The Myth of Self-Sustaining Prairies

Here’s a question I get asked occasionally:  “At what point will my prairie become self-sustaining?”

There are lots of ways “self-sustaining” can be defined, of course, but usually the person is hoping that at some point they can just step back and let the prairie do its thing with very little or no human input.  In other words, they hope the prairie will function like a machine.  Once you have it tuned up correctly, it’ll hum along just fine with only occasional inputs of fuel or maintenance.

Ah, that it would be so easy.  Unfortunately, there is a short answer to the question, and it’s a disappointing one.  The answer is, “It just doesn’t work that way.”

Here’s the short explanation of that short answer:

A prairie with no management at all accumulates thatch from each successive year of plant growth, and if not removed, that thatch eventually builds up to the point at which only a small number of plant species can survive.  Unfortunately, the most dominant of those surviving species tend to be either trees/shrubs or invasive plants.  In the eastern half of Nebraska, smooth brome tends to be a primary winner, along with tree species such as Siberian elm and eastern red cedar.

Besides the issue of thatch build-up, there are just too many threats, particularly from invasive species and trees, for prairies to maintain their species compositions and ecological functions without human management.  This is particularly true with tallgrass prairies in an agricultural matrix.  The degree of vulnerability to invasion depends upon soil type and the surrounding landscape.  Some soil types seem favor invasives more than others – oftentimes, high soil nitrogen levels can favor exotic grasses, for example.  The degree of invasive species pressure on a prairie is also influenced by the abundance and proximity of those invaders in the neighborhood around the prairie . However, all prairies (that I’m aware of) have some degree of vulnerability to invasive species.

Active management, such as the application of prescribed fire, is needed to prevent excessive thatch buildup and to help suppress invasive species.

That’s the short answer.  A longer and better answer is that tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies are not “climax communities” in the classic sense.  In my early ecology classes, I learned that terrestrial plant communities move through a process called succession from bare ground to some final stable state – usually a forest.   Bare ground is colonized by opportunistic species, which are eventually pushed out by longer-lived grasses and wildflowers.  Those grassland species are then replaced by various generations of tree species, each topping out the other until a final set of tall long-lived trees becomes dominant and creates a stable community.  Disturbances such as fire or severe weather events might set back succession temporarily, but the process keeps moving toward that climax community.

Prairies don’t fit that successional model very well.  Prairies are maintained (and defined?) by disturbances such as fire, grazing, and drought.  Without some combination of those ecological processes, prairies turn into woodlands.  Because of that, some might argue that prairies are simply an ephemeral stage of the longer successional process, and not really a stable ecosystem.  Others might argue that the whole idea of ecological succession is overly simplistic and not representative of the way all ecosystems function.

Without getting into that larger argument, the real point is that if we agree prairies are important, and we want to maintain them, active management is necessary.  Some people point to expansive prairies in Great Plains landscapes and wonder if those prairies could maintain themselves without humans if given the chance.  After all, lightning-caused fires and roaming herds of bison should be able to take care of things without interference from people, right?  In reality, we don’t have any historical precedent to back that up.  Today’s prairies have only been around since the last ice age –  about 10,000 years (less in the east, more in the west.)  During that entire time, people have been active managers of those prairies.  Fires set by Native Americans were much more abundant and extensive than lightning-caused fires.  Bison herds, and many other herbivores, responded to those fires by focusing grazing in those recently burned areas.  That intensive fire/grazing disturbance interacted with and compounded the impacts of long droughts, floods, and other weather-related events.  Cumulatively, those major disturbances maintained the integrity of prairies.

Along with climate and fire, bison (and other grazers/herbivores) were a major force that shaped prairies. However, people and their activities were also an important component of the process.

There’s really no way (and no reason) to separate people from prairie.  Regardless of the intent or motivation of the people who manage prairies – historically or now – their actions have tremendous impacts.  Similarly, inaction by people who control prairies has tremendous impacts as well.  In the natural resource management world, the phrase “No management is still management” is well-worn but nevertheless true.

Of course, defining the need for continual human management – even in the absence of today’s new challenges such as invasive species – doesn’t solve the problem.  What kind of management is needed?  How do we know when to do what?  The answers to those questions are complex, still being debated, and the primary subject of this blog, my book on prairie management, and myriad discussions among prairie managers around the world.

Some people who agree that prairies require some level of active management still search for a relatively simple management recipe to follow.  Annual haying or burning or two to three-year rotations of fire or grazing are examples of management regimes that are commonly used and advocated for.  This is really just a small step up from the idea that prairies should maintain themselves.  In this case, the argument is that prairies should be able to maintain themselves if we just provide them the right basic disturbance framework.

I’ve given my opinion on simple, repetitive management regimes often within this blog (see my Calendar Prairies post as an example).  I think repetitive management threatens plant diversity because there are always some plant species that are favored in a particular management regime and others who are not.  Over time, those species not favored will inevitably fade out of the community if the same regime is applied over and over.  Perhaps more importantly, animal species – including insects – with fairly specific habitat structure requirements are similarly affected.  Some species thrive under repetitive management if that management consistently favors them.  However, those animals that don’t find what they need in that management system can’t normally survive for many years in suboptimal habitat like many perennial plants can.   Animals without appropriate habitat either move or die – and in fragmented landscapes, or in landscapes where the same management is in place across the entire landscape, moving may not be a viable option.

Annual haying provides good growing conditions for many plants - especially those the bloom and produce seed prior to the haying date. On the other hand, some of the plant species favored by annual haying (including smooth brome) can become invasive. In addition, some desireable native plant species do poorly under annual hay management and eventually disappear from those prairies.

All of this adds up to one conclusion.  Diverse, functioning prairies require active, constant, and thoughtful management by humans.  There’s no getting out of that responsibility.  If we choose not to be active thoughtful managers, we are choosing to let prairies degrade, and we’ll have to live with the consequences (“No management is still management”).  Hopefully, though, most people with influence over the management of prairies will embrace their role, and be active managers – as well as active participants in ongoing discussions about the impacts of various management techniques and systems.

Though active prairie management is time-consuming, and often expensive, it’s also extremely rewarding.  Whether it’s a small backyard prairie garden, a 20,000 acre grassland, or something in-between, every year is a chance to try new things, see what happens, and learn from the experience.  More importantly, the diversity of plant, insect, and invertebrate species in well-managed prairies – large and small – is its own reward.  Who could ask for more than that?

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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8 Responses to The Myth of Self-Sustaining Prairies

  1. Michael Christensen says:

    I think your point is well made; just burning the field on a routine basis does not make it a self-sustaining prairie.
    I have read in the past about a couple of other influences that were thought to be critical. These influences were buffalo and prairie dogs. It was stated that when the buffalo move through an area, their sheer weight packs down the soil so dense that it’s not condusive to the regrowing of grass. But, the buffalo leave fertilizer in the form of their droppings and the prairie dogs then move in. They are after the new grass growth and by digging their burrows, they loosen up and aerate the soil thus creating favorable soil for the growth of grass. Without the buffalo, the prairie dogs wouldn’t have soil that is packed tightly enough to dig burrows and without the prairie dogs, the soil would be so packed that the grass will have a lot of trouble growing and wouldn’t leave enough for the buffalo to eat.
    And I’m sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the ecological processes that go on in a functioning (self-sustaining?) prairie. If you loose or change one aspect of this ecological system, if affects the rest.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Michael – yeah, it’s a complicated system. I’m not sure about the idea that bison had to pack down the soil in order to help prairie dogs make burrows – I’ve not heard that before. I suppose it could be important in some soil types. Prairie dogs were a lot less prevalent in eastern prairies than western ones, though. They had a hard time keeping the grass around their towns clipped down in the fast-growing tallgrass prairies – even with the help of big grazers.

      Regardless, you’re right that there are a lot of interconnected processes that are important to prairie function. My point is that humans were and are an integrated part of that function too. And we’ve made ourselves even more important now by fragmenting the landscapesuppressing fire and grazing, and introducing lots of invasive species. By doing those things, we’ve made our actions to negate those threats more critical to maintaining prairie diversity and function. Job security?

  2. Tim Siegmund says:

    This is a great post. I often have to remind some landowners I work with that grassland communities in our area of East Central Texas is a disturbance dependent system. Especially, since if no disturbance occurs for 3 or more years they quickly become invaded by cedar, persimmon, mesquite, yaupon, or honey locust depending on the soil type and location.
    Establishing the notion that some form of managment/disturbance is necessary and integral to a functional grassland is often one of the toughest lessons to convey to someone with little experience in managing natural systems. Thanks for the post on this topic.

  3. Trent DeBaere says:

    What is the mechanism for patch burn grazing? Do the cattle/bison hit the grasses more exclusively as they grow back, giving the forbs an advantage? What is a take away paragraph that sums up the main principles of patch burn grazing? Anyway, thanks for the great blog and book you wrote (wish there was one for every ecoregion). Your passion for this stuff spreads like wildfire; you’re restoring acres vicariously by instilling knowledge and energy in other people across the country.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Trent – the quick summary is that the regrowth of grasses after a fire are the most nutritious food in the prairie, so the cattle focus their grazing on that. Once they eat it, the regrowth from the grazing is also very nutritious, so that continues the pattern. Unburned/ungrazed plants are less attractive. So – most burning happens in the burned patch, and at light-moderate stocking rates, most of that grazing focuses on grasses. As stocking rate increases, more grazing occurs on forbs within the burned patch and plants outside the burned patch. And yes, the grazing on grasses suppresses their vigor, creating space for new plants (or expansion of nearby plants) into the root space formerly held by those grasses. A more detailed summary of the way we employ patch-burn grazing (there are MANY ways) can be found here:

      Thanks for the kind words!

  4. Pingback: Great prairie blog | Ian Lunt's Ecological Research Site

  5. glenn skelton says:

    Cattle grazing and Bison grazing are not equivalent and their habitat needs a certainly not. Bison passed through areas quickly, and could and would travel many miles between water holes. Cattle will seldom travel more than 5 miles from water and when kept in an area by fences will stomp what they dont eat and soon leaved a disturbed patch of useless range that must be rehabiilitad. Try fencing a herd of bison in. By the way, fencing cattle in lowers water tables, destroys riparian areas and makes stream water undrinkable.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Glenn – I agree there are some differences between cattle and bison, and some are important. Dietary differences are pretty small – maybe non-existent when the two animals are both in large areas in a patch-burn grazing system. However, there are certainly some negative impacts that can come from cattle grazing. However, most of those can be mitigated through the management tactics. There’s certainly not an automatic water table drop, degradation of riparian areas, etc that happens just because cattle are present. Stocking rate, timing, frequency, temporary exclosures/enclosures, and lots of other factors can be manipulated and shifted from year to year. I’ve seen some pretty ugly bison pastures as well. It’s more of a management issue than a species issue in many cases. In small areas, both can be challenging. At a large scale (thousands of acres) bison can be a little easier to deal with because they’re less likely to hang out around water, shade, etc.


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