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Accelerated Conversion of Native Prairie to Cropland in Minnesota

Lark, Tyler J, Larson, Ben, Schelly, Ian, Batish, Sapna, Gibbs, Holly K
Environmental conservation 2019 v.46 no.2 pp. 155-162
Glycine max, Zea mays, aerial photography, alfalfa hay, corn, crop insurance, cropland, crops, endangered ecosystems, grasslands, habitats, inventories, issues and policy, land cover, land use, landscapes, natural resources conservation, prices, renewable energy sources, satellites, soybeans, Minnesota
Unplowed native grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world, due in large part to their agricultural suitability and widespread conversion to cropland. Despite this, remaining locations of these species- and carbon-rich landscapes are neither well monitored nor effectively protected. A recent spike in US prices for corn (Zea mays) and soybeans (Glycine max) intensified incentives to bring new land into production, potentially hastening the conversion of grasslands to crops. We combined satellite-based land cover data with aerial photographs and a field-based inventory of remaining native grassland (hereafter prairie) in Minnesota to assess the areas, rates, and locations of prairie conversion since 2008. Our results reveal that during 2008–2012, prairie was converted at average annual rates more than four times greater than the previous decade and a half. Corn and soybeans were the initial crops planted on 73% of converted prairie, and more than 80% of conversion occurred in recently established conservation priority zones, thereby magnifying the urgency to protect these sites. Broader land-use trends in Minnesota suggest that expansion of both croplands and developed lands continues to threaten all grasslands, including the subset that is prairie, and that the growth of developed or built-up land may be amplifying the conversion pressure exerted by agriculture, though further research is needed. Despite the small total area of prairie lost, the multi-fold increase in conversion rates and the confirmation of native habitat clearing may have substantial conservation implications, especially given the very limited prairie that remains in the region. The overall results reveal challenges for federal policies, including a loophole in the crop insurance Sodsaver provision surrounding alfalfa hay and limitations in the current enforcement of the Renewable Fuel Standard.