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The Tallgrass Prairie: An Endangered Landscape
(Released November 2011)

  by Pam Graham  


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Historical Newspapers

News Articles

  1. Little habitat on the prairie

    Carey, John, National Wildlife, 06-01-2000

    Only remnants remain of the nation's original prairie, and biologists are scrambling to understand and restore what is left

    WALT WHITMAN may have been bewitched by the prairie sunset's "pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last." But for the scientists who study the remnants of America's once vast prairie lands, the real magic comes at dawn. Botanist Kenneth R. Robertson of the Illinois Natural History Survey, for one, likes to recall the splendor of an early summer morning when he ventured out in the darkness before daybreak to survey plants on a small patch of prairie. Striding through tallgrass covered with dew, he soon was soaking wet and oblivious to everything but the task at hand. Suddenly, the sun cut through lifting fog. All around him, thousands of dewy, zigzag-patterned webs of the orb spider glistened in the dawn's early light. "It was just a spectacular, fabulous sight," he says.

    The peak working hour for ornithologists, dawn is when the prairie scientist tracks the sights and sounds of bobolinks, meadowlarks and scores of other birds. "The birds are sitting there singing their hearts away, whereas in the afternoon they're all quiet-and you would think there's nothing there," says ecologist Jill Dechant of the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota. What's more, early spring mornings bring the booms and foot-stomping dances of mate prairie chickens searching for mates, among the most characteristic yet extraordinary of prairie sounds and sights.

    Such wonders, however, are small solace for these scientists and others who study and value the habitat, as the prairie itself is in dire need of a metaphorical new dawn. Only remnants are left of the prairie's tallgrass that once carpeted the eastern side of the nation's heartland, the mixed grass that flourished through its midsection and the ribbon of shortgrass that spread before the Rockies. The tallgrass prairie has been hardest hit. Humans have plowed up or paved more than 99.8 percent of the rippling oceans of tallgrass that once covered vast areas from Canada south through the Dakotas to Oklahoma, and from Nebraska east into Indiana-in excess of 90 million acres. "People are still breaking native prairie-which is astounding," says prominent prairie ecologist G. David Tilman of the University of Minnesota.

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    Allen, Leslie, Science News, 12-15-2007

    Researchers put restoration to the test

    It took less than a century after John Deere unveiled his steel-bladed plow in 1837 for the North American prairie to all but disappear. For 20 million years, a nearly 1,000-mile-wide swath of unbroken grassland belted the continent's midsection from northern Canada to Mexico. Now, only about 5 percent is left, mainly as mixed and shortgrass prairie in the Plains states. To the east, less than 1 percent of the original lush tallgrass remains, most of it as remnants in pioneer cemeteries and old railroad rights-of-way.

    Plowed up, paved over, and little lamented, the vanishing prairie found few early champions. Among them were naturalists Aldo Leopold and John Curtis, who began using Civilian Conservation Corps enlistees in the 1930s to help restore more than 110 acres at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. One of the earliest attempts at habitat restoration, the site today has hundreds of species of native plants, birds, and small mammals.

    Now, prairie restoration is attracting widespread interest among environmental scientists, conservation groups, and even the U.S. government. The first federal grassland preserve, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, opened 3 years ago on the grounds of the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant near Chicago. Thousands of ordinary midwesterners are also rediscovering their long-spurned heritage, working to preserve or restore patches of prairie in fallow cornfields, quarter-acre backyard plots, and an expanding network of preserves. How-to Web sites instruct landowners in restoration techniques, and seed companies specializing in prairie species are thriving. Prairies now rank among the most popular ecosystems targeted for restoration anywhere, especially the tallgrass of the Midwest's eastern third.

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  3. Splendor of the Grass

    Klinkenborg, Verlyn, National Geographic, 04-01-2007

    The Prairie's Grip is Unbroken in the Flint Hills of Kansas Americans have always lived in a land of possibility-a place where the grass is "hopeful green stuff," as the poet Walt Whitman put it. Our habit is to wonder what we can make of a place, to gaze at the future instead of the present. As a result, nature often lies hidden beneath our expectations. That's why the Flint Hills of Kansas-the last great swath of tallgrass prairie in the nation-can be so hard to grasp. The Flint Hills are no longer hard to get to, no longer a matter of ox train and overland trail from somewhere east of the Missouri River. They're transected by roads of every description now. But when you get to the hills, when you rise onto the low shield of flint and limestone that defines them and walk up onto the highest brow and stand into the wind that's trying to pry your ears apart, what do you see?

    Open sky, open land, unending horizon, the "limitless and lonesome prairie," to quote Whitman again. But the word that also springs to mind may he "nothing." A glorious nothing, hut nothing nonetheless.

    That too is an American word, full of the conviction that nothing much stands between herds of bison and herds of cattle, between the millions of acres of tallgrass prairie that once stretched across the plains and the millions of acres of corn and soybeans growing there now. Historically, we have valued the prairie grasses mainly as cattle fodder or as placeholders till the sod could be broken and crops planted, crops that are themselves just placeholders until the houses eventually come. The prairie topography is almost too subtle for us, which may be one reason the National Park System contains only a single unit dedicated to grassland-the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas, the heart of the Flint Hills.

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Historical Newspapers
  1. TO INSURE AGAINST DROUGHT, A VAST PLAN TAKES SHAPE; The Program for a Belt of Trees Reaching From Canada to Texas Envisages Modification of the Climate of the Great Plains

    By F.A. SILCOX, New York Times (1923-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Jul 29, 1934. pg. XX3, 1 pgs

    Abstract (Summary) AT the very time when the drought-stricken States of the Middle West are more than ever focusing national attention, a gigantic drought-relief project is being launched by the United States Forest Service — a forest shelterbelt 100 miles wide and extending more than 1,000 miles across the Great Plains from the Canadian border to Texas.

    Original Newspaper Image (PDF)

  2. Prairies fading part of US landscape

    Boston Globe (1960-1979). Boston, Mass.: Nov 29, 1970. pg. 79, 1 pgs

    Abstract (Summary) Of all America's vanished wilderness, no part has suffered and declined as much as the prairie.

    Original Newspaper Image (PDF)

  3. Vistas in the grass; Only 1 percent remains Low-use park planned

    Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file). Boston, Mass.: Jul 28, 1978. pg. 1, 3 pgs

    Abstract (Summary) "You'll find them up there," a rancher told me on a broiling July afternoon as he pointed to a far hill.

    Original Newspaper Image (PDF)

Taken from ProQuest's Historical Newspapers.



    by EYSTER-SMITH, NANCY MAY, Ph.D., University of Arkansas, 1984, 341 pages.

    Abstract (Summary)
    Tallgrass prairie is a North American vegetation type with a preponderance of four main grasses little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium (Michx.) Nash), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans (L.) Nash), and switch grass (Panicum virgatum L.) , and a large assemblage of distinct forb species. The objective of this study was to quantitatively describe and analyze the vegetational composition of tallgrass prairie within a large geographical region. The study was conducted in the vicinity of the western Interior Highlands in portions of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma where little previous research had been conducted. Data on species composition, management practices, and soils were gathered in addition to quantitative vegetational data obtained with line-intercept sampling.

    These data demonstrated that tallgrass prairies in the region studied are qualitatively quite similar, but that quantitatively the Importance Values (IVs) of a number of species varied, including the importance of the four main grasses. A fifth grass, broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus L.), was also determined to be important, especially in prairie remnants in the eastern part of the study area. Although no conclusive explanation was established for the differential IVs of this fifth grass, it was demonstrated that broomsedge is negatively correlated with the four main grasses and with soil fertility, and that management practices are probably partially related to these differences. Vegetational parameters were compared for three geographical sections of the study area (WEST, BORDER, EAST). Total percent basal cover was not significantly different between these three sections. However, species richness, species diversity, and the total IV of the four main grasses were statistically different in all three sections. Species richness and species diversity increased from WEST to EAST across the study area, while the importance of the four main grasses decreased from WEST to EAST. This is the first time that such patterns have been recognized in tallgrass prairie. Insufficient data on a number of environmental variables prevent adequate ecological explanation of these patterns.

    This study can serve as the nucleus for further research because it is the only large data set that has been collected in a consistent manner over a large geographical area. Now that such data exist a number of additional hypotheses and relationships concerning prairie vegetation and environmental parameters can be tested and applied to prairie preservation and management.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  2. Changes in ecosystem function and effects of environmental complexity on floristic diversity during tallgrass prairie restoration

    by Baer, Sara Genevieve, Ph.D., Kansas State University, 2001 , 204 pages.

    Abstract (Summary)
    Less than 5% of the tallgrass prairie remains intact, with the majority lost to intensive agricultural practices. The reduction in the historical extent of the tallgrass prairie represents the greatest loss of any ecosystem in North America, and underscores the need to understand the ecological principles underlying effective prairie restoration. The primary objectives of this research were (1) to determine the effects of grass re-establishment on former croplands on a suite of plant and soil properties and processes, and (2) to examine whether the manipulation of soil resource availability and heterogeneity affects the structure (i.e., diversity) and function (i.e., productivity) of restored prairie.

    A 12-year chronosequence of grasslands restored through the Conservation Reserve Program was used to evaluate rates of change in soil and plant properties and ecosystem function during grassland restoration. Native grasses dominated the vegetation within 6-8 years. Root biomass, the C:N ratio of roots, and C storage in roots increased over time and approached values characteristic of native tallgrass prairie. Improved soil structure; increased soil carbon, and greater conservation of nitrogen occurred during the first 12 years of restoration. These results demonstrate important short-term changes in ecosystem structure and function in response to re-establishment of the dominant matrix grasses.

    In order to assess resource constraints on diversity and productivity in newly restored prairie, a restoration experiment featuring 4 levels of soil heterogeneity was created by manipulating soil depth (deep vs. shallow) and nitrogen availability (reduced, ambient, and enriched). Aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) was lower in shallow than deep soils, and fertilization increased ANPP relative to ambient and reduced nutrient treatments. Plant species diversity was positively correlated with variability in productivity and cover established through the soil treatments. Total plant diversity declined over time in all soil treatments and among all levels of soil heterogeneity as a result of the increasing dominance of Panicum virgatum. Diversity was negatively correlated with the photosynthetic rate of P. virgatum, which was positively correlated with soil nitrate levels and intercepted photosynthetically active radiation.

    In summary, these studies demonstrate that the establishment of the matrix grasses can drive the recovery of ecosystem function in the trajectory of the original system. However, restoring the structure of tallgrass prairie plant communities may depend on the heterogeneity of the soil environment and the responses of the dominant species to resource variability.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  3. The contribution of mycorrhizal symbiosis to tallgrass prairie

    by Bentivenga, Stephen P., Ph.D., Kansas State University, 1991 , 82 pages.

    Abstract (Summary)
    North American tallgrass prairie is dominated by warm-season C$\sb4$ grasses which have been previously shown to rely heavily on vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi for nutrient acquisition. However, the contribution of mycorrhizal symbiosis to the prairie ecosystem remains unclear. Therefore, a series of studies was performed to elucidate the role of mycorrhizae in tallgrass prairie in Kansas.v The impact of benomyl fungicide and spring burning on mycorrhizal activity and plant growth in tallgrass prairie was assessed. The productivity of mycotrophic plants was reduced by inhibition of indigenous vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi under field conditions. Burning stimulated both plant growth and active mycorrhizal colonization. These observations support the hypothesis that mycorrhizal fungi play an important role in the growth of warm-season tallgrass prairie grasses and may contribute to enhanced plant growth following spring burning.

    Field studies were performed to assess the effect of phenology of cool- and warm-season grasses on mycorrhizal fungal activity and fungal species composition. Mycorrhizal activity was greater in cool-season grasses than in warm-season grasses early (April and May) and late (December) in the growing season, while the mycorrhizal activity in roots of the warm-season grasses was greater (when compared with the cool-season grasses) at mid-season (July and August). A growth chamber experiment was conducted to examine the effect of temperature on mycorrhizal dependence of cool- and warm-season grasses. For both groups of grasses, mycorrhizal dependence was greatest at the temperature which favored growth of the host.

    The effects of tallgrass prairie management practices, burning, mowing (simulated grazing), and fertilization on mycorrhizal symbiosis were studied in a field experiment established in 1986. In 1987 and 1989 there were no significant effects of these management practices on mycorrhizal fungus species composition. In 1989, N fertilization of unburned plots significantly increased the number of mycorrhizal fungus spores. In late spring and early summer when plants were actively growing, fertilization reduced total root colonization, active root colonization, and inoculum potential in soil. However, N fertilization was not as inhibitory to mycorrhizal symbiosis as fertilization with P or both N and P. The negative effects of N fertilization on mycorrhizal symbiosis are probably offset by the pronounced benefit of N fertilization to plant biomass production.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database