Wisconsinites bring the past into the future by restoring native prairies
by Allyson Fergot
On the edge of a neighborhood park in La Crosse sits a dense prairie. Its tall, browning plants stand in stark contrast from the freshly mowed, dark-green grass that surrounds the park. It’s a clear line between careful control and self-sufficient freedom.
When you approach the boundary between the manicured lawn and the native landscape, you realize how thick the prairie is. Thatch from the plants conceals the ground, making the soil something you can only imagine. The winding yellow-green grasses 10 yards from the border block your view to the other side. The prairie is only four acres from one end to the other, but you could easily get lost in the thicket.
There’s a soft but constant buzz in this ecosystem alive with insects and birds. The purple, yellow and white flowers visible to an outsider are dotted with the few remaining pollinators. It’s autumn now. Soon the sound will dull, the flowers will lose their color and the birds will migrate south.
This prairie, a sanctuary for wildlife and virtually impenetrable by humans, was not here 15 years ago. It was brought into existence in the late 2000s by a group of amateur conservationists who were interested in bringing Wisconsin’s native landscape into the future.
Before European settlement, prairies were an essential tool for the well-being of Wisconsin’s habitants. Bison and elk grazed the prairies, which provided a huntable food source for nearby Native Americans. They burned the prairies to walk through them more easily, which in turn kept the prairies clear of dead thatch and pesky weeds.
The prairies’ ability to create nutrient-rich soil led Europeans to convert them into agricultural land. When Europeans first settled in Wisconsin, prairies took up 2.1 million acres. Today, less than 10,000 acres of native prairie remain. In their place stand houses and farmland, shopping centers and schools, and miles and miles of interstate. This modernization left prairies as one of the most decimated landscapes in America.
Now, some Wisconsinites have discovered a passion for restoring Wisconsin prairies.
“It’s progress and whatnot, but I think you have to have a good imagination to think back prior to European movement here … to see the native grasses and plants and trees,” says Gregg Erickson, one of the amateur conservationists that reconstructed the prairie by the park.
Erickson, now retired, used to work as a science teacher at Central High School in La Crosse. About 15 years ago, Erickson wrote a grant for seeds to grow a prairie containing native plants where he could take his students for educational purposes. He was also interested in how the landscape would look once native prairie plants were reintroduced.
Erickson’s friends, including my dad, helped him prepare the land, plant seeds and burn away weeds in order to establish the new prairie. Now, whenever I walk through my neighborhood or play volleyball in the park with my little sister, I get to see a sliver of what Wisconsin used to look like.
Since restoring the prairie in my neighborhood park, Erickson has reconstructed more prairies, including one in his own backyard. A prairie brings with it a whole ecosystem, and Erickson says there has been a clear change in the wildlife behind his house.
“Turkeys love to eat grasshoppers, and because we have so many grasshoppers around, there’s turkeys all over the place laying their nests in our grasses, whereas they normally wouldn’t be around,” he says.
He also notes the prairie has attracted finches, warblers and other migratory birds that are usually found in a field. He’s even seen a hummingbird moth, an alien-like insect that resembles a perfect crossover between the two species from which it gets its name.
Jack Buswell, an attorney in Sparta, a half hour east of La Crosse, first got involved in prairie restoration and management in 1997 when he took over his family farm. He was told he could convert the cropland into prairie through the Conservation Reserve Program, a program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture that pays farmers to convert land used for agricultural production into space to plant species that improve environmental health.
“The real reason I did prairie restoration was to create upland habitat for birds such as pheasants and quail,” Buswell says. He now raises pheasants and releases them into his prairie.
His involvement in Pheasants Forever, an organization focused on conserving wildlife habitats for game birds, led him to assist in the restoration of other prairies over the years.
Prairie restoration is not for the faint of heart, though. The preparation process and continuous weed removal can be tedious, and it can take years before the first native plants sprout. A prairie requires little maintenance once established, except for a routine cleansing every few years to clear dead plants and any invasive weeds that have sneaked into the area.
One of the best ways to effectively get rid of weeds is through one of Earth’s most feared elements: fire.
There are other ways to maintain a prairie, like spot treating weeds using herbicides or by mowing, but Neil Diboll says fire is the best method. Diboll is the president and owner of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, in the central part of the state, and has been working in prairie restoration and management for more than 40 years.
“Controlled burning is hands down the best tool the prairie manager has for discouraging invasion by woody trees, shrubs and vines, as well as non-native, cool-season grasses and broadleaf weeds,” he says.
The idea of controlling fire is intimidating but easier than expected. Diboll has written articles about how to execute a controlled burn, which are accessible through the Prairie Nursery website. Different organizations, like Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, also have resources about burning safely on their website.
Although starting out can seem overwhelming, conservationists agree the benefits associated with restoring a prairie outweigh the initial investment of time and money. Not only do restored prairies add natural beauty to a landscape and create habitat for pollinators and endangered species, they’re also a crucial component to fight climate change and mitigate its effects.
Prairies can store carbon deep into the earth because their root system stretches multiple feet into the soil. This makes prairies incredible carbon sinks, which means that they absorb more carbon than they release. They’re even better carbon sinks than forests because prairie plants have longer roots than trees and, unlike trees, prairie plants don’t release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere when they’re burned.
The soil structure and root system of prairies also absorb water quickly. This water absorption mitigates the effects of flooding, which is especially important now as annual precipitation rates are increasing. Prairies also help with erosion control because their deep roots keep soils in place.
Because of habitat creation, environmental impacts and sheer beauty, people working in prairie restoration have noticed an increased interest toward it.
“I think things have really been picking up momentum and picking up steam … in the areas of prairie conservation, protection and management,” says Armund Bartz, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin DNR. “At least on the sites we’re working and managing there is more and more interest.”
Diboll has seen a similar shift over time in attitudes toward prairie management. “When I went in this 40 years ago … a lot of people said, ‘Oh, it’s just a fad,’ because gardening goes through fads … but the thing about native plants and prairie plants, it’s just been this constant gradual increase every year.”
Wisconsin’s DNR has partnered with private landowners to restore and manage their properties. Darcy Kind, a private lands biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, focuses on restoration and management to benefit at-risk species. Since she started working on the program in 2005, there has been a steady increase in people looking to restore prairies.
“Some people feel like they need to create this habitat because they really want to see monarch butterflies,” Kind says. “Then some people know the history of the property, know that they once had a prairie on their property, so they’re trying to get it back.”
Other groups across Wisconsin are working toward improving the status of prairies in the state. The Grasslands 2.0 project is educating farmers on how agricultural land can be converted into future grasslands and native prairies, which can be grazed by cattle, much like how Wisconsin’s native prairies were once grazed by bison.
Some people embrace native prairie plants in a smaller way. Walking through neighborhoods in Madison, you can see homes that have embraced the “No Mow” movement and opted for lawns filled with native plants rather than the short, green and uniform lawns that have become custom in America.
Despite the steady increase in interest, Bartz is hoping more people across the state become involved in prairie restoration. “It’s an underdog habitat that really needs help,” he says. “Prairies are a part of our history, part of our culture, a link to the past and a potential resource for the future.”
Featured photo by Allyson Fergot.