Prairie

July 08, 2021

I find it interesting what people stop to view as they speed along the nation’s highways.  Kansas has two of these oddities located on either side of the state.  One is found out west on US 56 near Dodge City, where a scenic overlook allows weary travelers to stop and view the largest stockyard in the world.  As you might imagine, there is a distinct smell that comes with the privilege.  On the east there is another representation of the cattle industry with the Bazaar Cattle Pens located along I-35 near Emporia.  The cattle that range free across the Flint Hills are rounded up at the pens to be transported to stockyards like Dodge City for final fattening before being processed.  While the reason for the turnout is for trucks going to the cattle pens, the real view is the vast expanse of uninterrupted Tallgrass Prairie.

The tallgrass prairie is an ecosystem native to central North America.  The five grasses that dominate the tallgrass prairie community are Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon geraridii), Yellow Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Side Oats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula).  Natural fires caused by lightning strikes, anthropogenic fires set by the Indigenous people as a hunting technique, and grazing by large mammals (primarily bison), combined to keep the prairie intact.  As early pioneers crossed the prairie they called it the Great American Desert, and it covered 170 million acres stretched throughout the American Midwest and smaller portions of south-central Canada.  Within a generation after invention of the steel plow, most of the prairie had been transformed into farmland.  Today less than 4% remains intact, and most of that is in the Kansas Flint Hills.  This prairie is listed among the fastest disappearing ecosystems in the world.

When I directed a convention center in south central Kansas, I decided to restore 10 acres of the 62-acre camp to native tallgrass prairie.  There were two reasons for the restoration.  Pragmatically, mowing the grass on 62 acres was a constant chore during the summer.  Just removing 10 acres made a huge difference in time, gas, and equipment upkeep for the camp.  The real reason was to restore a rapidly vanishing resource.  We overseeded the Big Five that first winter, posted descriptive signs, and cut nature trails through the grass which grew as high as six feet.  The ecosystem was complete when we also overseeded the wildflowers that abound in the prairie system.  Over the course of five years the tallgrass reestablished and brought back the birds, animals, and insects that had once dominated all of Kansas.  While several deer did take up residence, there were no buffalo to roam our prairie.     

Thoughts:  I received a variety of comments when I decided to restore the Tallgrass Prairie at the camp.  The immediate response was offers to help mow.  I took several up on this offer and volunteers mowed most of the camp’s other acres.  Others decried the loss of the well-manicured lawns that were replaced by the overgrown tangle of grasses that initially grew.  I remained adamant and proudly told any who would listen that we were doing our part to maintain this rapidly diminishing ecosystem.  When you try to rebuild an ecosystem, you need to include the entire system.  That means the pretty flowers and towering grasses, but also the snakes, critters, and birds.  They need to interact and support each other for the system to work.  Humans are highly adaptable to live in any ecosystem.  The problem is, we always seem to destroy the “undesirable” species as we adapt.  We need to learn from extinctions in the past, eventually nature always wins.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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