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Published on: Sep. 20, 2010

in many places remnant tallgrass prairie lies dormant beneath it.

Big and little bluestem, sideoats grama and Indian grass form the core of this remnant, dormant past. Their seeds lie in the soil as the potential tall grasses for which this region’s ecosystem gets its name: tallgrass prairie. These grasses compose the stage for a wildflower show that once performed in a third of Missouri each spring, summer and fall and now shows in a growing number of acres in the Grand River Grasslands. It begins with the light purples and light yellows of plants like prairie phlox and prairie coreopsis in the spring, proceeds through the deep purples of prairie blazing star and indigo bush in the summer and ends with the yellows of goldenrod and the light blue of downy blue gentian in the fall.

Prairie Life

This show actually characterizes some of the dilemmas facing tallgrass prairie restoration in the Grand River Grasslands. Fescue, a non-native, cool-season grass, grows well in the fall and spring, but goes dormant in the summer and winter. While ranchers use it successfully to feed their livestock, it tends to form a monoculture, severely limiting the biodiversity of the land and choking out the prairie that lies dormant beneath it. It also reduces wildlife; for example, it forms a sod so thick that greater prairie-chicken chicks can’t move through the dense grass or find their preferred food of insects and seeds.

The partners of Grand River Grasslands work to reestablish tallgrass prairie habitat for birds such as Henslow’s sparrow, bobolink, upland sandpiper, Bell’s vireo and bobwhite quail. Other species that benefit from restoration include the prairie mound ant, regal fritillary butterfly and great Saint John’s-wort. These populations indicate that efforts to restore healthy, viable tallgrass prairie have been successful.

A much-publicized greater prairie-chicken population lives on a portion of Dunn Ranch’s prairie, one of the few reliable populations in Missouri. Each April, a viewing blind goes up at the Ranch where visitors can watch the chickens’ mating dance and listen to males calling, referred to as “booming.” Although the presence of the birds indicates a healthy prairie, they are just one facet of the Grand River Grasslands project. “The prairie-chicken is our poster child, so to speak,” says Hoover.

Deep Roots

On a November tour of Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairie given by Hoover and Kendall Coleman, a private land conservationist for

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