A prairie resurgence?

James Faupel is the urban ecology restoration supervisor at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a suburban outdoor education site managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. The property is a mix of reconstructed bottomland prairie and restored riparian woodlands in St. Louis County, Missouri.  

North American prairie remnants are invaluable pieces of a once vast grassland ecosystem, critical for the survival of so many plants and animals. Prairies are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, removed from existence by our agricultural development for crop production. According to the National Park Service, less than 1% of original prairies now remain in North America. The Missouri Prairie Foundation states that less than half of 1% of pre-settlement prairie is left here in my home state. These few remaining North American prairie remnants are vital seed banks for local ecotypes of thousands of native plant species, such as the federally endangered Mead’s milkweed (Asclepias meadii), and they are home to many species of animals that just cannot be found in any other type of habitat. Most prairie specialist species cannot survive once a fragmented prairie has been plowed or bulldozed under. Species such as the regal fritillary butterfly (Argynnis idalia) only occur on remnant prairies in Missouri and have not appeared in our human-made prairie reconstructions.

A now rare, prairie horizon view. This one is visible at the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas. Photo Credit: James Faupel.

Undiscovered remnant prairies are generally only spared thanks to practices such as consistent haying or grazing, and have sometimes been found protected in unused areas of historical sites, such as old cemeteries. Unfortunately, remnant prairies are now mostly found in rural settings far from the eyes of our growing urban populations. These sometimes small patches of prairie habitat do not have large dramatic features, such as mountains or canyons that draw vacationers’ attention from states away. Most remaining prairies are also no longer large enough to host their once charismatic herds of grazing megafauna, the American bison. The amazing views of these smaller, modern-day prairies must be experienced up close and personal. This is a problem if you want to educate the public on the importance of protecting these fragile habitats, that are now fragmented and spread far from each other across such a vast continent.

Middle school children getting to know prairies up close and personal, at a prairie managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo credit: James Faupel.

My home city of St. Louis was once 61% prairie pre-European settlement. The only remnant prairie still existing here is a small plot at Calvary Cemetery, which has had to have extensive restoration work done to remove trees, shrubs, and exotic invasive plants from smothering it out of existence.

The prairie remnant at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis City looking very open after some much needed restoration work, consisting of tree and shrub removal. Photo credit: James Faupel.

Many organizations in St. Louis have begun to reconstruct prairies here over the years, to help regain this lost habitat for local wildlife and to be able to get these valuable grasslands back in view of the public. Some of the earliest prairie reconstructions in the Greater St. Louis Region started in the 1970s and 80s. Specifically within St. Louis City & County, this practice didn’t begin until the 80s. I have the pleasure of working on one of those prairies reconstructed in the 1980’s, at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a prairie started and managed by Missouri Botanical Garden staff. The ecology center is a private education site dedicated to working with K-12 teachers, to improve upon their ability to engage their students in place-based education, using our local ecology as the framework.

Recent work at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center suggests that St. Louis prairies are making a comeback. Our 2021 spring intern, Lydia Soifer, began work on an independent research project looking at prairie habitat connectivity within St. Louis City & County. Through this project Lydia and I generated a count of 58 small-scale, urban prairie reconstructions managed by various entities within this highly populated area. There are also many more prairie reconstructions in the 7 surrounding counties within Missouri and Illinois.  

With an increase of 58 small prairies slowly over 40 years, this may seem like a time to celebrate, but this prairie resurgence should not be taken lightly. Some of these new prairies are now at risk of failure. Prairie reconstructions cannot be left to their own devices in our modern, highly human influenced world. Investment in both ongoing habitat maintenance and the continued education of staff is a necessity, or these prairie reconstructions can quickly turn into fields of exotic invasive weeds or full of aggressive trees and shrubby growth. Even at 32 years old, the urban prairie I work at still needs continued maintenance to keep it a “native prairie”.

Challenges facing urban prairie stewards range from intense seed pressure from surrounding invasive plants, severe runoff and volatile urban waterways, minimal funding and educational resources, fire & smoke restrictions that limit the chance of using prescribed fire, and heavy browsing from oversized whitetail deer populations. Many businesses and organizations outsource with private contractors for their prairie maintenance, which can have some beneficial and detrimental outcomes. There is not a constant visual presence overseeing the land they hold, but it can be much more affordable than permanent staff. Sometimes the only maintenance is periodic visits from dedicated volunteers. The decision to reconstruct a prairie should be well thought out and planned for optimal long-term care. Placement should be targeted for areas where a new prairie could help connect existing fragmented habitats to improve urban wildlife corridors.

A prairie planting reclaims some space previously occupied by turf grass on a steep hillside at Bellerive Park, a St. Louis City Park. Photo credit: James Faupel.

Are these human-made prairies working?

So, it appears prairie reconstructions are gaining some ground within St. Louis and surrounding areas of the Midwest. How do we know if these reconstructions are being successful? What is success? Data collection of any kind is minimal to non-existent across these local sites, so assigning a value to these lands could be considered speculative at best.  

When I transferred to the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in 2018, I took notice of data previously collected there relating to pollinators (I have a passion for animal associations with native flora.). There were collection records from around the year 2000, of the now federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), the endangered (IUCN Red List) Southern plains bumble bee (Bombus fraternus), and the vulnerable (IUCN Red List) American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus). This is the only confirmed record of the rusty patched bumble bee in St. Louis, and its range has now shrunk considerably in recent times and can only be found much farther to our northeast. After surveying the reconstructed prairies at my work, I was able to find these two latter bumble bee species of concern. I was curious. Could more of the prairies around St. Louis be supporting the potentially declining populations of Southern plains and American bumble bees?  

Left image – A Southern plains bumble bee queen nectaring on spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis). Right image – An American bumble bee worker visiting great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Photo credits: James Faupel.

Previously, not much was known specifically about the rare Southern plains bumble bee in the St. Louis region. According to the Checklist of the Bees of St. Louis, MO (Camilo et al. 2017) only two records within the city had been collected, in addition to the collection I mentioned earlier from the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in St. Louis County. According to many local bee specialists, the American bumblebee used to be commonly seen all around St. Louis, but the Checklist notes only 3 sites that it was recorded at during their recent surveys. After spending a lot of my free time surveying St. Louis prairies, woodlands, and gardens over the last three years, I have found very promising results in the prairies.  

Six of the larger and older prairie reconstructions in St. Louis City and County, with moderately rich species lists of native plants, were found to contain and support the Southern plains bumble bee, sometimes two to three years in a row. Many more of the prairies I visited supported the American bumblebee. Shutterbee, a local citizen science project I partner with, has recorded 3 Southern plains bumble bees and over a hundred American bumble bees from bi-weekly bee surveys in private home gardens in St. Louis City and County over the last two years. This shows there may be increased value in native plant gardens placed near prairies, for enlarging the foraging areas of bumble bees. 

I am also beginning to see a trend with these two species’ floral choices. These two species of conservation concern seem much more reliant on native prairie plants than some of their more common bumble bee counterparts, that are flexible enough in their diets to visit many more exotic flowers. For the moment, this is just observational data, but at least it is showing that there is value in the hard work being done bringing these grasslands back to urban spaces. There are many other ways we could begin to assign value to man-made prairies, but more data collection needs to be done across the board on urban prairies. 

All of these same prairie reconstructions containing milkweeds, blazing stars, sunflowers, asters, or goldenrods have also been recorded to attract in the majestic, migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Last December, the monarch was nearly put on the U.S. endangered species list. The US Fish and Wildlife Service put off this decision for a few years and will revisit it. If the well-known monarch butterfly does indeed get listed as endangered in the near future, will there be a vast new interest in prairie reconstruction? Will there be more investment in prairie protection and reconstruction from municipalities, utilities, corporations and other large land holders? If a quick surge of interest arises, education about these unique ecosystems and their management will be needed more than ever. 

There are current opportunities to capitalize on the revitalized interest in the outdoors that the pandemic brought about, and with urban populations projected to outpace their rural counterparts in the future, native ecosystems will need to be brought to the people, to spark their curiosity and passion with nature. Without urban prairie reconstructions, we won’t be able to inspire the future volunteers, donors, conservation voters, and land stewards needed to care for and protect remnant lands. Urban prairie reconstructions are therefore integral in the process of preserving our rural remnant prairies, while also being ecologically biodiverse and important in their own right. We need more prairie reintroduced into North America and we need continued investment in their long-term care and monitoring. We aren’t just hoping to save endangered species, we are also hoping to save our continent’s most endangered ecosystem.

A monarch butterfly visiting New England aster (Symphyotrichum nova-angliae) at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center’s 5-year-old prairie reconstruction. Photo credit: James Faupel.

One thought on “A prairie resurgence?

  1. Three brief comments on this important essay:
    – Yes, urban prairie restoration (broad sense of the word) is really valuable because cities are where most people are, thus greatly increasing the likelihood of people’s exposure to and learning to love prairie.
    – Bumblebees are just one example among innumerable other taxa that demonstrate the value of creating urban prairie habitat for native grassland species. 
    – And, notwithstanding the demonstrable value of urban plantings, there also needs to be greater emphasis on restoration and creation of large-scale, rural prairie sites in order to make measurable, global-scale impacts toward saving native grassland biodiversity. 

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