Cropland expansion is hindering grassland ecosystem in South Dakota, USGS study shows

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum
Bees move in and out of a self-created entrance to their hive on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.

Growth of the crop farming industry is leading to millions of dollars in losses for commercial apiaries in the Dakotas, according to a new study conducted by researchers who hope their findings can give beekeepers a bigger seat at the ag table.

According to a newly released U.S. Geological Survey study, researchers estimated beekeepers lost between $2 and $2.8 million annually in areas where grasslands were converted to croplands for farming, and total grassland area along bird migration survey routes dropped by 12.7% in the Dakotas from 2001 to 2016.

The study also placed a dollar amount on the Dakota's heathier prairies: $7,525 per 10 square kilometers.

MoreDucks Unlimited, NRCS partner to restore grasslands in South Dakota

Clint Otto, a USGS scientist and lead author of the study, told the Farm Forum the estimated value could be used as an incentive for lawmakers to conserve the Dakota's prairies.

"'What is the grassland bird worth to the American public and lawmakers?' These animals have an inherent value, but it's tough to monetize," Otto said in a phone interview Wednesday. "It is tough for conservation biologists to articulate the importance of this to a lawmaker. so we need to start speaking the language of the policy maker and look at the dollar value of what these ecosystems provide."

MoreAugustana Bee Project's future in doubt after beehives run afoul of Sioux Falls zoning laws

Otto said pollinators like honeybees are vital to agriculture and the overall health of the grassland ecosystem. Hives generate honey, pollinate crops and flowers in the area, while creating a food source for birds that inhabit North Dakota and South Dakota's plains, like the western meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow.

Western Meadowlark.

Grassland ecosystems are intimately interlinked, Otto explained, and land use mirrors the profitability of honeybee colonies.

"If you go into an area with more row crop, you'll see fewer honeybee colonies and fewer birds. … More grasslands equals more bees, which equals more birds, which equals more beekeeper revenue," Otto said.

"A person in New York, even though they may never step foot in the Dakotas, depends on South Dakota pollinators. Anyone who likes to eat requires a pollinator in their life," he added.

Scientists from USGS, University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University collaborated on the study.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP. Feel free to talk all things ag or send a news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.