From the sagebrush steppes to the Sandhills, hunters across America will benefit from this proven conservation model to restore critical grasslands habitat.
One of the first things people might notice when visiting one of the southeastern Piedmont’s remaining intact grasslands ecosystems is the smell, particularly in late spring: sweet smells of grass carried on the breeze, with woody notes released underfoot as you disturb the soil and older growth. The blend of native milkweed, grasses, aster, primrose, and other wildflowers found in these grasslands creates both a visual and olfactory bouquet that not only provides a show for our senses, but a dynamic home for wildlife both resident and migratory. In turn, we Southerners are drawn to the meadows, grasslands, and prairies which provide unique landscapes to hike, hunt, birdwatch, and otherwise commune with nature. My father regaled me with stories of abundant coveys of quail in North Carolina’s own Piedmont and how he and his friends would get the jump on them for a fun day of hunting and a good meal. He also noted the steady decrease in numbers, then eventual disappearance of these areas as they lost habitat due to development.
As is the case with grasslands across the United States, the continued encroachment of human development and the instability brought by climate change threatens the few remaining remnant grasslands in the southeast, irreversibly imperiling native flora and fauna. The loss of roughly 90-percent of our remnant grasslands has led to a sharp decline in species such as quail which, according to the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, will see their population cut in half by 2030. Quail, along with other grassland species, will then begin to experience extinction by 2050. This degradation threatens the stability of the very things we disrupted these habitats for, leading to more dramatic impacts of climate change on our communities and decreasing the productivity of agriculture from home gardens to large farms.
The decline of grasslands nationwide follows a similar trend, with millions of acres of grasslands irretrievably lost and with it the habitat of unique plants and wildlife, including sage grouse and prairie grouse. Conservation organizations such as the North American Grouse Partnership (NAGP) are doing valiant work to conserve both these species and the habitats they rely on. The solution to this problem will require not just advocacy by NAGP and my own organization, the National Wildlife Federation: the key to success lies in partnerships with private landowners, local communities, Tribal leadership and coalitions, and state natural resources divisions. In turn, this will require federal funding and support, which is finally moving forward after legislation was introduced to support and guide these critical conservation partnerships.
Last summer, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Michael Bennet of Colorado introduced the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, which will provide resources to farmers, ranchers, and Tribes to voluntarily take steps to prevent the loss of grasslands and, when possible, restore them. Now, in the 118th Congress, lawmakers are considering additional updates to this bill and a bipartisan introduction in both the House and Senate is on the horizon.
This bill will create a voluntary, incentive-based grant program that focuses on partnering with private landowners – the stewards of their lands and waters – to conserve and restore grasslands across the country. The availability of grants is designed to be flexible, as the needs of one landowner to conserve grasslands will vary greatly across the nation: restoration of degraded grasslands, mitigating the threats of wildfire and drought, restoring watersheds, and improving the health of rangelands are among the many eligible activities for such grants.
One of the most unique aspects of this legislation isn’t that unique at all – modeled after the highly successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), the Grasslands act will have both national and regional councils to oversee and approve restoration projects. NAWCA helped reverse decades of decline in wetlands habitat and, in turn, the wildlife that depends on them. Since its enactment, almost 3,000 NAWCA projects have been completed leading to an estimated 2.98 million acres of habitat conserved across North America. Central to its success was the creation of a network of councils to help manage progress and distribute grants. Much like NAWCA, the legislation will create Grassland Conservation Councils to empower the people and communities on the ground to make decisions about the restoration needs for a given landscape. This means that these councils will have representatives from the farming, ranching, and grazing communities as well as representatives from state, Tribal, and federal agencies. By centering the people who live, work, and recreate on North America’s grasslands, we ensure that solutions to slow and reverse their decline will be effective and durable.
The passage of this act will improve not just habitat for wildlife but will slow, and ultimately help reverse, the decline of our nation’s grasslands. The many organizations and individuals working to provide more tools to restore our grasslands are each driven by our own visions and memories of these unique landscapes. For me, I hope to explore vibrant, restored southeastern grasslands with friends and family – perhaps chasing restored and abundant coveys of quail.
To join us in this work, please visit www.actforgrasslands.org
This article was originally published by the North American Grouse Partnership; read more about this partner organization’s important work at www.grousepartners.org
Andrew Wilkins is the Director of Land Conservation Policy for the National Wildlife Federation.
These incredible images are credited to Matt Vincent.
The Great American Outdoors Act will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund while investing in a backlog of public land maintenance, providing current and future generations the outdoor recreation opportunities like boat launches to access fishable waters, shooting ranges, and public lands to hunt as well as the economic stimulus we need right now.