Prairie Resurgence in the Midwest
Suburban sprawl meant the introduction of lawn monoculture: perfectly cut, well-manicured lawns that became a part of pride for many American homeowners. However, in the Midwest, a new lawn resurgence is occurring: restoring yards to the native prairies that existed in pre-settlement days.
In an effort to manage yards and fallow farmland succumbing to invasive shrubs, more and more people are spending the time and resources to turn their property into the native ecosystem that once ruled the land. This practice is not only attracting more wildlife to areas, but it is changing the way people maintain their yards, as prairies require less watering and fertilizer, and no mowing!
Prior to colonial settlement, prairie took over central North America, making up nearly 600,000 square miles of grassland. This complex ecosystem was home to a diverse and teeming web of life, including now-tattered bison populations. However, farming and development have reduced much of this landscape. Tall-grass prairie habitats, a habitat dominated by grasses that can grow eight feet high, now occupies less than 1 percent of its former range, putting it among the world’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
Government agencies and conservation groups, aided by volunteers, have undertaken numerous restoration projects across U.S. and Canadian prairieland, some of them thousands of acres in scale. In recent years, we are seeing more and more private citizens joining in, restoring prairie to their own properties, from city yards up to 100 acres or more around rural homes and farms. In some cases they've re-created prairie where it never was before — on land that was originally forest or wetlands before settlers plowed it for crops.
Federal, state, and local programs offer financial and technical assistance, particularly for larger private projects on agricultural land, conservation groups also offer some help, and an industry of consultants, contractors, and native-plant nurseries has arisen for landowners who can't do it all themselves.
Bigger prairies obviously offer more wildlife habitat, and connected ones allow species to spread over larger territories, preventing gene-pool stagnation, say experts. But even small patches or yards count as pocket refuges for native wildlife that may have few alternatives.
While prairie restoration may not be successful in all parts of the country, returning our lawns to native habitats that may have existed before development will inevitably be better for the local wildlife populations. Also, creating native habitats in our backyard will reduce the costs we spend on watering and fertilizing any nonnative species.
Read more at Yale Environment 360.
Prairie image via Shutterstock.