Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Prairie preservation in both the United States and Canada began under the aegis of the national governments. In Canada efforts began in the second decade of the twentieth century when the parks branch of the Department of Interior sought suitable prairie habitat for restoring pronghorn antelope populations. Three reserves became dominion parks in 1922– Nemiskam, Wawaskesy, and Menissawok–and all subsequently were ceded to the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan during the 1930s and 1940s. Initial U.S. efforts were a reaction to the Dust Bowl. Under the 1934 Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, the federal government acquired 11.3 million acres of submarginal farmland. Of this, 2.64 million acres in the Great Plains were eventually designated as national grasslands.

Organized efforts to preserve prairies date to the 1930s in the United States, when the Ecological Society of America and the National Research Council began advocating the inclusion of a prairie area in the national park system. During the 1950s, the National Park Service began to investigate sites in Kansas. The combined efforts of several environmental groups, the National Park Service, and key Kansas legislators finally succeeded in creating a 10,894-acre preserve in the Flint Hills, officially designated as the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in 1996. In Canada, the Saskatchewan Natural History Society began lobbying for a prairie national park in the late 1950s. This effort eventually materialized in the Grasslands National Park in Alberta, established 1981.

Among organizations The Nature Conservancy has most aggressively pursued prairie preservation, thanks in large part to the philanthropy of the late Katherine Ordway (1899. 1979). As of the mid-1990s The Nature Conservancy had acquired more than 550,000 acres of grasslands in the Great Plains, the largest preserves being Cross Ranch, North Dakota; Samuel H. Ordway Jr. Memorial Prairie, South Dakota; Konza Prairie, Kansas; Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma; and Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska. Although not as visible, the efforts of many smaller organizations are also noteworthy. Such groups target relatively small, diverse, and often isolated prairie remnants. Preserves range from the 26.5-acre St. James Living Prairie Museum in metropolitan Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the 1,114-acre Maddin Ranch near Colorado City, Texas, where the owner, the Native Prairies Association of Texas, is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore the prairie ecosystem.

Promising, but as yet unproven, efforts are the public-private partnerships that have proliferated since the late 1980s. These partnerships include the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, signed by Canada and the United States in 1986, which gave rise to the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture and the Prairie Habitat Joint Venture. The Great Plains Partnership, initiated by the Western Governors Association, has attempted to coordinate ongoing scientific research and data collection with conservation activities. The Prairie Conservation Act Plan (1989-1995), a product of the World Wildlife Fund and the governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, led to a variety of initiatives as well as actual land reserves. More recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the Sandhills Management Plan. Although such partnerships may substantially reform land-management practices throughout the Great Plains, the long-term potential for large-scale prairie restoration remains an open question.

See also SPORTS AND RECREATION: National Grasslands.

Rebecca Conard Wichita State University

Samson, Fred B., and Fritz L. Knopf, eds. Prairie Conservation: Preserving North America's Most Endangered Ecosystem. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996.

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