Prairies support many creatures, including five different species of prairie dogs.

Prairies support many creatures, including five different species of prairie dogs.

Hi, I’m a prairie chicken. You could also call me a pinnated grouse or a boomer.

Hi, I’m a prairie chicken. You could also call me a pinnated grouse or a boomer.

Whooping cranes visit prairies during migration. They prefer spots humans haven’t disturbed.

Whooping cranes visit prairies during migration. They prefer spots humans haven’t disturbed.

Pass the salad, please! Bison depend on prairie grass for life.

Pass the salad, please! Bison depend on prairie grass for life.

Pronghorn antelopes are built for running across prairies at high speeds.

Pronghorn antelopes are built for running across prairies at high speeds.

What’s a Prairie?

Posted: September 1, 2020

The sea is shrinking—the grass sea, that is.

When the first white settlers traveled across the American prairie, they described the vast area they traveled through as a “sea of grass.” Every once in a while on their way west, they’d spot a unique rock formation such as Chimney Rock or the Continental Divide. But for the most part, they saw grass, grass, and more grass. Back then, grasslands covered the middle of North America from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan.

But the prairie is more than grass. It’s full of life. Early Native Americans lived on the prairie among antelopes, rabbits, prairie dogs, geese, swans, whooping cranes, grebes, and especially bison. Once, 60 million bison roamed the prairie. It made a perfect home for gigantic grass-munchers like them. Countless prairie dogs built dirt cities underground, pushing down dirt to make flood-proof circles around their holes.

Prairies don’t exist only in America. In Russia, these grasslands are called the steppes. In Africa, they’re called the savannah. Grasslands do good to people as well as animals. Their deep roots clean water and store carbon. Those long roots act like an underground rainforest! Prairies need little maintenance. They last a long time. Their roots hold soil in place and help plants survive fire.

And fires will come. That’s a good thing! Fire does damage, of course. But when it whips across the prairie, turtles and furry critters know to scurry underground. In this case, fire is needed for life. Without fire, the prairie’s ever-growing plant life would tangle above ground. Fire burns vegetation and returns its nutrients to the ground. Farmers dig deep under the grass to find valuable soil to make crops grow.

The prairie used to take care of itself. Lightning strikes started fires that burned huge tracts. This kept trees out and fed soil. But now the prairie has been separated into small sections interrupted by highways, cities, and farms. Many prairie creatures could face extinction.

Now people have to help preserve the prairie. Their job isn’t easy. Make sure trees don’t steal light from grass. Keep invasive weeds from growing. Hardest of all: Don’t put out all fires. Let some burn.