Great Plains

Great Plains Bird Photo
The McCown’s longspur is one of nine grassland birds endemic, or unique, to the northern Great Plains.
©Stephen Rossiter
Bison Photo
Up to 30 million plains bison once roamed the Great Plains in herds. For millennia, they were the driving ecological force in North America's grassland ecosystems.
Steve Zack

Covering parts of South Dakota through Montana, up to Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada, the Northern Great Plains is known for its golden wheat fields and cattle ranches. Historically, the region was rich with grasslands and shrub steppe, and home to large, spectacular herds of bison and pronghorn that grazed and shaped its vegetation. It was also prime habitat for grassland birds, which continue to enliven the Great Plains with their songs and bright colors.

But after a century of habitat conversion, degradation, and fragmentation, the region’s wildlife has long been declining. Today, its grassland birds have grown relatively scarce. These species need vast treeless areas, as nearly all nest on the ground, hiding their young in the sea of grass and wildflowers. As a result, they now rank among the most imperiled types of birds in the world.

Fast Facts

  • Grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem in North America.
  • Across the continent, 42 bird species depend on grasslands for breeding.
  • These nine grassland birds are endemic, or unique, to the northern Great Plains: mountain plover, long-billed curlew, ferruginous hawk, McCown’s and chestnut-collared longspurs, lark bunting, Baird’s and Cassin’s sparrows, and Sprague’s pipit.


The Great Plains’ vast horizons of contiguous grasslands have long disappeared. With them, numbers of prairie dogs, bison, and pronghorn have fallen off, as have populations of native carnivores. The seasonal, natural fires that helped shape the Great Plains no longer occur with regularity. Instead, the most significant ecological influence on the landscape today is livestock, both bison and cattle, whose grazing behaviors have resulted in the homogenization of remaining grasslands.

Several bird species adapted to or co-evolved with grasses and vegetation structures that had been grazed and groomed by millions of free-ranging bison and burrowing prairie dogs for millennia. Without these mammals, and without a diverse mix of terrain to depend on, the birds have declined.

WCS Responds

By helping to restore bison on the Western Plains, WCS is also helping to conserve the region’s grassland birds. As bison herds dot the Great Plains, both on private and public land, conservationists can investigate how the behavior of these wild animals—quite different from that of cattle—can help keep grasslands healthy, control invasive species, and create seasonal variety in grass height. 

WCS is working on reversing grassland degradation over an area of 450,000 acres with a broad range of partners. Our activities include monitoring bird populations and bird-bison habitat associations, and developing science-based guidelines to manage grazing so that it creates more suitable wildlife habitat. We are also coordinating when, where, and how grasslands are grazed or burned to support the varied grass heights and density that birds prefer, and identifying how grassland conservation can be best incorporated into ranching livelihoods.

From the Newsroom

Let Me Tell You 'Bout the Birds and the Bees... and a Thing Called NeonicsFebruary 6, 2014

If the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, neonics for short, continues, in the future we won't have birds and bees to talk about. Steve Zack, WCS Coordinator of Bird Conservation, explains the dangers of the heavily used insecticide.

Alberta’s Heritage of Wildlife & Headwaters Up for GrabsDecember 27, 2013

John Weaver, Senior Conservation Scientist with WCS-Canada, warns that the Alberta government’s draft Regional Plan for the South Saskatchewan, which would establish new Wildland Parks in about a quarter of the area, will be inadequate to conserving its vulnerable fish and wildlife populations and sources of precious water that are cherished by southern Albertans.

Three Strikes You're out in the Old... Great... Plains!August 2, 2013

Steve Zack, WCS's Coordinator of Bird Conservation, explains the ways in which oil and gas fracking efforts may reshape the American prairie, and the consequences for grassland birds and bison.

The Bison: A National Symbol For All AmericansAugust 8, 2012

In his first blog celebrating bison, WCS Executive Vice President for Public Affairs John Calvelli discusses ongoing efforts to protect this iconic species. WCS has been protecting buffalo since the turn of the 20th century and is currently working with conservationists, sportsmen, Native American tribes, and lawmakers to advance the National Bison Legacy Act.

The Buffalo has Earned Recognition as our National MammalAugust 3, 2012

WCS has been leading bison conservation efforts since 1905, when William Hornaday co-founded the American Bison Society with Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to supporting bison and the landscapes they roam, WCS has joined efforts to craft the National Bison Legacy Act--Congressional legislation that would designate bison as our country's national mammal. 


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