What is a Prairie?
A prairie is defined as a large open grassland with many different species such as forbs, wildflowers, shrubs, animals and microorganisms. Prairies are very diverse, for example they may be:
- Dry, mesic (moderately moist), or wet
- Grassy or more forb-based
- Have elevation differences of lowland grasslands to sandy highland grasslands
- Sunny or shaded
- Tall or short grassed
Reasons to Manage:
- A prairie ecosystem provides a food source, protection from predators and climate, as well as nesting areas for mammals, insects and birds, alike.
Soil & Water
- Prairies provide a natural filtering system for watersheds. As water drains into the watershed, it often passes prairies which have extensive root systems.
Methods of 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 landowners 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.
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 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.
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.