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Stop 6: The Prairie

Listen or read along as foundation Stewardship Coordinator Mitchell Groenhof and former Land Stewardship Fellows Max Sorenson and Sarah Woody describe the wonders of the prairie ecosystem.

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Audio Transcription

[Sarah Woody] At first glance, a small prairie patch like the one at the Shack doesn’t seem very majestic. But if your take a little time to get to know this special habitat, you’ll discover a world of diversity, wonder, and deep connections. Prairies are the primary habitat for 400 plant species, over 100 bird species, and dozens of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. They are also hotspots for pollinators. By the end of the summer, a single acre of prairie can have up to ten million individual insects. The roots of prairie plants stretch down deep into the soil, which helps to prevent erosion and make the plants more resistant to drought. In fact, 75% of the plant material in prairies is found in the underground root system. Think of the universe that exists down there!

[Mitchell Groenhof] These deep roots also make prairies amazing carbon sinks, so restoring prairies is a great way to combat climate change. The stored carbon and other nutrients in prairie soils make them some of the richest in the world, which is why so much of the prairie has been converted to agriculture. Before European settlement, prairies covered 170 million acres of North America, but only 4% of those original acres remain today. Because grasslands are some of the most endangered habitats in the world, many grassland bird species are also in decline. Here in the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, much of our stewardship work focuses on restoring prairie and oak savanna habitats so that we can support priority bird species such as the Red-headed Woodpecker, Henslow’s Sparrow, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and more. Thanks to these efforts, we are also included in a 16,000-acre, 13 mile-wide Important Bird Area that stretches east to west.

[Max Sorenson] One of our best tools for managing large areas of prairie and savanna is fire. Wildfires used to be a normal part of the prairie ecosystem, with fires occurring in any given area every one to five years. Fires were most commonly started by lightning strikes or indigenous people who also used it as a tool for managing this land. Prairie and savanna plants adapted to fire, and now it is essential to keeping their habitats healthy and diverse. Fire recycles nutrients back into the soil more quickly, it triggers the germination of several plant species, and it prevents the spread of invasive species that aren’t adapted to fire. Today, trained crew members perform what we call prescribed or controlled burns. By performing a controlled burn, we can provide the benefits of fire to prairie and savanna habitats while preventing more intense, uncontrolled wildfires.

[Sarah Woody] Now, as you look out over the Shack prairie, what do you see? As you listen closely, can you hear the buzzing insects or singing birds? Can you sense the network of roots beneath your feet? The Leopolds worked together to restore this patch of land to what it was meant to be. We continue that work at a larger scale across the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, and slowly but surely, the wonders of the prairie are once again revealed.