Adam Bowman: Reducing an under-the-radar threat to Utah’s wildlife

Bill would work with landowners to preserve native grasslands.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune A Bison and a Pronghorn Antelope meet Friday, September 4, 2015, at Antelope Island State Park.

The past year and a half has given Americans plenty to worry about. But in these troubling times, we’ve rediscovered an incredible resource that grounds us and helps us cope — the outdoors. And just as participation in hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation has soared, here in Utah and beyond, it seems that these landscapes and our fish and wildlife resources face many challenges.

One that has flown under the radar is the loss of native grasslands. In fact, our once vast prairies are now one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.

Here in Utah, our dry climate is already inhospitable and limits grasslands. Much of our grasslands have been lost to development and degraded in places with improper grazing. But this makes our scarce dry grasses and shortgrass prairies even more critical in their support for wildlife, outdoor recreation opportunities and ranching businesses.

Nationwide, more than 50 million acres of grassland habitat have disappeared from the landscape in the last 10 years alone, according to a World Wildlife Fund report.

There is, however, a plan to conserve grasslands and prairies before it’s too late. A group of leading conservation organizations — including Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Izaak Walton League, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership — are bringing together all those who rely on grasslands to conserve this essential habitat for future generations, while also providing economic opportunities for ranchers, farmers, and outdoor recreation businesses.

The North American Grasslands Conservation Act would provide funding needed to restore and conserve what remains of Utah’s grasslands while creating a program that would work with private landowners — whose working farms and ranches are key to the success of this ecosystem. This act would conserve these vital habitats while creating economic and outdoor recreation incentives and opportunities.

The act would establish a grant program designed to provide landowners with voluntary, flexible economic incentives and opportunities to help improve and conserve our disappearing grasslands. The funding could go toward restoring native grasses, controlling invasive species, managing with prescribed fire or fighting conifer tree encroachment that has been turning our grasslands into forests with little utility for grassland-dependent species.

This approach currently being proposed to Congress is innovative, and there is already a model for its success: The North American Wetlands Conservation Act and it’s voluntary incentives have helped to fund nearly 3,000 wetlands improvement projects across 30 million acres in all 50 states.

What NAWCA has done for waterfowl the North American Grasslands Act could do for Utah’s pronghorns, sage grouse, mule deer and many other species. But NAWCA has also had a tremendous economic impact that could be replicated in prairie states. A program such as a North American Grasslands Act would create new economic opportunities in Utah by funding conservation jobs, improving habitat that supports outdoor recreation and ranching businesses, and investing in the wildlife populations that draw people to our state for hunting and wildlife viewing.

If you didn’t know before, now you do. Grasslands are in danger, but by working together, we can ensure their beauty for future generations and for all those who rely on them. No matter who we are or what we do, whether we know it or not, healthy and intact grasslands are critically important to us all.

Adam Bowman

Adam Bowman is the digital director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and lives in Park City.