Tallgrass prairie once blanketed more than 170 million acres from Texas to Canada. Today, just four percent of the United States’ original tallgrass prairie habitat remains.
So, what happened to it all?
Most of the habitat was converted to farmland in the 19th century to feed Americans. But during this expansion, the Flint Hills of Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma was left untouched. It’s geology made it unsuitable for farming, with its shallow soil and limestone.
Since that time, ranchers have worked the Flint Hills landscape in a way that has preserved the prairie. In the springtime, the Flint Hills is nothing but lush, green, vibrant grass far as the eye can see. People on nighttime flights have mistaken tallgrass prairie for a large, wavy body of water!
Wildflowers in bloom in the Flint Hill Legacy Conservation Area, which was authorized by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2010 and established as a Refuge System unit in eastern Kansas last September. Photo: Greg Kramos/USFWS
Today, the threat to the tallgrass is fragmentation. Urban sprawl is bringing new development and with it a need for fire protection by way of buffers, which works against the natural habitat preservation. Fire, both man-made and natural, is important to keep invasive grass, weeds and trees at bay.
Last September the Flint Hill Legacy Conservation Area was established. It covers parts of 21 counties in eastern Kansas and contains 3.3 million acres of tallgrass prairie habitat with a mission to protect the prairie, its fish and wildlife, and the rich tradition of private ranching it sustains.
The tallgrass prairie habitat is home to a number of different types of species, even those that are threatened or endangered. These species range from the American burying beetle, to the piping plover, eastern meadowlark, and the whooping crane.
The Flint Hills Conservation Area will use the principles of strategic habitat conservation to target 1.1 million acres of tallgrass prairie habitat within the acquisition boundary for conservation easements, not for traditional fee title purchases. These easements will create a partnership between the Service and landowners, who will serve as the refuge manager. This technique will create many different management styles, processes and strategies that will be good for the grassland species.