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Published on: Sep. 20, 2010

the Conservation Department, we stop on a road dividing Pawnee Prairie and private land. The difference between the two is stark and clearly reveals the differences between introduced cool-season grass pastures and restored prairie. While gazing along the westward road, green fescue expands into the horizon on the pasture to the right; on the left side of the road, a goldentan expanse of the restored tallgrass prairie of Pawnee Prairie. The contrast between green and golden-tan represent the different growing seasons of the grasses.

The tallgrass prairies of Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairie are small segments of the overall project area in Missouri. Dunn Ranch, which lies just northwest of Eagleville, encompasses about 4,000 continuous acres of conservation land, 1,000 of which comprise the Grand River Grasslands unplowed tallgrass prairie. This tract of virgin prairie marks the largest parcel of such prairie in a five-state region, and one of the major factors that led to the opportunity area’s establishment in this location. It anchors, and in a way defines, the Grand River Grassland partners’ efforts. “A lot of the critters that you don’t find anywhere else are here, and so this is like the home base from where we hope to expand as we recreate prairie throughout the grassland,” says Randy Arndt, manager of Dunn Ranch.

Unplowed prairie is significant and valuable to this project because of its plant composition. Tallgrass prairies evolved over millennia in this region. Tallgrass prairie plants have deep roots; about 50 to 70 percent of the plant lies below ground, which results in rich, deep soils as parts of that plant decomposes each year. “I guess the pioneers had a heck of a time plowing up the prairie,” says Coleman.

From the Ground Up

Like most ecosystems, tallgrass prairies develop slowly over many years, even with seeds already in the soil. The depth of the topsoil in recovered tallgrass prairie compared to virgin prairie illustrates some of its value. In recovered prairies, on land that has at one time been plowed, the topsoil is on average 6 to 8 inches deep; in unplowed prairie, the topsoil averages up to 30 inches or more. A bank of native seeds lives in that never-disturbed topsoil. “It’s amazing how many years that seed will exist,” says Coleman.

The rich, deep topsoils of tallgrass prairies led to their demise and helps explain why less than 1 percent of original

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