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Five Facts About Our Disappearing Prairies

Think of a patriotic song and there's a good chance it sings the praises of America's prairies. From "Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam" in "Home on the Range" to "from the mountains to the prairies" in "God Bless America," the grasslands of our country’s heartland have long been celebrated.

White-tailed deer at Lockport Prairie. (Photo courtesy of Matt Serafini)

These lyrics recall a different time in America and serve as a reminder of how much our landscape has changed. Much of the grassland honored in these songs sung by generations of schoolchildren is long gone, although its importance remains.

Read on to learn more about the prairies that shaped Middle America.

Almost all of America's prairies are gone

North America's prairies were once vast and expansive. It was the continent's largest continuous ecosystem, with more than 170 million acres of grassland stretching from east of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from as far north as Saskatchewan south into Texas.

What was once the most expansive ecosystem in North America has been reduced to one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in the world. The 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie that once covered the continent has been reduced to just 1% of its original area.

Why? Because fertile prairie soils were good for growing crops. When European immigrants discovered how useful the soil was for growing foods, they began to convert prairie land into agricultural land. Today, virtually all our original prairies have been plowed over for use in growing crops. The largest remaining unplowed area of prairie in the United States is a 60-mile-wide swath of land in the hilly and rocky Flint Hills region of Kansas.

We live in the Prairie State

Illinois is, of course, the Land of Lincoln, but our state's lesser-known nickname is the Prairie State. However, this nickname is a bit of a misnomer these days. Illinois is called the Prairie State because the majority of the state was almost entirely prairie as recently as 1820. At that time, Illinois had 22 million acres of prairie, almost the entire northern two-thirds of the state. During this period, 93 of Illinois' 102 counties had large areas of prairie land.

As land use began to change in the state, our prairies began to disappear, plowed over for farm fields. By 1900, most of the prairies had disappeared. In 1978, less than 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie remained in Illinois, just a tiny fraction of those millions of acres that once existed. Much of the remaining undisturbed prairie land in Illinois is in places that are not good for farming, such as near railroads and old cemeteries.

They are bountiful

Early European immigrants in Illinois believed prairie soil wasn’t of good quality because few trees grew in it, but the opposite is true. Prairie soil is rich in nutrients, which is why converting prairies into agricultural land was so successful.

At first glance, prairies just look like fields of grass, but there's a lot of species of plants. While 80% of prairies consist of grasses, there can be anywhere from 40 to 60 different grass species. The remaining 20% is even more diverse, consisting of as many as 300 species of flowering plants as well as shrubs, trees and lichens. And that's just the plant life in a prairie. Plenty of wildlife call prairies home as well.

The tallgrass prairies that once covered much of northern Illinois were home to wildlife species large and small. Bison, elk, black bears and wolves once roamed these lands, along with smaller mammals, birds, reptiles and, of course, insects.

Today, these large mammals are long gone from Illinois, but our remaining grasslands still support a variety of wildlife. You can find mammals like badgers, deer, coyotes, gophers, ground squirrels and voles; birds such as meadowlarks, sparrows and short-eared owls; reptiles such as box turtles, Blanding's turtles and many different kinds of snakes; and all manner of insects.

They exist all over the world

What we call prairies here in the United States and North America exist elsewhere in the world, but they aren't called prairies. In South America, large swaths of grasslands in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are called the Pampas. The grasslands of South Africa are called the veldt, or veld. In Asia, a large region called the steppes of Central Asia is a swath of grassland that stretches from Hungary and Romania in Europe to the region of Manchuria.

The Dust Bowl was partly due to our loss of prairie

Plowing over America's prairies to turn it into farmland had some serious consequences. In the 1930s, America's southern plains region was devastated by the Dust Bowl, which occurred in part because so much prairie land had been converted into farmland.

Weather also contributed greatly to the Dust Bowl. Severe drought struck much of the Midwest and southern plans in 1930, and dust storms began occurring in 1931. Drought continued in much of the region, and by 1934, 35 million acres of farmland had been made useless and many millions more acres were losing topsoil and at risk of the same fate. By 1939, regular rains again began to fall and the Dust Bowl came to an end.

During the Dust Bowl, topsoil from the plains reached as far as New York City and Washington, D.C., and ships in the Atlantic Ocean were covered in the dirty dust. While many economic forces contributed to the Dust Bowl, loss of prairie was a factor as well. Prairie plants have deep root systems that help keep topsoil in place, but these prairie plants were largely replaced with shallow-rooted crops. When the drought occurred, these crops began to fail. When this happened, soil erosion followed because there were no deep root systems to hold the soil in place. All that loose soil then led to the dust storms.

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