Discovery Guides Areas


The Tallgrass Prairie:
An Endangered Landscape

(Released November 2011)

podcast link 
  by Pam Graham  


Key Citations





Restoration & Preservation


At the dawn of tallgrass prairie conservation efforts, Aldo Leopold captured the depth of what had already been lost with his quote: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked” (Leopold, 45).

Habitat restoration refers to the assembly of plant and animal communities with the goal of reconstructing an ecosystem that is compositionally and functionally similar to the one that originally existed. In the mid-1930s, one of the earliest attempted habitat reconstruction projects involved the tallgrass prairie, with the first prairie restoration started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Two restorations at the Arboretum now cover more than 110 acres, the largest prairies currently existing in Illinois.

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Wildflowers in the South Patrol Prairie of the US Forest Service's Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
With more than 99% of the tallgrass prairie gone and the few small parcels that survive under threat of vanishing, a number of Midwest states have made a commitment to prairie reconstruction, restoration, management and advocacy. Much like the scattered pieces of prairie that still cling to out of the way places, most of these programs are isolated endeavors separated by state boundaries and funding sources. For that reason, this survey will sample only a few of the restoration and conservation projects underway today. It begins, however, with the first national restoration effort to restore tallgrass prairie.

  1. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Illlinois)
    The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established in 1996 on the former Joliet Arsenal. It is the first national tallgrass prairie in the country and one of the newest units of the National Forest System.

    Midewin represents a major effort to restore 20,000 acres of farmland and industrial land to a unique American landscape and the complex ecology of the prairie. Its mission also includes providing education and recreation opportunities. All of Midewin’s programs and progress are thanks to the support of hundreds of volunteers and partner agencies, businesses, and organizations (“Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie”).

  2. Tallgrass Prairie Center (Iowa)  
    The Tallgrass Prairie Center is a strong advocate of progressive, ecological approaches utilizing native vegetation to provide environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits for the public good. The Center is in the vanguard of roadside vegetation management, native Source Identified seed development, and prairie advocacy. The Center primarily serves the Upper Midwest Tallgrass Prairie Region and is a model for similar efforts nationally and internationally (Tallgrass Prairie Center).

  3. Litzsinger Road Ecology Center (Illinois)
    The Litzsinger Road Ecology Center (LREC) is an outdoor laboratory for outdoor education, research and restoration in the heart of metropolitan St. Louis.
    Since 1989 the LREC has restored approximately 12 acres of tallgrass prairie. The prairie formerly in the Deer Creek watershed was mainly wet-mesic tallgrass prairie, which commonly occurs on flood plains of small streams such as Deer Creek, has poor drainage with surface water present following heavy rains, and is a system maintained by fire. Characteristic plants of the target ecosystem include: Big bluestem, cord grass, switch grass, sawtooth sunflower, prairie blazing star, false dragonhead, foxglove beard-tongue, rattlesnake master, sedges, rushes, Virginia wild rye, Eastern gama grass, sneezeweed, common cinquefoil, dwarf St. John’s wort, and showy bluestar. If you know your plants well, you can find almost all of these characteristic species at LREC now (Litzsinger Road Ecology Center).

Prairie preservation refers to the protection and guardianship of the last standing tallgrass prairies in North America. While new restorations are an important way to increase prairie acreage, they are no substitute for the preservation of the remnants of natural prairie. Even the best prairie restorations do not approach the species diversity of the original systems. Examples of prairie preservation programs include:

  1. Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (Oklahoma)
    The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie left on earth. Since 1989, the Conservancy has proven successful at restoring a 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. 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 (“Oklahoma: Tallgrass Prairie Preserve”).

  2. Tallgrass Legacy Alliance (Kansas)
    The Tallgrass Legacy Alliance (TLA) was created in 1999 as a partnership among local ranchers, agricultural and conservation organizations, and representatives from state and federal agencies to spearhead a conservation initiative to preserve the remaining tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills - some of the last stands of tallgrass prairie in the nation. The alliance views the Flint Hills as a national treasure entrusted to them to preserve for the future (Tallgrass Legacy Alliance).

  3. Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge (Minnesota and Iowa)
    The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the Northern Tallgrass Prairie NWR in 1999 with the goal of one day preserving 77,000 acres of native prairie and buffer lands at widespread locations within the historic range of the northern tallgrass region of Minnesota and northwest Iowa.

    The Refuge is currently 1,800 acres in size and consists of eight easement and four fee title tracts in seven counties in Minnesota and one county in Iowa. The Service is acquiring remnant prairie tracts in both easement and fee title interests from willing sellers (“Northern Tallgrass Prairie NWR”).

  4. Grassland Heritage Foundation (Kansas)
    Grassland Heritage Foundation (GHF) is a non-profit membership organization devoted to prairie preservation and education. Tallgrass prairie preservation and education are the focus of GHF (Grassland Heritage Foundation).

Restoration and conservation programs across the tallgrass prairie ecosystem are daunting tasks that vary widely depending on the extent of the area and surrounding land use. Larger areas of tallgrass are managed with techniques aimed at recreating the conditions under which the prairies were created and maintained, including prescribed burns, selective grazing, and reintroduction of native species. Smaller projects must often be handled differently. But whatever the size, all remnants are under constant pressure from urban encroachment, forests, agriculture and invasive species (“Prognosis for the Future”). The tallgrass prairie’s rescue from extinction is far from secure.

© 2011, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

  1. "About Prairies." Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. U.S. National Park Service, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  2. “American Prairie History.” American Prairie Partners. American Prairie Partners, L.L.C., 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  3. “Biomes of the World: Temperate Grassland.” The Wild Classroom. The Wild Classroom, 2003. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  4. Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Print.
  5. “A Complex Prairie Ecosystem.” Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. U.S. National Park Service, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  6. Drache, Hiram M. “The Impact of John Deere’s Plow.”Illinois History Teacher. 8.1 (2001): 2-13. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  7. Grassland Heritage Foundation. Grassland Heritage Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  8. Hofman, Jack L. “The Clovis Hunters: A Pragmatic & Skilled Culture Swept Across North America.” Scientific American Discovering Archaeology. 2.1 (January-February 2000): 42-44. Rpt. in PanhandleNation. digital Plain Media Studios, 2008. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  9. Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Splendor of the Grass.”National Geographic. 211.4 (Sept. 2007): 120-133. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  10. Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. 1949. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Print.
  11. Litzsinger Road Ecology Center. Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  12. “Maps on Sandhill Crane.” International Crane Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  13. “Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.” U.S. Forest Service. U.S. Forest Service, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  14. “Nebraska State Historical Society Educational Leaflet No. 3: This Sod House.” NEGen Web Project. USGenNet, 2007. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  15. “North American Prairie.”Blue Planet Biomes. West Tisbury Elementary School, 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  16. “Northern Tallgrass Prairie NWR.” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Midwest Region Division of Conservation Planning. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  17. “Oklahoma: Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.” The Nature Conservancy, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  18. “Prairie Dogs and Soil Impacts.” Great Plains Restoration Council, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  19. “Prognosis for the Future.”Landscope America. NatureServe, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  20. “Quick Facts: Tallgrass Prairie.” Camp Silos.Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  21. Robertson, Kenneth R. “The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.”Kenneth R. Robertson’s Home Page. Kenneth R. Robertson, 2008. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  22. Tallgrass Legacy Alliance. Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  23. "tallgrass prairie." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  24. Tallgrass Prairie Center. Tallgrass Prairie Center, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  25. “Tallgrass Prairie Ecosystem.” Landscope America. NatureServe, 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  26. “Tallgrass Prairies.” UIS Prairie Restoration Project. University of Illinois Springfield, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  27. Tilton, Lois.“Grasses of the Tallgrass Prairie.”Dave’s Garden. Internet Brands, 15 Sept. 2008. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  28. Williams, Gerald W. “References on the American Indian Use of Fire in Ecosystems.”, LLC, 2001. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
  29. Woodward, Susan L. “Temperate Grasslands.”GEOG 335. Biogeography. Radford U, Oct. 1996. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.