The Challenge: Without question our tallgrass prairies have suffered the greatest losses of all our Southern grasslands. Their deep, fertile soils attracted early settlers because they didn’t have to clear trees for their crops and the lush native pasturage could support large numbers of livestock. When John Deere’s steel plow was invented in 1837 the fate of the Southern prairies, some as large as 3 million acres, was sealed. The past 180 years of row-crop agriculture has left our deep-soiled prairies and savannas in an utterly transformed state. Today, all that remains of many are the winds that still ripple the fields of wheat and corn. These prairies are now functionally extinct, with only a few scattered fragments perilously persisting. If we want any hope for grassland birds, pollinators, and plants to exist into the 22nd century, we are going to have to begin to invest in re-creating wild landscapes. We have no choice in these areas but to re-create grasslands, using the small fragments that remain to rebuild them.
There are several hurdles to re-creating prairies at a large scale. Foremost among these is the fact that nearly all of the land is in private ownership, is being actively cultivated, and is quite expensive. The farmers who own these lands depend on their crops for their livelihoods. Even if such lands were available to work with, few conservation organizations want to invest in such lands because they are often of low natural quality and conservation work must “start from scratch.” Planting a few prairie grasses is costly enough, but attempting re-creation of functional ecosystems is very expensive. Adding to the challenge is that for most of these Southern prairies, locally adapted seeds are often not available. Very little research has been conducted on re-creation of grasslands in the South, but there are a few examples in the Midwest and Great Plains states we can emulate. For example, at the Kankakee Sands Preserve in northern Indiana, The Nature Conservancy has been re-creating prairie using seed mixes of 400-600 species of plants. While most re-creations will be small in scale, involving fewer acres and species, we envision re-creating several thousand acres across the various types of extinct grasslands of the South.
SGI’s Role: SGI will work with agencies and organizations to identify private lands suitable for re-creation. We will provide technical guidance (inventory and monitoring), assist with the development of seed sources, and help provide matching grants needed to re-create small and large-scale grasslands.