Prairies worth saving, studying

Chris Helzer is an ecologist responsible for the management and restoration of about 5,000 acres of Nature Conservancy-owned land in central and eastern Nebraska. He blogs at the Prairie Ecologist (

Q. Why are prairies important?

A. Prairie is the ecosystem best adapted to the conditions in the central plains states, where frequent droughts and fires make life difficult for woody plants. In addition, prairies support many thousands of wildlife, plant and invertebrate species. The deep root systems beneath prairie plants build soil organic matter and provide a stable storage location for carbon. Maybe most important, prairies are diverse and beautiful natural communities.

Q. How has scientists’ understanding of prairie ecology changed over time?

A. New prairie species, particularly invertebrates, are being discovered all the time, and we’re just starting to understand the importance and function of the microbes living in the soil. More important, we’ve learned how much prairies rely on “disturbances,” such as fire and grazing. A prairie that is just left alone becomes stagnant: Habitat quality suffers; wildlife species disappear.

Q. Is there an effort to restore America’s grasslands?

A. The tallgrass prairie, which once covered most of the land from the eastern Dakotas down to east Texas and east to portions of Indiana, is mostly gone because its very productive soils have been converted to row-crop agriculture. Farther west, large portions of mixed-grass prairie and shortgrass prairie are still intact, though much is still being converted for agriculture and energy development. There have been some successful efforts to defragment small portions of the tallgrass prairie landscape by re-seeding cropland adjacent to some of the last remaining prairie remnants.

Q. Describe your prairie.

A. Imagine yourself in the middle of the ocean, except that instead of waves of water, you see and hear the wind rippling through grasses and wildflowers from horizon to horizon. That sound of wind is enhanced by the chirping of birds and insects, and punctuated by coyote howls, bison grunts and prairie dog barks. We have an unimpeded view of the sun from its rise to its set, and we can watch thunderstorms form, pass over and disappear into the distance. Standing in the middle of a big open prairie evokes both a feeling of solitude and the keen awareness that life is swirling all around and beneath you.