On the Great Plains, the land of open vistas and widely spaced little towns, it's difficult to find native vegetation mixed in with all the smooth brome. I returned today from a week in Sand Hills country--I went looking for native prairie, not reconstructed, not recreated from who-knows-what in the seed mix, but native prairie. I found one, a tiny little tract of land owned by an Audubon chapter, but it's been hayed so much that diversity is extremely low. Among the native plants I found were a lovely penstemon (pale blue, tall, unpalatable to cows), Western wallflower (also known from the Western Ozarks on a glade by the same name), one single Lithospermum incisum (also known from few high quality glades in the Ozarks) and not a single legume.
Driving back along I-70 past the suffocating overstocked dense woodlands this morning, I already missed the long views and dramatic skies of the Sand Hills. But I didn't miss the truly depressing and depauperate prairies that have been irreversibly damaged by overgrazing by domestic livestock. It is irrelevant to compare Missouri's high quality native prairies to the Great Plains, and I remain stalwartly opposed to the concept and practice of introducing domestic livestock to any native landscapes in the state. The damage is done out west, the prairies of the Sand Hills are clearly not "resilient and ever-changing," and neither are our prairies and native ecosystems in Missouri. If prairies were indeed so resilient and ever-changing (and able to withstand cows for extended periods over the course of 100 years), we would likely have more native prairie in Missouri and throughout the Great Plains. Prairies remain the most endangered ecosystem in North America largely due to our wanton abuse by grazing cattle to grow protein.
Nice vistas on the Great Plains, no diversity except on the one or two stretches of rural roadside that hasn't been treated with 2-4D and cows, and even there you had to comb through the exotic cool season grasses.
It's neither here nor there regarding the Ozarks, a discussion on the Great Plains and native prairies in Missouri (until I write about Tingler Prairie Natural Area around Licking, the last high quality prairie in the Missouri Ozarks), but I was struck by the complete absence of native legumes in the Great Plains. So my thoughts turned to the site I was birding in last week where I was surrounded by at least 20 species of legumes.
If you burn a tract of woodlands in the Ozarks that has not seen fire in many years, and that tract of woodland isn't chocked full of buckbrush pre-fire (grazing increaser), a good sign of recoverability is the immediate appearance of a host of legumes. Desmodiums, native lespedezas, Psoralea (pictured)... if these show up in high numbers the first spring after a fire, there's a good chance that the woods weren't damaged beyond repair by overgrazing. As restoration continues, the rest of the suite of quality native forbs should appear, namely the asters and goldenrods. But if the fire program has continued for many years and legumes, asters and goldenrods aren't showing up in high numbers, there may be little hope for true restoration. Cows love native forbs, especially the highly nutritious legumes. Just ask any range manager in the Great Plains if they have the rich suite of native legumes, goldenrods and asters on their prairies.
Cows aren't the only culprits in the degradation of native ecosystems in the Ozarks. White tailed deer are responsible for turning decent enough woodlands into veritable monocultures of Desmodium nudiflorum in some parts of the region. The nutritional value of tasty legumes is high, and some (now the more conservative ones) are more palatable than others. D. glutinosum is another legume that deer don't seem to prefer, however.
Nevertheless, quality legumes and other forbs remain good indicators of ecosystem health. Without them, ground feeding animals like bobwhite quail wouldn't have nutritious seeds to forage. Unfortunately, in overgrazed landscapes, the legumes are usually the first plants to disappear. I didn't see a single one in an entire week on the Great Plains. I can't wait to return to my birding site next week.