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Understanding our most precious assets

PRI contributed to this great article about the importance of the endangered prairie ecosystem and how various organizations are working to protect and restore this invaluable natural resource.

Publications: Inspired Home Magazine
Author: Lauren Ferragut

Pictured is the western prairie fringed orchid, a threatened species since 1989. Typically found in tallgrass prairies and meadows of North Dakota and Minnesota, it emerges in May and produces fragrant blooms in June and July.

Growing up in North Dakota, I was raised to notice the quiet and humble things that North Dakota has to offer: the endless expanse of space, the subtle change in light as seasons progress and the wind winding herself through the native grasses. North Dakota is steeped in beauty and color. It is shaped in the form of prairie, and it remains for those who have the eyes to see it. North Dakota’s original native prairie exists now only in a small portion of our state. It remains for us to enjoy and protect.

North Dakota has been subject to great changes over time. The most recent which altered today’s landscape was the Wisconsinan glacier approximately 40,000 years ago. This glacier covered all of the state except its southwestern-most corner. Over the next 28,000 years, the slow and imposing force of the Wisconsinan glacier advanced and retreated, scraping, moving and flattening thousands of square miles of land. About 12,000 years ago, the glacier could bear no more. The great masses of material carried were gradually deposited throughout its icy realm, resulting in rolling hills and lakes. It was in those flattened plains where our native prairies were born.

Prairie grasses grow and thrive in conditions found unsuitable by any other organism. They developed because of their deep root system that allows them to withstand low precipitation, long, harsh winters, hot summers, strong winds and fire, similar to their stoic, hardworking human counterparts.

This beautiful shoreline restoration consists of a variety of tall, wet forbs. Boneset (white), Joe-Pye weed (pink), Blue Vervain (purple) and the common oxeye complete this breathtaking project.

Native prairie once expanded hundreds of miles across the heartland, colorfully carpeting a quarter of the Lower 48. Prairie can be thought of as a humble and far less showy rainforest. It supports a tremendous amount of life, including bison, pronghorn, elk, plains grizzlies, wolves and at one time an innumerable variety of prairie grasses, forbs (herbaceous flowering plant other than a grass) and insects. European settlement in the late 1800s undid in 100 years what took the earth thousands of years to create.

Today, threats remain for our fractional remaining prairie. Large-scale agriculture and intensive grazing are easily criticized, but there are multiple facets to consider, such as fire suppression, introduction of new plant species, insecticides and altered hydrology.

Because of its unpretentious appearance, it is easy to forget the prairie’s importance. Worldwide prairies, like rainforests, are considered one of the most imperiled habitats. In North Dakota, 80 percent of our native prairie is gone and more than 95 percent loss in the Red River Valley. Most remaining prairie lies in the western part of our state. This is a tragic loss for wildlife habitat. Loss of prairie grasses and forbs are of great concern, but what we lose is more than plants. Native grasslands provided primary nesting for a large number of bird species and especially refuge points for birds during long migratory flights. According to the Audubon Society, many of our own prairie bird populations are in decline, including Sprague’s pipit, which is a candidate under the Endangered Species Act. The western prairiefringed orchid, once abundant in tall-grass prairies, is now a rare find. Pollinators, too, like the Poweshiek Skipperling butterfly that uses little bluestem and purple coneflower as a nutrient source is a candidate for the ESA.

U.S. Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, North Dakota Game and Fish Department,U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited are all at work to conserve and protect North Dakota’s remaining native prairie. The Conservation Reserve Program is a government program that pays farmers to plant grass on marginal land that had previously been plowed for crops in an attempt to create grassland, though the program has been in decline since 2008.

The hardy purple prairie clover grows in loam, sand or clay and will grow in dry to wet conditions.

Individuals young and old can take part in prairie management. The first step is to be educated. Re-creating pieces of small prairie land is a good start, but keeping a large preserved prairie untouched is preferred. If you are a homeowner, you can purchase and plant native grasses and flowers in your own yard. Moreover, residents who live in rural areas can plant native prairie species in their yards instead of mowing commercial grasses. After two to three years of planting, even a small tract of space can attract wildlife and help North Dakota revert to its original grandeur.

Purple Showy penstemon.

In 1839, Joseph Nicollet, leader of a U.S. military expedition, described North Dakota as “perhaps the most beautiful land within the territory of the United States.” There is a particular beauty about prairie grass bending under its own weight, the speckled spectrum of color that dots the prairies in early spring and the undulating waves of wind through them. It reminds us of the feeling of peaceful and innate freedoms. Plant some in your own yard. It is a testament to our state and to our pioneer spirit.

A local rural restoration uses big bluestem, also known as turkey grass, a dominant grass on our prairies. The beauty of the common oxeye, in yellow, and the Hoary Vervain adds an extra splash of nature's color.

Bluestem Farm

Jim Johansen, seated, third from left, and his crew at Bluestem Farm.

Inspired Home recently spoke with Jim Johansen, native seed production supervisor at Prairie Restorations Inc. at Bluestem Farm near Hawley, Minnesota. The crew is dedicated to rebuilding a more diverse native ecosystem.

QUESTION: What do you do here at Bluestem Farm, and more importantly, why do you do it?

ANSWER: I am the native seed production supervisor at Prairie Restorations Inc., Bluestem Farm. It is my job to produce high-quality, native-origin, local ecotype seed. Not only is this seed used by the Prairie Restorations installation crews, it is also available to the general public. I am blessed to have a job I truly love. I find my job rewarding, knowing the seed I produce is going to bring a piece of the native prairie back. Every seed in our restorations, whether big or small, helps mend the environment and secures a piece of the prairie ecosystem and the heritage that goes along with it.

QUESTION: Do we really need to be concerned?

ANSWER: Yes, with less than 5 percent of the native tallgrass prairie remaining, the prairie is one of the most threatened ecosystems. The prairie is the exclusive home to hundreds of plant and animal species. Prairies also provide a vast biomass for water filtration and photosynthesis.

QUESTION: What can we as homeowners do to help?

ANSWER: Consider putting in some landscaping features using native plant materials. Have you ever considered a rain garden? How about a filter strip at the cabin? These are relatively small but effective landscaping features that support water quality. Considering a flower garden? Use native flowers and grasses instead of cultivars. The use of native plant materials can be incorporated into any landscape, no matter the size or location.

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