Return of the Native Natural Prairies Slowly Make a Comeback

Only about five percent of native prairie is left in Kansas. Less than one percent remains in Illinois, North Dakota and Minnesota. Agriculture, urban sprawl and fire suppression have left Iowa with less than one-tenth of one percent of its native prairies. But native grasses, which once fed the soil and the far-ranging bison and elk before European settlers came with their fenced-in livestock, are making a comeback. Government agencies and grassroots groups are using native grasses as part of prairie restoration efforts across the United States. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, more than five million acres of native warm-season grasses have been reseeded in the plains states alone.

Departments of Transportation (DOT) in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and other Midwestern states are establishing native grasses and wildflowers along what is now called the Prairie Passage route. “During the 1973 gas crisis, DOTs couldn’t afford to mow from fence row to fence row because gas prices were so high,” says Mark Masteller, chief landscape architect for the Iowa DOT. “That’s when the impetus for switching to native plants started to grow.”

Stan Parrish of the Missouri Prairie Foundation shows off the 240-acre Schwartz Prairie, much of which was restored from bare ground beginning in 1998. Arthur Benson / Missouri Prairie Foundation

Aside from the visual pleasures of wildflowers and replacing exotic turf with the blues, reds and bronzes of native grasses, natural vegetation holds a number of practical benefits as well. “These are the plants that have adapted to our soils and climate over thousands of years,” says Masteller. “So when we hit droughts and floods, these species can withstand it. Exotic species struggle and are susceptible to weeds.” Costs for mowing and chemical sprays are kept to a minimum because native grasses need little maintenance. The height of native plants also aids in snow control by preventing drift onto the highway. Native vegetation nourishes the soil by effortlessly recycling nutrients, and their root systems can delve 12 to 20 feet into the ground (compared to the 10- to 12-inch depth of exotic grasses), which helps control erosion. “Native grasses also help with our water-quality issues because they absorb water and chemical runoff from our roadways,” says Masteller.

Despite many DOTs’ increasing favor for native vegetation, exotic grasses are often planted on exposed dirt along roadways because they grow faster. “Once native grasses are established, they do a good job. But the two to three years it takes them to grow creates an erosion concern,” says Rick Ross, Kansas DOT’s chief landscape architect.

Nevertheless, with millions of dollars being set aside in each state, DOTs are committed to restoring and preserving the small percentages of native prairie left. “Detractors say the money should be spent on resurfacing bridges and roadways,” says Masteller. “But we have to look at the whole package and protect the investment for the long term.”

The rise of big agriculture made the family farm something of a remnant species of its own, and many of these farms left tracts of native prairie. Some groups, such as the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF) and The Nature Conservancy, often buy defunct farms and private lands to preserve remnant prairie and convert surrounding row crop areas into native prairie. To date, the MPF has bought and managed more than 2,500 acres of native prairie. Along with the Grasslands Coalition and the Missouri Department of Conservation, the MPF is using grant money from the Species Recovery Fund to recover land near the Taberville Prairie Conservation area, which is the largest remaining prairie chicken breeding ground in Missouri. The MPF reseeds, performs controlled burns, regulates grazing and removes exotic species and trees from the prairie to restore the habitat for the endangered prairie chickens, as well as for quail, pheasants and other wildlife. “Trees are not part of native prairie, and the [prairie game] birds don’t tolerate them because they are ground nesters,” says Bill Crawford, co-founder of MPF.

The Sheyenne National Grassland in North Dakota offers one of the best examples of large-scale restoration of tallgrass prairies. When the Forest Service took possession of this 71,000-acre land, most of the native vegetation had been farmed or grazed. Invasive tree species, noxious weeds and soil erosion sickened the prairie. But in a state where only one tenth of one percent of tallgrass prairie is intact, restoring this land is increasingly important. While the Sheyenne is admired for its wildlife and recreational opportunities, it also produces meat and agriculture, and the Forest Service has to address all those needs. But land management priorities are shifting. “The Sheyenne’s new management plan for 2002 is almost exclusively ecosystem preservation. Before, it was about livestock grazing,” says Bryan Stotts, a Forest Service district ranger.

Whether restoring patches of right-of-ways or thousands of acres of prairie, finding sources of native seed is a common obstacle. “There are 1,200 species of flowering plants in North Dakota, and 850 of those are found in the Sheyenne,” says Stotts. “You can’t just go out and collect seeds from 850 species. We have tremendous diversity, and to reestablish that will take a long time.” A few commercial seed sources, such as Star Seed in Kansas, have also found a niche market in native prairies. The company takes native grasses and wildflower seeds developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and sources them to farmers, private landowners, wholesalers and prairie restoration groups across the country. Also, some universities are developing native seed sources. In a cooperative effort with the Iowa DOT, the University of Northern Iowa is using volunteers to harvest seed from original species of Iowa’s native remnants. “They’ve been doing about three species a year,” says Masteller. “We now have about two dozen species that weren’t available before.”

Without an economic advantage, such as in the case of right-of-ways, convincing people of the importance of prairies is difficult. Many livelihoods depend on vast, wide- open spaces for agricultural and ranching use. “The prairie is a hard sell. We have a beauty aesthetic that’s dictated by topographic relief, and flat lands don’t fit that,” says Stotts. “But if you want to see what your ancestors saw when they came to the Great Plains, and understand how it was, you don’t have many options anymore. The prairies are our link to the past, and with the species that we as a society have made a commitment to protecting, they are also a link to the future.”