Manage Grasslands and Prairie Habitats for Climate Change
Grasslands cover approximately 400 million acres of the contiguous United States. From the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern edge of the Rockies, smaller meadows, savannas and grasslands can be found in nearly every state.
Climate Change Impacts: Current and Predicted
Drought, floods and severe storms will impact grasslands in the Great Plains region and elsewhere. The impacts of climate change will vary based on the location, current climate and species composition of an individual grassland, but may include the encroachment of new species, and a greater risk of wildfire brought on by hotter, drier summers.
Observed and predicted climate change impacts to grasslands may include:
- Increased frequency and severity of droughts.
- Loss of wetland habitats, such as prairie potholes, due to drought.
- Greater risk of severe wildfire.
- Reduced snowfall and snow cover, as well as a shorter winter season.
- Diminished agricultural production — crops and livestock — due to more frequent droughts and floods.
- Species migration. In some regions, trees and shrubs are expected to encroach on grassland, which may force grassland species to relocate.
- Greater risk of disease and insect pests, including the potential for these stressors to shift their ranges into regions where they previously could not survive.
Additional information about predicted climate change impacts to grasslands can be found in the following places:
- Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,
- Prairie Grasslands, Climate Change Response Program, NPS.
Recommendations for Adaptation
Warmer winters, drier summers and the encroachment of new species all present serious challenges to the plants and animals that rely on grasslands and prairies.
Land trusts that manage grasslands may wish to:
- Assess the vulnerability of the property;
- Consider scenario planning;
- Adopt an adaptive management policy.
Specific recommendations for the adaptation of grasslands to climate change include:
- Assess vulnerability of habitat(s) to climate change impacts, such as stronger storms, increased fire risk or dryer summers. Note: these impacts will vary by region and ecosystem.
- Determine whether currently protected habitats are likely to shift their range further north, or to higher elevations. If so, consider the feasibility and value of extending the protected area’s boundaries to include this new territory.
- Drought may increase pressure on existing water resources. Consider taking action to protect these resources from development or degradation, where possible.
- Increase the overall health and resilience of existing habitats by removing invasive plants, restoring native species, and protecting habitats from development and other stressors.