After years of prairie deterioration due to commercial farming, Grinnell College is taking part in a project to catalogue the last vestiges of the prairie.
Grinnell students Eric Nost ’09 and Jacob Gjesdahl ’10 and Professor Sandy Moffett, Theatre, are collaborating with Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development (IVRCD) in order to catalogue Iowa’s prairie remnants, which are often found along roadsides. To do so, they plan to train volunteers for the spring cataloguing project.
IVRCD works to promote conservation and local foods, assist sustainable economic development, produce outdoor guidebooks, as well as cataloguing and maintaining prairie remnants, according to Peter Hoenhle, IVRCD’s project manager.
According to Nost, a coordinator with the project, Iowa’s natural prairie resources are dwindling. “Iowa used to be 80 percent tall grass prairie. Now it is just .1 percent,” Nost said.
Most of that remaining .1 percent of native prairie is scattered alongside roads. While prairie remnants in many other counties have been catalogued, Poweshiek and nearby Tama County have yet to be surveyed.
According to Gjesdahl, who heads the Prairie subgroup of Free the Planet, there are 1,000 miles of road in the area where prairie remnants may be found. Student volunteers will work in pairs, one driving and the other surveying.
Cataloguing native prairie remnants will give ecologists a better picture of what ecosystems existed prior to the agricultural development of Iowa, according to Gjesdahl. Additionly, local prairies increase biodiversity. “Your average prairie will have 50 to 100 species of plants, while your average cornfield will have only five,” Gjesdahl said.
The project will allow for better management of the prairie remnants, according to Hoenhle. Part of which entails prescribed burns, which “revitalize prairie plants,” Hoenhle said. In addition, prescribed burns may help rare native plants make a comeback.
Gjesdahl said he hopes that student volunteers will be able to play an active role in upkeep activities such as prescribed burns. “There’s a chance that the really rare stuff is there, struggling along for the past hundred years,” Gjesdahl said. “If you burn [the prairie remnants], it might come back.”