© John Ruth

Northern Plains

Basic Facts of Northern Plains

The Northern Plains is part of the larger expanse of the Great Plains, an American Serengeti. The expansive prairie is a sea of short and mixed grasses supporting grazers, small predators, grassland birds and burrowing animals. The symbiotic relationship between wildlife and the grasslands is what makes this place so special.

Deep-rooted perennial grasses – ideal for soil conservation – yield forage for grazing bison. In turn, as bison forage they disturb the soil with their hooves and disperse the native seeds. Prairie dogs prefer lands grazed by bison, and they in turn provide the prey base for the endangered black-footed ferret as well as the swift fox and Ferruginous hawk. Grassland birds such as the threatened mountain plover and burrowing owl also breed in close association with colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs.

These intricate connections in nature are what provide for a healthy plains environment for wildlife. But today, the Great Plains are one of the most threatened, the most altered and yet least protected of habitats in North America.

The Northern Plains were once immense and vast, and home to some of the nation’s most iconic species of wildlife. Prior to early settlement in the 19th century, these grasslands supported millions of bison and Pronghorn antelope. Grizzly bears and gray wolves once roamed the plains, with scenes of natural selection a regular spectacle. In addition to the loss of these species, much of these lands have also been dismantled. We have lost nearly half of the 180 million acres of the American Great Plains, with only remnant wildlife populations. Despite the ecological consequences of the past, the possibility in the 21st century of restoring the plains and recovering wildlife is a charge Defenders is committed to for this and future generations.