Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Grasslands: A global conservation priority

For the average person who is perhaps not so well read in conservation/ecology they would be forgiven for wondering why grasslands? Just a general survey of my neighbours finds many are aware of rainforests as biodiversity hotspots, but when I mention temperate grasslands as also being of great importance the usual response is a complete lack of knowledge as to why. I intend with this brief article to give you, the reader, a grasp of the importance of grasslands and why they are a global conservation priority.
Photograph taken by Dennis Linghor: accessed from the American Prairie Foundation’s website
To clarify when I use the term grasslands in this article I am referring to temperate grassland which is a biome (A large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat) whose predominant vegetation consists of grasses and/ or shrubs where the climate is temperate and semi-arid to semi-humid. 
Temperate grasslands were one of the world’s greatest biomes in their natural form, however, after centuries of man altering their composition through agriculture, nutrient run off, pollution, introduction of invasive plant species and removal of the land for roads/construction, this type of habitat in its original form has become one of the most endangered of all habitat types. Temperate grasslands cover 9 million (8% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface) of which 5% is now protected.
It has taken a long time for temperate grasslands to hit the mainstream conservation  arena due largely to the habitat being greatly undervalued and largely misunderstood. The Northern Great Plains of North America, the pampas and campos of South America, the Kazakh steppe and the Daurian steppe and Amur River Basin of eastern Mongolia, China and Russia are the primary areas holding some of the largest areas of temperate grassland in the world. Temperate grassland exists on every continent bar Antarctica however it is also the rarest habitat type in it’s natural form on nearly every one of them  especially in the Great Plains of North America, the pampas and campos of South America, the lowland grasslands of south-east Australia and the steppes of eastern Europe (see The World’s temperate grasslands map). In these regions conservation groups are working hard to try to conserve and increase this habitat, one such group The American Prairie Foundation is working hard to conserve the great plains in North America, their mission is to “…create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits and improve public access to and enjoyment of the prairie landscape.” Many species of temperate grasses, including corn, wheat, rice and oats, continue to be a foundation of the world’s food supply. From a conservation perspective this productivity has come at a significant cost. Grasslands in temperate latitudes have been modified by human activity to such a degree that little remains today in a natural state – and substantially less in some form of long-term protection.
Grassland at Thung Nang Dam, Kuraburi
Grasslands are important habitats for many plant and animal species, including many that have now become rare or extinct due to a loss and fragmentation of this habitat type. They are indeed a rarer ecosystem than rainforests yet have only recently had their importance realised.  They are in their natural state a highly biodiverse ecosystem which has a great conservation and economical value attached to it. With many Governments pledging to increase the biodiversity levels of their countries temperate grassland habitat has to be a priority for conservation the planet over.
Find below a youtube video with some information and photographs of temperate grassland in North America AKA prairies:

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