Photograph by Maria Stenzel
Read Caption

Insects swarm over the Madagascar savannah. Grasslands in different regions have different names: Africa has savannas; Asia has steppes; South America has pampas; and North America has prairies.

Photograph by Maria Stenzel

Grassland threats, explained

Much of Earth's grassland has been lost to agricultural development, threatening wildlife. But solutions are emerging.

Characterized by their flat, open pastures and abundance of nutrient-rich soil, more than a quarter of the world’s land—and about 70 percent of its agricultural land—is covered by grasslands.

This biome is home to a range of flora and fauna, which add to its resilience against natural disasters such as droughts or wildfires. In fact, native grassland plants have adapted to extreme weather conditions to such an extent that savannas, a subset of grasslands found in Africa, Australia, South America, and India, require seasonal droughts and wildfires to maintain biodiversity. (Read more about grasslands here.)

But this resiliency does not equate to immunity.

Elephant Herd Surviving on the Grasslands Surviving on Earth’s grasslands is no walk in the park, yet this elephant herd is still standing strong.

Specific threats to grasslands:

  • Poor agricultural practices can ruin soil and strip grasslands of life. If crops are not rotated properly, the soil can become infertile and nothing can be grown for several years.
  • Monocropping, or growing only one crop at a time (like corn) is an agricultural practice that depletes the soil’s nutrients. Further, because grasslands thrive off of biodiversity of plants and animals, monocropping that provides only a single type of plant tends to weaken the biome and increases vulnerability to natural disasters.
  • Toxic pesticides used in agricultural croplands can be deadly for wild flora and fauna.
  • Grazing livestock can consume, trample, and destroy grasses. Selective grazing can reduce the competitive nature of the entire ecosystem by weeding out some plants and allowing others to over-populate. Additionally, conventional agricultural croplands often provide few food sources and nesting areas for birds.
  • Continued global warming could turn current marginal grasslands into deserts as rainfall patterns change.
  • Development of urban areas is increasingly cutting into grassland habitat.
  • Invasive species can displace native plants and reduce the quality of a grassland. Invasive plants may not be equipped to handle extreme weather, like droughts and wildfires, thus resulting in further habitat loss.

Solutions to grassland problems:

  • Continue education efforts, particularly among farmers, on how to protect the soil and prevent soil erosion.
  • Protect and restore wetlands, which are an important part of grassland ecology.
  • Rotate agricultural crops to prevent the sapping of nutrients.
  • Plant trees as windbreaks to reduce erosion on farmfields (though make sure it is the right species for the area).
  • Conduct controlled dry season burning to stimulate fresh plant growth and to restore calcium to the soil that builds up in the dry grasses. Some species of native plants need occasional fire to thrive, while blazes can also help remove invasive species.