As farming eats the Dakotas’ native prairie, one landowner creates a 'mind-blowing' restoration
Croplands in the Upper Great Plains expanded 584,600 acres per year between 2015 and 2019, while grasslands contracted at an annual rate of 448,600 acres over the same span.
SUMMIT, S.D. — On his blog “Prairie Hopes,” Bob Narem has meticulously chronicled his work of the last five years to restore 100 acres of cropland back to an abundant prairie.
In an inaugural post, the retired South Dakota agronomist recounted a day dream of his teenage years on the farm, in which he imagined that heaven would be wandering through a Dakota prairie in the days before it was settled by European homesteaders.
“There was nothing but 5-foot tall big bluestem to the horizon,” he wrote.
Narem, now 66, credits that vision as a possible unconscious inspiration for the ambitious project he is tending today, one that has become a gold standard of restoration in a region that has lost most of its native prairie. On one segment of his land, Narem has seeded 145 different plant species. Remarkably, nearly half of them so far have established populations. He has found instances of more than 100 different plant species on his recreated prairie.
In spite of efforts like Narem’s, the Dakotas continue to lose grasslands to the plow. Between 2012 and 2019, North Dakota croplands expanded by about 2.7 million acres, while the farming footprint grew by about 2.2 million acres in South Dakota over the same span — areas collectively larger than the state of Connecticut — according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program. Nationally, native grasslands are plowed up at a rate of between 3% and 5% each year, North Dakota State University rangeland scientist Kevin Sedivec said.
Once an acre of native grassland has been plowed, it’s lost for good, Sedivec said. Even a restoration as diverse as Narem’s likely can’t replace what was there before, prairie formed over thousands of years that often supported hundreds of distinct species.
“It is literally impossible. Don’t even put in the back of your head that you can do it,” Sedivec said. “You’ll never get back there.”
Even so, Narem has reached an uncommon strata of plant diversity on his restoration about 115 miles south of Fargo in northeastern South Dakota — one that Sedivec himself described as “mind-blowing” upon hearing about the species count there. Sharptailed grouse, short-eared owl and upland sandpipers have made their way to Narem's man-made prairie. On a recent April day, a few purple pasque flowers poked through the soil, the first of a turbulent spring on the Upper Great Plains, soon to be joined by hundreds or thousands more.
The rich tapestry doesn’t come cheap. Narem is able to scavenge a patch of remnant prairie on his land for many native seeds, but even then he estimated he has sunk around $25,000 into acquiring harder-to-find species.
“I’m lucky. I don’t want a lot. I don’t have any expensive habits. I plant prairie,” Narem said.
Agriculture’s expanding footprint
Two hundred years ago, 85% of North Dakota was covered by unbroken grasslands. But since white homesteaders flocked to the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the diverse grasslands that once dominated the region have been replaced by crops. Unbroken grasslands cover less than a quarter of the state today, according to the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish. In heavily farmed eastern North Dakota, the reductions are even starker: By some estimates, less than 1% remains of the area's former tall grass prairies.
“And we’re still losing,” said Greg Link, chief of the conservation and communications division of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Grasslands are being plowed faster than they are being replaced, Link said, while grassland birds and the insects that rely on prairie ecosystems are declining with them. “So it’s like, ‘boy, we really gotta wake up and ratchet it up,’” he said.
Link is helping to lead North Dakota’s recently launched Meadowlark Initiative , an umbrella program designed to raise awareness about the plight of the state’s prairies and to connect farmers and ranchers with federal and privately-funded conservation programs that pay them to protect their grasslands.
Drawing on $10 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more than $12 million from a host of conservationist partner organizations, the Meadowlark Initiative aims to convert 20,000 acres of marginal cropland into prairie and enhance the diversity of some 50,000 acres of already-restored or preserved native grasslands in the next five years.
Still, those gains would be small compared to the grassland losses North Dakota has sustained just in recent years. In Stutsman County alone, more than 200,000 acres of intact grassland were lost between 2009 and 2019, according to data provided by the Northern Great Plains Program of the World Wildlife Fund.
Patrick Lendrum, a senior science specialist with the program, said the northern Great Plains represent “one of the last strongholds” for “the least protected, most at-risk biome” on the planet.
Agriculture has been on a “westward march” across the Dakotas, he said, pushing further and further beyond the Missouri River. Higher crop prices and the warming global climate have made farming the lesser soils of the western Dakotas more economic, Lendrum said.
And some conservationists said that convincing people that they should care about the prairies may be one of the biggest barriers to protecting this often-overlooked ecosystem.
The rate of grasslands loss over the last decade has been comparable to the decline of tropical forests in other parts of the world, Lendrum said. But Link noted that while the clearing of the Amazon rainforests has sparked global alarm, North Dakotans tend to take for granted that their state’s grasslands will always be there.
Even as conservationists work to restore some farmlands back to grasses, many are quick to point out that the process can’t replace what’s already been lost.
“We’re trying to replicate 10,000 years of evolution or creation or whatever you want to call it, (and) we’re throwing at a damn dartboard,” said Ben Lardy, a habitat biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. “We’re not doing God’s work or Mother Nature’s work. This is our best attempt.”
A 'glorified Johnny Appleseed'
The importance of reconstructing ecosystems that attempt to mimic the vast plant diversity of the original prairie has gained a new appreciation in recent years, Lardy said. When he first started grassland restoration work about a decade ago, Lardy said conservationists were lucky to convince farmers to incorporate two or three flowering species into restoration land, an achievement that was “really no more diverse than a weedy cornfield.”
Today, more and more restoration efforts are focusing not just on the baseline goal of converting crop fields back to grasslands, but fostering the multifaceted services that prairies long contributed to the Dakotas, Lardy said.
Even so, Narem’s restoration resides in a class of its own. Lardy, who has worked closely alongside Narem on the project for the last five years, said the eastern South Dakota restoration outstrips even the plant diversity of some areas of surviving native prairies. He estimated that it is among the most diverse prairie restorations in the Upper Midwest, rivaling some restorations by conservation groups with much deeper pockets.
Sedivec noted that most conservation groups today are shooting to get above a dozen species, a fraction of the plant diversity that Narem has found so far on his restored grassland.
For one, recreating the lush landscape of Narem’s project is costly. Pound-for-pound, Lardy said some seeds are significantly more valuable than silver. Many landowners would have to spend $300 or $400 an acre to get even halfway to Narem’s species counts.
But Lardy lamented that more landowners and organizations don’t attempt something as ambitious as Narem. “You get all these academics and agency folks in awe over this,” he said, when the work really just requires a “glorified Johnny Appleseed.”
“It’s a 5-gallon bucket and two bozos walking out on the prairie for a couple of summers,” he said.
Narem wrestles with why he puts so much time and sweat into rebuilding his prairie. Spotting and identifying all of its species has required “obsessively” walking and re-walking over the land, eyes down to the soil, he said.
Upland birds have already found the spot. In 10 years, researchers might test the soils and find that Narem’s prairie has absorbed high volumes of carbon dioxide, a benefit to fighting climate change. One day, Narem hopes the restoration could even become habitat for the Dakota skipper, the threatened butterfly species whose populations have declined as native prairies have been plowed away.
But Narem also recognizes that “a mature, stable restoration” is unlikely to develop in his lifetime. His sights are further out.
“I can give you the laundry list of what we want to accomplish, but at its base it’s more visceral than that,” he said. “We’re losing it and we don’t know what we’re losing.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.