Blog 2.0

Grasslands Forgotten in the South? Not by the GCPO LCC

Natural grassland has been identified by many conservation groups as a system of global concern. Worldwide, the grassland biome is climatically driven and occurs when precipitation is sufficient for herbaceous vegetation but insufficient for trees. In some regions climatically suited for forests, including the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozark Highlands, variations in soil conditions (the presence of calcareous or alkaline soils, usually in belted formations) and historical disturbance patterns such as fire and grazing combine to produce grasslands, prairies and savannas in certain areas. European settlers in the nineteenth century found open grasslands to be easier to convert to farmland and pasture than the neighboring forests. Consequently, much of the original ecosystem has been lost to agriculture and development, and the removal of free-roaming fire from the landscape has allowed the invasion of woody plants (in particular cedar) onto much of what little remains. By some estimates, only 1% of the original prairie landscape exists, both in the Southeastern United states and in the more widely-known tallgrass prairie of the Midwest.

Although prairie patches and grasslands were noted in the South by William Bartram (1791) and E. W. Hilgard (1860), nearly all of our scientific understanding of the system has been produced in only the last thirty years. The contribution of H. R. DeSelm and N. Murdock’s chapter on grass-dominated communities in the 1993 book Biodiversity of the Southeastern United States: Upland Terrestrial Communities (Martin et al. 1993) was the first comprehensive, scientific monograph of southeastern grasslands as a coherent ecological system distinct from the prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains states. Since then, attention to this system has increased, giving rise to numerous initiatives and symposia, most of which focus on landscapes confined to a single state or geologic formation. The paucity of literature on Southeastern grasslands as a coherent and characteristic feature across the region is so acute that the first book-length effort to understand them, published by Reed Noss in 2014, is entitled Forgotten Grasslands of the South.

Challenges to conservation of southeastern grasslands

Regional conservation design efforts for southeastern grasslands are hindered by a lack of long-term, comprehensive, empirical studies assessing conditions within the system in terms of standardized variables. Aquatic systems, for example, are the subject of national scale monitoring efforts and associated data archive and distribution systems such as the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD). Similarly, forested systems are subject to long-term standardized national scale inventory as part of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program. In the southeast, however, natural grasslands have no corollary monitoring effort associated with them, where their status as a coherent, regionally important system has emerged comparatively recently.

Additionally, examples of natural grasslands on state and federal protected areas are rare and, for the most part, only recently restored. The vast majority of southeastern grasslands exist on private land, beyond the easy reach of federal agencies or partnerships wishing to implement regional scale landscape conservation design efforts. A patchwork of state agencies and local initiatives are known to assist private landowners who wish to maintain grassland habitats for game species and recreational uses. The most comprehensive regional effort to restore grasslands on private land comes from the constellation of voluntary USDA initiatives authorized under periodic Farm Bill legislation designed to control commodity production and offset land conversion.  These include grassland practices established under programs such as general and continuous sign-up Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Sodsaver provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill and partnership endeavors like the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP). However restrictions to accessing spatially-explicit information related to Farm Bill grassland practices complicates efforts to assess this (or any) priority system in terms of a regional network of lands and waters. Access more information about the 2014 Farm Bill as it relates to fish and wildlife conservation.

The GCPO LCC Grasslands Rapid Ecological Assessment

As part of the GCPO’s ongoing assessment of priority ecological systems, the LCC is assessing natural grasslands, prairies, and savannas in our geography to gauge where natural grasslands currently exist, historically existed, and could be restored. As part of our grassland ecological assessment, we are building a comprehensive geospatial database of all existing grassland within our geography. We invite all partners to share with us what they know about what kind of grassland conservation work is happening in their neighborhoods, particularly if that knowledge includes explicit geographic locations. Examples of relevant geospatial data are point locations of observed prairie indicator species (we have a set of these, confined to the state of Mississippi, from the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program), digitized historic patch locations from General Land Office (GLO) records (such as those published by John Barone in 2005), and named, ongoing restoration efforts on state or federal land. Many partners have expressed interest in a comprehensive, contemporary archive of geospatial data layers of existing natural grassland sites in the region. The Conservation Planning Atlas (CPA) of the GCPO LCC is an ideal tool for storing and sharing this information.

Natural grasslands are fragmented, widely scattered, and vulnerable on the landscape. Historically these patches expanded and shrank as part of a temporally shifting mosaic driven by fire and draught effects. Currently they disappear as land is converted to incompatible uses, and sometimes reappear in isolation when land is neglected or cleared for utility rights-of-way. Many species do not rely on these patches exclusively, but rather as a critical component of a matrix that includes open pine, oak savanna, mixed forest, and other systems. The creation of a comprehensive catalogue of natural grassland patch locations, hosted by a collaborative such as ours, would be a significant advancement in our evolving understanding of southeastern grasslands and would constitute an important linkage in the partnership goal of comprehensive regional landscape conservation design. If you are willing to contribute to this effort please contact Toby Gray at the GCPO LCC. Email toby@gri.msstate.edu or telephone 662-325-7642.

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