Prairies and Grasslands

Prairie grasses

While their roots reach even farther for water, prairie grasses reach for the sky.

NPS photo by Molly Watters

 

Vast tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America. Southeastern Nebraska, with its abundant rainfall, was historical part of this tallgrass ecosystem which requires more moisture than the shorter grasses of the arid West. Tallgrass prairie is highly diverse and provides food and cover for a variety of insects, birds, and mammals. Prairie soil is also extremely fertile, having been nourished for centuries by decaying plant material. For this reason, areas that were once tallgrass prairie are now some of the most productive agricultural lands in the world. This fact has contributed to the immense loss and fragmentation of the prairie habitat in the past 150 years, with less than 4% remaining today. To support and share this rare ecosystem, Homestead preserves 100 acres of restored tallgrass prairie.

The ongoing tallgrass prairie restoration at Homestead National Monument of America began in 1939, making it the oldest in the National Park Service and the second-oldest in the United States. Prior to the acquisition of the Freeman homestead by the National Park Service, the prairie area had been heavily used for agriculture and grazing. It was decided to restore this area to tallgrass prairie to reduce soil erosion and to provide a visual link to the environment encountered by early settlers. The restoration was accomplished through a combination of seeding a mix of native grasses, installation of native plant plugs, and transplanting sod from local areas of unploughed prairie. Management for exotic species has involved mowing, selective herbicide application, and, beginning in 1970, prescribed burning on a regular basis.

It is a monumental task to recreate wilderness, and a restored prairie will never exactly repeat the original mix of plant and animal life. However, the species composition of the tallgrass prairie at Homestead successfully resembles that of presettlement times. Dominant species include big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, goldenrod, field pussytoes, and leadplant. Interspersed within the prairie are thickets of shrubby species such as sumac, wild plum, and dogwood, which provide habitat for birds and other small animals; the growth of these thickets are managed to ensure they do not hinder the health of the prairie. Approximately 0.75 acre of virgin tallgrass prairie is located at the Freeman School, which was incorporated into the park in 1970. This area was never ploughed, and despite heavy use for nearly a century as the school playground, it contains the most diverse assemblage of species found in the park.

 

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