Grasslands being plowed for cropland in Phillips County, Montana. Chris Boyer / Kestrel Aerial / WWF-US

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An analysis of crops and croplands has found that 1.6 million acres of grasslands in the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada were destroyed in just one year, in 2021. The amount of grassland plowed during this time is about the size of Delaware, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported.

The new Plowprint Report released by the WWF analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cropland Data Layer, which comes out each year, as well as the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Annual Crop Inventory. The latter inventory report details the previous two years’ worth of grassland plowing, explaining why the 2023 Plowprint Report reveals information for 2021.

Overall, the findings show that the 1.6 million acres of lost grasslands in 2021 contributed to the plowing of a total of about 32 million acres of grasslands in the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains since 2012, the WWF reported.

“What would you say if I told you there’s a critical climate solution that we can implement right here in America that doesn’t require massive investment, new technology, or a huge shift in behavior?” Martha Kauffman, vice president for the WWF’s Northern Great Plains program, said in a press release. “Let’s stop plowing grasslands; just allow them to keep storing and sequestering carbon — and providing irreplaceable habitat for wildlife and pollinators — as they have done for millennia.”

The Northern Great Plains region lost about 400,000 acres in 2021. This is critical, as this region of the larger Great Plains ecosystem is one of just four of the most intact temperate grasslands left in the world, according to the WWF. 

Across the Great Plains, wheat was the No. 1 crop established on plowed grasslands, making up 27% of the converted acreage. This was followed by corn (18%) and soy (17%). In the Northern Great Plains specifically, wheat made up 40% of the 400,000 converted acres.

Losing these grasslands could contribute to worsening droughts, increased carbon emissions, and a lack of replenishment for aquifers, the report stated.

The report does offer some hope, though, revealing about 377 million acres of remaining grasslands across the Great Plains. These lands are owned and managed by private owners, Native Nations and federal entities. 

But to protect the remaining grasslands, the WWF urged more policies that focus on conservation and restoration, such as removing invasive species, establishing sustainable management practices, retaining vulnerable native grasses, and incentivizing farmers, land owners or land managers to convert croplands to native grasslands that can still operate as grazing lands via the Grasslands Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The report also calls for protecting the Farm Bill Conservation programs within the Inflation Reduction Act.

“We can no longer ignore the fact that these landscapes, which have sustained people and wildlife since time immemorial, are being destroyed by the acre,” Kauffman said. “With 32 million acres lost since 2012, steady elimination of grasslands year in and year out is cause for urgent action. This year we have an opportunity to change course and address policies that can help curb this destruction.”

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