Native grasslands are one of our most under appreciated, imperiled ecological communities. Grasslands are characterized as lands dominated by grasses and wildflowers rather than shrubs or trees. Grassland communities once supported tremendous native diversity and numerous herds of elk, deer, and bison. Nearly a third of all rare southeastern land vertebrates prefer or require grasslands, and two thirds of all rare plants require or prefer the habitat. Grasslands reduce topsoil erosion and runoff, which improves water quality. They also support critical habitat for pollinators including the honeybee, whose populations have been declining throughout their range (CCD) (SGI, 2017).
However, between 95 and 99 percent of grassland communities have been lost to development, farmland conversion, fire suppression and woody encroachment (National Geographic, 2017; SGI, 2017; TWRA et al., 2007). The remaining one to five percent are hardly recognizable today, occupying fencerows, power line corridors, field edges, and clearings in forests (SGI, 2017). A new report from US and Canadian Governments suggests that more than 53 million acres of Great Plains grasslands were converted to cropland in a single year (Harvey, 2016).
There have been several attempts by state and federal government agencies, Universities, and concerned citizen groups to reallocate land to restore grasslands. Maintenance of State Natural Areas has been one of the more successful attempts at grassland restoration in Tennessee. The Tennessee Division of Natural Areas, established in 1971, has since protected over 75 Natural Areas (108,621 acres by 2007), 19 (5,500 acres) of which include a mosaic of forest/woodland habitats with grasslands and cedar glades interspersed. The Catoosa Savanna Restoration project protects just under 5,000 acres of grassland habitat. TVA’s Land Between the Lakes protects over 170,000 acres of recreation area, which includes several thousand acres of native grasslands (TWRA et al., 2007).
But a few thousand acres of grassland restoration will not replace what has been lost over the last century. Today, education is our best defense against grassland degradation. Restoration, dry season burning, and protection are among the other few strategies in place for replacing these communities. The more visible these resources are to our permitting agencies, consultants, and developers, the more likely we are to preserve them.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Of the many organizations fighting to restore grassland habitats, the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), a Tennessee-based nonprofit organization, is among the newest. The SGI aims to provide an 18,000 square foot grassland seed bank within the Austin Peay State University (APSU) campus. Research themes will include restoration, recreation, preservation, research, seed banking, education, outreach, rescue, and market-driven conservation.
If you would like to know more about how you can donate to this and other grassland-related causes, please Contact Us.
Austin Peay State University. 2016. Welcome to the Mid-South Prairie Symposium. Available online at: http://www.apsu.edu/herbarium/purpose-symposium. Accessed 2 May 2017.
Harvey, C. 2016. North America’s grasslands are slowly disappearing – and no one’s paying attention. The Washington Post: Energy and Environment. Available online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/11/29/north-americas-grasslands-are-slowly-disappearing-and-no-ones-paying-attention/?utm_term=.6df4c239d2d0. Accessed 2 May 2017.
Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI). 2017. The plight of southern grasslands. Available online at: https://www.segrasslands.org/southeastern-grasslands/. Accessed 2 May 2017.
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Global. 2017. How many species are we losing? Available online at: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/biodiversity/biodiversity/. Accessed 2 May 2017.