Before the pioneer movement, healthy North Texas prairies were dominated by several grasses: little bluestem, big bluestem, sideoats grama, indiangrass, and buffalo grass. These species and many of the wildflowers that grew alongside them have become extremely rare in north central Texas. The rich Blackland Prairie ecosystem is largely gone now. Of the original 12 million acres, less than one percent remains after more than 150 years of agriculture and improper grazing, followed by suburban sprawl. Much of LLELA contains Blackland soils, and we are working to restore this rare ecosystem.
A prairie can be plowed under in a few days work with the right equipment, but it takes years and years of dedicated effort to bring a prairie back once it’s gone. Just finding the appropriate plants to repopulate a new prairie can be a challenge. LLELA restoration staff works with growers to find seeds of local ecotypes (i.e., seeds from plants genetically native to our particular part of Texas) to plant. We also conduct plant rescues, going to prairies which are going to be destroyed and digging vegetation to transplant at LLELA. Our staff is continually scouting out new areas from which to gather seed which can be sown at LLELA.
Many areas of LLELA which were formerly tallgrass prairie have become overgrown with trees and brush. In this case, a bulldozer can be a tool for restoration rather than destruction. LLELA staff has been working hard in recent years to remove tree lines and brush which diminish our prairie landscape and provide a refuge for cowbirds, which parasitize the nests of grassland birds.
Once an area is prepared for planting, seeds can be hand scattered or planted with a seed drill, depending on the site. Groups of volunteers assist with transplants. Nature has a lot to say about whether our transplants take hold or our seeds germinate and flourish. Droughts and floods can cause significant setbacks.
A restoration is not over once the plants or seeds are in the ground and growing. LLELA’s restored prairies must be continually monitored. Invasive exotic species are especially problematic. Johnson Grass, King Ranch Bluestem, Nodding Thistle, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Canary Grass are just a few examples of plant species which are not a part of our native prairies. These aggressive outsiders will shoulder out the natives if allowed to grow unchecked. They have to be controlled, either through hand-pulling, use of herbicide, or prescribed burns (more information about the use of fire at LLELA can be found by clicking on “Prescribed Fire” on the home page). The appearance of these species means additional work in maintaining the prairie restoration (and they invariably show up, blown in by the wind, carried in on flood waters, or hitchhiking with wildlife). Eventually, native grasses and wildflowers will be established through concerted effort. Once the natives take over, it’s much easier to keep the invaders out.
A prairie is more than just plants. LLELA is working to restore our prairie wildlife as well. Invertebrates are particularly important in ecological functioning, and we are very interested in improving invertebrate diversity on our prairies.
You can help in our prairie restoration efforts. Click on the “Volunteer Opportunities” links on the home page to learn more.