Ocean of Grass: An Ecoregional Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Northern Great Plains

Anne Schrag
Posted on: 4/09/2012 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

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Anne Schrag

Project Summary

The Northern Great Plains stretch 450 miles long and 175 miles wide across Canada and the United States. Identified as one of the World Wildlife Fund’s most biologically significant places on Earth, the area was the subject of a 2004 ecoregional assessment (Ocean of Grass: A Conservation Assessment for the Northern Great Plains). An addendum to the report, focused on climate change impacts and adaptation strategies, was released in 2011. This report provides an overview of climate change impacts to the Northern Great Plains Ecoregion and suggests general adaptation techniques that will be beneficial. The analysis and literature review are meant to provide regional-scale data on the exposure of species and systems to historical and predicted future climate change, as well as provide information from the scientific literature that can serve as a qualitative vulnerability analysis for the region as a whole. The purpose of this report is to suggest priorities for conservation work in the Northern Great Plains with a focus on potential climate change impacts, much in the same way that the original Ocean of Grass report did more generally for conservation and restoration in the region. This report uses the priority landscapes and species identified in Ocean of Grass as a basis for understanding climate change impacts and prioritizing adaptation actions.


The Northern Great Plains have experienced a transition from native grasslands to altered landscapes suitable for agriculture, farming, and ranching. Key grassland species have either been greatly reduced or eradicated from the region. Climate change will cause species composition shifts, range shifts and contractions, changes in habitat extent, and increase potential for invasive/non-native species establishment.

The Ocean of Grass Climate Change Addendum began as a way to prioritize climate change adaptation activities at a regional, transboundary scale. The geographic scope is the Northern Great Plains Ecoregional boundary, as defined by World Wildlife Fund; it encompasses parts of five U.S. states (Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota) and two Canadian provinces (Saskatchewan and Alberta). The Addendum, much like its predecessor Ocean of Grass: A Conservation Assessment for the Northern Great Plains, used data and expert-based opinions to set conservation and restoration priorities for the Northern Great Plains; it prioritizes activities, species, and systems based on their exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. The region presents a distinct set of challenges when working on climate adaptation, as compared with mountainous, arctic, and marine landscapes and seascapes. This vulnerability assessment, funded by corporate and private donors at about $30,000, addresses impacts to both natural and human systems, which are a key component in this landscape matrix of privately and publicly held lands. The focus is mostly terrestrial although aquatic habitats are also considered. Limited information concerning climate change impacts on aquatic habitats in the region resulted in limited discussion of these systems in the assessment. Species that were identified as focal species in the Ocean of Grass report were prioritized for consideration and attention was prioritized to those climate impacts specific to grasslands and human livelihoods.


Project leads used a hybrid exposure analysis/literature-based vulnerability assessment to prioritize climate adaptation activities for focal species and systems identified in the Ocean of Grass Conservation Assessment. WWF collaborated with The Nature Conservancy to develop customized maps using ClimateWizard data to investigate historic and predicted future exposure to climate change across the ecoregion. Research was performed by WWF and others to examine the sensitivity and adaptive capacity of species to change. Finally, former and current members of the Northern Plains Conservation Network were consulted for input into the plan; this Network includes government agencies, tribal representatives, and non-governmental organizations from throughout the region.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Because this assessment works at the regional scale, specific projects were not identified as a part of the assessment. Rather, species and systems were prioritized and specific projects are left to be developed by subject-area experts. However, as a part of the assessment, historic and future predicted climate layers for the entire region were produced, as well as the Addendum, which describes potential impacts and suggested adaptation strategies. Next steps include full integration into a revised conservation assessment for the region and identification of partners who can pursue funding for specific projects to get the adaptation strategies implemented on the ground.


Schrag, A.M. (2012). Ocean of Grass: An Ecoregional Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Northern Great Plains. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg [Case study on a project of the World Wildlife Fund]. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/ocean-grass-ecoregional-climate-change-vulne… (Last updated April 2012)

Project Contacts

Position: Program Officer

Affiliated Organizations

For 50 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature. The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by 1.2 million members in the United States and close to 5 million globally. WWF's unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature.

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