You can't plant a prairie

  • Collecting purple prairie clover (Dalea purpera) seeds at Branched Oak Lake State Recreation area for use in a Nebraska tallgrass prairie restoration project

    Mike Bullerman photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The Greening of the Plains."

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 back."

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.

Mike 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.

The Nature 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 themselves out."

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.

They 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 existing prairie.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...