The persistence of the Prairie

An ancient ocean of grass is now a farmer's paradise

There are not "Do Not Touch" signs at the prairie museum here in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. No glass cases or stuff to read on the walls. Not even any walls, in fact.

The "museum" is the Kernen Prairie, owned by the University of Saskatchewan. It's 320 acres of uncultivated land surrounded by farmland being crowded by new houses as Saskatoon expands.

Fred Kernen gave the university the land in 1977 so that scientists could learn how the grasses and other plants growing there work together as an ecosystem.

Grasses used to cover vast swaths of North America. (See map, above.) Before settlers sailed from Europe to North America, the grasses grew thick and tall enough in places to hide a man on horseback. That was the tall-grass prairie.

Farther west - here in Saskatchewan, for instance - not enough rain fell for the luxuriant tall grasses. The prairies here were short-grass prairies. The coming of European settlers changed both.

We're used to thinking that people change the landscape mostly with asphalt and concrete. But it was through farming that the prairie was really changed.

This part of Canada was settled just so crops could be grown and sent to feed people in cities and other countries.

The tall-grass prairie became the great corn-growing region (or "corn belt") of the American Midwest and the Canadian provinces just north of the border. The short-grass prairie became the Western "wheat belt." More recently, farmers began to grow canola. Its tiny seeds are crushed to make cooking oil. (Does your kitchen have canola oil?)

Canola plants now cover many acres that used to be grassland. In the early summer, their bright-yellow blossoms under a bright-blue sky are a sight to see.

With all this planting, only about 1 percent of the tall-grass prairie is left. Less than 5 percent of the shortgrass prairie remains. That's why there are prairie museums in the United States and Canada.

Some prairie museums are large enough to support bison (American buffalo). This makes them more authentic. The Nature Conservancy organization protects the environment by buying pieces of land and leaving them in their natural state; it has 79,300 acres of native grassland with 3,160 head of bison at different sites across the US.

Bison eat tree saplings. Early settlers killed off the bison, both for food and for protection against stampedes. With fewer bison to eat saplings, some grasslands became woodlands. (We usually think of people cutting trees down. Here is a case where people helped trees grow!)

Prairie museums can be in surprising places. Kenneth Robertson, a scientist at the University of Illinois, has a Web site listing small prairies in his state. Some are in Chicago - in sections of subdivisions that never were built upon, or abandoned cemeteries now surrounded by farms. (See: www.inhs.uiuc.edu/~kenr/tallgrass.html)

There's even a 10-acre prairie in Slippery Rock, Pa., at the Jennings Environmental Education Center. That's much farther east than you'd expect a prairie to be. But some time during the millenniums of climate change and shifting glaciers across North America, a warm, dry period let a "prairie peninsula" develop. Prairie plants spread from the Midwest as far east as Pennsylvania.

On the Kernen Prairie outside Saskatoon, rough fescue is one of the most important grasses. Cattle love the stuff: Its citified cousin is familiar on front lawns.

Some 20 grasses and 10 sedges (similar to grasses) grow here. One of the imports is brome grass. It was brought by Eastern European settlers for cattle to eat. Bohdan Pylypec, a plant scientist at the university, points to where Fred Kernen had a small landing strip. It's been years since it was used, but the ruts left by plane wheels are still filled with brome grass.

Rough fescue is well adapted to the clay soil of this land, which shrinks and swells depending on the amount of moisture available. When the soil dries, it cracks into big "soil polygons." One of the most interesting plants on the prairie is prairie smoke - a wildflower that looks like a giant dandelion ready to "blow," except that it's pink and gray. Birds and animals on the prairie include the Western porcupine, the savannah sparrow, and the meadowlark.

Scientist Melanie Elliott runs ecology programs for children at the University of Saskatoon. She takes kids out to the Kernen Prairie for (literally) a field trip. "It makes you see the land instead of just driving by," she says.

Kids like to learn about grasses with interesting shapes, like the speargrass, which has a barb that helps it burrow into the ground. Many grasses have interesting names, too: buffalo grass, big bluestem, little bluestem, and switch grass, to name a few. Then there's blue gramma grass, which is also known as Gramma's Eyelashes and Fairy Toothbrush. The children love to see slides of the plants, then go out to try to find the plants themselves.

Many grasses have deep, deep roots. They need deep roots to persist, to hold on in droughts and in the wind. Deep roots hold the soil together. The terrible Dust Bowl developed in the 1930s when too much prairie had been turned into farmland. When the soil dried out for lack of rain, the wind simply blew it away. The grass roots that had anchored the soil were gone.

The prairie is a place of paradox - a combination of opposites that are somehow both true. For example, prairies were once natural, but now it takes a lot of human effort to keep them natural - or make them natural again. For instance, plants brought by settlers have to be removed if a prairie is to be "natural."

"Nowadays we feel we have to actively manage what would have taken care of itself before," says Jason Greenall, a botanist with the wildlife branch of Manitoba Conservation in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Sometimes, that means setting a patch of prairie on fire! How's that for a paradox? But fire is part of the natural cycle of the prairie. Like the bison, fire helps keep trees off the prairie. Prairie fires set off by "dry lightning" are natural events.

Today's "controlled burns" of the prairie have to be planned very carefully - especially if a prairie is in a city!

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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