As I was walking through some native prairie with my gal the other day, she commented on how cool it was that all of the different plants all seemed to get along so well together. She wondered why they all seemed to share the same space without trying to out-compete each other.
It got me thinking just how rich a native prairie can be. Almost all the native prairie that once existed across the Great Plains is gone forever. Less than 2 percent of the original native prairie, which consisted of millions and millions of acres, still exists today.
When trying to explain native prairies to those who have never seen one or have never seen a pristine one, I point out that these ecosystems are as diverse as the rain forests if you just take the time to slow down and take a long look.
On the planet today, grassland ecosystems are the most endangered of all habitats. That’s kind of a sobering thought when you see the degradation of the planet taking place in other parts of the world.
Diversity is the word that best describes native prairies that once existed. If you could take a string and stake off an area that was 100-by-100 feet square, an area this small could support over 150 different species of grasses, forbs and flowers. Each of these different species occupied a different space in this unique ecosystem. Many of those species would be short in stature. Some only grow to a height of about 6 inches. Another group would grow to a height of about 2 feet, and yet others would reach the height of 5, 6, or 7 feet and some as tall as 9 feet.
The flowers that were also present were of differing heights and also had some very spectacular qualities. In a native prairie, different flower species would bloom starting in late March, and many different species would flower every week all the way to the end of October.
This allowed pollinators to have available food supplies all spring, summer and fall long. What a miracle! 60 million buffalo used to roam on these prairies, and their grazing and hooves pounding the ground energized the growth of these plants and kept them healthier and thriving. Lightning caused wildfires which also burned large swaths of prairie, and these uncontrolled fires also stimulated plant growth and maintained vitality of this unique landscape.
As with the advance of any civilization, landscapes change, and in many cases, no matter what we try to do, we will never be able to restore those communities to their original state.
The University of Minnesota had an interesting read about a month ago. It described their efforts to rebuild the soil back to its original condition that existed before modern food production.
One hundred years ago, this would have been in about 1823, on one of their research farms they retired a large field from farming and planted it to native prairie. The aspect of this research that surprised me so much was that even after 100 years of no cultivation, herbicide or pesticide application or any other modern practice, the soil was still only capable of sustaining 4 percent of the plants that once existed there.
Soil is an ecosystem all to its own. There are enzymes, bacteria, and other things so small we can’t see them, but all constitute a rich, healthy soil.
When you look at all of what you can see above ground, there is just as much biomass that exists underground. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
I have spent much of my life trying to restore grassland habitats. What I have learned is that it will take legions of folks who care about wild places to get involved with this effort.
The more people that explore and generally understand how important this grassland ecosystem is, the more that can be achieved.
To some, grass and flowers will always be just a bunch of grasses and flowers, but as we get to understand more clearly the necessity of clean air and water and what these grasslands do to benefit those life-sustaining resources, the more important these areas will become.
Carbon sequestration is a phrase many people don’t understand, but over the next 50 years it will become a common household word, and the understanding of how grasslands can be an important part of the pollution solution will be known by almost everyone.
Scott Rall, Worthington, is a habitat conservationist, avid hunting and fishing enthusiast and is president of Nobles County Pheasants Forever. He can be reached at email@example.com.