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The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States

Chris Helzer

Publication Year: 2010

Most prairies exist today as fragmented landscapes, making thoughtful and vigilant management ever more important. Intended for landowners and managers dedicated to understanding and nurturing their prairies as well as farmers, ranchers, conservationists, and all those with a strong interest in grasslands, ecologist Chris Helzer’s readable and practical manual educates prairie owners and managers about grassland ecology and gives them guidelines for keeping prairies diverse, vigorous, and viable.
     Chapters in the first section, "Prairie Ecology," describe prairie plants and the communities they live in, the ways in which disturbance modifies plant communities, the animal and plant inhabitants that are key to prairie survival, and the importance of diversity within plant and animal communities. Chapters in the second section, "Prairie Management," explore the adaptive management process as well as guiding principles for designing management strategies, examples of successful management systems such as fire and grazing, guidance for dealing with birds and other species that have particular habitat requirements and with the invasive species that have become the most serious threat that prairie managers have to deal with, and general techniques for prairie restoration. Following the conclusion and a forward-thinking note on climate change, eight appendixes provide more information on grazing, prescribed fire, and invasive species as well as bibliographic notes, references, and national and state organizations with expertise in prairie management.
      Grasslands can be found throughout much of North America, and the ideas and strategies in this book apply to most of them, particularly tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies in eastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, northwestern Missouri, northern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin, and southwestern Minnesota. By presenting all the factors that promote biological diversity and thus enhance prairie communities, then incorporating these factors into a set of clear-sighted management practices, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States presents the tools necessary to ensure that grasslands are managed in the purposeful ways essential to the continued health and survival of prairie communities.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Front Matter

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Table of Contents

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

My primary purpose for writing this book was to educate prairie owners and managers about grassland ecology and to provide them with guidance on making sound decisions about managing their prairies. This book does not offer a recipe for creating pretty prairies or abundant wildlife. Instead, I present...

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pp. ix-x

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to spend the last fifteen years exploring, studying, and managing prairies. My job with The Nature Conservancy has taken me to grasslands across North America and allowed me to participate in a large network of people who are entranced by and devoted to...

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pp. xi-xiii

Prairies are incredibly complex and diverse natural communities. They evolved under harsh conditions: huge herds of bison, expansive fires, and extended droughts. In many places they’ve now been largely replaced by rowcrop agriculture and urban sprawl or degraded by years of continuous severe...

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prairie ecology

So what is a prairie? Prairies are diverse ecological communities in which grasses are the dominant plants. The lack of trees is the criterion most used to discriminate between prairies and other ecological communities. Trees and shrubs are often present in and around prairies, but if there...

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1. Plant Communities

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pp. 3-12

A plant community includes all of the plants that grow and interact together in a particular place. Each member of a plant community has a unique survival strategy that shapes the way it interacts with its neighbors. The diversity of those strategies strengthens the community as a whole because it increases...

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2. The Role of Disturbance

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pp. 13-24

Since the final retreat of the glaciers, grasslands have dominated most of what is now the central United States. During that time they have survived frequent fires, intensive grazing by native herbivores, and extreme climatic conditions. In fact, those “disturbances” shaped prairies, helped maintain...

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3. Animal Communities

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pp. 25-48

Prairie animals need better public relations agents. A few, like bison and prairie-chickens, are fairly well recognized by the general public, but the majority of prairie animals spend most of their time either underground or hidden in the grass, so seeing them is a rare event. Besides that, the vast...

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4. The Importance of Diversity and Heterogeneity

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pp. 49-58

One of the most important components of any healthy and viable ecosystem is diversity. Diversity is strongly linked to the resilience of natural communities. A diverse mix of species in a community, for example, increases the chance that the loss of one species can be somewhat compensated for by...

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5. Landscape Context

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pp. 59-66

All habitats are arranged in patches. Grasslands, croplands, woodlands, urban areas, and bodies of water are all examples of habitat patches. It’s usually difficult to see from the ground the way those patches are arranged, but from the air you can see patterns resembling the patchwork design of a quilt. The way...

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prairie management

This section of the book will incorporate all of the factors that influence prairie community diversity, as presented previously, into a set of management practices. More important, it will give you ideas on how to set good objectives, try a variety of strategies, evaluate your progress, and adjust strategies as needed. Following that process will be the...

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6. The Adaptive Management Process

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pp. 69-78

Changing your strategy as conditions change is the most important component of a good prairie management regime. Adaptive management consists of 4 basic steps: setting objectives, taking action, measuring progress, and adjusting your objectives and strategies based on what you learn. Following...

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7. Guiding Principles for Designing Management Strategies

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pp. 79-90

As you design management strategies for your prairie, there are two principles that should guide you. First, managing a prairie really means managing the competition between plants. All management strategies are designed to manipulate plant competition in a way that pushes the plant community in a...

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8. Examples of Management Systems

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pp. 91-134

There are numerous tools and strategies available for managing prairies, including prescribed fire, grazing, mowing, haying, herbicide application, and rest. When trying to promote biodiversity, you should consider using a variety of these strategies. Following are several generalized examples of...

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9. Managing for Wildlife with Particular Requirements

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pp. 135-142

Thus far, chapters in this section have dealt primarily with management strategies aimed at creating and maintaining diverse plant communities. By and large, those strategies will also result in diverse and heterogeneous habitat structure. However, there are ways to pay additional attention to the...

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10. Invasive Species

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pp. 143-160

In many ways, invasive species have become the most serious threat that prairie managers have to deal with. Native tree and shrub species like eastern redcedar, smooth sumac, and green ash that used to exist in scattered patches on the landscape are now extremely abundant and can quickly invade small prairies...

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11. Restoration

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pp. 161-168

Sometimes a prairie is missing plant species, and not even top-notch prairie management can bring them back. If your prairie is near other prairies where those species exist, they may come back on their own. Otherwise, if the species are important enough, it might be necessary to bring seed in yourself...

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pp. 169-172

Despite the seemingly mysterious and wonderful workings of prairies, they are not magical. Rather, prairies are incredibly complex and fascinating ecological systems that we don’t completely understand. In that way they are similar to the human body. Interestingly, many of the same management concepts...

A Note on Climate Change

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pp. 173-190


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pp. 191-193

Appendix 1. Additional Information on Grazing

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pp. 194-198

Appendix 2. Additional Information on Prescribed Fire

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pp. 199-204

Appendix 3. Additional Information on Invasive Species

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pp. 205-210

Appendix 4. Bibliographic Notes

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pp. 211-216

Appendix 5. Literature Cited

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pp. 217-219

Appendix 6. Contacts with Expertise in Prairie Management

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pp. 220-222

Appendix 7. Additional Sources of General Information on Prairies

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pp. 223-224

Appendix 8. Scientific Names for Plant Species Named in the Text

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pp. 225-227


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pp. 228-231

Other Bur Oak Books of Interest

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pp. 232-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299315
E-ISBN-10: 1587299313
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298653
Print-ISBN-10: 1587298651

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1