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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tall Grass Park

Air Date: Week of

Among new national parks recently designated by congressional decree is a protected tall grass prairie in Kansas. With only ten percent of the nation's prairie remaining from what existed a century ago, the new national park is part of a larger plan for prairie preservation. Catherine Winter reports.


CURWOOD: In one of its final acts before adjourning, the 104th Congress created a number of new national parks. Among them, the nation's first protected tall grass prairie in the state of Kansas. Less than a century ago, millions of acres of North America were covered with prairie: vast expanses of grasslands that were home to bisons, wolves, and of course prairie dogs. Today, less than one tenth of that prairie remains, and much of it is scattered in isolated pockets. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a plan to buy and protect more prairie land remaining in western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. Producer Catherine Winter has our report.

(Footfalls through high grasses)

WINTER: On a cool fall day biologist Howard Lipke wades through a field of prairie grasses in northwest Minnesota, climbing to the top of a hill. The grass has turned to its fall colors, purple and orange and red and yellow. It flickers like fire racing down the hill.

LIPKE: That's a big blue stem. Another word for it is turkey foot. Let's see, Indian grass.

WINTER: Tiny yellow flowers.

LIPKE: Mm hm.

WINTER: This is a small island of prairie grass, about 300 acres in an ocean of farmland. And it's not native prairie. The US Fish and Wildlife Service planted these prairie grasses on an old farmstead. Howard Lipke says the field is missing most of the plant species that would be found in a real prairie. But all the same, it's providing valuable habitat.

(Barking dogs, fading to crickets)

LIPKE: Some of the prairie songbird species are beginning to show up. And you're starting to see some of the insect life. And many of those are critical grassland species that are on the downward slide, simply because of the fragmentation and shrinkage of habitat.

(Dog barking continues)

WINTER: Prairie once spread from Texas to Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to Illinois. The first Europeans to reach the Midwest stood in grasses as high as their chests and saw prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction. But settlers plowed the land and planted grain. Minnesota had 18 million acres of prairie when they arrived. Today, only about 300,000 acres are left. About half the native prairie is already owned by conservation groups or the government. The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to buy some of the few pieces of prairie that remains in private hands. Howard Lipke is leading that effort, the Tall Grass Prairie Project. He hopes to buy about 77,000 acres of prairie and land surrounding prairie remnants in Iowa and Minnesota. On a recent morning, Mr. Lipke went on a scouting mission in small plane to look for land the government might buy in northwest Minnesota.

(Ambient voices, followed by plane engines)

WINTER: Biologists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources led the trip. From the air, there's little sign across most of the state of the vast grasslands that once covered the area. The land is cut into neat brown and green squares with white farmhouses here and there. But near the Canadian border the landscape changes.

LIPKE (over the roar of the engines): The reddish, purplish color that you're seeing now is the tall grass, Indian grass, big blue stem. Some of this, where you have this interspersion of wet meadows and probably the stronghold for sandhill crane nesting within the state of Minnesota...

WINTER: Prairie like this is important, not just for sandhill cranes but for other rare birds, butterflies, and flowers. And this part of Minnesota, Kitson County, has some of the largest chunks of native prairie left in the state. Prairie that was never plowed because it would have made poor cropland. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to preserve some of this land, but many local farmers don't want more prairie preserved.

HEWETT: They feel that the Federal Government has enough land for birds and animals and so forth, and that government doesn't need any more land.

WINTER: Kitson County Commissioner Beverly Hewett says her constituents fear if the government owns all the surrounding land, they won't be able to expand their farms. She says ranchers think the government already has too much power.

HEWETT: You can't go out and ride horses and things on DNR land because you might break a stick or something. And people just feel like they can't use it, they can't do anything on it and it's closed to them for so many things that they would like to do. And they feel it's their land and yet they can't do anything on it.

WINTER: The Fish and Wildlife Service's Howard Lipke replies that some of the land the government buys could still be used for haying or grazing, which doesn't destroy prairie. And he says the government won't force anyone to sell land. They'll only buy from willing sellers.

(A door slams)

WINTER: I the remote town of Hallock, the biologists pile into a van to get a closer look at what they saw from the air. During the brief tour, they drive past a moose cow and calf, a bald eagle eating a fox, and a coyote that fools them briefly into thinking he's a wolf.

MAN: Hey, a timber wolf back there.

WINTER: Sharp-tailed grouse rise up from the road. Sandhill cranes stand tall and awkward in a farm field. The van pulls over, and George Davis of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources pulls out a map. He shows the Federal biologists where the DNR is preserving native prairie that was never plowed, and where it plans to restore prairie on land that was plowed by re-planting prairie species.

DAVIS: This is Moose Point. We've got about 600, 700 acres that we're in the process of restoring. We'll be another 5 years getting that done.

WINTER: When you say restored, can you ever really make it like it was?

DAVIS: No. Even the stuff that is native is probably not the way it really was, because of miscellaneous disturbances and everything else. We don't know what it was. And number one, we don't have bison, and we don't even know what the burning procedures were that the Native Americans followed. Did they burn in August? Did they burn in June? Have no idea.

WINTER: George Davis says even if they did know, the DNR doesn't have the resources to do all the burning needed. And even if they did have the resources, fragments of prairie will never provide the same sort of habitat vast grasslands once did. But biologists say fragments are worth saving. Robert Dana, an ecologist with the Minnesota DNR, says small plots may contain unique species.

DANA: You know, there's nowhere in Minnesota that you can go and see what the prairie country actually looked like. And that is sad. You know, I keep my hopes up by saying yeah, we are stuck with these little places and we'll never have the bison herds and we'll never have the elk herds, and we won't see the prairie wolf again. But there are still small pleasures, and I think they're important.

WINTER: Still, more prairie disappears every year. It's plowed or dug up for gravel or developers build on it. Robert Dana says the biggest threat to prairie remnants is neglect. Without burning and grazing, they become overgrown and the native species are crowded out. Organizers of the Tall Grass Prairie Project say it may take 25 years for them to buy the 77,000 acres they want. The project is in a race against time, trying to preserve those last patches of prairie before they disappear forever.

(Footfalls through prairie grass)

WINTER: For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter.



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