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The Importance of Grassland Ecoystems for Climate Resilience

There is no better time of year than now, as summer transitions to fall, to visit Illinois prairies. Visiting one of the grassland areas in Illinois can offer a peaceful day in nature with abundant sunlight and long, expansive views across picturesque landscapes at locations such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Bartel Grasslands. Not only are Illinois’ grasslands beautiful locations to visit and enjoy, but grasslands are essential ecosystems in our region whose existence is essential for preserving plant and wildlife biodiversity. Restoring and expanding grasslands is more important than ever, as prairies are powerful carbon sinks that can help our region become more resilient to the effects of climate change through carbon sequestration, flood control, and habitat protection.

The topic of grassland ecosystems will be front and center at the 2022 Openlands Annual Luncheon. Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society, will deliver the keynote address. In his role at the National Audubon Society, Marshall leads the strategic direction for hemispheric-wide conservation work at Audubon to address the unprecedented climate change and biodiversity crises facing birds. You can learn more about Marshall’s work in his TEDxFargo talk, where he shared the reality of how our marketplace decision can help farmers and ranchers conserve grasslands through regenerative grazing.

Grassland ecosystems are made up of large open areas of grasses, and in the Chicago region prior to development, grasslands were predominantly filled with prairie plants. Most of the expansive prairies in our region were located outside of the city of Chicago and were located in big open plains in western and southern Illinois. As you got closer to the rivers in the Chicago metropolitan area, the landscape was more hospitable to savanna and woodland ecosystems.

Grasslands are one of our region’s most important nature-based solutions to climate change. Prairie plants are natural carbon sinks, as they have deep roots that sequester carbon into the ground and never release them unless they are tilled or dug up. Unlike trees, which eventually die and release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere, undisturbed prairie plants can store carbon for millennia, even when their tops are burned.

Prairies also absorb rain thanks to their deep root systems, which help reduce erosion, runoff, and flooding. Unlike pavement and short-rooted plants, which do not deeply absorb water, resulting in water runoff that can flood properties and waterways, grassland plants have deep, solid roots that grow deep into the ground, many up to fourteen feet. Those roots provide deep wells that act as a sponge and trap water in the ground before slowly seeping out. The water trapping and slow-release effect of prairie root systems prevent runoff and flooding, which will continue to be increasingly important going into the future as the Chicago region is expected to see a major increase in intense downpours because of climate change. Not only do the roots of grassland plants help them mitigate flooding, but they also make them more resistant to droughts, as plants with deep root systems dry out less quickly than those with shallow roots.

Along with storing carbon and mitigating flooding, Illinois’ grasslands provide habitats to a diverse range of wildlife, including prairie animals that burrow in the ground and migratory birds and monarchs, which rely on prairie plants for food and refuge on their journeys. The drastic loss of grasslands in our region has had a negative effect on wildlife due to the loss of food, water, and shelter, and many of the organisms that depend upon prairies have been forced to move or have become endangered. Bison and elk, which were once the largest mammals in Illinois, were driven out of the state due to habitat loss and the rise of agriculture, and can only be found in areas such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Nachusa Grassland, where Bison are being reintroduced.

Illinois’ grasslands are in a dire state and restoration is critical to help restore the biodiversity that prairies provide. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, about 60 percent of Illinois, or 22 million acres, once was prairie. However, by 1900, most of Illinois ‘ prairies were gone, as the majority of prairie lands were converted to agricultural sites. Now, only about 2,500 acres of remnant prairie remain.

Openlands has taken an active role in the restoration of grasslands in the Chicago region at locations such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Bartel Grasslands, Deer Grove, and Hadley Valley in Will County.

According to Openlands’ Restoration Specialist Linda Masters, because most prairies in Illinois are small and fragmented due to agriculture, restoration requires a commitment to long-term stewardship of a site and ongoing monitoring. “Because we live in a fragmented landscape where all the natural processes have been removed, you can’t just plant natives and walk away. You can’t just set fire and leave,” Masters explained, saying that the modern-day proximity of prairies and development puts neighboring properties at risk of fire and flood.

Doing a controlled burn on a prairie undergoing restoration requires detailed planning so as not to spread fire to a neighboring barn or house. The same goes for wetland restoration at prairie sites, as suddenly allowing natural hydrology presents the risk of flooding a neighbor’s house. 

Bartel Grassland and the adjacent Bobolink Meadows is an excellent example of a site where Openlands has engaged in ongoing restoration and stewardship. Many farms that were once prairies had drain tiles installed to extend the growing season for crops, and one of the first steps in grassland restoration is often the removal of drain tiles. Bartel Grassland was once heavily tiled farmland with underground pipes that would draw water away from the property and empty into the river. Openlands helped disable drain tiles on the property, controlled invasive species, and planted native plants on site. Now, Openlands takes part in the stewardship of the site, which requires ongoing control and removal of invasive plants and monitoring hydrology to prevent the flooding of nearby properties. 

A newly released report Bird monitoring Results 2020, Bobolink Meadow LWR and Bartel Grassland LWR, states that “. . . the Bobolink Meadow/Bartel LWR sites take their place as one of the outstanding bird conservation projects in the region. The numbers of Bobolinks and other grassland birds, the nesting season Pied-billed Grebe, Wilson’s Snipe, both bitterns, three rail species, the spring shorebirds, the heron and egret rookery, the nesting Bald Eagles, and the winter raptors and finches in addition to the prairie and wetland vegetation and other wildlife give the Bobolink Meadow/Bartel LWR sites a unique conservation value.” 

Learn more about the work Openlands is doing to restore landscapes here. 

Photo by Erin Soto via the Forest Preserves of Cook County

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