Because conservation work can sometimes seem like blowing into the wind, it’s important to pause periodically to celebrate progress. For example, I am really excited about what has been accomplished in the field of prairie restoration. We’ve known for a while that we can convert cropland to prairie vegetation with a high diversity of plant species (150 or more species per planting), and that we can do that on a scale of thousands of acres. The Nature Conservancy has large projects in states like Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota where restored prairie landscapes now range from about 5,000 to 20,000 acres in size. The U.S. Forest Service is transforming an old U.S. Army Arsenal into 20,000 acres of prairie in Illinois. Prairie Plains Resource Institute, the organization that pioneered restoration techniques in Nebraska, is planting up to 1000 acres a year now and has established well over 10,000 acres total across the state.
Here in our Platte River Prairies, we’ve restored more than 1,500 acres of cropland to prairie. That’s not insignificant, but more importantly, we’ve been testing the idea that those restored prairies can help defragment the ecological landscape around them. Habitat fragmentation is one of the largest threats to today’s prairies because it shrinks and isolates populations of species, making them vulnerable to becoming locally extinct without the chance of recolonization from nearby sites. The real promise of prairie restoration is that it can enlarge and reconnect scattered remnants of native prairie, providing populations of animals and plants a much better opportunity to survive and thrive. It’s not feasible or desirable to convert the majority of cropland in the central North America back to prairie, but there are particular sites where strategic restoration work could make a huge difference in the potential survival of prairie species and ecological services.
In order for prairie restoration to help defragment landscapes, restored prairies have to provide suitable habitat for the species living in small isolated prairies. Many bees and other insects specialize on certain plant species, for example, and other animals rely upon an abundance of prey, a diversity of seeds, or other particular food or habitat conditions. Satisfying the individual needs of all those prairie animals is a critical measure of success if prairie restoration is going to successfully stitch isolated prairies back together.
Over the last several years, we’ve been collecting data to see whether the species of bees, small mammals, grasshoppers, and ants in our unplowed prairie remnants have moved into adjacent restored habitat. The results have been very positive. While not every species of animal living in our remnant prairies has been found in nearby restored habitat, we’ve found the vast majority of those we’ve looked for. We suspect that most of the remaining species are also present but that our limited sampling effort just hasn’t yet picked them up. We’ll keep trying.
These results mean that where prairie landscapes have been largely converted to row crops, we don’t have to just watch while insect or small mammal populations careen toward local extinction in tiny isolated prairies. We’ve shown that we can make those prairies larger and more connected, and that animal populations can grow and use new restored habitat and diverse plant communities. We’ve also shown that restored prairies can sustain their biological diversity for decades, even through periods of intensive grazing and drought. While there are still plenty of questions and potential improvements we can make, we’re now at the point where society needs to decide whether and where to do this kind of restoration.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty exciting!
Nebraska and other states in central North America have large swaths of productive and important cropland. As I said earlier, I’m not advocating that we convert most of that back to prairie. However, there are specific sites where row crop agriculture is marginally productive/profitable and the long-term interests of both society and local landowners might be best served by putting land back into diverse and productive grassland. Agricultural policies and subsidy programs will obviously play a huge role in this kind of strategic large-scale restoration, and getting the policies in place to facilitate this kind of common sense restoration will be plenty difficult. That’s nothing new, however. What’s new is our confidence that if we can implement targeted restoration work, it can make a real difference to prairie conservation.
Restoring the viability of prairies in fragmented landscapes is critically important to prairie conservation success. The challenges of conserving species in small isolated prairies are immense, and many of those prairies will continue to see declines in biological diversity and ecological function over time unless we can make them bigger and more connected with other prairies. Helping to document our ability to do that – at least for many prairie species – has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done during my career.
Important footnote: Restored prairies are not the same as remnant unplowed prairies. Soil organic matter levels, for example, can take many decades to recover from tillage, and relationships between plant and microbial communities may take just as long to become reestablished. Our success in prairie restoration should definitely not be used as justification for plowing up remnant prairie! However, it’s equally true that prairie restoration efforts aren’t failures just because they can’t create an exact replica of prairie as it existed before it was converted to farmland. If defragmenting prairie landscapes is the primary goal of restoration, we just need to create restored prairies that complement – not copy – remnant prairies.