Prairie Retrospective

Although earlier blog posts have covered our prairies trip in some detail, the purpose of this post is to provide a higher-level perspective on our trip as a whole, and to make recommendations for others touring the prairies. I normally impose on myself a 1000-word limit, for readability, but have allowed this one to go almost twice as long, as I don’t want the material to be split across multiple posts.

The prairies portion of our wanderings this year started on March 18, at Caddo National Grassland, TX, and ended on August 3, north of Zurich, MT. We travelled about 13,000 miles in these 138 days. We only spent about 10 days outside the prairies region proper; those locations, mostly east of the prairies in central Missouri and central Minnesota, are not included in the statistics below.

We visited about 70 sites total, not including camping sites that incidentally turned out to be interesting, of which there were a number. Although the classifications can be a bit arbitrary, we consider about 27 to be in eastern tallgrass prairie, 20 in central mixed-grass prairie, 19 in western shortgrass prairie, and 4 in Ponderosa Pine forests in the Black Hills. By state, the sites were distributed as follows: 14 in South Dakota, 12 in North Dakota, 9 in Nebraska, 7 each in Kansas and Iowa; 6 in Minnesota, 5 in Texas, 3 in Missouri, 2 in Colorado, and one each in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and Saskatchewan. Sorted by the type of property, they broke down as follows: 28 sites currently or formerly managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC); 17 National Grasslands; 8 National Wildlife Refuges; 6 State Parks, 5 National Parks, and 6 miscellaneous locations. Some comments on these different property types follow.

Rock Wren, Cimarron National Grassland, KS
Rock Wren, Cimarron National Grassland, KS

We visited all the National Grasslands except three units that are well west of the Great Plains, in Idaho, Oregon, and California. National Grasslands are administered by the Forest Service and the rules are similar to those of National Forests, so we expected to be able to enjoy dispersed camping frequently as we visited these areas. But in practice, most land is fenced off; large portions are leased out for grazing; and there are extensive private inholdings, often in a checkerboard pattern. So we rarely were able to find places we physically might be able to camp — and when we did, it was usually difficult to determine if the spots were legal. However, about 2/3 of the National Grasslands did have at least one organized campground, and most of these were very nice. Another issue with visiting the National Grasslands is that only about half of them have obvious tourist opportunities such as hiking trails or interpreted auto tour routes. A final note is that, unlike the other property types, which usually start with prime land that is protected because of its quality, most National Grasslands originated from distressed properties (such as those essentially destroyed during the Dust Bowl years), purchased by the government from private landowners to bail them out. Restoring prairie is difficult and even today substantial portions of the National Grasslands bear little resemblance to original prairie, and are relatively uninteresting from a natural history point of view.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of the diversity of the natural world. TNC is our favorite charity; we like their approach because it is firmly based in science, and we believe they do a better job of preserving botanically interesting habitats than any other organization in the world. It would not be possible to form a meaningful impression of the prairies without visiting TNC preserves. But many of the preserves have neither interpretative signs nor trails, and so require some research ahead of time to be appreciated.

National Wildlife Refuges historically were focused on waterfowl and game, but their scope has considerably broadened. They usually have good visitor centers but these are often only open on weekdays. The knowledge level of the people manning the visitor centers varies widely, but we were fortunate to talk to several who were very helpful. We have visited many National Wildlife Refuges throughout the country but were still very impressed with the quality of those seen on this trip, and the range of activities permitted within them. For example, we saw refuges with camping areas; canoeing trails; and cross-country hiking permitted almost everywhere.

Linum perenne, Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee NG, CO
Blue Flax, Linum perenne, Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee National Grassland, CO

In reviewing our itinerary, we feel we had a decent balance of the different prairie types (tallgrass, mixed-grass, and shortgrass) and successfully sampled the notable landforms (such as sandhills, badlands, loess hills, etc.). The balance of southern versus northern grasslands is trickier to assess. Although we visited more locations in the north, many were smaller sites that took less time. We were just crossing from Colorado into Nebraska at the midpoint of the trip, which seems reasonable, but when delays due to bad weather in the first half of the trip are considered, there probably was some bias in favor of the more northern grasslands.

Regarding the use of our available time, quite a bit of that devoted to National Grasslands might have been better spent elsewhere, and we could have visited fewer TNC preserves in the tallgrass prairie region without missing too much, as there was quite a bit of overlap. And we probably missed some good opportunities by not more thoroughly researching state properties before the trip and including more in the itinerary.

Concerning timing, it would have been good to start the trip about three weeks later than we did, as we experienced worse weather than was necessary, and many locations were visited earlier in the season than was desirable, whereas only a very few were visited later than their best time.

Stilt Sandpiper, Quivira NWR, KS
Stilt Sandpiper, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, KS

Here is a list, from south to north, of what we felt were the best areas we visited:

TNC Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, OK. Fully functioning prairie ecosystem with major bison presence and attractive cross timbers terrain. Good camping at Osage Hills State Park.

Tallgrass Prairie State Park, MO, with TNC Shelton L. Cook Meadow, MO. The state park has a nice trail system and a cute campground. The small, nearby TNC preserve had the best visual display of wildflowers on our whole trip.

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms, KS. The Bottoms are administered by the state and by TNC. Excellent birding in general, but especially particularly notable for shorebirds.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, KS. Administered by the National Park Service, with much of the land owned by TNC. Excellent visitor center and trail system; pristine prairie vistas.

Pawnee National Grassland, CO. Good birding along Auto Tour Route and at Crow Valley Campground in the western unit. Although the eastern unit is marred by extensive energy extraction, there is a fine assemblage of native plants where bedrock comes near the surface in the Pawnee Buttes area, which has some dispersed camping.

Niobrara Valley, NE. Six distinct ecoregions meet here, the greatest biological crossroads in the Great Plains. Within an hour’s drive of Valentine (which has a nice municipal campground), are Fort Niobrara and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges, Smith Falls State Park, and the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Paddling (or even floating) the Niobrara River through the wilderness area of Fort Niobrara NWR is an exquisite experience.

Eileen, Niobrara River, NE
Eileen in the bow of our canoe, on the Niobrara River, NE

Loess Hills Region, IA. A narrow band of deep, wind-deposited soil. There are fine views of the rolling terrain in TNC’s Broken Kettle Preserve, and rich woodlands in Stone State Park. The area was outstanding for butterflies when we visited.

Black Hills, SD. The Black Hills are an isolated montane island surrounded by shortgrass prairie, harboring a number of species not found elsewhere in the Great Plains. There are a large number of tourist destinations here but a few favorites are Wind Cave National Park for wildlife and the cave tours; Jewel Cave National Monument for the cave tours; and the TNC Whitney Preserve for birding and thermal springs.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit, ND. Fine badlands scenery, good wildlife viewing, nice visitor center, many trails, and notably the petrified forest areas (especially the more northerly one). Adjacent Little Missouri National Grassland has long-distance hiking and paddling routes.

Western Minnesota TNC Preserves. There are a number of protected prairie areas in western Minnesota, which are excellent for wildflowers. We particularly liked three TNC preserves: Frenchman’s Bluff, Zimmerman Prairie, and Twin Valley. There are no trails but the small properties are easily navigated. Camping is sparse in this area; we stayed at the Environmental Learning Center in Fertile, MN, which is close to a fourth TNC preserve, Agassiz Dunes, which is also interesting.

J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, ND. This refuge exemplifies the prairie pothole region, which is the most important waterfowl breeding area south of the arctic. Also good for migrating shorebirds. Three other refuges farther west provide more access to this habitat.

Viola nuttallii, David Canyon Rd, CR 802, Comanche National Grassland, CO
Nuttall’s Violet, Viola nuttallii, Comanche National Grassland, CO

Two other sites deserve honorable mention. First, Bennett Spring State Park, MO, is east of the prairies and so was not included above. But it is only a few hours from Prairie State Park, MO, and has great scenery, birding, and botanizing, as well as fishing and paddling. Second, Picketwire Canyon in Comanche National Grassland, CO, while in the prairie region, is not particularly notable for its grassland habitat. However, the experience of seeing the myriad dinosaur tracks is spectacular. It is a long hike (11 miles round trip) but alternatively, car caravans are led by rangers at some times of year.

In conclusion, touring the prairies requires some dedication. In most parts of the continent, 15 minutes on the internet would be sufficient to identify where to visit, and once there, the many activities that could be pursued would be clearly identified and described. This is the exception, rather than the rule, in the prairie region. Here considerable research is needed in advance, and still much remains uncertain until a location is reached and explored.

Grasslands have the reputation of being less interesting and scenic than other regions of the country. Eileen and I did find the prairies to be quite interesting, especially as we came to appreciate the effects of longitude, latitude, elevation, moisture, and local geology on plants and animals (eastern versus western bird distributions were especially fascinating). But there is no denying that the remnant prairie habitats are isolated, separated by (to us, as naturalists) rather uninteresting agricultural and ranching lands; and that even the best remaining habitats usually are dominated by non-native plants such as Smooth Brome and other Old World grasses, Leafy Spurge, Canada Thistle, and Yellow Sweet Clover. Nonetheless, we did find the prairies to have a quiet beauty, especially in those places where a 360-degree panorama of unbroken grassland unfolded. We are glad to have come to know this unique bioregion, and in our minds to have filled in the center of the continent with experiences and memories.

Bison, TNC Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, OK
Bison, TNC Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, OK

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