Sunday, April 19, 2015

Degraded, but not totally trashed

After I pitched camp, I hiked upslope and onto a glade. Evidenced by the spare vegetation in the surrounding woodlands and the scattered stands of buckbrush, the area had clearly seen a lot of grazing in the not too distant past. The old hogwire fencing at the toeslope only reiterated what was notable in the vegetation. But it was a dolomite glade in late March and the longer daylengths allowed for exploration well into evening hours.

Thick, rank warm season grasses still mantle the slope, holding glade soils intact. In other, more degraded settings, the rooting and wallowing caused by hogs and continuous pressure of hooves and grazing by cattle often result in worse ecological conditions. Throughout the glade mapping process, I visited hundreds of glades ranging from medium quality to absolutely destroyed. Yes, cedar invasion is one sign of overgrazing followed by fire suppression, but some glades have been so damaged that very little soil remains, leaving behind rock rubble and scattered annual forbs that reseed easily (parking lot plants, for example, like Leavenworthia uniflora down in the White River Hills or Arennaria patula on dolomite).

So, the grazing history on this glade wasn't nearly as severe as I've seen in similar settings throughout Missouri. While this glade suffers from serious damage, there were still some remnant spring forbs and, most importantly for the recoverability, the prairie grass matrix persists. A cedar removal project and some old fashioned fire would undoubtedly help restore the glade, but unfortunately, as is the case with thousands of glades in Missouri, once the conservative elements have been sniffed out and rooted up, they do not magically return. It is because of the long history of grazing that so many of our plants are conservative now. Even Julian Steyermark noted this. But the grass will help to rebuild the soil and work to repair the damage. If the glade lacked a thick grass component, I wouldn't even think of suggesting restoration--the damage is usually too severe, fire can't carry without grass, and so forth.

But it was sunset, and the screech owls were starting to call and saw my first of the year Viola pedata in full flower, the basal leaves of an Indian paintbrush, a draba or two. Not all of our intact natural communities are as resilient as this area may prove to be, the damage across the Ozarks from years of open range grazing is severe. While the glade soil is not as deep and rich as on some of the lesser-grazed glades in the area, there's still soil here. And grass--a lot of crummy Sporobolus neglectus that inhabits areas of damage, yes. But some semblance of restoration potential.

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