Explore the magic of a tall-grass prairie

SPRING HILL is the name Carl and Linda Kurtz gave to an 80-acre parcel of land they purchased long ago. Kurtz being a native prairie enthusiast, saw the potential of bringing back the native grassland vegetation of the area. They have been successful in achieving that goal. The grasses and forbs that once tickled the belly of many bison, elk, deer are standing in place now as if these majestic animals were still there. From a once overgrazed pasture to what is today is nothing short of a complete transformation showing how biological plant diversity can work its magic.

Here are a few words of wisdom penned by another prairie enthusiast named Doug Ladd. He titled his work “Why Prairies Matter.” In his words “Whenever I am in a tallgrass prairie, I am astounded by the diversity and complexity surrounding me – uncounted numbers of organisms, interacting at multiple levels, both visible and invisible to the naked eye, above and below ground, shaping and in turn being shaped by the physical environment. To visit a prairie is to be immersed in the results of thousands of generations of competition and natural selection resulting in a dynamic array of diversity, which, collectively, is supremely attuned to this uniquely midcontinental landscape.”

“Here flourish long-lived, deep-rooted perennial plants annealed by the frequent Native American fires, searing summer droughts, frigid winters, episodes of intensive grazing and trampling, and rapid, recurrent freeze-thaw cycles that exemplify the Midwest. These plants in all their varied magnificence in turn supported myriad animals ranging from minute prairie leafhoppers that spend their entire lives in a few square meters to wide-ranging mammals and birds that travel hundreds or even thousands of miles in a season.”

Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America. Now less than 4 percent remain, mostly in the flint hills of Kansas. In Iowa, our best biological inventory of pre-settlement natural vegetative land cover pegs native grasses at 85 percent, forest lands at 13 percent and the remaining 2 percent as water in rivers, glacial lakes big and small, and old river backwaters. Central portions of North America were once called the Great American Desert due to a lack of information and understanding of grass land functions in the ecosystem. Not anymore. Thank thousands of years of native grasses for building a rich topsoil hidden under our feet. After John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow that could cut through tough prairie sod, settling and cultivation grew by leaps and bounds. Our grasslands would be changed forever. Still a few remnants remain hidden and open for discovery.

There are three broad categories of grasslands: Tallgrass, mixed grass and short grass. In general as one moves west across the landscape and rainfall becomes less and less, grasses have adapted to an abundance or lack of moisture. Tall grasses predominated in the eastern regions, and in place like Montana, Wyoming and all along the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountain foothills, short grasses held the soil. No matter which region of grasslands one may be in, its history both natural and culturally helped define human existence for thousands of years. Nomadic peoples followed the bison. Bison followed the grass. Fires burned the grasslands periodically. Rains renewed the grasses. Wildlife flourished in this beautiful, and at the same time harsh environment.

Tallgrass prairies are defined by several species you may have heard of such as Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switch grass, and Indian grass. These might be called the big players in a prairie. Well, yes and no. It is hard to point out just a few plants and say this is what makes a prairie. One must count all the grasses, and all the forbs and all the micro-organisms below and above ground, the insects, birds, small and large mammals that interact to all grasslands to thrive. An inventory of native plants list from the Marietta Sand Prairie is more than 250 species long. It could be more. Only highly trained botanists spending lots of time doing the hard work of individual plant identification can compile these inventories. It is not easy. Know this … the higher the diversity of plant species in any complex setting similar to those thousands of acres of rolling waving grasses once covering the entire Midwest, the more we learn about the magic of prairies.

A hike through Spring HIll’s native plant community is this coming Saturday, July 22, from 9 a.m. until noon. Bring your own picnic lunch and lots of water to drink. Bring a camera. Bring enthusiasm. Bring a willingness to learn about the magic of prairies.

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SANDHILL CRANES were talking a few days ago. This scribe was outside early in the morning doing a backyard walk-about. Somewhere off in the distance I could hear the distinct raspy twill of Sandhill Crane birds. I never saw the birds. But I know where they are hanging out somewhere in the wetland complex between Albion and the northwest side of Marshalltown. It is nice to know they are there.

PHEASANTS are being seen and reported more and more. This hardy bird is not taking no for an answer. It is good to know it has the determination to survive in spite of all the obstacles mankind and/or mother nature seems to throw at it. An early morning gravel road observation wildlife foray is likely to find many pheasants trying to dry off from a night of heavy dew. In fact, it will be what the DNR roadside wildlife surveys of early August side will be looking for, pheasants and their broods letting sunshine dry their feathers. Standardized routes will be driven by biologists and game wardens to compile small game counts. Results of the roadside survey will help show trend lines for all regions of Iowa.

WILD TURKEYS and their young are also being observed. In fact, turkey brood sightings are a welcome news at DNR wildlife research stations. Nest success each year is a good indication of population trends going into the fall and next spring’s turkey season. During the early 1900s, wild turkeys were very scarce, uncommon, and some would say on the verge of extinction. Wrong. Today there are over 7 million wild turkeys in six subspecies doing very well.

RABBITS seem to be everywhere. In a not so scientific “survey” of this critter, it appears that so far 2017 has been a very good year for cottontail reproduction.

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HUNTER EDUCATION classes are being held during the next two months in various places in Iowa. For Marshall County area folks, the next and last class for 2017 will be Aug. 17 (6-9 p.m.) and the following Saturday, August 19th from 8 am until 4 p.m. Attendance at both sessions is required. Youth ages 12 or older, or anyone who has not previously attended, can register by going to this web site: www.iowadnr.gov/huntered. Find the Marshall County site and register. Completion of a hunter safety course is required for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1972.

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Figure this out: What has a head by never weeps, has a bed but never sleeps, can run but never walks, and has a bank but no money? Answer: A river.

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.