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Regional Trends of Biological Resources — Grasslands

Resource and Research Needs


Solutions to the deterioration of grassland resources appear to revolve around a single emerging concept—sustainability—and conform to a proposed strategy. It is important to increase our understanding of the long-term sustainability both of populations of species and of the overall ecosystem. The strategy arises from the following conceptual principles:

The Western Governors' Association's Great Plains Program, the first broad-scale ecosystem management effort in the United States, seeks to demonstrate that economic and environmental interests are served by preventing declines in the numbers of prairie species and their host ecosystems (Clark 1996). The program is built on broad-based science (Johnson and Bouzaher 1996).

The International Institute for Sustainable Development's Sustainable Development for the Great Plains Policy Analysis (Tyrchniewicz and Wilson 1994) links, at an ecosystem level, the well-being of grassland biological resources, particularly soil and water, and society in general. Increasing evidence suggests that dry ecosystems, whether in South America (Mares 1992) or North America (Samson and Knopf 1994), are unusually diverse compared with wet or rain-forest ecosystems. In the face of global warming, the health of planet Earth may depend on grasslands because they are superior carbon sinks compared to forests with similar environmental characteristics (Seastedt and Knapp 1993).

Sustainability depends on biological diversity to keep all ecological systems, aquatic and terrestrial, functioning and healthy (Lubchenco et al. 1991). Sustainability and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin (Raven 1991). Information and appropriate actions are required to minimize any negative effects on prairie genetic stock and thus on biodiversity, because diverse natural ecosystems help maintain hydrological cycles, regulate climate, absorb and break down pollutants, and contribute to the process of soil formation (Tyrchniewicz and Wilson 1994).

Putting the maintenance of diversity as a top priority builds ecological knowledge accessible to the public and environmental decision makers (public and private) and provides opportunities to cooperate in conservation of rare species and communities (Chaplin et al. 1996). Sites for tourism and recreation are often identified in the process as well. The net payoff of understanding and displaying diversity is identification of areas of endemism as an essential aid in planning for the conservation of the nation's biodiversity. An urgent need exists to further develop and refine this process on a national and international basis (International Council for Bird Protection 1992).

The importance of disturbance in shaping grassland communities (Figs. 3 and 10) and ecosystem dynamics is recognized, yet significant questions remain to be answered on the relationship between disturbance and species persistence (Bragg and Steuter 1996; Steinauer and Collins 1996; Weaver et al. 1996). The purpose of conservation is not to conserve species per se but to conserve interactions among species and processes that maintain the health and productivity of communities and ecosystems (Odum 1992).

The Conservation Reserve Program is one of the most popular and successful conservation programs ever implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By establishing needed grassland, the Conservation Reserve Program has improved game species habitat, prevented loss of topsoil, improved water quality by reducing pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and provided billions of dollars in environmental benefits over the life of the program. The act, however, needs refocusing to be of major conservation benefit to endemic grassland species (Allen 1993).

The premise in prairie conservation is that attitudes of individual landowners and the community as a whole play decisive roles in determining the eventual fate of grasslands (Mack 1996). Programs must foster a climate favorable to grassland conservation as an integral component of agricultural land management (Dyson 1996), to the development of covenant agreements to protect remnants (World Wildlife Fund Canada 1988), to cooperative conservation programs between private and neighboring government-managed lands (Bueseler 1996), and to the importance of science-based management (Johnson and Bouzaher 1996).

Almost a half-century has passed since Weaver (1954) noted that the disappearance of a major unit of vegetation—the North American prairie—is an event worth considering. Fortunately, to a growing segment of our society, prairie "looms as large as the universe, as intimate as a village" (Least Heat Moon 1991).


Authors
Fred B. Samson
U.S. Forest Service
Northern Region
200 East Broadway
Missoula, Montana 59807
Fritz L. Knopf
U.S. Geological Survey
Biological Resources Division
Midcontinent Ecological Science Center
4512 McMurry Avenue
Fort Collins, Colorado 80525
Wayne R. Ostlie
The Nature Conservancy
Great Plains Program
1313 Fifth Street, Suite 323
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414


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