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Preserving the Plains
Joel Sartore tells what moved him and others to create a nature reserve out West in the Great Plains.
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Conservation Alliance of the Great Plains

By Tyler Sutton Photographs by Joel Sartore
Produced by Jacey Pittleman

Plowing up swaths of earth as they migrated across the region, buffalo by the millions once thrived in North America’s Great Plains.

Wolves, grizzly bears, and even a subspecies of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep also foraged and grazed across the rich grasslands. The Great Plains was truly North America’s Serengeti.

By the end of the 19th century, however, many of the large mammals were gone, killed for their meat and hides or forced into the Rockies when settlers’ fences barred them from ranging freely.

Conditions only worsened in the 20th century. Massive dam projects bridled the free-flowing Missouri River. Mechanical irrigation systems converted millions of acres of grasslands into cropland. Farm programs poorly suited for the arid plains accelerated the transformation of even more acres to crop farming. Today the Great Plains is one of the most degraded ecosystems on the continent.

Moved to action by the plight of wildlife on the plains, photographer Joel Sartore and I, a Nebraska attorney, came up with an idea: Create a nature reserve where Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota come together. Our nonprofit Conservation Alliance of the Great Plains has attracted a number of the United States’ leading conservation groups to work on innovative approaches to restore the region and bring back the wildlife. Land trusts are being created to hold easements, for example. The Nature Conservancy is buying land outright and designating conservation easements. And the National Park Trust acquired land in Kansas and created the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, managed as a national park unit under federal legislation.

Even though many animal species have been pushed off the Great Plains, a number of creatures—including those seen here—still call it home.

Read more in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Underdogs: Prairie Dogs at Home
Learn all about prairie dogs at National Geographic’s interactive website, as you navigate through a virtual burrow.

Buffalo Field Campaign
Daily in-depth reports on the state of the buffalo from the heart of Yellowstone National Park.

Cochrane Ecological Institute
This site emphasizes the Canadian organization’s conservation goal of breeding endangered indigenous species and reintroducing extirpated fauna and flora.

Conservation Alliance of the Great Plains
Joel Sartore’s and Tyler Sutton’s site is dedicated to education, research, and advocacy for the preservation and restoration of endangered and threatened ecosystems and species, with a special focus on the grasslands and Great Plains of North America.

Defenders of Wildlife
Dedicated to the protection of all native wild animals and plants in their natural communities.

Grunko Wildlife Films
Take a look at some of the extraordinary work wildlife filmmaker Bill Grunkemeyer has produced on subjects ranging from grizzly bears to fly-fishing to prairie chickens.

National Wildlife Federation
A great overview by the National Wildlife Federation of the importance of the American grassland and its trials and tribulations. Take an in-depth look at three defining species of this ecosystem: the buffalo, the black-tailed prairie dog, and the sage grouse.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF worldwide) (USA)
WWF directs its conservation efforts toward three global goals: protecting endangered spaces, saving endangered species, and addressing global threats.

Joel Sartore’s Online Gallery
Go on assignment with National Geographic magazine photographer Joel Sartore. Check out the answers to frequently asked questions and view his online gallery of wildlife work, especially on North America’s endangered species.


Canadian Wildlife Service (online),, “Hinterland Who’s Who: The Swift Fox,” Environment Canada.

National Wildlife Federation (online),, “Grasslands.”

Sieg, Carolyn Hull, and others. “Recent Biodiversity Patterns in the Great Plains: Implications for Restoration and Management,” The Center for Great Plains Studies (Fall 1999), 277-313.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (online),, Threatened and Endangered Species System.


Long, Michael E. “The Vanishing Prairie Dog,” National Geographic (April 1998), 117-130.

Sunquist, Fiona. “A Fighting Chance for Ferrets,” National Geographic World (September 1996), 15-18.

Chadwick, Douglas H. “The American Prairie: Roots of the Sky,” National Geographic (October 1993), 90-119.

Hodgson, Brian. “North Dakota: Tough Times on the Prairie,” National Geographic (March 1987), 320-247.

Farney, Dennis. “The Tall Grass Prairie: Can It Be Saved?” National Geographic (January 1980), 37-61.

Clark, Tim W. “The Hard Life of the Prairie Dog,” National Geographic (August 1979), 270-281.

Garrett, Wilbur E. “Canada’s Heartland, the Prairie Provinces,” National Geographic (October 1970), 443-489.


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