The Power of Prairie
Secretary Jewell Meets with Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Staff
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge staff welcomed Secretary Sally Jewell to learn about their research. USFWS photo by Doreen VanRyswyk.
The Iowa prairie provided a beautiful backdrop as staff from Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge welcomed Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on May 14, 2014. Secretary Jewell stopped in to meet refuge staff and learn more about how refuge biologists and managers have been working with partners to study innovations in prairie restoration techniques and how this effort can lessen hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.
For greater than 10,000 years prior to European settlement, tallgrass prairie dominated this landscape and created some of the best soil for agriculture across the Midwest. However, extensive conversion of grasslands and wetlands for agricultural uses has made the tallgrass prairie ecosystem one of the most imperiled on earth.
During her visit, Secretary Jewell learned first-hand about the results of 20 years of grassland, oak savanna, and stream corridor restoration on former farmed land, as well as how Neal Smith Refuge has been a pioneer in restoring diverse prairie on a landscape scale.
In addition to discussing research efforts with refuge staff, Secretary Jewell met with local and state government representatives and partners, along with non-governmental researchers who are working with the refuge on an innovative landscape-level partnership to embed prairie in farmed land. This project has the potential to benefit both agribusiness and conservation efforts.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is the first large-scale tallgrass prairie and oak savanna restoration effort attempted by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With the return of large tracts in tallgrass prairie, grassland birds have responded. The refuge has seen an increase in breeding pairs of numerous grassland birds, including three surrogate species in the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big River Landscape Conservation Cooperative geography: Henslow’s sparrow, Grasshopper sparrow, and Bobolink.
Researchers and partners of the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) based at the refuge, have learned that installing diverse prairie vegetation in 10 to 20 percent of experimental watersheds reduces sediment export by 95 percent and nutrient export by 85 percent. Prairie species naturally grow at different times and thus armor the soil all season, providing water-slowing, climate resilient vegetation that recharges groundwater, while providing important habitat for grassland birds, pollinators and other wildlife. Strategic placement of diverse prairie could be used to develop a new conservation paradigm urgently needed in a time of changing climate.
In addition to protecting conservation lands and creating wildlife corridors, this innovative grassland restoration effort contributes to the prevention of pollution to drinking water, streams and rivers, and ultimately, the reduction of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Cooperating partners are promoting the STRIPS project beyond the experimental phase to pragmatically test prairie strips on private farmland in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Kansas. This expansion of conservation practices on working lands is also encouraging potential connections between native prairie plantings and the biomass/biofuels industry. This application of science to on-the-ground management will expand opportunities to provide multiple ecosystems services on large-scale operations across the Midwest.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge staff manage approximately 5,600 acres of restored tallgrass prairie and oak savanna and have future wetland restorations in the planning stages currently. In addition to this expansive natural area, the refuge is home to the Prairie Learning and Visitor Center, with 13,000 square-feet of exhibit space, environmental education labs, and a bookstore operated by the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Neal Smith Refuge is a leader in environmental education, with four partner schools and more than 50 partner teachers. The program reaches more than 7,500 students annually. The refuge offers great recreational opportunities to the visiting public. More than 140,000 people visit the refuge annually, and volunteers donated more than 14,000 hours of their time addressing refuge priorities.
By Tina Shaw