Friday, May 7, 2010

The Tallgrass Prairie

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play… What do you think of when you hear those lyrics most recently sung by Neil Young? I don’t know about you but I think of a wide open hilly field with grass swaying beautifully in the wind. I am fairly certain that is what Brewster Higley had in mind when he wrote the original poem in1872 titled The Western Home.
by Michaela Papp
Southeast Community College

Apparently he was living in Kansas at the time and was describing what is now known as the tallgrass prairie. Chances are if you are sitting in this room, you are currently living in Nebraska and have seen how beautiful what is left of the tallgrass prairie is. Having been born and raised in Nebraska, I could take you to a few areas that remind me of those lyrics. Today I have the opportunity to share my knowledge and love of the tallgrass prairie. First, I will be informing you about what exactly the tallgrass prairie is and how it was created. Then, I will discuss some of the plants and animals that live within it and how some of them dealt with this harsh environment. Finally, I will tell you about what people are doing to preserve and restore the tallgrass prairie.

Back in the 1500’s, the tallgrass prairie was part of a grassland that stretched from Manitoba, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Rocky Mountains to Kentucky (Preserving our Prairie Heritage, 2009). Unfortunately, if you have traveled to any state in the area recently, you will notice that it seems like all you will see is fields of corn, beans, and other crops (Allen, 2007). According to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, “The tallgrass prairie was the dominant presettlement vegetation type in the eastern third of the Great Plains occupying approximately 142.62 million acres; today, only an estimated four percent remains.” Most of this four percent is located within the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas and northern Oklahoma. This area has been preserved from plowing up for farmland because of its unique rocky landscape (Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve).

It took about 20 million years to make this large stretch of tallgrass prairie (Allen, 2007). If you are anything like me this comes as a bit of a shock to you. Grass isn’t too hard to grow and it comes up in a lot of places, so how could it take that long? According to Preserving our Prairie Heritage from 2009, “It was a unique, finely tuned system of living things and environmental factors – the result of millions of years of interaction among soil, climate, fire, changing surface features such as hills and valleys, and a host of plants and animals.” Basically, what this quote is saying is that the tallgrass prairie wasn’t just a bunch of grass growing; it was pretty organized when you really look into it.

Believe it or not, fires had a lot to do with the creation of the tallgrass prairie. How could such a destructive thing help create such a beautiful landscape? Long before people inhabited the tallgrass prairie, lightening would cause a fire to start, three to four times a year. Winds would spread the fire rapidly, cutting back the grass in a pruning type of way. The fires wouldn’t actually kill the grass but after being cut back time and time again, the root systems on the grass would become very stable (Preserving our Prairie Heritage, 2009). According to The Harsh Prairie Environment, written by Tricia Andryszewski, “Grasses often grow even better after a fire, which clears away years of dead stalks, allowing light and air to reach new growth at ground level.”

Not only were these fires helpful for strengthening the grass, they were also helpful in keeping the tallgrass prairie from over-population. As stated in Preserving our Prairie Heritage from 2009, “Many animals perished in a prairie fire. Among those lucky enough to escape were adult birds, burrowing creatures, and surface dwellers that were swift enough to get to water.” The animals that were able to survive the fires lived on food they had stored underground. A few days after a fire, new green plants would make their way up from strong roots (Preserving our Prairie Heritage, 2009).

Due to these fires and the lack of rain fall, most trees were only able to survive around bodies of water. However, some trees that don’t need a lot of rainfall to live, survived. The fires are the main reason the tallgrass prairie didn’t turn into a forest. (Andryszewski, 1993).

At first the humans only helped the process of making and retaining the tallgrass prairie. The early settlers would start fires to help scare out animals and clear out areas to put their villages. We were not quite as helpful after John Deere revealed his first plow in 1837 (Allen, 2007). Thus began a little bit of the agricultural revolution, and the beginning of the disappearance of the tallgrass prairie.

Now that we know a little bit more about what the tallgrass prairie is and how it was made, let’s discuss some of the plants and animals that lived in it. We all are familiar with the plants and animals we see in our area, however it is rather interesting to find out what used to live around here and how they have adapted to the new landscape.

As stated in Ecology (2009), “The ability to resist the damaging effects of drought and to actually benefit from fire has helped big bluestem grass become the most common species of grass on the tallgrass prairie…”
Studies have shown that after burns this grass grew faster and thicker with more abundant leaves, and produced more nutrients, more efficiently than the big bluestem grass that remained unburned. As I pointed out before, it was concluded that the fires removed the dead leaves and stems from previous years. By cleaning this out, more sunlight was able to reach the new grass, apparently strengthening the species.

Another characteristic that helped big bluestem grass thrive was that its leaves curled up to reduce the amount of sunlight striking them. This also helped reduce the water lost through transpiration (Ecology, 2009).

The second most common species of grass found on the tallgrass prairie is switchgrass. Switchgrass needs more moisture for it to be able to survive, but still not as much as most other types of grass (Ecology, 2009).

Despite the disappearing tallgrass prairie, no plants from it are on the Species in Need of Conservation list. There are, however, two plants on the federal threatened species list: western prairie fringed orchid and the meads milkweed (Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve).

About 120 mammal species are currently found on the tallgrass prairie. The most common of these are the mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope, and bison. The black bear, grizzly bear, mountain lion, and elk have been sighted in the past, but not since the late 1800s (Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve). Even though the thought of mountain lions and bears running around here is a little scary, I think it would be awesome to be able to see such beautiful creatures. While learning more about the tallgrass prairie, I can’t help but wonder how different our landscape could have been.

As for birds, there have been 428 species documented. While studying the birds that live within the tallgrass prairie, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Biological Resources Division suggested to burn prior to the breeding season or in the fall to ensure they will not become extinct (Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve). This is a good recommendation because as stated by the Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve, “Spring burning followed by grazing resulted in reproduction levels below replacement rates.”

There are 28 species of amphibians (8 salamanders and 20 frogs) and 53 species of reptiles (4 turtles, 12 lizards, and 37 snakes). However the Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve thought it was important to point out that these were identified mostly by untrained volunteers over a two day period. So these numbers aren’t exact, but they give us a pretty good idea of how many amphibians and reptiles are still living in the tallgrass prairie area (Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve).

Finally, now that we know more about what the tallgrass prairie is and how it was made, and what kinds of plants and animals inhabit it, let’s discuss what people are doing to preserve and restore it.

As I stated before, the prairie burned on average every three to four years. Today, ranch managers that are working to preserve the tallgrass prairie are burning off their preserved prairie every year. They are doing this because this causes their grazing cattle to gain more weight and in turn be more profitable. As of now they are using cattle; however, their hopes are one day to reintroduce bison to the landscape.

While cattle and bison are similar, their effects on the tallgrass prairie are different. Cattle usually eat more of the native forbes while bison are almost exclusively grass eaters. (Schlyer, 2008) According to At Home on the Prairie, written by Krista Schlyer in 2007, “As with any altered ecosystem, especially on as altered as the tallgrass prairie, trying to reconfigure the natural system is difficult.” This just goes to show that they have come to terms with the fact that the restoration of the tallgrass prairie will take a while to figure out.

The biggest challenge to restoration lies underground where 70 percent of the tallgrass prairie’s biomass resides. As I stated in my first point, in order for the grass to be successful in growing back after all of the burns, the root system needs to be strong. According to Rebirth in the Prairie State written by Karen Schmidt, “Even after 15 years of restoration, a prairie’s soil ecosystem still bears the shallow simplicity of the cornfield it was built upon.” Since it took millions of years for these root systems to become so strong, you can imagine it might take a few more than 15 years to fully restore the tallgrass prairie.

To ensure that the tallgrass prairie isn’t completely destroyed in the next few years, more and more prairie scientists and public and private organizations are encouraging state legislatures and land owners to donate or sell tallgrass prairie land for preservation (Preserving our Prairie Heritage, 2009). If we don’t try to preserve it, there is a good chance the rest of the tallgrass prairie will be gone in the next few decades.

Today we learned a lot about the tallgrass prairie. I shared my knowledge and love of this beautiful grassland. We talked about what exactly it is, some of the plants and animals that lived within the tallgrass prairie, and what people are doing to preserve and restore it. Hopefully one day we will be able to look back and be very glad that we saved the tallgrass prairie, not wish that we had tried harder.


Allen, L. (2007). Prarie revival. Science News. Retrieved April, 15 2010 from eLibrary research database.

Andryszewski, T. (1993). The dust bowl. Chapter 1: The harsh prairie environment. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from eLibrary research database.

Ecology. (2009). World Book Science Year. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from eLibrary research database.

Preserving our prairie heritage. (2009). World Book Year Books. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from eLibrary research database.

Schlyer, K. (2007). At home on the prairie. National Parks. Retrieved April 18, 2010 from eLibrary research database.

Schmidt, K. (1992). Rebirth in the prairie state. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved April 15, 2010 from eLibrary research database.

Tallgrass prairie national preserve. The Affected Environment. Retrieved April 25, 2010 from

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