Exciting things are happening in the world of grassland conservation. Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell have been traveling across the Southeast promoting their vision for a Southeastern Grassland Initiative. Three months ago, GCPO LCC communications specialist Gregg Elliott and I saw them present their ideas to Memphis area planners and conservationists at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. On Monday, February 27th, they came to Starkville, Mississippi to network with a greater portion of the GCPO staff and a handful of Mississippi State University faculty members involved in the science of grassland ecology. The meeting was attended by representatives of Central Hardwoods Joint Venture; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; Mississippi Natural Heritage Program; University of Central Florida; US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Wildlife Mississippi. Mississippi State University faculty attending included representatives from the Mississippi Entomological Museum; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Biological Sciences; and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Aquaculture.
I kicked off the meeting with a presentation on the contribution of the GCPO LCC to grassland conservation. Last year we produced a Grassland Condition Index data layer for our 180-million-acre geography, and that layer was folded into the broader Conservation Blueprint, which addresses the condition of our nine priority systems in the context of threats such as climate change and urbanization as well as positive elements in the landscape such as the conservation estate and species distribution models. I shared the fact that our Conservation Blueprint is nested in a larger Southeastern Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) data product guiding landscape conservation across fifteen states and six Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.
Regional scale challenges to grassland conservation include a lack of consensus in the scientific community as to how to categorize them as ecological systems (chiefly because they tend to grade continuously into savanna, woodland, and forest in the landscape, but also due to regional variations in substrate, topography, hydrology, and vegetation), and the lack of a repeatable method for delineating the openings on the ground in our maps (different individuals and organizations include or exclude various zones of woody vegetation when drawing grassland boundaries). These issues frustrate our effort to obtain a baseline measure of how much grassland currently exists and the condition of the patches. We have numerous organizations working on grassland conservation across the region at multiple scales: some groups are focused on a single patch, some on a specific region (such as the Black Belt), and some address only those patches within a particular state. I made the point that at times it seems that these organizations are as disjunct as the patches themselves. Until the Southeastern Grassland Initiative (SGI) took shape last year, there was no organized effort to coordinate grassland conservation specifically across the entire Southeast. The network of partnerships already established by the LCCs is a natural complement to the vision and mission of the SGI.
After I spoke, Dwayne Estes, professor of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and botanical explorer for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), described the recent and growing appreciation and acknowledgment of southeastern grasslands. He recalled that, as an elementary school student, he was taught that at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in North America, the eastern forests were so dense that a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Multiple accounts of vast grasslands by early settlers and explorers indicate that such a squirrel probably would have had to have taken a very circuitous route, chiefly following the riparian zones. Dwayne’s overview of historical grasslands focused on Kentucky and Tennessee and was supported by many references to old parcel surveys and the journals and letters of early settlers. He described the development of the Southeastern Grassland Initiative last year, with early support by Austin Peay State University, philanthropic organizations, and corporate sponsors. The Initiative’s supported projects include preservation, restoration, re-creation, rescue, seedbanks, education, and market-based initiatives such as grass-fed cattle.
Theo Witsell, Grassland Biodiversity Explorer for SGI, then elaborated on the research priorities for the Initiative. The Initiative is planning to develop an inventory of grassland biodiversity by identifying all major grassland habitat types in the region, and also to conduct detailed studies both of current lands and of the historic records. These studies will improve the existing grassland fidelity index, which measures the degree to which each plant species is obligated to grassland habitats. Theo and Dwayne have discovered numerous undescribed plant species while conducting inventories on grasslands, and they expect to find more. High rates of endemism and biodiversity in southeastern grasslands contribute to the overall biodiversity of the region, which has been recognized recently as the world's 36th biodiversity hotspot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Theo also showed us examples of grassland habitat restoration guides he has published for landowners and the public.
Green roofs and Grasshoppers
Mississippi State faculty members shared their research related to grassland ecology and conservation. Tim Schauwecker, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, highlighted student work on green roofs (birds more frequently visit green roofs, both those planted with the traditional sedum cover and those planted with prairie grasses, than conventional roofs), the use of General Land Office survey notes to find prairie patches in the Jackson Prairie Belt, and the development of a biodiversity index for the city of Starkville. Tim also described recent work on a management plan for the Catalpa Creek watershed, which contains extensive agricultural research fields on the MSU campus, and a planned Wetland Education Theatre with a native grass component to be installed at his Department’s facilities.
Jovonn Hill and Richard Brown described work done at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, housed on the Mississippi State University campus. The GCPO LCC uses species habitat models based mostly on birds. Dwayne and Theo focus primarily on the rare and endemic plants. Insects play an important ecological role, both as pollinators and as a food source for other species. Those of us largely unfamiliar with the science learned a great deal. Many insects -- grasshoppers were a prominent example -- occur only in grasslands, some only in the Black Belt, and some only on particular single patches such as Osborn prairie, a relict patch under TVA power lines a couple of miles northeast of Starkville. Some occur in only one county in Mississippi and one county in Minnesota.
As with the relictual plant species mentioned in my description of the SePPCon conference, this pattern of very rare species occurring at locations very far apart indicates that the species is very old and that the particular location is a remnant of a larger ecological system that was intact long ago. Twenty thousand years ago states such as Illinois and Oklahoma, where tallgrass prairie was extensive at the time of European settlement, were occupied by coniferous forests, and the prairies of the Southeast were refugia for most of the grassland species that colonized the Midwest when the forests and glaciers receded northward. Information on just how these species migrated, whether they dispersed through the grasslands of Tennessee and Kentucky or whether they expanded into the Piedmont and Appalachian regions and then westward across present-day New York, is contained in the genetic markers of the species found on the relict sites.
Staying Genetically True and Other Challenges Ahead
Understanding of the genetics and the use of local genotypes in restoration is important, because success is more likely when species adapted to those local conditions are used. In practice, the local genotypes are difficult to obtain. Seed collection, germination, caring for and transporting the plugs, are all labor intensive processes. In many situations, a private landowner has no choice but to use plant stock from another state. Furthermore, so-called conservative plant species, those restricted to a very particular habitat, can be “uncooperative” when encouraged to expand. Simply expanding the size of the opening by thinning and removing the tree cover is not enough to expand the relict patch because the rare species have trouble competing against the more weedy early successional vegetation.
In the follow-up discussion, three main challenges to a regional approach to grassland restoration and conservation were identified:
- The popularity of the field of science once known as “Natural History,” an integrated science that considers biotic and abiotic interactions (plants, animals, the physical environment), is declining. Biology departments are increasingly focused on specialized fields such as molecular biology. As current biologists with expertise in field-based research retire, fewer are coming along to take their place.
- Plants with local genetic characteristics are vital for quality restoration work. Companies exist that will collect seed and propagate plants from local stock, but at significant cost.
- A baseline assessment, a current inventory, requires a mapping methodology that can parse out warm season and cool season, or native and non-native grasslands, efficiently across large landscapes. This is a known issue in the geospatial science and conservation community, and we continue to seek solutions.
In the end, all partners came away with a better understanding of the current and potential state of regional scale grassland conservation. The staff of the GCPO LCC was very impressed with the depth of botanical knowledge that grounds the Southeastern Grassland Initiative and the possible applications of that knowledge, such as the on-going effort to digitize and geo-tag the thousands of grassland obligate specimens found in the many herbaria of our region. Dwayne and Theo of the SGI expressed appreciation for the geospatial science products developed by the LCC and their potential applications. And we were all impressed by the work done by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Entomological Museum here at Mississippi State University and how their projects can strengthen and enhance our conservation work. This meeting laid the groundwork for what we hope is a highly effective regional partnership as we move forward to conserve this ecologically important and highly imperiled feature of the southeastern landscape.