© Mike Norton (Colorado)

Shortgrass Prairie

The shortgrass prairie once teemed with massive herds of free-ranging bison and pronghorn, as well as huge prairie dog colonies, deer and elk, and top predators including gray wolves and grizzly bears.  Today, the most conspicuous animal on the prairie is domestic cattle.  Pronghorn and prairie dogs still inhabit Colorado's prairies, though in reduced numbers.  Top predators have been replaced by coyotes.  

Large-scale ecological processes such as climate, fire and grazing exert strong influences in this system.  In contrast to other prairie systems such as midgrass and tallgrass, fire in the shortgrass prairie is less important, especially in the western range as it approaches the Rocky Mountain front.  However, fires that did occur historically were often very expansive.  Currently, fire suppression and certain grazing patterns in the region have likely decreased the historic fire frequency even more, and it is unlikely that these processes could occur now at a natural scale.  A large part of the range for this system (especially in the east and near rivers) has been converted to agriculture.  Crop agriculture is still an important economic activity on Colorado's prairie, and already extensive urban areas continue to expand.  Overall, fully 48% of our native prairie has been converted to other uses - the largest loss of all of Colorado’s ecosystems.  The short grasses that dominate this system are extremely drought- and grazing-tolerant.  These species evolved with drought and large herbivores and, because of their stature, are relatively resistant to grazing pressure.  Thus, cattle grazing is one of today's primary land uses in this system.

Rarity in the Shortgrass Prairie

The largest portion of Colorado’s declining animal species are associated with the shortgrass prairie.  Grassland bird species may constitute one of the fastest declining vertebrate populations in North America.  The federally endangered black-footed ferret was lost to Colorado's shortgrass prairie prior to re-introduction of experimental populations in recent years.  Species of conservation concern that still inhabit native prairie habitats in Colorado include:  burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, mountain plover, McCown’s longspur, chestnut-collared longspur, and long-billed curlew, as well as northern pocket gopher, ornate box turtle, massasugua rattlesnake, and Texas horned lizard.  The rarest plants in the shortgrass prairie are associated with isolated shale barrens [[add link to shale barrens system]].  


The vast majority (around 87%) of Colorado's shortgrass prairie is privately owned, much of it in agricultural production.  Though almost half of our native prairie has been converted, vast expanses of native prairie in good condition still exist.  In many places, we have the stewardship of our ranching families to thank for this.  However, in the absence of formal, legal protection (such as conservation easements), long-term tenure of these lands is not secure.  Numerous threats to the species that inhabit this system still exist.  These include:  renewable and non-renewable energy production (wind, solar, geothermal, oil and gas, and biofuels); continuing expansion of urban communities, especially along the Front Range; and potentially expanding exurban development in some places.  Existing climate change models predict less change (though not no change!) in this ecological system than in other higher elevation systems within Colorado.  What impact these changes may have on the biodiversity of the region is not yet known.  Certainly aggressive pursuit of new sources of renewable energy is necessary to help reduce impacts from global climate change.  The facts that renewable energy development could also have adverse impacts of its own, coupled with the desire of most renewable energy companies to be as "green" as possible, offers conservationists a rich opportunity to expand their pool of partners and conservation tools.  According to Colorado's Biodiversity Scorecard, shortgrass prairie is considered poorly conserved.  This habitat type is identified as a high priority habitat in Colorado's Wildlife Action Plan.  

Additional Resources

Colorado Natural Heritage Program ecological systems descriptions

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NatureServe Explorer ecological systems profiles

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