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Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands.

Abstract

In the US Corn Belt, a recent doubling in commodity prices has created incentives for landowners to convert grassland to corn and soybean cropping. Here, we use land cover data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service Cropland Data Layer to assess grassland conversion from 2006 to 2011 in the Western Corn Belt (WCB): five states including North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa. Our analysis identifies areas with elevated rates of grass-to-corn/soy conversion (1.0-5.4% annually). Across the WCB, we found a net decline in grass-dominated land cover totaling nearly 530,000 ha. With respect to agronomic attributes of lands undergoing grassland conversion, corn/soy production is expanding onto marginal lands characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought. Grassland conversion is also concentrated in close proximity to wetlands, posing a threat to waterfowl breeding in the Prairie Pothole Region. Longer-term land cover trends from North Dakota and Iowa indicate that recent grassland conversion represents a persistent shift in land use rather than short-term variability in crop rotation patterns. Our results show that the WCB is rapidly moving down a pathway of increased corn and soybean cultivation. As a result, the window of opportunity for realizing the benefits of a biofuel industry based on perennial bioenergy crops, rather than corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, may be closing in the WCB.

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