Why Prairies Matter

The imperiled tallgrass prairies of Texas need our help now. Of the original 20 million acres of tallgrass prairie, less than 1% now remains. Why should we care?

Native prairies like Mary Talbot Prairie are a diverse mix of grasses and forbs.

OUR NATURAL HERITAGE: The tallgrass prairie’s rich soils have been responsible for our nation’s agricultural success. But it has also been their undoing. More than 99 percent of this ecosystem experienced by early Texans has been plowed for croplands or fundamentally altered through heavy grazing or other land management practices. This has made tallgrass prairie the most-endangered ecosystem in North America. An additional threat is now due to family lands being sold for development.

“The current generation may be the last with the opportunity to preserve even small remnants of the once extensive natural ecosystems.”
~Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas

ABOVE GROUND: Native prairies are composed of a highly diverse set of flowering plants and grasses. Many of these plants are not found anywhere else. A high-quality prairie can have hundreds of plant species–even more diversity than a rain forest, on a smaller scale. Read more.
Prairie remnants provide local seed sources for future restoration projects. Protecting local Texas ecotypes of native plant seed sources is critically important for restoration efforts. Because actual remnants are so rare, restorations become very important to prairie conservation–even if they provide just a snapshot of a native prairie remnant.

Read more about the value of saving even small parcels of habitat.

Native bee on a compass plant.

WILDLIFE: The rich native plant communities of the tallgrass prairies provide food and shelter for wildlife. Grassland birds, like quail and meadowlarks, are experiencing the greatest declines of all bird groups due to the loss of our prairies and grasslands.  Read more from Audubon.

Recent studies show a decline in insects like the Monarch butterfly, bees and other pollinators. These native insects thrive on the diverse plant life of the prairie ecosystem. In turn, insects provide food sources to prairie wildlife and help pollinate the flowering plants of the prairie. Our pollinators are needed for their service to agriculture as well. Read more about insect decline.

Deep prairie soils allow burrowing animals, prairie dogs (a keystone species) to survive in underground tunnel systems. There are lots of burrowing animals in prairies!

Switchgrass has very long roots.

BELOW GROUND: Prairies aren’t tall like timberlands, and can be quite short at certain times of year. They have actually been called upside-down forests because much of their mass is underground. Prairie roots form a fibrous network reaching many feet below ground. These deep roots make prairies very drought resistant and adaptable to climate changes. Read more about roots.

WATER: Because of these deep, fibrous roots, native grasslands protect the watersheds in which they occur. They increase water infiltration and reduce erosion–helping to slow down and absorb floodwater. This also reduces sediment and pollution from runoff, and increases water quality.

THE CARBON QUESTION: It’s back to the soil. Unplowed prairies store lots of carbon in the ground, and this is being studied. While grasslands store carbon differently than forests, a UC Davis study shows that it is a more reliable carbon sink. Climate change is impacting our forests with droughts and insect damage. When they burn, they actually become carbon sources. Read more about prairie carbon.

ECONOMICS: The Texas Land Trust Council recently conducted a study on the economic value and benefits of conserved land for Texas. Read more here.

Help us save Texas prairies for future generations!

Education Director Della Barbato demonstrates prairie roots to school children.