Once the sod has been busted, prairie restoration becomes extremely difficult, to say the least. "I always say that you can’t plant a prairie," says Jim Stubbendieck, a grasslands ecologist and the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska. "A prairie’s got to evolve over hundreds of thousands of years."
Nevertheless, many prairie advocates across the Great Plains,
including Stubbendieck himself, have been trying to figure out how
to plant a prairie.
Most notably, in 1990, Congress
established the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Des
Moines, Iowa, as an 8,600-acre experiment in tallgrass prairie
re-creation — a prairie laboratory and museum. Pauline
Drobney, a biologist at the refuge, says scientists there have had
to learn how the prairie functions, sometimes one insect or flower
at a time. After more than a decade, the refuge is functioning
well. But, she says, "It took 150 years to destroy native prairie;
it’s going to take at least that amount to time to put it
As interest has grown, and as more native prairie
is lost, the frontier of restoration has moved west. In recent
years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy,
and some local groups have undertaken restoration on a small scale
on the Western mixed-grass and shortgrass prairie.
Rabenberg, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in northeastern
Montana, says his agency tries to plant as many as 10 or 12 species
of native plants in its restoration work. That is far less than
what actually grows on unplowed mixed-grass prairie; a single acre
can contain 50 species of plants.
Conservancy’s Brian Martin, who has worked on several
prairie-restoration projects in Montana, says mixed-grass prairie
is especially difficult to duplicate, because it’s more like
a quilt than a blanket. "Whereas, in tallgrass you’ll often
find 100 to 300 (plant) species in a single acre, mixed-grass
prairie is not as diverse in every acre," he says. Instead, each
patch may have a different soil type or a slight variation in
runoff that changes the suite of grasses, forbs and sedges.
"Sometimes we just have to take a shotgun approach" in
planting seeds, Martin says. "We’ll plant a bunch of grasses
over a broad area, and hopefully, the species will sort of sort
The native seeds have to contend with
invasive weeds and the lack of moisture in many areas. And the
whole process depends on the supply of native seeds, which are very
expensive, and sometimes unavailable (HCN, 5/12/03: Planting time).
Sometimes, seeds must be collected by hand; Rabenberg has also been
experimenting with a seed-stripper pulled behind an ATV.
At Scotts Bluff National Monument in the Nebraska panhandle, park
officials are restoring prairie on the site of the former Scotts
Bluff Country Club. Robert Manasek, a resource management
specialist at the monument, says he and his team had to survey the
region, looking for the best native prairie as a model. They
removed the foundations of golf course buildings and the asphalt
golf cart paths, re-contoured the land, sprayed the course with
herbicide, and pulled diseased Siberian elms from the fairways.
Then they had to experiment with planting methods.
ordered seeds from Colorado because it was less expensive than
collecting seeds themselves, Manasek says, even though "the best
thing we could have done would have been to pick seeds from inside
the park," because local strains are the best adapted to any site.
No commercial dealer sold seeds for threadleaf sedge, an important
plant they wanted in their mix. So a University of Nebraska group
raised sedge plugs in a greenhouse. Since the initial plantings,
the monument has conducted two prescribed burns on the land, trying
to duplicate natural wildfire’s effects. It will be decades
before the results there are known.
Ultimately, it cost
more than $125,000, donated by the Nebraska Environmental Trust
Fund, to restore the 42 acres of former golf course. That’s
almost $3,000 per acre, far more than it costs to buy and preserve