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Editorial: Grasslands are important in surprising ways

The melodic song of the meadowlark is seldom heard in North Dakota these days. The state's official bird is in decline because of habitat loss. The same fate has befallen the iconic monarch butterfly and other pollinators, important in supporting a third of our food supply, as well as many other wildlife and plant species. The Great Plains, in fact, is one of the world's most radically altered ecosystems. For more than a century, native grasslands have been plowed under and converted to cropland.

Starting around 2006, that longstanding trend got a big boost from high crop prices, which enticed farmers into moving marginal land into cultivation. But even with lower crop prices the loss of grassland habitat continues. Last year, according to figures compiled by the World Wildlife Fund, the Great Plains lost another 2.5 million grassland acres, including 266,127 acres in North Dakota, which were converted to cropland. Energy development also contributes significantly to habitat loss and fragmentation. Today in North Dakota, only a quarter of the original carpet of grassland remains.

Grasslands have a subtle beauty that prairie dwellers come to appreciate. Besides supporting wildlife species and plant biodiversity, grasslands act as natural filters for waterways. The World Wildlife Fund, in a recent report cataloging the continued loss of grasslands, compared the MIssouri River Basin and the MIssissippi River Basin to a pair of kidneys, improving water quality through a vast swath of America. Clearly, often in ways that are not obvious, we all have a stake in preserving and protecting grasslands and wetlands.

Conservation programs available to farmers and ranchers are popular among landowners, especially in North Dakota, which ranks in the top five states in enrollment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, which pays rental fees to farmers who remove ecologically sensitive land from cultivation and plant cover species, primarily grasses and trees. Under the 2014 farm bill, however, the number of acres that can be enrolled in the program was decreased. Since it was created in 1985, amid growing concerns about soil erosion, the program peaked at 37 million acres, but the number of acres now is capped at around 24 million acres.

That's a trend line moving in the wrong direction. Fortunately, there will be a fresh opportunity to improve conservation programs in the new farm bill. It will be a major challenge, given budgetary pressures, but an enlightened view of the costs of failing to support conservation programs presents a strong case. An argument can be made that idling marginal farmland helps support crop prices. If we continue to gobble up grasslands, and fail to support conservation, future generations will wonder how our values got so skewed.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.