Part 3 of 6 - if we rebuild them, they will come

Lesson 3 -- lessons from Grigsby Prairie

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Lesson 3. If we rebuild them, they will come...

Many rare species that are in severe decline throughout their ranges are rebounding in the Chicago area thanks to the increase in high-quality grassland conservation efforts. Let's bring similar efforts to the SGI focal area.

After our visit to Spring Creek Prairie and a brief lunch we drove a few miles away, through an upscale suburban landscape, to a smaller restored prairie known as Grigsby Prairie. Just a few weeks prior I had heard about this site from my friend, Philip Juras. Philip is an amazing oil painter with a passion for painting grasslands. For years he has been traveling from his home in Athens, Georgia to Chicago to paint the area's prairies and savannas and has completed more than a dozen paintings from the region. 

 At Grigsby Prairie, we spotted the rare Baltimore Checkerspot ( Euphydryas phaeton ), a species that some fear is slipping towards extinction. Somehow it found Grigsby Prairie.

At Grigsby Prairie, we spotted the rare Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), a species that some fear is slipping towards extinction. Somehow it found Grigsby Prairie.

As we walked a loop through the prairie, Tom pointed out a small dull-colored bird popping from one shrub clump to another. "That's Henslow's Sparrow," he whispered. At 6'3" tall, I move ungracefully through a prairie and I have to remind myself to tone down my loud Southern voice, especially when in the company of birders like Tom and Justin. So, I quieted my excited chatter to avoid scaring these rare birds from their perch.

I knew this species was in decline across its range, but Justin informed me that Henslow's Sparrow is "on the upswing in the greater Chicago area due to the spike in prairie restoration efforts in the past few decades" led by CFC volunteers. Taking but a few steps, we saw a second rare animal--the Baltimore Checkerspot--a butterfly that, like the sparrow, somehow had navigated the seemingly endless sea of suburbia, manicured lawns, fields of non-native grasses, crop fields, forested blocks, and pavement, to find, miraculously, this little re-created wildflower oasis. 

Visiting this little prairie with Tom and Justin was inspiring. If we replicate the unique approach being used in Chicago in places like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina where the vast grasslands disappeared largely by 1750 or the rapidly vanishing Blackland Prairies east of Austin, Texas, then we can reverse the tide of grassland biodiversity loss in the Southeast.

Lesson 3: This visit to Grigsby Prairie taught me my third lesson. As we walked back to the car, I couldn't help but think of the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, and I said aloud, "if we rebuild them, they will come." But importantly, it's not just about planting "native warm season grasses" and it's more than planting a pollinator-friendly mix to attract Monarchs, to truly curb the erosion of our grassland biodiversity we must strive to re-create and restore more species-rich grasslands across the South with the utmost care and attention to detail that our friends in Chicago have been doing for decades...and it's working! 

  Inspired by Poplar Creek Prairie (Late July), Cook County, Illinois, December 2013, Oil on canvas, 24 " x 36", by Philip Juras.    From Philip's website:  "  In this scene, inspired by a late July visit to Poplar Creek Prairie, big bluestem grass has just begun to send its flowering stalks as high as a horse’s back. Also reaching overhead is the robust stalk of a compass plant in full bloom, and stems of the not yet flowering tall tickseed. Lower down are the abundant colorful blooms of the lavender flowering bee balm and bright yellow flowers of the gray-headed coneflower. These two are often seen in recently restored areas of prairie. Also in the foreground is the off-white wild quinine and the not yet flowering stems of stiff goldenrod.    These are only a handful of over one hundred species of prairie plants that have been lovingly restored to this former farm site. Since 1989, the Poplar Prairie Stewards, a project of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, have brought some 600 acres back to a near pre-settlement condition, all centered on a tiny remnant of dry prairie that survived on a gravelly hill on the site. Although it is surrounded by the suburban sprawl of Chicago, when walking through these 600 acres one can almost imagine the vast expanse of prairies and woodlands that once covered this part of Illinois ." (Juras 2013)

Inspired by Poplar Creek Prairie (Late July), Cook County, Illinois, December 2013, Oil on canvas, 24 " x 36", by Philip Juras.

From Philip's website:  "In this scene, inspired by a late July visit to Poplar Creek Prairie, big bluestem grass has just begun to send its flowering stalks as high as a horse’s back. Also reaching overhead is the robust stalk of a compass plant in full bloom, and stems of the not yet flowering tall tickseed. Lower down are the abundant colorful blooms of the lavender flowering bee balm and bright yellow flowers of the gray-headed coneflower. These two are often seen in recently restored areas of prairie. Also in the foreground is the off-white wild quinine and the not yet flowering stems of stiff goldenrod.

These are only a handful of over one hundred species of prairie plants that have been lovingly restored to this former farm site. Since 1989, the Poplar Prairie Stewards, a project of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, have brought some 600 acres back to a near pre-settlement condition, all centered on a tiny remnant of dry prairie that survived on a gravelly hill on the site. Although it is surrounded by the suburban sprawl of Chicago, when walking through these 600 acres one can almost imagine the vast expanse of prairies and woodlands that once covered this part of Illinois." (Juras 2013)