Manage Grasslands and Prairie Habitats for Climate Change

Grasslands cover approximately 400 million acres of the contiguous United States. From the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern edge of the Rockies, smaller meadows, savannas and grasslands can be found in nearly every state. Despite their extensive distribution, grasslands and the neighboring deserts that make up more arid regions are sensitive ecosystems that can be vulnerable to extreme changes in temperature and shifts in precipitation. The grasslands of the Great Plains are also threatened by conversion to agriculture or development, compounding threats to these important ecosystems and the species that depend on them.

Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted

Drought, floods and severe storms will impact grasslands in the Great Plains region and elsewhere. The impacts of climate change will vary based on the location, current climate and species composition of an individual grassland, but may include the encroachment of new species, and a greater risk of wildfire brought on by hotter, drier summers.

Global Change - Desertification
This photo series shows the progression from grassland to desert (desertification) over a 100-year period, a shift that can be attributed to grazing management as well as reduced rainfall in the Southwest. Source: GCRP.

Increasing temperatures, reduced rainfall, and drought are already being observed in some regions, and the arid Southwest in particular is projected to become even drier in this century. Deserts in the United States are projected to expand to the north, east, and upward in elevation in response to projected warming and associated changes in climate. Studies show that by the turn of the century, climate in the Western United States may be incompatible with current vegetation types, resulting in shifting patterns of terrestrial ecosystems. Observed and predicted climate change impacts to grasslands include:

  • Increased frequency and severity of droughts.
  • Loss of wetland habitats, such as prairie potholes, due to drought.
  • Greater risk of severe wildfire.
  • Reduced snowfall and snow cover, as well as a shorter winter season.
  • Diminished agricultural production — crops and livestock — due to more frequent droughts and floods.
  • Species migration. In some regions, trees and shrubs are expected to encroach on grassland, which may force grassland species to relocate.
  • Greater risk of disease and insect pests, including the potential for these stressors to shift their ranges into regions where they previously could not survive.

Recommendations for Adaptation

Warmer winters, drier summers and the encroachment of new species all present serious challenges to the plants and animals that rely on grasslands and prairies.

Land trusts that manage grasslands, prairies, and deserts for climate change may want to:

  • Assess vulnerability of habitat(s) to climate change impacts, such as stronger storms, increased fire risk or dryer summers. Note: these impacts will vary by region and ecosystem.
  • Consider scenario planning to develop long-term plans that are resilient under a variety of potential future conditions. Adopt adaptive management polices to enable your organization to periodically assess the progress you have made towards conservation objectives and adjust your stewardship approach if necessary.
  • Conserve the stage“. If currently protected habitats are likely to shift their range further north, or to higher elevations. If so, consider the feasibility and value of extending the protected area’s boundaries and to include this new territory.
  • Protect vulnerable systems. Drought may increase pressure on existing water resources, especially in arid areas. Consider taking action to protect these resources from development or degradation where possible. This may include working with regional watershed planning efforts or increasing resilience of vulnerable ecosystems on your own lands by increasing stream buffers, connecting habitats, or planting diverse native species that are likely to support ecosystem functions of the current landscape.
  • Build resilience. Increase the overall health and resilience of existing habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.
  • Support mitigation measures in order to galvanize immediate actions to reduce the potential extent of future climate change today.

Learn More

Learn about potential climate change impacts, and identify variables that are relevant to your region or the land types you steward.