The North American prairie ecosystem is one of the rarest and most endangered environments in the world. It was once a stunning expanse of grasslands, home to roaming buffalo and elk, prairie dogs, and the elusive black-footed ferret. Before the encroachment of European settlement, 40% of the continental United States was covered by prairies. Today, only 1% of the original land still exists.
The prairie grasslands are a unique ecosystem formed around 8,000 years ago. The terrain is a mixture of glacier sediment and deposits from the Rocky Mountains and surrounding areas of silt, sand, and clay. All this earth formed in the area known as the Great Plains, is covering what was once a shallow sea. Glaciers formed small shallow areas, known as prairie potholes, where North America’s duck and fowl populations have formed around. The environment remains just dry enough to allow for frequent fires because the Rocky Mountains block the moisture flowing in from the Pacific Ocean. Fire is an integral part of the prairie ecosystem; it has stopped trees from overtaking the tall grasses by burning tree seedlings. The ashes from the fires fertilize the soil, which is extremely high in nutrient content. The plant life of the Great Plains is specific to the prairie ecosystem. Aside from the grasses, there are a variety of wildflowers, such as the daisy and echinacea, both of which were used by the Native Americans for their medicinal properties.
Although the prairie ecosystem took thousands of years to perfect, it took the American settlers less than two centuries to destroy it. At the beginning of the 1800’s, families began to move west, searching for sustainable farmland. In 1837 John Deere invented the steel plow, which allowed farmers to plant soybean and corn crops on the prairie soil. This sped up the process of converting grassland to farmland at an enormous rate. Then in 1860 the Homestead Act was passed to encourage agriculture. Any man who had never taken up arms against the US Government would be granted 160 acres of land if they filed an application and intended to improve the land. The purpose of this law was to cultivate the land resources of America, but it resulted in the loss of 400 million acres of prairie land, and would eventually contribute to the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The indigenous grasses were holding down the topsoil, and once they were removed, there was nothing stopping the earth from blowing up into huge dust storms, which devastated the agricultural economy. Another factor contributing to the demise of the American prairie was the lack of fire. Eventually eastern portions of the grasslands grew into forest areas.
As the American prairie diminished, so too did the unique animal life that came with it. Perhaps the most remarkable creature was the American buffalo, which once numbered in the tens of millions. They’re numbers were reduced to as low as twenty in the late 1800’s, partially due to the destruction of their environment, but their near extinction was also a deliberate practice. Settlers routinely killed the buffalo in huge numbers in order to starve the Native Americans. The prairie dog populations were habitually destroyed as well. They were poisoned by the settlers so they wouldn’t compete with farm animals for food. Also the black-footed ferret, which was at one point the rarest creature on earth, with a total number of 18. The ferrets died from a combination of lack of sustainable environment and the spread of the sylvatic plague – a disease transferred by small mammals.
Today the human population of the Great Plains is sparse. There are countless ghost towns, abandoned gas stations and schools. Some have even suggested reviving the prairie and buffalo populations to utilize the region. Wind power is a growing industry of the former prairie ecosystem, where wind turbines have brought jobs as well as royalty payments to the local communities. America however can never get back its beautiful oceans of honey-colored grass that greeted the very pioneers and settlers who destroyed them.
The Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program
Wiki – The Great Plains