Bringing back the prairie

Since 1975, local volunteers have been working with Midwest prairie expert Dr. Robert Betz, Professor Emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University to restore native tallgrass prairie on the Fermilab site. How do you bring back a prairie? Plowing and disc harrowing prepare the ground for seeds from dozens of prairie plant species, broadcast over the field. Volunteers gather the seeds, by machine or by hand, then clean them meticulously, and prepare them to germinate by cold treatment or scarifying the seeds. After planting, maintaining the prairie community may require overseeding with some kinds of seeds. Most important, healthy prairies require regular annual burning to rejuvenate the ecosystem. Maintaining a reconstructed prairie is a constant struggle between native species and the aggressive European forage grasses and weeds that have infiltrated the Midwest in the last hundred years. Burning the prairie encourages the native grasses (adapted to eons of natural prairie fires) over the introduced weedy species. Volunteers must wait for just the right combination of moisture, weather and wind to burn the dry plants safely, carefully setting backfires and creating firebreaks to control the intense flames of the headfire that follows, running with the wind.

Fermilab’s natural areas restoration project is succeeding due to the efforts of many people, including the Lab’s Ecological Land Management Committee, Fermilab’s Roads and Grounds Department, local experts and area volunteers. The project has been key in helping to conserve natural resources on site and has advantageously affected the community leading to educational opportunities for many students, teachers and area residents. Eventually, the volunteers’ efforts will produce an ecosystem that closely resembles the prairie the settlers found. We haven’t yet reached that stage at Fermilab, but our prairie is now home to many native species that weren’t here when Fermilab moved in. These days, in Fermilab grasslands we commonly see plants such as big bluestem, Indian grass, prairie dropseed, compass plant, prairie dock, shooting star, gayfeather, false indigo, wild quinine, golden alexander, yellow and purple coneflowers, rosinweed, wild bergamot, lead plant, rattlesnake master and butterfly weed, whose colorful names suggest their place in an older culture and history. Now that the plants have arrived, those who eat them have begun to move in to complete the system. Insects such as butterflies, planthoppers and bees use the prairie plants; and prairie birds, including the bobolink, grasshopper sparrow, dickcissel and the endangered upland sandpiper, are frequent visitors. During the past few years, other native habitats have also been improved, including savannas, woodlands and wetlands. The goals of this project are to; conserve natural resources, develop finacially practical land management techniques and to encourage community involvement and human development.