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Light and Clarity on the Grassland Sea Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains
Review by Steve Jones
The clearing of rain forest in South America and fragmentation of wildlife habitat in East Africa have proceeded gradually compared to the transformation of the North American grasslands, the "American Serengeti," during the nineteenth century. Within a period of 50 years one of the most remarkable ecosystems in the world was literally obliterated. Gray wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets, and river otters were extirpated. The immense, roving herds of 30 to 70 million bison were reduced to a few hundred individuals. Seven hundred thousand square miles of native prairie was plowed under, while hundreds of thousands of Plains Indian people were killed and their rich cultural tradition nearly snuffed out.
For years many North Americans, including environmentalists, have ignored the plight of the grasslands, assuming that nothing of them remains or that the little that does remain isn't worth saving. Daniel Licht makes a compelling case for restoring and preserving the North American prairie through a network of grassland reserves populated by native species. Such a wildlife reserve system, encompassing grasslands from Alberta to Texas and Colorado to Iowa, would cost little (the land could be acquired for less than the current cost of the federal Conservation Reserve Program and crop set-asides) and would offer a wildlife spectacle rivaling that found anywhere else in the world.
Licht begins with a detailed discussion of the status of native grasslands and their wildlife populations. Then he evaluates current efforts of government agencies and private conservation organizations to preserve native grasslands. He demonstrates that the current network of small and scattered prairie preserves will never support self-sustaining populations of large, charismatic species, including gray wolves, grizzly bears, and bison. As for smaller mammals and birds, small preserves, with their high "edge" to area ratios, consistently favor non-natives and generalists at the expense of native grassland species. Much larger preserves will be necessary to re-establish a functioning grassland ecosystem.
Admitting that the effort might open him "to ridicule," Licht then maps out a system of federally managed prairie preserves encompassing 27,000 square miles. In Colorado, a Pawnee Grasslands preserve, created through the purchase of inholdings within the current national grassland, would protect more than 1,000 square miles "of classic High Plains prairie." Other, larger preserves would lie in western North Dakota and South Dakota, the Nebraska Sandhills, the Texas panhandle region, the southern Flint Hills, and the Iowa Loess Hills.
These preserves would be large enough to support wolves, bison, and other large mammals. They would stimulate local economies through tourism. They would provide opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal. "In the final analysis," writes Licht, "the conservation of the grassland ecosystem is not for the critters, and plants, but for humans....Land is the strongest link between generations--stronger than books, stronger than legends. It is said that the Iroquois treated the land as a gift to the seventh generation to come. We would do well to carry that morality with us."