House Pushes Bill To Protect Prairie Land, Critical Wildlife Habitat

By @katierucke |
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    Extensive grasslands with abundant wildflowers cover a landscape that was once the site of strip mining. (Photo/via Wikimedia Commons)

    Extensive grasslands with abundant wildflowers cover a landscape that was once the site of strip mining. (Photo/via Wikimedia Commons)

    (MintPress) – One of the largest ecosystems in North America is rapidly becoming endangered: prairie lands. Covering more than 18 million acres of land in the state of Minnesota alone, it’s estimated the prairie is home to more than 2,000 native species of plants and animals, which is higher than the amount of plants and animals found in the subtropical Florida Everglades region.

    Not to mention over the past 100 years, the prairies have been a fertile land to grow food, and the sod acts like a giant sponge conserving rainwater and preventing erosion.

    But the large presence of agriculture, ranching and biofuel cultivation on these lands has destroyed thousands of acres of prairie land in more than a dozen states in the U.S., reducing biodiversity in prairie regions and eliminating native grasses. Large-scale use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, miticides and fungicides have had noticeable effects on the animals, specifically native bees and honey bees.

    Texas, once home to 20 million acres of prairie land, now has less than one percent of its original prairie land, due to suburban sprawl, plowing for agriculture purposes, mining, sand and gravel removal, and overgrazing from heavy amounts of cattle living off the land. Troubled prairie land also has an effect on lakes, rivers and streams, as well as the animals and plant species that live in these aquatic habitats, since the pesticides and chemicals used on the land end up in these waters.

    Prairie land that has remained untouched likely has survived only because the land was too rocky or sandy to be farmed profitably. But now with the U.S.’ dependence on oil and emergence of fracking practices, prairie lands are turning into fracking fields filled with oil wells.

    In 2012 two Representatives, Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.), along with six bipartisan cosponsors, introduced a piece of legislation to save prairie lands and taxpayer dollars that fund their destruction.

    The Protect Our Prairies (POP) Act would cut $200 million in federal subsidies that encourage farmers to cultivate the native sod and grassland most prone to flood and erosion, and would prohibit the government from paying farmers for cultivating prairie land unless the farmers can prove a multi-year history of successful harvests.

    “Prairie and native grasslands are disappearing rapidly, leaving behind fewer ranching opportunities, diminished hunting, greater soil erosion and other economic and environmental losses for rural communities,” said Traci Bruckner, assistant policy director at the Center for Rural Affairs. “And the Protect Our Prairies Act will protect those grasslands by prohibiting federal commodity payments on newly broken native sod and by reducing federal crop insurance premium subsidies by 50 percent on those acres.”

    The subsidies for farmers originally were created in an attempt to ensure that even with a failed harvest, farmers would be able to provide for their families. Bruckner says the bill includes two provisions that close loopholes in the system and are “crucial to removing the federally subsidized incentive to bust up native grassland.”

    Though a similar version of POP Act was included in last year’s House Agriculture Committee-passed farm bill, Reps. Noem and Walz said they want legislation with “stronger language” included in the 2013 farm bill.

    According to Dr. Reese Halter, a conservation scientist and Huffington Post contributor, plants and animals found on the prairie are some of the hardiest in the world, in that they can withstand extremes such as floods and droughts.

    “Grasses have figured out how to contend with aridity. They invest as much as 80 percent of their growth into roots and are able to regenerate by cloning from vegetative structures … The soils are fertile because the grasses produce more below-ground vegetation than soil organisms can consume,” he wrote.

    One of the co-sponsors of the bill, Rep. Noem, said “coming from a state that has both a strong hunting tradition and agriculture community, this legislation helps continue the healthy balance between production and conservation.”

    “The Protect Our Prairies Act accomplishes priorities for farmers, sportsmen and taxpayers,” said Representative Walz, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry. “By working together and promoting common sense conservation practices we can support our farmers, protect critical wildlife habitat and support the hunting and fishing industry that is an integral part of our state’s economy.”

    An identical version of the POP Act by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) was included in the Senate-passed “Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act” last year, and is expected to remain in the 2013 version of the bill.

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