The tall grass prairie is an ecosystem native to central North America, with fire as its primary periodic disturbance. In the past, tall grass prairies covered a large portion of the American Midwest, just east of the Great Plains, and portions of the Canadian Prairies. They flourished in areas with rich loess soils and moderate rainfall of around 30 to 35 inches per year. To the east were the fire-maintained eastern savannas. In the northeast, where fire was infrequent and periodic wind throw represented the main source of disturbance, beech-maple forests dominated.
Once this prairie covered approximately 140 million acres; now only isolated remnants exist. (Heat-Moon 261). The homesteaders saw it as a nuisance to be replaced as soon as possible with crops that paid their way. Within one generation a great majority of the native land was plowed under and developed. Currently, less than 4% remains, while the majority is located in the Kansas Flint Hills and surrounding areas. (Manning 76). Today, prairie is being brought back in places using a land management technique borrowed from the Plains tribes: controlled burning. Spring fires clear out non-native grasses before the later "sun-seeking" native grasses begin to grow.( Heat-Moon 43-44). Fire also burns up dead plant debris on the ground, allowing the sun and rain to penetrate the soil, and releases nutrients, promoting growth and increasing seed yields. This and other prairie restoration methods help ensure that, at least in some places, we can look out over a sea of grass and feel the wonder of the first homesteaders.
According to a long-term research study on tall grass prairies done at the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area by a trio of Kansas State University biology professors, bison grazing or mowing increases the species diversity or the number of plant species that exist at a particular site of grasses on the prairie. (KSU 1). Grazing and mowing keep plant diversity high even in annually...
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