PICT 64J1 Male Female Lesser Prairie Chickens - CPW

Support grows for threatened South Dakota grasslands

Male lesser prairie chickens can be heard stomping their feet in a mating dance, and they boom by inflating a red sac on their neck and quickly releasing the air. They also make a cackling noise that can be heard as they engage in mock battles, flying into the air and confronting rivals on the breeding grounds. Courtesy CPW / Bill Vogrin.
Kathleen Shannon

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(Greater Dakota News Service) About 1.6 million acres of Great Plains grasslands were destroyed in 2021 alone, according to a recent report, an area the size of Delaware.

One program is working to help conserve them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grassland Conservation Reserve Program guides South Dakota producers and landowners in grazing and haying practices to enhance conservation. The South Dakota Farm Service Agency said it has helped protect almost 7 million acres of grasslands in the past three years.

PROMO Map - South Dakota State Map - iStock - klenger

© iStock - klenger

Owen Fagerhaug, conservation program manager for the agency, said participants receive several types of technical recommendations.

"What can the acreage support for animal units? There'll be stocking rates, stubble height that needs to be left after the grazing period," Fagerhaug outlined. "Obviously pest management for weed control and invasives on the landscape would have to be controlled."

Fagerhaug noted the 10-15-year contracts temporarily remove the threat of landscape conversion for producers. Registration for the program is open until June 28.

More than three-quarters of South Dakotans said they're more likely to vote for political candidates who support healthy grasslands management, in a 2023 poll from the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, which helped launch a public service campaign called, "Where Good Things Grow."

Jeff Zimprich, board member of the coalition, said voters understand what's at stake.

"They know that grasslands provide clean water, clean air," Zimprich stressed. "They know grasslands build healthy soils. And they appreciate what's involved in the economy as well."

In addition to the livestock industry, healthy grasslands economically support beekeeping, hunting, tourism and more.