SIOUX CITY — Zach Allen recently led a group of Briar Cliff University students on a mission to rescue the Sioux City Prairie, one of the largest urban prairies in the nation.
Allen, a junior studying biology and environmental science, and his peers, who are pursuing various majors, spent several hours removing black locust trees from the edge of the prairie, which abuts the college’s campus. If allowed to continue to thrive on the land, the black locust, one of the most difficult invasive tree species to eradicate, could turn the prairie into a non-native forest.
“I feel like the prairie is kind of a critical part of the US’s history. I kind of think of it as a fulcrum between the past and the future. We can learn from what it’s taught us and also what we’re trying to learn for the future — different land uses,” Allen said.
The measures taken by the students to rid the land of the black locust trees is an example of rewilding, the restoration of natural areas so that a level of biodiversity at least equivalent to preindustrial times can be sustained in any given area.
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A steep hill near the Stark Student Center is also being restored into a prairie habitat. When the rewilding is complete, the area will serve as an outdoor classroom for students.
David Hoferer, a biology professor at Briar Cliff, encourages residents to do their part to support native species by planting native trees and plants on their property. If rewilding doesn’t take place, the consequences will be dire, he said.
“We are committed to a future where species die-outs are at epidemic proportions, so we’re going to extinct thousands upon thousands of species. Across the landscape here in Iowa, it will be less than that, but we’re committed to species extinction at that point,” Hoferer said. “We’re committed to ecological impoverishment for our kids, so they never understand what biodiversity is. They never understand what a prairie is. We’re committed to making climate change worse.”
Rewilding is focused on the conservation of the three Cs: cores, areas which are large enough to sustain wild populations; corridors, strips of natural area that connect cores and allow the migration of plant and animal species; and carnivores, the keystone species, which have the greatest impact on ecological function.
Iowa is the most ecologically modified habitat on the North American continent, according to Hoferer. He said the state, roughly 75% of which used to be covered in prairie, today has about three times as much area devoted to roads as it does to preserving and conserving natural species.
“We’ve gone way overboard it terms of modifying the landscape for our needs,” Hoferer said. “In Iowa, it’s 98% plus for humans and less than 2% and, arguably, less than 1%, if we get rid of the road right of ways, for other species. So, we’ve gone way beyond what is ecological sustainable. That’s the problem.”
Hoferer said there are some steps that can be taken to remedy the situation.
He said the group BeWildReWild has maps that show that 25% of Iowa can be restored to natural lands without taking good farmland out of production. Lands that flood once every five years and slopes steeper than 9% gradient, which aren’t good to farm, anyway, according to Hoferer, could be put into permanent conservation reserve.
Hoferer said the Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve programs, which are primarily funded through the federal government, need to be expanded to help pay farmers who want to put land into conservation. He also noted that land trusts can buy land from farmers who are willing to sell, or purchase a conservation easement from the farmers in order to create corridors and even smaller core areas.
“There’s not going to be like a Yellowstone National Park in Iowa. There’s too much good farmland here,” Hoferer said. “But, there can be some smaller core areas with corridors that will then link species between, say, the Dakotas, where there can be really large areas, down into the Ozarks in Missouri, where there can be good large core areas.”
Suburban landscapes are one of the greatest untapped resources for restoration.
Hoferer said our lawns are almost entirely composed of non-native species and that the flowers that we plant in our gardens are generally non-native, as well. If we plant native trees and wildflowers, Hoferer said we will support native insects, lizards and birds.
“This also supports our native pollinators. There are at least over a thousand native species of bees and wasps in North America that will naturally pollinate plants,” he said.
Goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, yarrow, purple coneflower, cord grass, bur oak, hackberry and American elm are examples of native flowers, grasses and trees.
“If you have non-native trees in your yard, consider planting a native maple. Consider planting a native oak tree in place of those, if you have the resources to do that,” Hoferer said. “If you have a flower garden, consider maybe a little prairie garden around your home. If you have flower pots in front of your house, plant some native plants.”
But, before you get to planting, you’ll want to check your local ordinances. Within Sioux City limits, you won’t be able to turn your lawn into a prairie. City code allows weeds or grass to be no more than 12 inches high.
“What you can do is have little gardens and landscaping that incorporates these things,” Hoferer said.