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Conserving Grassland Masterpieces

Guest post by: Carol Davit
Executive Director, Missouri Prairie Foundation

BS Pleasant Run Creek 6-2015 (6) copyUntil the time of statehood, tallgrass prairie covered more than 15 million acres of Missouri—it is as much a part of us as Cardinals and Royals baseball, Kansas City barbeque, and the Missouri State Fair. But unlike those beloved institutions, prairie is not as well known, due to its rarity. Because of land conversion and other factors, we now have fewer than 70,000 scattered acres remaining in the state—less than one-tenth of one percent of original prairie landcover.

The prairies that remain may be called remnants, but they are not artifacts. They are still home to abundant wildlife, billions of important soil microbes, and hundreds of native plant species—biodiversity that has inherent value and also directly benefits us, via pollinator services, carbon storage, soil health, and other ecological services.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF) and other prairie advocates fight to save our remaining, original prairies, because we know they can never be recreated. They are perhaps all the more precious because they are so scarce and so vulnerable. MPF now owns and manages more than 3,000 acres of diverse prairie in 19 tracts of land across the state.

In addition to the plants and animals of the prairie we enjoy, society is on the cusp of deriving new benefits from prairie plants and soil. For instance, in Columbia, soil scientists at MU are using genomics to gather new information about prairie soil microbes—about their role in nutrient cycling and other activities—and this new information has promise to potentially decrease the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture.

And yet, even as new technologies explore future uses of prairie, and even as our grassland landscape continues to be fragmented, there’s still so much more baseline information to collect. New data are gathered from our prairie remnants every year, despite the fact that ecologists have determined that prairie and other temperate grasslands of the world are the least conserved, most threatened major terrestrial ecosystems on earth.

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For example, this past summer, the botanist Justin Thomas surveyed one of MPF’s smallest remnants—the 37-acre original La Petite Gemme prairie in southwestern Missouri. Thomas discovered a record number of 38 native plant species growing in a quarter-meter random sample plot—the highest number of plant species he has ever found in Missouri at this scale. Many of these plants will grow nowhere else in the world but on original, unplowed prairie. The average number of plant species in a quarter meter of a Missouri forest, for comparison, is seven.

This kind of biological diversity is simply not possible to replicate in a planting. Even in a prairie reconstruction started in the 1940s in Madison, Wisconsin, biologists there are still not seeing the species richness of plants or animals that can found in original prairie.

Watch Carol’s TEDx presentationWhy Prairie Matters: New Relevancies of a Vanishing Landscape.

You are invited to learn more about the importance of Missouri’s prairies at the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Annual Dinner on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015 in Kansas City. The Foundation’s Vice President of Science and Management, Bruce Schuette, will present Natural Assets: the Conservation Value of Prairie Remnants. Visit www.moprairie.org or call 888-843-6739 for more information.

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Learn about pollinators who benefit from native prairie in this blog post by Lee Phillion.

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