
- South America's Pampas
- South America's Patagonia
* What species of wildlife, plants or trees have become endangered as a result of the destruction of this region's grasslands or affected by related activities, such as grazing and meat hunting, by herdspeople? Which species are unique to that grassland region? Describe them.
* Select an animal or plant species native to this region that is threatened with extinction, and write a short report about it, using the criteria in the project, "Profile of an Endangered Species." It can be a type of wildflower, tortoise, butterfly, bird or mammal, for example. Write about the species in the context of its grassland habitat, whether its habitat is being protected, and other threats to it that may include pollution, trade or competition with exotic species. As source material, consult this book, Threatened Birds of the World, Walker's Mammals of the World, and other references cited here or in the Books and Publications section of this book.
* By consulting books such as those listed below, describe the threats to the particular grassland or dryland you have selected, and discuss what is being done to protect the natural habitat and its wildlife?
o Use this project as a model to study the status of shrublands and deserts, as described in the Grasslands, Shrublands and Desert chapter of this book, with the emphasis on desertification of drylands into desert through grazing, firewood gathering and other activities. See the reference list of the latter chapter for further reading.
o If you live within the range of these habitats, participate in a project to restore native plants to a grassland. Grassland birds have undergone drastic declines in the past decade, mainly through loss of habitat. Identify the grassland birds in your area and help in a project to obtain habitat for them, improve existing habitat or grow seeds of native plants for planting. Several source books supply information on mail-order nurseries that sell native plants and seeds. Noah's Garden has chapters entitled, "In Respect of Grass" and "To Plant A Prairie," which give very specific information about these habitats. The National Wildflower Research Center (2600 FM 973 North, Austin, TX 78725) supplies native plant bibliographies for each region and lists native plant associations. A book written by Lady Bird Johnson, who founded this center, and Carlton B. Lees, Wildflowers Across America, is a dazzling showcase of native wildflowers as well as an excellent source of information on these ecosystems. If you live near a shrubland or desert, plant native flowers and plants in your garden instead of grass to restore the ecosystem and conserve water. See the list of books below for instructions on planting desert and dryland gardens.
o If you live in an area where grasslands are mowed for hay, begin a public relations campaign to convince farmers to wait until after bird nesting season is over to mow. This would be in late July or August for most species of grassland birds. Consult reference books to determine the nesting times of grassland birds in your area. Such measures would be of great help to certain birds that have lost most of their natural grassland habitat. Make up posters that illustrate one or more of the following birds, and text describing their decline and need for undisturbed nesting habitat. In the East, the Bobolink, Grasshopper and Henslow's Sparrows and Bluebird, among others, will benefit. In the West, various species of Lesser and Greater Prairie Chicken, Sage Grouse and other bird species mentioned in the Grasslands, Shrublands and Deserts chapter are among these. Ask farmers and landowners to help preserve these birds and other wildlife by mowing practices. Have signs made that landowners could post on their property saying, for example, "Grassland Birds Protected Here." Publicize the campaign through letters to the local newspapers and speeches at local organizational meetings.
o Construct nesting boxes for Bluebirds and Purple Martins to be donated to landowners in grassland with scattered trees or bordered by woods. Instructions on how to make and maintain Bluebird houses can be obtained from the North America Bluebird Society, P.O. Box 6295, Silver Spring, MD 20906. The Complete Birdhouse Book, by Don and Lillian Stokes, also gives instructions on building and upkeep for both the Bluebird and Purple Martin houses. Films made by Don and Lillian Stokes include advice on planting for birds by species, such as hummingbirds and grassland birds; advice on how to construct, place and maintain bird nesting boxes is also given (CPTV Offer, P.O. Box 82, Hopkinton, MA 01748). The placement and maintenance of bird nest boxes should be long-term so that they may provide permanent nesting homes. It is important to keep records on the occupancy and breeding success of each box.
o Help native butterflies by planting wildflowers of species that are needed for their life cycle. The Monarch Butterfly, for example, requires Milkweed plants for feeding and laying its eggs. Learn about the species of butterflies and other pollinating insects in grasslands in your area, especially those in decline. For species listed on the US Endangered Species Act, all conservation projects should be coordinated with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and your state Natural Heritage Program (affiliated with the Department of Game or Wildlife in each state). Roadsides next to highways or in median strips and along country roads or railroads provide important habitat for butterflies, especially in areas where grasslands are disappearing. Contact your state and local transportation departments to obtain permission to plant wildflowers in these areas. The North American Butterfly Association (909 Birch St., Baraboo, WI 53913) provides information about helping butterfly habitat and butterfly watching, a new and fascinating activity for which there are guide books. A World for Butterflies. Their Lives, Behavior and Future, by Phil Schappert, is a primary source of information about butterfly life histories, habitats, conservation and threats. It also contains beautiful photography of hundreds of butterfly species worldwide. More information can be obtained from Dr. Schappert via the Internet: www.aworldforbutterflies.com. Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden, published by the Sierra Club, was compiled by the Xerces Society, a conservation organization for native American butterflies, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution. Be careful not to use commercial wildflower seed mixes that include species not native to your area or even to the United States. Certain exotic wildflowers, such as Purple Loosestrife, a European plant, are spreading in the United States, drying up marshes and crowding out native wildflowers.
Books and Publications