tallgrass prairie remains in Missouri. In the presettlement era, tallgrass prairies covered a third of the state. With settlement came the plow, exotic plant species, intensive grazing and fire suppression. All of these factors contributed to the disappearance of the tallgrass prairie, an ecosystem between the shorter Great Plains prairies to the west and the forests of the east. Enough rain falls in the region to support tree growth; however, due to the region’s historical pattern of burning and grazing, it developed into grassland. Natural lightning fires and Native American-managed fires, along with the grazing of free-range bison, managed the prairie landscape before settlement. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that most prairies began to be plowed in Missouri.
Grand River Grasslands work involves research on the technique and pattern of burning and grazing that best stimulates prairie growth. Iowa State University is in the third year of a multiyear study on the effects of various forms of patch-burn grazing on prairie, wildlife and livestock. This research will be used to provide concrete data and techniques to landowners in the Grand River Grasslands area who want to conserve and restore grasslands while maintaining their livelihoods. Ryan Harr, who heads the research program in the Grand River Grasslands, says this research is part of the project’s larger goal of creating a sustainable grazing and farming future for the area by creating a resilient grassland ecosystem.
On another part of the Grand River Grasslands tour, Coleman points out some tree-removal projects on private land near Pawnee Prairie. Only scattered dogwood thickets remain. They are part of a cost-share program where private landowners receive grant money that helps with conservation work on their land.
“As a rule, between 75 and 90 percent of [the landowner’s] cost is covered by cost-share [in the Grand River Grasslands COA],” says Coleman. He has seen participation grow in the past five years. In 2008, 15 landowners participated in some sort of Grand River Grasslands cost-share program in Missouri, he says. When he started, only one participated.
Other cost-share programs include converting land to native warm-season grasses, which can benefit landowners in the long run. By restoring some of their land to native warm-season grasses, ranchers can establish a year-round grazing regime. Cool-season grasses like fescue go dormant in the summer at exactly the time that native tallgrasses go all out. “Whereas at that time of year [in summer], the native is doing its thing, it’s going gangbusters” says Hoover.
The Grand River Grasslands project has been slow but exciting, say many of the partners. Hoover describes the gradual, but necessary steps to rebuilding a functioning prairie on a landscape scale like this: “It’d be like making a pizza. You’ve got the crust and each step you do is that much closer to a final product.”
Rancher Robin Frank, who owns about 4,000 acres between Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairie, has been a part of that recipe by participating in tree removal and native warm-season grass establishment. “We have different goals,” he says, “but we both end up going in the same direction at some point.” Many people involved with the Grand River Grasslands project believe he is right.