Habitat & Conservation  |  10/04/2021

Brightest Sunlight to Darkest Soil

Photo by Ken Canning via iSTOCK

How grassland wildlife habitat is part of the climate challenge solution

By Greg Hoch

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

“The grassland vegetation has exerted a powerful influence as a soil-builder. Plants, which introduce the living, biological factor into soil formation, return much more to the soil than they take from it.”
— John Weaver, Prairie Plants and Their Environment

  Have you ever wondered why prairie soils are so dark? Has your dog ever retrieved a bird from a wetland, delivered to hand, shaken, and covered you with black muck? The soils under grasslands and wetlands are black for the same reason that coal and crude oil are black: They are rich in carbon.

Our native grasslands have been storing carbon for centuries. As grasslands disappear from the landscape, so does their magnificent ability to clean the air and store that carbon. Fortunately, things work in reverse too. Restoring grasslands returns carbon to the soil. 

The details of how carbon and other elements move through soils, wetlands, plants and air is incredibly complex. Scientists admit they still only understand a small piece of the large puzzle. But it’s pretty simple in the big picture.

Living creatures — birds, bird dogs, bird hunters for example — inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants — big bluestem prairie grass or black-eyed Susan wildflowers for example — absorb, or breathe in, carbon dioxide and release, or breathe out, oxygen. Plants turn that carbon dioxide into sugars and other chemicals that build the plant’s roots, stems and leaves. Much of that carbon that goes to those roots ends up locked away in the soil. 

Illustrated by Emily Snyder

When you walk through chest-high native grass, as much as 90 percent of the prairie is below round, in the roots.  Three years after a grassland seeding, there are 5.5 tons of big bluestem roots per acre. About a quarter of those roots die each year.

When those roots break down, the carbon stays buried in the soil.  A 2008 in Illinois concluded that “restoration of tallgrass prairie vegetation … has the potential to sequester relatively large amounts of SOC [soil organic carbon] over a sustained period of time.”

Illustrated by Kelly Johnson - As much as 90 percent of the prairie is underground, in massive and deep-reaching roots that store carbon, search out water, and survive fire.

Prairie plants are famously deep-rooted. Purple coneflower roots can burrow eight feet deep in the soil, compassplant to 14 feet, and leadplant roots as deep as 17 feet.

Pheasants Forever promotes the use of high-diversity seed mixes in habitat restorations. Several studies found that high-diversity restorations (meaning, many grass and forb species in one seed mix) store more carbon in the soil than low-diversity restorations. Why? Different plants have more roots growing to different depths and at different times during spring, summer and fall. 

Turns out that what we’ve been doing all along for upland wildlife — pheasants, quail, pollinators, you name it — is good capturing carbon and helping slow climate change.

Habitat restoration and management should use locally native plants, be site-specific, and be based on soils, climate and local conditions. That approach certainly provides the best wildlife habitat and probably stores the most carbon. 

We don’t need to do much different. We just need to do more.
Private lands can play a significant role in helping reduce carbon from the air
  • Grazing is a working lands approach to grassland management. Well-managed, sustainable grazing practices help the soil store carbon while providing wildlife habitat and an economic return for ranchers. 
  • The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides incentives to help landowners implement practices that improve soil health and increase carbon storage. NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife program could play a major role in all these efforts. NRCS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations have easement programs where land is permanently restored with native vegetation.
  • The Farm Service Agency oversees the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). At its peak acreage, there were 26.6 million acres of CRP in the pheasant range. That was a lot of habitat producing a lot of birds. Those acres were also removing 20 million tons of carbon from the air and putting it in the ground. Between 2007 and 2019, we lost 9.9 million acres of CRP in the pheasant range … with a 7.3-million-ton release of carbon from the soil. 
  • Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever has been a leader in promoting precision agriculture: helping producers identify areas in fields that aren’t productive and that are losing money most years, and putting those acres into a grassland conservation program. A 2016 study in Iowa found that farmers typically lose money on 6.2 million acres in that state alone in any given year. If only a portion of those acres could be enrolled into a conservation program, think of the producer profitability improved, the carbon stored, and the pheasants and quail in the air.

The Habitat Organization’s Call of the Uplands® Campaign is working to establish or improve nine million acres of grassland habitat and permanently protect 75,000 acres. Beyond bird habitat, those numbers offer the potential to store significant amounts of carbon in those soils.  

PF & QF has always been a lion’s advocate for public lands. Traditionally, federal and state public lands might have been interpreted as serving only the hunting public. But grasslands store carbon, filter chemicals and sediment from surface water, improve groundwater recharge … and provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators to the enjoyment of any human, hunter or not.  

To slow the effects of climate change, we as a society need to put less carbon in the air and more into the ground. Upland wildlife habitat — what Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever preaches and just does — can’t by itself solve the climate challenge. But grasslands can be an effective and significant piece of the solution.

The uplands we hunt, and hike, and love, turn the brightest sunlight into the darkest soil. Grasslands may help secure our future. That’s the power of habitat.
READ PART 1: Grasslands and Climate
READ PART 3: Grasslands, Climate Policy and the Road Ahead

Greg Hoch is an accomplished conservation writer and longtime Pheasants Forever contributor.

This story originally appeared in the 2021 Fall Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!