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Breaking Ground: Grand Prairie Restoration

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Monday, September 22, 2008

Prior to European settlement, the Grand Prairie ecosystem covered approximately 900,000 acres, with 400,000 acres consisting of tallgrass prairie. During the early 20th century, much of the land was lost as it was converted to other uses, primarily agriculture. Today, there are fewer than 600 acres of tallgrass prairie remaining. This large scale loss of habitat resulted in immense negative impacts on grassland animal species in this ecosystem. The greater-prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) was once so common in the region that hunters would travel from as far away as Illinois and the eastern United States to pursue them. However, due to loss of critical habitat, this species has been eliminated from the Grand Prairie.

The Grand Prairie also supported a large numbers of other grassland birds and was an important area for migrating shorebirds, breeding water birds, and wintering songbirds. The prairie lands were interspersed with seasonal wetlands, providing prime foraging habitat for shorebirds, herons and rails. Insects dependent upon prairies have also declined as a result of habitat loss in the Grand Prairie. Prairie mole crickets (Gryllotalpa major) are only found in tallgrass prairies and today are limited to a handful of small isolated patches of prairie across the Grand Prairie region.

Downs Prairie Natural Area is a 24 acre tallgrass prairie remnant located just east of Hazen in Prairie County. The area supports several animal species of conservation concern including the prairie mole crickets, wintering sedge wrens (Cistothorus platensis), LeConte’s sparrows (Ammodramus leconteii), and five-spotted red milkweed beetles (Tetrapoes quinquemaculatus). An abandoned railroad right-of-way of the former Rock Island Railroad bisects the prairie and has become overrun with non-native vegetation. The former rail path occupies approximately five acres and facilitates the spread of invasive species into the adjacent prairie. This causes fragmentation within the natural area, inhibiting the movement of some rare species such as the prairie mole cricket. To address these issues, the ANHC secured a grant award to restore the abandoned railroad bed at Downs Prairie. The project is funded through the State Wildlife Grant Program administered by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). For this project, the ANHC, AGFC, and Arkansas Forestry Commission (AFC) joined forces and coordinated restoration activities to ensure the success of this two year venture. Staff from the ANHC conducted a prescribed burn on the restoration area in February 2008, and the AFC is removing large woody vegetation from the railroad bed. The AGFC will harvest native prairie seed from Downs and Railroad Prairie natural areas to preserve the local genotype, prepare the restoration site to receive seed, and plant the area with native seed. Grassland bird and prairie mole cricket surveys will help document accomplishments of the project.

Because so much tallgrass prairie habitat has been lost in eastern Arkansas, it is imperative that we restore remaining habitat in a manner that can optimize breeding and wintering opportunities for grassland birds and provide quality habitat for insect populations. Restoring the abandoned railroad bed in Downs Prairie will increase the productivity of the natural area for rare species by providing additional foraging and nesting habitat and will increase connectivity by eliminating fragmentation within the natural area.

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