In a move backed by a broad coalition of conservation and sportsmen’s groups, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and co-sponsors Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) are introducing the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, directed at saving and restoring America’s grasslands. Modeled after the very successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) of 1989, the Grasslands Act would create a voluntary, incentive-based program to conserve and restore grassland and sagebrush ecosystems across the United States. The act would have a host of wildlife benefits and could bolster upland game populations across the country.

Over 50 million acres of grasslands have been lost in the United States during the past 10 years to row-crop production and development, resulting in major declines in ground-nesting bird populations, including popular gamebirds like pheasants and quail. Bethany Erb, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Director of Governmental Affairs, says that improving gamebird habitat is just one of the benefits of protecting and restoring grasslands.

“Grasslands are especially relevant now in light of climate problems,” she says. “There is great carbon-capture potential in grasslands that’s not often talked about.” She also points out that the NAGCA garnered support from the National Deer Association, as grasslands connect habitats and provide corridors for big game. “It’s a holistic wildlife bill,” says Erb, “Other conservation concerns have come first, and while they are certainly deserving, we feel as if grasslands have been overlooked. We saw the uptick in waterfowl populations that followed the passing of NAWCA and realized similar legislation could help grassland gamebirds.”

Although the short and tallgrass prairies and sagebrush of the Midwest and Great Plains will be a major focus of grassland conservation efforts, Erb points out there are grasslands in all 50 states that could be eligible for funding. The bill would authorize a $290 million per year Grassland Conservation Grant Program. The funds would pay for easements, restoration projects, and grassland management in cooperation with willing landowners. Erb says the next step is to find bi-partisan support and more co-sponsors for the bill and begin work on a companion bill in the house.  

After the bill finds co-sponsors, it would go to the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. Erb says there are several potential paths forward for the Grasslands Conservation Act. It could advance as stand-alone legislation or, given the short time frame before the end of this session, it could be added to a larger conservation and wildlife package. Or, it may have to be re-introduced in the next Congress.

Whatever the path forward, the North American Grasslands Conservation Act represents an important reinvestment in grasslands and wildlife, and it should be on every hunter’s and conservationist’s radar. “We want people to be aware of this bill, to follow its progress, and contact their lawmakers at the appropriate times,” says Erb.