I have been fascinated with the Tallgrass Prairie ever since I experienced it at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison Wisconsin.
The world's oldest restored prairie, Curtis Prairie occupies 60 acres just south of the Arboretum Visitor Center. Many classic experiments on planting techniques and the use of fire in prairie management took place here during the 1930s and 40s. In early fall, this deep-soil tallgrass prairie has colorful displays of big bluestem grass and Indian grass, towering from 7 to 8 feet tall.
They have other types of prairies being restored there as you will see on their site. I wish I had pictures of the tallgrass. It was well over my head with tall tall grasses and interspersed with some flowering species. All I could see was grass and sky. Hard to imagine what it was like when there were huge tracts of tallgrass prairie.
In Oklahoma we will be visiting the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the spring when it is filled with wildflowers and the grass is about knee-high. We will be interviewing the director of the Nature Conservancy Preserve, Bob Hamilton and learning about how they are restoring the habitat through the use of controlled burns which used to happen there frequently when it was untouched by man. They also have returned bison to the preserve, one of their natural habitats. This to me is one of the environments that modern man can not even imagine without seeing what once covered huge swaths.
Open to the Public
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie left on earth. Originally spanning portions of 14 states from Texas to Minnesota, urban sprawl and conversion to cropland have left less than 10% of this magnificent American landscape. Since 1989, the Conservancy has proven successful at restoring this fully-functioning portion of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem with the use of about 2500 free-roaming bison and a "patch-burn" model approach to prescribed burning.
Biodiversity Threats in the area include habitat fragmentation and loss, current grazing and fire practices, invasive plant species such as sericea lespedeza and eastern red cedar, and stream degradation due to land management practices and soil erosion.
What the Conservancy is doing now will offer conservation-minded ranchers an alternative to traditional grazing practices. Conservancy staff have already conducted several "patch-burn" workshops with area cattle ranchers to illustrate the potential rewards of embracing this wildlife-friendly method of land management, while continuing to meet the bottom line for their cattle production operations. In addition to alternative grazing practices, The Nature Conservancy is offering to hold conservation easements for land owners who would like to ensure the preservation of their property.
Our "Patch Burn" approach utilizes prescribed burning on roughly 1/3rd of productive rangeland each year, leaving the remaining portions undisturbed by fire. Early research by Oklahoma State University indicates that the complex and mosaic plant communities produced by this "patchy" approach offers huge rewards for biodiversity. Approximately three dozen prescribed burns are conducted each year totaling 15,000 - 20,000 acres. Since 1991, over 350 prescribed burns have been conducted totaling 210,000 acres. In addition we have assisted neighboring ranches burn 170,000 acres and helped them suppress 50 wildfires.
The Tallgrass Prairie Ecological Research Station was completed in 2004. This state-of-the-art facility will offer field researchers the opportunity to conduct extended studies and initiate laboratory analysis for rangeland research. The research station will also be utilized as a workshop destination for university students, researchers and conservation professionals from across the United States.
More than three dozen research projects are active on the preserve, and 78 publications in scientific journals have been produced. An exciting "patch-burn" was initiated with Oklahoma State University in 2001 on 7,300 acres. This study is testing the wildlife, plant community and cattle gains in patch-burn versus completely burned cattle pastures. The objective is to achieve similar conservation benefits as those documented in the fire-bison unit while retaining profit margin for cattle ranchers.