How similar are prairie restorations to native prairie remnants in southwest Michigan?

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

MNA’s mission includes studying Michigan’s natural history. While every visit to a sanctuary brings a chance of expanding your knowledge and appreciation of nature, MNA also seeks to support dedicated scientists who try to understand our world and its fascinating flora and fauna. When done in a way that is compatible with conservation, MNA encourages scientific research on sanctuaries.

This post is the second in a series of posts on research done in MNA sanctuaries. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. She is interested in how species assemble into plant communities. To study Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and Emily teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. More information is available on Dr. Grman’s website

Of the vast areas of tallgrass prairie that once flourished in the central United States, less than 1% remains. In Michigan, scattered patches of native prairie once intermingled with savanna and woodland communities, but nearly all have been converted to cropland or development. This massive habitat loss has threatened the persistence of prairie plant and animal species. Over the past few decades, conservationists have increasingly used prairie restoration as a tool to reverse habitat loss. Prairie restoration in Michigan frequently involves adding seed of native prairie species and returning fire to former agricultural land. These restoration efforts often produce communities with an abundance of native plant species that can provide habitat for prairie insects and animals, but these restored prairies don’t replicate remnant, untilled prairies. This is partly because we still don’t completely understand the complex ecological interactions that allow ecosystems to accumulate species as they recover from a disturbance or change through time. Clearly, though, this information is essential. We must understand how to reconstruct communities in order to successfully rebuild lost prairie ecosystems.

In my current research, I aim to understand how species assemble into a community. I am a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. To study the assembly of plant communities in Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and I teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. In summer 2011, our research team collected data on the plant communities in five remnant prairies in southwest Michigan, including three MNA properties: the Betty and Ralph Campbell Memorial Plant Preserve at Helmer Brook, Prairie Ronde Savanna, and Sauk Indian Trail. We compared those data to 27 restored prairies throughout southwest Michigan, many on private lands.

We learned that restored prairies and remnant prairies in Michigan differ in important ways. Dominant C4 prairie bunchgrasses, such as big bluestem and indiangrass, were more abundant in restorations than in remnant prairies. We also found some prairie plant species in remnants that we never encountered in restorations, such as Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus), and early goldenrod (Solidago juncea). Some of these differences may be due to the seed mixes used during restorations: none of those remnant prairie species were included in restoration seed mixes, and seed mixes often had high densities of C4 grasses. Even so, including rare prairie species in seed mixes did not guarantee that they would become part of the prairie community. Of the 65 different prairie species commonly included in seed mixes, more than 25% never established in our transects, and another 40% established less than half the time. Despite this, restored prairies had nearly as many species as the remnant prairies: we found 36 species in restorations (on average, per 10 m2 sampling area) and 41 species in remnants.

From this study, we learned that while prairie restoration can create diverse grasslands to provide habitat for many native species, restoration has not recreated the communities we see in rare prairie remnants that have never been tilled. Therefore we believe it is essential to continue to preserve the rare gems of remnant prairie habitat scattered throughout southwest Michigan.

MNA Protecting Michigan History

by Hannah Ettema
MNA Intern

Not only does MNA protect nature throughout Michigan, but at the Sauk Indian Trail Plant Preserve, a little piece of Michigan history is saved forever.

The Sauk Trail has witnessed magnificent changes in history. From glacial changes to population changes to technological changes, the trail acts as a worthy marker of history and its unyielding power as a force of time.

Early History

The land on the preserve was once part of the Great Sauk trail, which ran from western Illinois to Detroit.

Based on excavated evidence by paleontologists from the University of Michigan, some theories suggest that game animals were using the trail as migratory routes more than 10,000 years ago.

By the time Europeans arrived in Michigan in the seventeenth century the trail was already a well-established pathway through the wilderness. The trail roughly followed the line of abundant forests to the north as it connected with open grasslands to the south.

map Sauk Indian Trail Michigan

the Sauk Indian Trail through Michigan

With the construction of the Eric Canal in 1825, the traffic on the trail increased. Travelers would leave their boats in Detroit and continue west towards Chicago or other cities along the way.

The same year the canal opened, the United States appropriated $3,000 for the Sauk trail. As the second federal highway in the nation, the money was needed to accommodate for the large amount of traffic.

As traffic continued, towns began growing along the trail. Spaced at about fifteen mile intervals, small agricultural towns like Saline, Clinton, Jonesville, Allen, Quincy, Bronson, Sturgis, White Pigeon and Niles grew and served as station stops for the trail.

Transportation Advances

After the Civil War, the railroad system grew throughout the country. Recognizing the geographic sensibility of the trail, a railroad was constructed parallel to it bringing more wealth and affluence to the people and towns along the corridor.

With the railroad’s arrival, some small farming towns became industry centers. Washtenaw County in Southeast Michigan became one of the leading producers of wool in the country because of sheep raisers from England settling there off of the trail. Their wool would eventually be used for soldier uniforms in WWI and II and later for car upholstery.

Soon the automobile was the means of transportation in America and with it came the need for roads. In 1916 Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act with hopes of constructing a highway system that could replace the railroad as the major means of surface transportation in the country.

In the early 1920s paving began of the Chicago Road (Sauk Trail) to become US-112.

wildflowers at the sanctuary

wildflowers at the sanctuary

Since the construction of I-69 and I-94 across the state, traffic on US-12 has shifted allowing for history to be preserved and the route to still be used as a regional connector.

For more information about US-12, click here.

For more information about Sauk Indian Trail Plant Preserve and other MNA properties, click here.