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Tallgrass Prairie Preserve celebrates 20th anniversary


Carol Cole-Frowe September 24th, 2009

The endless horizon of Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve could have gone the way of the vast majority of tallgrass prairies " plowed under for cropland or developed into urban sprawl. ...

Bison-with-sun

The endless horizon of Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve could have gone the way of the vast majority of tallgrass prairies " plowed under for cropland or developed into urban sprawl.

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But for the past two decades, the 39,100-acre Tallgrass Prairie Reserve in Northeastern Oklahoma near Pawhuska and its expansive vistas have been secure and preserved, thanks to efforts of the Oklahoma chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Saturday, the public's invited to celebrate the 20th anniversary triumph of nature and restoration of the prairie's ecosystem from 1 to 5 p.m. at the headquarters of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, with an open house, tours and classes led by Conservancy staff, including a bison-driving tour, botany hike, nature photography 101, fire ecology and more.

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It could be the ultimate staycation for a family-friendly trip on a weekend nearly devoid of college football with the University of Oklahoma Sooners having a "bye" week Saturday, and with Oklahoma State Cowboys playing underdog Grambling State in a 7 p.m. home game.

A visit to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve yields mind-boggling views similar to what our ancestors looked out upon as they settled the West. The preserve is mostly made up of the former 29,000-acre Barnard Ranch and other land parcels purchased or leased later by the Conservancy. The ranch was initially purchased with $15 million in private funds raised for the project.

To raise $15 million in private funds was a big feat in 1989. To do it in the midst of Oklahoma's own recession thanks to the oil boom and bust it had just suffered was even more of a challenge.

Now, protecting and maintaining the indigenous biological diversity is the primary ecological goal of the Conservancy.

Steve McGuffin, associate director of philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy's Oklahoma City office, said the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the "largest protected remnant" of what had been 142 million acres of tallgrass prairie nationwide.

"And it's in pre-settlement condition," McGuffin said.

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The tallgrass prairie formerly stretched from Texas to Minnesota through 14 states. Less than 10 percent of the tallgrass prairies are left, with 3.8 million acres of Flint Hills in Oklahoma and Kansas among the last intact.

He said keeping Oklahoma's preserve in its pre-settlement condition requires climate, bison and fire.

The Oklahoma preserve is now home to 2,700 free-roaming bison, from a herd of 300 released in 1993 on 5,000 acres. The herd is managed with minimal input. The bison rough up the prairie land, churning it and allowing seeds to get established, McGuffin said.

"They cause the chaos on the ground," he said.

The Conservancy also uses a "patch-burn" approach to prescribed burning.

"We don't burn the whole place every year," McGuffin said. "We like to have different layers of thatch."

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That's because the 750 or so different species that live there have different needs. For example, greater prairie chicken males like the shorter, more recently burned grass because they like to strut their stuff in mating season.

But the female greater prairie chicken likes the taller grass to lay eggs in.

One more species gets the benefit of the preserve.

Last year, the preserve attracted human visitors from all 50 states and 44 countries. The preserve is the focus of numerous research studies, with its research center currently being used by area universities for about three dozen research projects. And about 150 scientific journals have featured the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve from various projects over the years.

McGuffin suggests Saturday is a perfect time to bring a picnic lunch prior to the afternoon events. And he said this is one of his favorite times of the year, with the big bluestem and Indian grasses looking impressive. "Carol Cole-Frowe

 
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