Northern Great Plains, USA & Canada

Spanning 5 US states and 2 Canadian provinces, the Northern Great Plains is one of the largest prairie grasslands in the world. Despite habitat and species loss, opportunities exist to conserve and restore remaining large areas of this unique ecosystem.
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American bison grazing on the prairie. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA.
© iStockPhoto / Ken Canning

Disappearing grasslands

The Northern Great Plains of North America once rivaled the African savanna in abundance of wildlife.
Up until the 19th century, millions of bison, pronghorn antelope and elk could be seen grazing on an endless sea of prairie grass. Today, large swaths of those grasslands and the native species that depend on them are gone due to intensive agriculture and grazing as well as oil, gas and coal development.

With less than 2% the region’s millions of hectares in reserves, the Northern Great Plains is one of the least protected places on Earth.

Climate change is also predicted to negatively effect prairie vegetation and wildlife, and wetlands are expected to dry up in many areas.

The prairie used to be immense and vast with lots of wildlife. But things can change quickly, so much has rapidly disappeared.

Dr Curtis Freese, WWF Northern Great Plains Programme

Where are the Northern Great Plains?

Restoring the prairie

By bringing together local communities, landowners, state governments, scientists and industry, WWF is working to conserve and restore the region’s natural heritage. This includes:
  • Increasing the amount of native habitat for conservation from 1.5% to 10%
  • Promoting ecologically sustainable management to prevent the further loss of native prairie
  • Restoring populations of native species such as American bison (Bison bison), black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) and pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)
 / ©: WWF-US / Tom Lalley
Prairie dogs are small, burrowing rodents native to the grasslands of North America.
© WWF-US / Tom Lalley

Return of the black-footed ferret

 / ©: Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com
Black-footed ferret poking out of its den.
© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com
The black-footed ferret, found only in the Great Plains, is the one of the most endangered mammals in North America. The loss of their prairie grassland habitat and the drastic reduction of prairie dog numbers - their primary food source - contributed to their near-extinction.

Since a small population was discovered in the US state of Wyoming in 1982, WWF has been working to save black-footed ferret and prairie dog populations. Through captive breeding and reintroduction programmes, there are currently 500 black-footed ferrets in the wild, mostly in restricted sites in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Watch black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs at home in South Dakota's Conata Basin on YouTube.

Facts & Figures

    • The Northern Great Plains is home to some 1,600 species of plants, 300 birds, no fewer than 220 kinds of butterflies and 95 mammals.
    • Prairie pronghorns are the fastest land animal in North America, achieving speeds of up to 96kph.
    • Male bisons can reach a height of 1.8m from hoof to shoulder and weigh between 450-900kg; despite their size, bison can sprint at speeds of up to 56kph.
    • A single black-footed ferret eats about 100 prarie dogs a year and cannot survive without access to large colonies of them.
    • Black-tailed prairie dogs build extensive underground "towns", which become shelter for burrowing owls, jackrabbits, snakes and many other species.

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