Shortgrass prairie

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Shortgrass prairie of the Llano Estacado.
Shortgrass prairie in relation to the Great Plains of the United States
  Shortgrass prairie

The shortgrass prairie is an ecosystem located in the Great Plains of North America. The prairie includes lands to the west as far as the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains and extends east as far as Nebraska and north into Saskatchewan. The prairie stretches through parts of Alberta, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas, and passes south through the high plains of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.[1]

The prairie was formerly maintained by grazing pressure of American bison, which is the keystone species. The two most dominant grasses in the shortgrass prairie are blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), the two less dominant grasses in the prairie are greasegrass (Tridens flavus) and sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Due to its semiarid climate, the shortgrass prairie receives on average less precipitation than that of the tall and mixed grass prairies to the east.[2]


The shortgrass prairie has a long human history. The Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapahoe peoples occupied the land, hunting bison and antelope. Seasonally, these tribes would stage hunts in the adjacent mountains such as the Rocky Mountains. To manage the prairie these tribes and their predecessors likely used fire. They would create fuel breaks, a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a brushfire or wildfire. A firebreak may occur naturally in areas without vegetation or other fuel, such as a river, lake or canyon around their settlements. These fuel breaks would also entice large herbivores to patches of fresh new growth.

European explorers, trappers, and fur traders began to settle the shortgrass prairie. They developed an extractive economy that led to the later growth and industrialization of the prairie. In the mid- and late 19th century the railroads expanded transportation channels, helping to increase settlement, predominantly in rural and small towns. While more people began to settle in the prairie, large-scale cattle and sheep ranching increased as well. This later led to the development of gold, silver, and copper mining communities.[3]

Dust Bowl[edit]

In the 1920’s, El Niño played a big role in the success of crop growing in the short grass plains. El Niño caused more precipitation throught the prairie, promoting plant growth. The success encouraged farmers to buy more efficient farming equipment. With the new equipment, farmers turned up the native land, exposing the soil. By the time the 1930’s came around, it was too late to protect the soil with grass. The unprotected soil contributed to the Dust Bowl by being blown around and creating dust storms.


Food Security Act of 1985[edit]

The Food Security Act of 1985 allowed for lower commodity prices and income supports. This Act also laid the foundation for the dairy herd buyout program. The Act made changes to several other USDA programs.

Conservation Reserve Program[edit]

Farmers enrolled in the program agree to abolish environmentally destroyed land from agricultural production and cattle grazing to improve and regrow healthy grass and habitats in exchange for a yearly rental payment.[4]


Today much of the shortgrass prairie is grazed by domestic livestock, with a human population that still is dependent upon agriculture. However, energy and mining exploration have increased. Over time, there has been a precipitous decline of many species, but inhabitants of the region today are demonstrating that sound land management practices can help sustain the native species, natural communities, and ecosystems.[5]


The shortgrass prairie is a long thin stretch of territory that starts at the top of the country and makes its way to the bottom. Due to this, the climate varies from North to South, but is essentially the same from East to West. The temperature in the North is significantly colder on average then the temperature in the South. Also, there is more precipitation to the south, and more precipitation to the East. An interesting distinction about the shortgrass prairie compared to the tall and mixed grass prairies is that it has a one to two month summer drought, where the other two do not. This means that it also the driest prairie of the three.[6](cite ecology book) In addition, this region has various amounts of hailstorms, blizzards, tornadoes, and dust storms.[3]


There are two significant population trends that are going on in the shortgrass prairie region. The first trend is that the population is starting to decrease and due to many of those people moving westward the population in the west is starting to increase. The second trend is that more and more people are moving to metropolitan areas, and about three quarters of the population in this region live in those metropolitan areas. The human population today is still mainly dependent on agriculture, but fields such as energy exploration and mining have become more and more popular in the area. Due to the increase in people this has affected the ecosystem of the region and there has been a decrease of amount of species and diversity of those species.[3]


Crop Production[edit]

Large portions of central grasslands of the United Sates are used for intensive agriculture. The shortgrass prairie has copious amounts for economic potential as it is estimated that only about 50 percent of the shortgrass prairie is still uncultivated. The shortgrass prairie yields for a lot of crop production, and in this specific prairie wheat is the major crop grown. Other major crops grown are maize, soybeans, and cotton.

Livestock Production[edit]

The dry grasslands of the shortgrass prairie yield for extensive grazing operations. Typically cow-calf operations with the young animal sold for finishing in feedlots. Stocking rates and the economy in this region highly depend on the amount of precipitation, range conditions, and other environmental factors.


Parts of the shortgrass prairie are untouched and pastoral. Many artists and photographers travel to this prairie for inspiration and economic opportunities. Paintings and photographs are often sold at high prices for their aesthetic beauty. The Dust Bowl brought a lot of artistic and photographers to this area in seek of fame and economic opportunities.[7]


The shortgrass prairie is located on the western side of the Great Plains with the Colorado Rockies to its west and the mixed grass prairie to its east. However, it is pretty much impossible to define exact boundaries of the prairie. This is due to the shifting of plant communities over time and space because of the dynamics of grassland vegetation. So, the prairie extends to the eastern part of the Rocky Mountains to the west, up to Canada to the North, as far as Nebraska to the East, and as far as parts of Texas to the South. Those are just the general boundaries of the shortgrass prairie which is everything inside those said boundaries.[8]


When looking at Colorado, which is a major portion of the shortgrass prairie there is no legal protection to the prairie. More than 85% of the prairie is privately owned for agricultural reasons, and about half of their native prairie is left. Much of the short grass prairie has been converted for agricultural purposes, particularly for dry land wheat, irrigated corn, soybeans and alfalfa. However, the conservation of the prairie in the long run is still in jeopardy. With urban expansion and more people producing different types of energy the prairie and the species within are still in danger. The impact of climate change is less than other areas of Colorado due to the lower elevation, but it will still face some affects from climate change. The shortgrass prairie is considered to be poorly conserved, and people are striving to change that.[5]

Prairie Dog Coalition[edit]

The Prairie Dog Coalition is a non- profit group of scientists, organizations and citizens who are fighting for the protection of prairie dogs and their environments. The alliance educates people on the declining well-being of the prairie dogs and protests any project that could potentially destroy the habitat of the prairie dogs.[9]


The shortgrass prairie was once filled with huge herds of free-ranging bison and pronghorn. The prairie also teemed with large prairie dog colonies, deer and elk, and predators such as gray wolves and grizzly bears. The prairie is home to healthy populations of plains blue grama, a vast array of songbirds and raptors, carpets of buffalo grass and a broad diversity and abundance of wildflowers and butterflies. It was a landscape so teeming with life it has been compared to the South American Pampas. Today the most popular animal on the prairie is domestic cattle. The short grass prairie is used to having animals graze the land, so the pressure of grazing animals does not harm it. Pronghorn and prairie dogs still inhibit the prairie however, in fewer numbers. Top predators have been replaced by coyotes.[10]

Ecological processes on a large-scale level such as climate, fire and grazing have strong influences in this system. Today, the shortgrass prairie has suffered the greatest biological destruction of any major biome in North America. The three central processes historically shaping the shortgrass prairie are herbivory, drought, and fire. Through habitat destruction, extermination of native herbivores and predators, proliferation of noxious weeds, and altered fire regimes have negatively been impacted.[5]


The short grass prairie consists of many kinds of birds, reptiles and mammals. Most of these animals have adapted to living in such an open area. The majority of them live under ground or travel long distances to find shelter. All the animals work together to keep the ecosystem of the short grass prairie working.

  • Birds

Grassland birds are part of the fastest decreasing groups of animals in North America. Grassland birds that reside in the short grass prairie add to this decrease by being Colorado’s largest category of declining animals. Some of birds that still inhabit the short grass prairie are the Cassin's sparrow, loggerhead shrike, sandhill crane, scaled quail, Swainson's hawk, burrowing owl, mountain plover and McCown's longspur. Although the loggerhead shrike and scaled quail birds are among the more common birds to see in the short grass prairie, they are also some of the few who are on the fastest decline.[11]

  • Reptiles

Round-tailed horned lizard, Texas garter snake, Texas horned lizard, Texas long-nosed snake and Western Massasauga are among the most dominant reptiles in the short grass prairie. Most of these animals are cold blooded, so in the winter months they live under ground until spring comes.[11]

  • Mammals
Mom and calf grazing on the prairie.

Cattle, pronghorn and white-tailed deer are the most abundant mammals on the short grass prairie today. Domestic cattle were placed in the prairie and have essentially replaced the native species that used to live in the short grass prairie such as bison and elk. In addition, the top predators used to be Gray wolf and Grizzly bear, but today, coyotes have replaced those animals.

  • Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs were once the most abundant animals in the short grass prairie. Historically, their colonies stretched through 11 states, but now, prairie dogs can only be found in 1 percent of their native land. The decrease in this species can all be owed to poison campaigns, habitat reconstruction and hunting. The decline in prairie dogs has made a huge impact of many of the other animals that reside in the short grass prairie. One animal that was greatly affected is the black-footed ferret, whose diet relies on prairie dogs. The ferret is now one of the most endangered species in the world and is nearing extinction. Other animals negatively affected by the decline of prairie dogs are the mountain plover, swift fox, ferruginous hawk and the burrowing owl.


Shortgrass Prairie

The short grass prairie consists of a lot of different kinds of vegetation. Two of the most abundant grasses are blue grama, sod- forming grass, and buffalo grass. The third grass is galleta grass, though it is not as dominant as the blue grama and buffalo grasses. These grasses are native to the short grass prairie and therefor are drought and grazing resistant. Because of the extreme climate changes in the short grass prairie, not many plants grow. Two of the main plants that are able to thrive there are soap weed yucca and plains prickly pear cactus. In the years of greater precipitation and snowfall, some flowers may bloom in the spring but struggle to stay alive during the summer months.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hill, R.T. 1901. Geography and Geology of the Black and Grand Prairies, Texas. In: Walcott, C.D. (ed), Twenty-First Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey to the Secretary of the Interior (1899-1900), Part VII - Texas, 666 pp.
  2. ^ Reviews, C. T. I. (2016-11-05). The Blue Planet, An Introduction to Earth System Science. Cram101 Textbook Reviews. ISBN 9781538817780. 
  3. ^ a b c "Central Shortgrass Prairie // LandScope America". Retrieved 2016-11-16. 
  4. ^ "Grassland of the world". Retrieved 2016-11-16. 
  5. ^ a b c "Shortgrass Prairie // LandScope America". Retrieved 2016-11-16. 
  6. ^ Samson, Fred B.; Knopf, Fritz L. (1996-08-01). Prairie Conservation: Preserving North America's Most Endangered Ecosystem. Island Press. ISBN 9781610913942. 
  7. ^ "The Nature of Kansas Lands - Art, Architecture, and Photography - Subjects". Retrieved 2016-11-16. 
  8. ^ "Grassland Slides". Retrieved 2016-11-16. 
  9. ^ "About the Prairie Dog Coalition: The Humane Society of the United States". Retrieved 2016-11-16. 
  10. ^ "Shortgrass Prairie Ecosystem Protection" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-11-10. 
  11. ^ a b "Shortgrass Prairie Region" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-11-12. 
  12. ^ "The Short-Grass Prairie" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-11-12. 

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