Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: NORTH AMERICA: Page 10

     So thorough has been the destruction of eastern savannah that reestablishing the native species has involved a detective investigation of early natural history documents.  Conservationist Steve Packard found old botanical references on Illinois' native plants and gradually pieced together what species must have once lived in Vestal Grove; he then set about to find seeds, especially of rare plants that were threatened with extinction (Stevens 1995).  Botanists and volunteers from the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy scoured the few places not plowed or developed still harboring rare Illinois prairie plants-- strips of land next to railroads, for example (Stevens 1995).  Remarkably, many rare plants have been found, their seeds obtained, and, after long trial and error, methods of restoring this ecosystem developed.  Controlled fires need to be set annually to burn off some types of aggressive shrubs.  Before they were driven from the land, Native Americans lit these fires to maintain grasslands.  This project is part of a far more ambitious plan in which 3,000 volunteers will replant 17,000 acres of tallgrass savannah on 142 sites in the Chicago area; ultimately, 100,000 acres will be restored, as described in Miracle Under the Oaks, a book by William K. Stevens (1995).
 
     In another area near Chicago, the Forest Service has established the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the site of the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant; 5,000 acres will be restored to native grasses and wildflowers, and Elk and American Bison will be reintroduced (Line 1997). 
The Fish and Wildlife Service is participating in a project to restore some 77,000 acres of grasslands in 85 counties of western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa, designated as the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Habitat Preservation Area (West 1997).  In Minnesota and Iowa, less than 1 percent of the original 25 million acres of this habitat remains (West 1997).  The project will involve individuals, organizations and various state and county governments as well, all working to restore the biological diversity and plants of these grasslands. 
 
     North Dakota, likewise, has less than 1 percent of its original tallgrass prairie.  Parcels that remain are being acquired by the Department of the Interior, and some damaged land is being restored.  A federally listed threatened flower, the exquisite Western Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera praeclara), has a population in the Sheyenne National Grassland in southeastern North Dakota.  Managed by the Custer National Forest under a conservation plan, its habitat is being preserved (Sieg 1997).  This plant, although once widespread through the tallgrass prairie west of the Mississippi River, has become reduced to two main populations, one of which is the Sheyenne National Grassland.  These orchids do not flower every year, but when they do, the white fringed flowers produce a fragrance that attracts hawkmoths that come at night to pollinate it (Sieg 1997).  The species' life history is poorly understood, and efforts to germinate its seeds in greenhouse conditions have not been successful.  Botanists suspect that a fungus might be needed to promote absorption of nutrients for germination, and it seems to require unusual conditions of soil moisture (Sieg 1997).  These orchids live at least 10 years, and study is proceeding on individually marked plants to learn more about their ecology.  In addition to loss of habitat, the plant is threatened by a noxious weed, Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula), which is spreading within its limited range(Sieg 1997).


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