Christopher Wright

TOM STROMME/Tribune Christopher Wright, professor at South Dakota State University, spoke at a seminar aimed at land use changes in the western cornbelt on 11-13 morning at Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck.

In the period from 2006 to 2011, North Dakota has had a net loss of about 220,000 acres of grasslands that have been converted into corn and soybean fields.

That’s according to Christopher Wright of the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University.

Wright, who along with Michael Wimberly, authored a scientific paper on land use changes in the western Corn Belt of the U.S., spoke to group of conservation scientists Wednesday at the Ducks Unlimited regional headquarters in Bismarck.

Wright’s presentation was timely as the national debate continues over the effectiveness of the ethanol program aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Wright told the group that land conversion from grasslands to corn and soybeans, spurred by demands for biofuel stocks made from the crops, may take decades to reverse in terms of carbon once locked into the soil that has been released into the atmosphere.

The study encompasses five states in the western Corn Belt — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa — which contain most of the grass-dominated land cover remaining in the country.

Wright said South Dakota’s net loss of grasslands is about double that of North Dakota and overall more than 1.3 million acres of grasslands have been tilled up in the western Corn Belt.

In North Dakota, the area primarily impacted is in the eastern third of the state and Wright said in particular, Stutsman, Logan and Dickey counties.

Proponents of the ethanol industry said increases in corn and soybean production in recent years have not been a result of land coversion.

In a statement, the Renewable Fuels Association said farmers increased corn acreage in 2012 and 2013 in response to drought conditions that depleted corn supplies in 2011and 2012.

The group said less corn was and will be used for ethanol in both 2012 and 2013 than was used in 2011.

Further, the group said increases in corn acres in 2012 and 2013 has been a result of crop switching, not through cultivation of grasslands.

Johann Walker, director of conserveration planning at DU’s Bismarck office, said Wright’s study took readily available data produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that shows a definite shift in land use patterns.

He said that changes ultimately alter ecosystems by by reducing diversity, thereby affecting plant and animal communities as well as water sources.

“It’s a complex issue with a lot of moving parts,” Walker said.

Wright said as the conversion moves westward, grasslands, wetlands and other habitat will disappear.

“Grasslands are the most altered yet least protected areas,” Wright said.

He said his study showed that roughly 90 percent of the tallgrass prairie in the country has been converted to crop land and about 70 percent of the mixed grass prairie has been converted.

He said the Conservation Reserve Program which was designed to take marginally productive land out of product to ease a glut of commodities on the market, was just “a finger in the dam” in terms of conserving grassland biomes.

Wright said one question he is routinely asked is “How long will the grass last?

He said his standard answer is “I don’t know.” But a conservative estimate, he said, is that at present rates, half of the remaining grasslands in the western corn belt will vanish in 20 to 30 years.

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Reach reporter Brian Gehring 250-8254 or brian.gehring@bismarcktribune.com.