In the Grand River watershed of northern Missouri and southern Iowa, spans the 10-year-old Grand River Grasslands Conservation Opportunity Area. On this approximately 70,000-acre area, the Missouri Department of Conservation is working with partners to recover a piece of Missouri’s native past by rebuilding the tallgrass prairie.
Rather than conserving and managing scattered islands of public land, the Grand River Grasslands represents a new perspective of doing conservation on a scale that can significantly improve the natural health of a whole ecosystem. It is one of 36 conservation opportunity areas for all wildlife on which the Department of Conservation and partner organizations in Missouri are focusing their efforts.
About 60 private landowners in the area participate in this project, in addition to the partnership of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, the Missouri Grassland Coalition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife Program, Audubon Missouri and the Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Chad Paup, who works in the Grand River Grasslands from the Iowa side of the border, puts it plainly, “They’re the key. If we can’t work with them [private landowners], we can’t get anything done.” Collaboration among the stakeholders defines this project, and they hope their efforts convince more and more landowners to participate in tallgrass prairie landscape-scale restoration.
“Much of this land has the potential for prairie restoration,” says Dave Hoover, a Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife management biologist and one of the managers of the project. He gestures to the land spreading out into the Grand River Grassland expanse as we drive on the eastern border of Dunn Ranch, The Nature Conservancy’s 4,000- acre portion of the Grand River Grasslands, one of the key components of the project. About two miles to the northwest of Dunn Ranch lies Pawnee Prairie, a 900-acre tract of mostly restored native prairie, portions of which are owned by the Department of Conservation and The Nature Conservancy.
“It’s a high ridge which runs into Iowa. It’s like 80 percent in grass of some sort already, with a number of remnant prairies in it,” says Randy Arndt, the Nature Conservancy’s Grand River Grasslands site manager, describing the layout of the project area, which is split roughly evenly by the Missouri/Iowa border. Although exotic grasses like fescue dominate acre upon acre of the land, 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.
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.
On a November tour of Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairie given by Hoover and Kendall Coleman, a private land conservationist for 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 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.