Prairie, © Jim Brandenburg / National Geographic Stock

Saving America’s Last Prairies

Tim Male, VP of Conservation Science & Policy

deer prairie south dakota

Black-tailed deer graze on a South Dakota prairie (c) Moriah Brocar

I watched Little House on the Prairie as a boy … I might have had a crush on Laura Ingalls.  It was a story of one family on the frontier and their efforts to break the prairie and make a successful life for themselves as farmers in Minnesota.  The fictional characters succeeded … and their non-fictional counterparts in the real American Midwest did too.  Unfortunately, they succeeded a little too well from an environmental perspective.

America’s tallgrass and mixed grass prairies are mostly gone today.  States like Arkansas have less than one percent left.  States like North Dakota have lost 80 percent of their prairie.  Gone are bison and pronghorn antelope from prairies, but the loss of these landscapes has also imperiled many less obvious species that make prairies special – endangered orchids, fritillary butterflies, grasshopper sparrows.

The loss of America’s prairies continues as agricultural technology creates new techniques to plow and irrigate the hilly, rocky or poorer soils or more disaster-prone areas that until recently supported remaining grasslands.  And in the prairie pothole region of North and South Dakota, it’s not just grassland but also wetlands that are being lost.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that up to 1.4 million isolated wetlands in these prairies are at risk of being drained.  Populations of many kinds of ducks will be hit hardest by some of these losses, since this region is the ‘duck factory’ of America.

High crop prices are fueling part of this cycle of destruction, and corn ethanol subsidies help drive those prices.  Adding to the problem are the extremely generous subsidies that the federal government provides to even America’s richest corporate agribusiness to help them buy crop insurance.  Think of your car insurance and imagine that Congress paid Geico to sell you a car insurance policy. They paid 60 percent of your out-of-pocket cost to buy the insurance, and then gave more money (called a subsidy) to Geico in case you had a lot of accidents and they started losing money.  That is how our crop insurance system works, and when subsidies are that generous, economists agree that it starts producing strange outcomes.   For example, since taxpayers are covering more than half the cost of insurance, we take away the risk from plowing up those grasslands and wetlands.  Farmers have no reason not to plow up wetlands or prairie because even if a crop fails to make it to harvest, insurance and taxpayers cover the losses.  The farmer wins either way – the only loser is the prairie and the species that rely on it.

Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs are another species that make their home in these grasslands.

Last week, two Members of Congress — Reps. Tim Walz (D-Minnesota.) and Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota) — reintroduced legislation to help stop some of the pressure that taxpayer-funded insurance subsidies put on prairie and wetlands.  The Protect our Prairies Act would pull back almost $200 million in insurance subsidies by dramatically lowering the amount the government provides on any acres of native grassland that have been recently plowed. This doesn’t mean that farmers can’t keep farming, just that they won’t have as much of an incentive to plow up prairies to do it.  It’s a great idea that has Defenders’ enthusiastic support and should be passed by Congress.

We are working on additional, bold ways to rein in billions in spending on the other corporate insurance subsidies that drive environmental destruction. For example, we agree with proposals that would prevent millionaires from getting as much subsidy as other farmers.  More importantly, we are working hard to ensure that Congress passes accountability provisions that require farmers have to abide by modest conservation requirements, in exchange for a generous subsidy provided by taxpayers. This is called ‘conservation compliance’ and was successfully included in the Senate-passed Farm Bill in 2012, partly because of our efforts. There are smart ways to maintain a taxpayer-supported safety net for America’s family farmers without doing as much harm to our environment.