The 5 Q’s: Carol Davit outlines significance of National Prairie Day in June

From the Joplin (MO) Globe

Carol Davit is the executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation and the editor of Missouri Prairie Journal.

Q: National Prairie Day is celebrated the first Saturday of June every year. Why is it important to celebrate this event in Missouri?

A: The Missouri Prairie Foundation founded National Prairie Day in 2016 to provide a day of focus across the United States to inspire learning, appreciation and exploration of our national prairie legacy, and to shine a spotlight on the success of national, regional, statewide and local prairie conservation efforts from coast to coast.

American prairie evokes our national spirit: expansive, exhilarating in its abundance, full of life and promise. Today — from the tallgrass prairie east of the Rockies and westward through mid- and shortgrass prairies that stretch to the Pacific coast — our native grassland legacy has been dramatically reduced to scattered remnants of its once vast 160 million-acre domain across North America.

However, these remnants remain vitally important to us. Original prairies are important seed sources for the native plant industry — prairie plantings for livestock forage, landscaping and other purposes provide many benefits, and we must protect original seed sources.

Prairies and prairie plantings protect water quality and streams by slowing and trapping stormwater. Prairies store enormous amounts of carbon in their roots and soil, which is critically important in a rapidly changing climate.

In the Midwest, no other ecosystem hosts more native pollinating insects than prairie. Because one-third of all our food crops are pollinated by insects, protecting native pollinator habitat is crucial to food security. Prairie plants are adapted to drought. Cattle producers have found that their livestock gain weight faster, and are healthier, when they eat prairie forage from pastures planted with prairie grasses and wildflowers rather than nonnative grasses — and prairie plants remain green and palatable in dry summers.

And the fact that prairies are diverse and beautiful is very important, too. Prairies renew our spirits.

Q: What efforts has the Missouri Prairie Foundation made over the years to preserve prairies statewide?

A: Over its 54-year history, MPF has acquired original prairie whenever funding has allowed, and made these properties available to the public to enjoy. Our first acquisition was in 1969, and our most recent was on May 15 of this year. We aim to continue acquiring more prairie whenever possible.

Since 2014, MPF has protected more acres of original, unplowed prairie than any other Missouri conservation agency or group in that time period, and we are proud of that. In 2018, our Penn-Sylvania Prairie in Dade County broke a world record for plant species diversity on a fine scale: In a 20-by-20-inch square, a total of 46 plant species was documented. MPF Director of Prairie Management Jerod Huebner, who works from his home base in Joplin, carries out exceptional prairie management.

Earlier this year, Jerod was named the Wildlife Conservationist of the Year by the Conservation Federation of Missouri. We are definitely proud of Jerod, and grateful for how hard he works to protect prairie for the benefit of all. We are also proud to have successfully advocated for the protection of prairie by state agencies and for federal policies that are grassland wildlife-friendly, and pleased to work with many partner groups who share in our mission.

Q: How do prairies impact wildlife?

A: There are many plants and animals that can live nowhere else on Earth except on prairies — for example, grass pink orchids and regal fritillary butterflies. Without diverse, original, well-managed prairies, they could disappear.

Prairies are also important habitat for many grassland-dependent species. Animals like meadowlarks, monarchs, bobwhite quail and slender glass lizards can live in a number of different grassy habitats, not just prairie, but prairie is indeed very important habitat for them. On a June visit to a prairie in southwestern Missouri, a hiker could expect to see pale purple coneflowers and pink beebalm blooming, step among the “chimneys” of grassland crayfish burrows, hear dickcissels and Henslow’s sparrows calling, watch a variety of butterflies floating by, and see many species of native bees busily gathering nectar and pollen from wildflowers.

Q: What can the public do to help preserve prairies?

A: Prairie belongs to all Americans — it is part of our shared heritage. Everyone can help safeguard this amazing natural resource by taking a hike on a prairie, learn about it and enjoy it; supporting conservation groups like the Missouri Prairie Foundation that work tirelessly to acquire, manage and permanently protect prairie; advocating for robust funding for state agencies that manage prairie; and by voicing support for federal agricultural and energy policies that protect rare prairie resources across the country. There are a number of private individuals who own prairie and proudly protect it, and they are to be commended.

Q: Where can remaining prairies be found in Missouri?

A: Most original, unplowed prairies that remain in Missouri are in the southwestern portion of the state because the ground is rocky, and many areas were, because of this, spared from plowing. However, there are prairie remnants throughout the state.

Missouri has a wonderful new online resource called the Public Prairies of Missouri Interactive Story Map. This is an online directory to more than 90 original prairies and some prairie plantings. It was developed by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Prairie Foundation. This is a handy resource to locate prairies and learn about them as you plan a visit. The link is https://mdcgis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=7a8aa8aa8a534f61b30ff606762227a1

We must protect prairies because they are irreplaceable. We can create prairie plantings, but we can’t replicate an original prairie in all its ecological intricacy. If a museum full of master paintings were to catch on fire, we would do everything we could to save it. Our prairies are disappearing, and they are even more precious than artwork because humans can create art, but they cannot create ecosystems.

We must act now to protect as much remaining prairie as we can — prairie wildlife, pollinators, plants, soil microbes. They all benefit us, and they also have inherent value. I invite everyone to learn more about prairie and the work of the Missouri Prairie Foundation at www.moprairie.org, follow us on social media and visit an MPF prairie.

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