Prairie Management

Establishing Prairies

Establishing reconstructed prairies is another vital portion of the position made even more apparent as we try to establish more habitat for our failing pollinator species, which is discussed in more detail in the prairie section.

As you can see, Natural Resources management is a varied position using many different skills and techniques to achieve our land management goals for the county. We can be found year-round, hot or cold, rain or sun, out in our parks, working tirelessly to enhance and restore our treasured resources.

Prairie Management: Then and Now

Bison as land managers:

Yes! Believe it or not, even prior to modern conservation practices, the prairies of North America have always been managed! Prior to settlement in the Midwestern United States, the American Bison roamed the plains along with a few other large herbivorous species such as elk. Bison, however, roamed in herds by the tens of thousands and just by their weight and trot, along with wallowing (rolling around in mud) would leave the ground cultivated behind them. Since bison also roamed in such large numbers, their grazing habits would leave areas essentially mowed down to stubble. These effects that the bison had allowed for new growth from the base of the prairie, creating healthier plants and germination of new seeds. 

Below are two life-size bison. On the left is an adult, and to the right is a juvenile. Stop by Calkins Nature area and check them out! Also, notice the free standing prairie on the left which is recently burned. To the right is a prairie that is in need of some care. Notice how it isn't as thick, but rather suffocated in the "duff" or lower layer of decay.

Calkins Metal Bison

Below, Hardin County Conservation Board staff executing a prescribed prairie burn at Calkins Nature Area

Calkins RX Burn1

Fire as a land management tool:

While there haven't always been conservationists and wildlife managers around to plan and implement prescribed fire, natural events such as lightning took place long before we were around. When prairies like the one on the right, located above, become overwhelmed with that layer of duff, or prairie debris and decay, they become extremely dry. In the event that a lightning strike could occur, it would spark a prairie to flame, eradicating the thick layer and leaving the carbon behind to benefit the soil. Up from the ashes, a new prairie arises and blooms the following warm season. For the health and preservation of native prairies today, conservationists and land managers prescribe fire as needed to eradicate invasive weeds, benefit the ground below, and inspire new and healthy growth.

Mowing as prairie management:

In today's modern world, with the lack of burn crews and bison inhabiting our state, many opt for mowing as an option. Some contracts in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), require that burning take place on a scheduled basis as part of management. However, recent legislation has been passed to allow certain contract to permit farmers and land owners to mow and bale their prairies. This leaves a prairie with less duff, just as the bison did while grazing. Some researchers are also looking into using certain species such as switchgrass as an alternative to burning coal.

Grazing as prairie management:

Many federal contracts such as CRP and other conservation easements prohibit the grazing or pasturing of livestock on contracted lands. Bison and other large herbivores, as mentioned above, did once graze the land in a way that left prairies in a healthier state. However, those large herbivores at that time, had an indefinite amount of land to roam. Today, grazing a herd of livestock on a land that is designated or managed as prairie would lead to the intrusion of invasive species such as multiflora rose, wild parsnip, reed canary grass and many more. These invasive species are not native to the tall-grass prairie that we have in Iowa, but take advantage of disturbances such as exposed soil and continuous mowed or grazed grassland. Once they take over a prairie, they can become incredibly hard to manipulate and are near impossible to eradicate. 

Prairie Restoration Sign