Environmental Education on the Web
"wind-swept seas of grass and wildflowers"
- USDA Forest Service
fifth of the Earth's land surface is grassland. Major grasslands
of the world are found in the African savannas, the Australian
grasslands, the cerrado and campo of South America, the prairies of
North America, and the Central Asian steppes. Grassland is
a biome which is found on every continent except Antarctica. About
800 million people live in grasslands.
The Story of the catastrophic 8-year
drought and great dust storms
that led to a mass exodus from the Great Plains of the U.S.
grasslands of the Great Plains and the Great Basin in the United States
were once inhabited by many different Indian tribes and abundant wildlife.
20 million bison thundered across the plains, which the Indians depended upon
for food and clothing.
Some described it as "great herds of buffalo as far as you could
see." Then the Homestead Act of 1862 brought 6 million
settlers, and so began one of the worst environmental disasters in world
|Over the years
settlers moved out over the plains, they brought cattle and sheep and set them to grazing in the
grasslands. They slaughtered millions of bison, almost to the
brink of extinction. By 1889 only 541 bison were known to be alive in the
U.S. The Indians had been deprived of their main source of food.
The settlers farmed the land once covered with
bluestem, buffalo and grama grasses. The topsoil was plowed
up and with it, the extensive root systems of the native grasses. The
planted grain crops such as barley and oats, and mostly wheat.
Then early in the
1930's, an eight-year drought began, and a series of major wind storms
swept over the Great Plains and the Southwest creating huge smothering dust storms.
The soil in the grasslands had become dry and loose from
plowing and the damage caused by livestock grazing. The roots of
the grain crops could not hold the dry topsoil under such severe winds.
Tons of loose soil was picked up and carried for
hundreds of miles. Fences were buried by huge drifts and dirt had
to be shoveled out of houses. The dust was so thick vision was obscured,
lungs were damaged, and some people even became lost.
The southern Great
Plains became known as the Dust
The land became so damaged there was very little to harvest,
so thousands of farmers and ranchers left to seek their fortunes
elsewhere. Many continued west into California. It is estimated that
some 50 million acres of land were damaged and 50 million more endangered.
The worst damage occurred in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico.
can see that because of the improper intervention of humans in converting the natural grassland
ecosystems into grain crops, allowing the remaining grasslands to be overgrazed,
and not using proper farming methods, the land was unable to withstand such a
long drought period and unusually severe wind storms. The government set
up programs to help restore the land, and they taught the remaining farmers how to
protect the soil and slow erosion. The settlers began to restore and
protect the land, and they planted trees as windbreaks.
The land, the Indians, the settlers, and the bison species had all suffered
greatly, and harsh lessons had been learned.
Around the world
in many countries, people are still suffering, species are in decline, the
weather is becoming more severe, and ecosystems are being decimated. We
now know that starvation, disease, war, environmental damage and devastation of
biodiversity in any one area of the planet affects the sustainability of the
whole living system. All of our ecosystems, whether they be rainforests,
coral reefs, glaciers, wetlands, temperate forests, coasts, watersheds, or
grasslands - all are systems that have developed over centuries and thousands of
years, and they are what have allowed life to flourish on this Earth. All
species, both discovered and as yet undiscovered, play a crucial role in
the survival of other species. We have learned some hard lessons - but we
are learning, and many efforts are underway around the world to help our fellow
human beings and the environment of our living planet.
The Dust Bowl - Dust Bowl
photos from the U.S. National Archives.
Excerpts from "The
Dust Bowl, Men, Dirt and Depression" by Paul Bonnifield
See pictures of days turned into nights as 2-mile high black clouds of dirt
roared and rolled over the Plains, obscuring sunlight. Read about the
hardships of survival.
"Surviving the Dust Bowl" -
Special Features - Eyewitness Account of surviving the Dust Bowl, and government
response to the plight of Dust Bowl farmers.
Timeline - Dates and significant events
Maps - Shows huge area affected in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and
People and Events - The Great Depression, The Drought, Black Sunday, Mass Exodus
from the Plains, The New Deal, Works Progress Administration.
From the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
near Prairie City, Iowa, The Refuge is the largest re-creation of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem anywhere in the United States.
Grasslands - Fact Sheet
from South Africa
African and Asian elephants are
currently the largest land animals, with the African species being
Both species are threatened by shrinking habitat and poaching for
the ivory trade (They are killed for their ivory tusks. Help
save animals by not purchasing products made from animal parts, such as ivory
tusks, animal paws, rhino horn).
Conservancy - Learn about grassland types and tropical savannas. See
definitions for some related words and view map of Grasslands of South America
Online activities and resources. Links to resource material for educators.
Field Guide to the Prairie
list of links to websites about Prairies, Grasslands and Savannahs
World Resources Institute Report Shows Striking Declines in World’s Grasslands
“We need to value grasslands not only for the goods they produce, like cereals and
grains, but also for the services they provide, like wildlife habitat”
(Environmental News Network 12/11/00)
MSN Encarta Online Encyclopedia
- Savannas, temperate grasslands, and steppes
UC Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley
of Grass and Who
Lives in Grasslands?
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
Large Grasslands for Grassland Birds
Massachusetts Audubon Society
Wildflowers and Grasses
Kansas State University online library
There are 20 publicly-owned National Grasslands administered by the USDA Forest
(four million acres in all). Read about the conservation programs which
are helping preserve the grasslands and prairie ecosystems. Click into the
Grasslands Locator to find information about the habitat, birds, wildlife, and
wildflowers in our national grasslands.
Prairie National Preserve
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Week, November
"The stunning hills
and vistas in this region of Kansas are a rare remnant of the vast expanse of
tallgrass prairie that once covered much of central North America."
Click on Teacher's Corner and then the various links to History, Archaeology,
Geology, Climate, Wildlife and Biology, and Culture of the Prairie.
(this is a new website with more educational resources coming soon)
National Zoo Prairie Site