Last week, the Hubbard Fellows and I attended the 24th North American Prairie Conference (NAPC) in Normal, Illinois. The NAPC is always an enjoyable and thought-provoking conference that brings together scientists, photographers, land managers, poets, and prairie enthusiasts from across the country. This one was no exception, and it was great to be back in Illinois, where there is very little remnant prairie left but much concern about the remaining pieces.
On Tuesday, the Fellows and I joined the field trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands, one of my very favorite places on earth. Bill Kleiman, Cody Considine, and an impressive array of volunteer stewards do fantastic work to restore and manage prairie on about 3,500 acres of land. The diversity and beauty of their restored prairies is unmatched at any site I’ve been to. However, the restorations are not there as flower gardens, but as habitat designed to defragment and enhance the prairie landscape.
I last visited Nachusa a couple years ago as they were preparing to introduce bison to the site. The bison are settled in now, and it was fascinating to get a brief look at how those animals are interacting with the tallgrass prairie there. Nachusa Grasslands staff did a great job of engaging scientists to collect baseline data prior to the bison’s arrival and they are now measuring some of the early impacts. Watching how grazing bison change the plant and animal communities at the site will be a long-term but invaluable addition to our understanding of tallgrass prairie ecology.
For various reasons, about 3/4 of the bison area was burned this spring. The bison were certainly preferentially grazing the burned area, but because so much was burned this year, they didn’t create large areas of short vegetation. Instead they created sporadic small grazing lawns throughout much of the burned area. It will be really interesting to watch how that habitat heterogeneity changes which animals use the prairie and how they use it. We were already seeing evidence of critters that like short vegetation (e.g., thirteen-lined ground squirrels) in areas where the plants normally grow too thick for them.
There was much discussion at the conference about the historical abundance and impacts of bison in eastern tallgrass prairie (more on that in a future post) but the introduction of bison to Nachusa Grasslands was not done because of history. Instead, staff and volunteers are hoping that bison will catalyze more diversity in plant and animal communities in ways that weren’t possible with only fire and mowing management. The science used to evaluate those impacts should teach us more about tallgrass prairie, it’s ecology, and its potential.