Saturday, November 27, 2010

Two Sides of a Prairie

A couple of weeks ago, volunteers and I removed the hot fence separating the cattle grazing/non grazing areas on our prairie. Quite the difference, especially considering grazing stopped on the right side of the above photo just last May.

Question: Which side best depicts how an ideal prairie tract should look?

hit the jump to read on

The answer would probably depend on who was queried. A cattleman might say the left side, a wildflower enthusiast the right. Who is correct? The answer, surprising to many prairie newcomers, is almost certainly both. To be more specific, sometimes it should appear one way and sometimes the other.

Generally speaking, a prairie ecosystem requires disturbance -- typically fire, grazing and/or haying -- to maintain a wide plant diversity. (The more diversity, the more mammals, birds and insects will find homes on that prairie tract.) Consider the nodding ladies tresses orchids blooming earlier this year. I've seen these only on prairie tracts that had been recently grazed.

The amount and timing of the disturbance is crucial. In overgrazed pastures, some plants will at least survive while others die out. On the other end of the scale, too little disturbance can result in other plants dominating and potentially crowding out neighbors. In many prairies, invasive plants require control, the timing of which depends on the specific plant. Finally, most prairies are working landscapes, providing food for the livestock that eventually becomes food on our tables.

Balancing out these different needs and limitations -- a tall order -- is one job of a prairie ecologist. We're lucky to have a good one right here in our backyard. Chris Helzer of the Nature Conservancy is the author of the recently-published "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States" (which I highly recommend). Chris also just launched his blog The Prairie Ecologist, well worth frequent stops from any prairie enthusiast.

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