Converting Minnesota’s prairies to crops threatens wildlife, water and climate


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Greg Stoffel did it all right after struggling for years with his low-lying, flood-prone cropland on the Vermillion River. He locked the 56 acres into the government’s conservation reserve program, planted it with a mixture of native seeds, and obtained permanent easement to ensure it would remain a prairie forever.

The local school district now owns the land, a leafy field biology classroom for students with harriers, pheasants, deer and eagles. It is a notable conservation success.

And it is the opposite of what often happens.

Minnesota’s prairies continue to disappear by the plow, despite ongoing rescue efforts on several fronts. With every conservation victory like Stoffel’s, more grasslands are plowed into corn, soybeans and other crops to meet the relentless global demand for feed and feed, ethanol and more. biofuels. Agricultural support programs such as crop insurance can encourage expansion.

Minnesota lost nearly 2 million acres of grassland to crops from 2012 to 2019, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program. It is more than the state of Delaware. More is lost each year, although the rate has slowed over the past decade, senior scientist Patrick Lendrum said.

“This is an alarming trend of the continued conversion of the least protected and most at risk biome on the planet,” Lendrum said. “It’s happening in our backyard.”

Grassland clearing is one of the main reasons for the surprising decline in pollinators and some types of birds such as larks. It has also weakened the earth’s ability to filter and store water, threatening water and soil quality, and it contributes to climate change because grasslands can store substantial amounts of carbon.

Endangered grasslands don’t get as much attention as rainforests, said Tyler Lark, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin. But destroying the Great Plains across North America is tantamount to cleaning up the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, according to Lark and the World Wildlife Fund.

“I think land use change is one of the biggest environmental challenges – perhaps the second behind climate change,” Lark said.

Diffusion of agriculture

Lendrum’s research is based on satellite images and other data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), focusing on any unspoiled grassland that has not been recently cultivated, such as pastures or areas wet, which are then plowed. While this may include untouched native prairies, very little remains in Minnesota.

One of the state’s hot spots is the Northwest. Marshall and Polk counties, for example, each saw more than 120,000 acres of grassland plowed for crops from 2012 to 2019, according to Lendrum. This represents about 10% of the land in each county.

The development of short-season seed varieties allowed farmers to grow row crops where they could not before, pushing this agriculture further north.

While this is not the case everywhere, most of the newly plowed grasses in the northwest are land taken out of the conservation reserve program when the 10 to 15 year contracts expire.

Mark Haugen, for example, said he removed about 1,600 acres of conservation grassland in 2019 to expand the family farm in Roseau County, near the border with Canada. He doesn’t see a problem.

“There is no shortage of habitat in our county,” Haugen said.

The Haugens cultivate 5,000 acres of soybeans, wheat, and lawn grasses such as bluegrass and ryegrass. For Haugen, the benefits of community expansion far outweigh the environmental impacts. Higher farm incomes and land values ​​have strengthened the local economy, he said.

“Every building in downtown Roseau has a business, and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” Haugen said. “Our community is modernizing our school, and where is that coming from? Property taxes.”

Haugen said he works hard to take care of the land. He plows as little as possible, the plants cover the crops and precisely applies the necessary chemicals.

“If there’s something you like, you’re going to take care of it,” Haugen said.

All individual decisions and incremental expansions add up to big impacts, say conservationists. Habitat loss is a key factor in the ongoing great bird decline.

“The birds of the Minnesota prairies are declining at a frightening rate,” said Michael Worland, DNR non-game specialist.

In Minnesota, the hardest hit species include Leconte’s sparrow, large prairie chickens, western meadow lark, and marbled godwits. Birds are beautiful and play a role in the ecosystem, Worland said, although we often don’t know the role until the bird is gone.

“These are great indicators of the state of the prairies,” he said.

Grassland clearing also reduces the soil’s ability to store and filter water, a growing concern given Minnesota’s generally wetter climate. Cultivating more marginal land may mean plowing more sloping areas, for example, increasing the risk of nutrient runoff and erosion, Lark said.

Rylie Pelton, a researcher at the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, said she saw a significant carbon sponge go to waste.

“If we want to reach our 1.5 degree [Celsius] climate brand, we need to minimize these changes, ”Pelton said. “Without it, we’ll have a big problem. “

Image problem

Almost all of the undulating native prairie that once covered southern and western Minnesota has disappeared. According to Greg Hoch, MNR’s prairie habitat coordinator, only 250,000 scattered acres remain. And Minnesota still loses an average of about 200 acres of native prairie each year.

It’s hard to rally people around the grass, Hoch said. Most have never seen a prairie stretching out as far as the eye can see. It’s not a part of our memories now, he said.

“People love majestic mountains and trees,” Hoch said. “But the grass is what you mow on Saturday afternoon.”

Hoch called the conversion of the prairies an “incredibly complex” problem.

One thing is clear: Reserve program acres have shrunk in Minnesota. The key conservation tool is simply not paying farmers enough to leave the land unused.

“It doesn’t come close to what they can do by planting it in corn or beans,” Stoffel said. “This is the problem.”

The USDA recently increased conservation payments by 10% and added other incentives focusing on climate change.

Other efforts continue. Government easement programs abound. The Nature Conservancy, for example, reconstructed a prairie corridor in western Minnesota. And the National Audubon Society has its “Grazing on Audubon Certified Bird-Friendly Land” seal for beef wrappers, which means farmers allow their cattle to graze freely on open grasslands, among other things. It has certified 139 cattle ranchers on 3.5 million acres of prairie so far, but none in Minnesota at this time.

“The plight of the prairies is so tied to our food system,” said Audubon spokesperson Anthony Hauck.

Stoffel said he didn’t know how to fix the problem, besides paying farmers more for land conservation. All he knows is that he’s “happy to hell” to see students and bird watchers flock to his former fields, along with all the wildlife that has returned.

“I can go there any morning and sit on that road and listen to the roosters cackle,” Stoffel said. “It’s a big thing for me.”

jennifer.bjorhus@startribune.com 612-673-4683

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