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Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), is an exotic (non-native and invasive) grass which can kill livestock if eaten just after a freeze.

Why Protect and Restore Prairie?

by Jason Spangler

“I can sit on the porch before my door and see miles of the most beautiful prairie interwoven with groves of timber, surpassing, in my mind, the beauties of the sea. Think of seeing a tract of land on a slight incline covered with flowers and rich meadow grass for 12 to 20 miles” - John Brooke, an early settler in the tallgrass prairies of Texas, 1849

The imperiled tallgrass prairies of Texas need our help now: out of the original 20 million acres of beautiful Texas tallgrass prairie, less than 1% now remains due to suburban sprawl, plowing for row-crop agriculture, and improper overgrazing during the last 150 years.

Protection of existing tallgrass prairie remnants, restoration of tallgrass prairie, education and advocacy for tallgrass prairie conservation and restoration, and prairie landowner outreach and assistance are vital to water quality and the native plant communities, grassland birds, and other wildlife within the tallgrass prairie regions of Texas.

The reasons to find and conserve Texas tallgrass prairie are numerous, and include:

Protecting water quality and quantity: Native grasslands protect the watersheds in which they occur, increase water infiltration and water yield, increase water supply by reducing erosion and reservoir sedimentation, and increase water quality due to the lack of fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide use.

Conserving Texas cultural and natural heritage and Texas history: Owing in large part to the tallgrass prairie’s rich soils, more than 99 percent of this ecosystem early Texans experienced has been destroyed or fundamentally altered, making the tallgrass prairie the most-endangered large ecosystem in North America [TNC]. Losses, which continue today, are estimated to be even greater in Texas’ tallgrass prairie regions: the Blackland Prairies, Gulf Prairies and Marshes, and the Grand Prairie subregion of the Cross Timbers and Prairies.

According to the authors of the Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas, “the current generation may be the last with the opportunity to preserve even small remnants of the once extensive natural ecosystems” and “unless action is taken by those living today, the opportunity to provide future generations with the chance to experience natural areas” in these areas will be lost.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) states that remaining habitats in these ecoregions are threatened by rapid population growth and accompanying conversion to urban and pasture, fragmentation and decreasing land parcel size. The Gulf Prairies and Marshes and Blackland Prairies regions are the highest priority regions in the State Land and Water Conservation Plan and the State Wildlife Action Plan.

Protecting declining grassland birds, native pollinators, and other wildlife by protecting and restoring their habitat: In addition to the native plant communities of the tallgrass prairies, conservation of tallgrass prairie is needed as habitat for wildlife such as grassland birds and native pollinators. Grassland birds are experiencing the greatest declines of all bird groups, and to save the grassland birds we need to protect and restore their habitat: prairie.

Many tall grass prairie birds have declined drastically due to land conversion and fragmentation. The Blackland Prairies region is important stopover habitat for migrant songbirds and wintering raptors. In the Gulf Prairies and Marshes, Attwater’s prairie chicken, whooping crane, aplomado falcon, white-tailed hawk, Gulf Coast hog-nosed and eastern spotted skunks are all in need of attention, as are many of bird species that depend on this important migratory stopover area.

Partners in Flight says that “all [native prairie] areas remaining should be incorporated into some type of preserve system to preserve this vital habitat” and “community based restoration projects would serve to both educate the public and preserve the resource.”

High priority species of grassland birds in these tallgrass prairie regions include Sprague’s Pipit and Le Conte’s Sparrow. Additional species with declines or high threats include Swainson’s Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, and Bell’s Vireo. Population censuses between 1966 and 2003 have shown large decreases in grassland bird population: Eastern Meadowlark declined 66%, Northern Bobwhite declined 67.6%, Field Sparrow declined 68.8%, Short-eared Owl declined 69%, Loggerhead Shrike declined 77.1%, Grasshopper Sparrow declined 77.1%, and the Houston subspecies of Henslow’s Sparrow became extinct.

The State Wildlife Action Plan lists 15 - 25 high priority grassland bird species, in addition to other high priority wildlife, in each of these prairie ecoregions of Texas.

Game wildlife species that depend on native prairies and grasslands as habitat will also benefit from prairie conservation. These species include Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus), Scaled quail (Callipepla squamata), Rio Grande turkeys (Meleagris gallapavo), Eastern Wild Turkey (Meliagris gallopavo sylvestris), and Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura).

Other prairie wildlife that will benefit from this program includes the threatened Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) and small mammals such as the Gulf Coast hog-nosed and eastern spotted skunks. Parkhill Prairie Crayfish (Procambarus steigmani), an endangered prairie species recently discovered, will also benefit.

To save the grassland birds and other prairie wildlife, we need to protect existing and restore additional grassland bird and other wildlife habitat: the tallgrass prairie.

Protecting beautiful native Texas prairie plants and critically imperiled native plant communities: The main plant communities of Texas’ tallgrass prairies are highly threatened. These native plant communities include native plants such as Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Eastern Gamagrass, Brown-seed Paspulum, and Yellow Indiangrass, and are ranked with a Global Conservation Status of G1 - Critically Imperiled to G2 - Imperiled, the most threatened conservation rankings. These conservation rankings mean the native plant communities are at high to very high risk of extinction due to few populations, steep declines, or other factors [NatureServe]. TPWD also states that all four major native prairie plant communities are rare (critically imperiled or imperiled). The Texas Organization for Endangered Species (TOES) ranks most tallgrass prairie natural communities as Type I (Endangered) or Type II (Threatened).

In addition, the highly diverse set of native plants (including beautiful native prairie flowers) that once dominated the Texas tallgrass prairies in these native plant communities are now rare. The perennial prairie flowers that once covered the tallgrass prairies of Texas with swaths of incredible color are disappearing, leaving our state poorer in both beauty and natural diversity. Native prairie remnants have been measured to include hundreds of species of native plants.

Reducing global warming via carbon sequestration and increasing energy independence via prairie biofuels: Recent studies have found diverse native prairie plantings sequester large amounts of carbon (4.4 megagrams per hectare per year for the first 10 years, followed by 3.3 megagrams per hectare per year thereafter) while also being the highest energy and lowest input cellulosic biofuel source [Tilman, Hill, and Lehman. Science Vol 314. Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass] and being far better for the environment than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel; attributes that could ultimately lead to financial incentives for landowners in the effort to mitigate climate change while also benefiting conservation of native wildlife and plant communities. Protecting local Texas ecotypes of native prairie plant seed sources are needed to create these diverse native prairie plantings.

Acting as local seed sources and models for prairie restoration and biofuel native prairie plantings: The location and protection of prairie remnants is also needed for restoration of land to return it to prairie so the amount of prairie habitat can be increased (both new restorations and restoring land around existing prairie remnants to increase the size of the remnant prairies). Local ecotype native plant seed sources are needed for successful prairie restorations, and local examples of prairies are needed to serve as models of the local plant communities as a target for restoration. Protection of prairie remnants is needed to meet this goal, and location of prairie remnants is the first important step.

Providing educational opportunities, open space, and nature exposure for all Texans (children and adults): The identification and protection of tallgrass prairie remnants will provide the public and schoolchildren examples of what the natural world should look like where they live in the tallgrass prairie. They will be able to learn about Texas’ tallgrass prairie heritage and learn about prairie plants, bison, grassland birds, and other prairie wildlife, in addition to learning about the history of humans and the prairie (Native Americans and European settlers). Prairie, with beautiful native prairie flowers and grasses, is high quality open space and efficiently provides both open space and conservation benefits simultaneously.

In summary, protection of existing tallgrass prairie remnants, restoration of tallgrass prairie, education and advocacy for tallgrass prairie conservation and restoration, and prairie landowner outreach and assistance are vital to water quality and the native plant communities, grassland birds, and other wildlife within the tallgrass prairie regions of Texas