Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Power of 0.0007

UrSpo recently left a great question in the comments. It bears a bit more examination than a simple answer in the comments section, so I'm responding in a full post.
Spo: I forget the % of actual prairie remains; and is it growing or shrinking?
The first part of the question is relatively easy. Over 99.9% of the prairie in Illinois has been destroyed (99.93% to be exact). This figure was arrived at from an inventory, compiled in the mid-1970s, of natural areas remaining in Illinois. The graphic that accompanies this post gives a partial illustration of just how small this is. The red area is 0.07% of the blue square. In the case of Illinois prairie, it’s important to recognize that the remaining fragments are not all lumped together in one single place. There are over 100 parcels of varying size left. To be an accurate illustration, the red section would have to be divided into more than 100 little bits, also of varying size, scattered in a seemingly random distribution across the blue field.

Faced with this staggering loss, it’s no surprise that people have been trying to save what’s left, and even to restore bits of land to their former ecological state. Which ties in directly to the Spo question. Sadly, even the identification of these tiny remnants of remaining prairie has only slowed the complete destruction. More than a dozen sites located in the initial inventory have been destroyed. So in some senses, the number has gotten smaller.

Counterbalancing this, ecological restoration activities have tended to make the number larger. But even this is not simple. In rare cases, people have managed to intervene at nearly the last possible moment. Invasive brush is removed from an area, fire is restored as the herbaceous vegetation recovers, and the tiny wisps of native vegetation that had nearly been choked out burst forth and a beautiful diverse ecosystem returns to life.

Much more frequently, the restoration ecologist is faced with the prospect of starting over. The invasive shrubs and trees are cleared, but unless the area is seeded with native plants, the future is an endless succession of weeds. Unfortunately, these prairie recreations are very different ecologically from remnant prairies. The floristic quality is lower. That is, the number of plant species present is lower, and those species that show up show a weaker fidelity to undisturbed prairies. The vegetative structure is also different. Animal species, particularly insects, are typically much less diverse.

What is the overall result of all of these trends? I don’t have hard, quantitative data. My guess is that the overall area covered with native prairie vegetation has increased slightly in the last 30 years, but that the area cloaked in very high quality vegetation has declined somewhat. It can be distressing to feel that no bit of original vegetation is truly safe, and that we will be left with bits and pieces of a poor imitation.

Restoration techniques are improving, and newer restorations show more promise of authenticity than some of the earlier efforts. Still, it can be frustrating when those with economic interests accuse conservation-minded folk of politically-motivated intransigence when we resist compromise on the 0.007% that’s still here. We won’t meet you half way? Hey, half way came and went a long, long time ago.



At 15:02, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

Excellent post. When we only have an "nth" of a percent that remains it makes preservation and restoration incredibly critical.

Can you imagine the pride and interest people might take in an landscape that featured the color and wonder that once existed centuries ago?

Education, education, education.

At 18:24, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, an excellent post. I have been aware of this...LOGGING in Oregon wipes out entire microclimates...and though they replant, it's just a "tree farm" then, it's NOT the forest...the new tree farm is missing millions of species of things, and it's obvious. Even here...neighbor cut out 20+ trees on lot next to us, and SINCE THEN I've been pulling Canadian Thistle, Scotsbroom, and other invasive plants by the hundreds in HIS field...because I don't want them anywhere near us. He wiped out a fabulous wildlife community, native plants. It's still sad to me. YES, corporate interests act exactly as you described in the last paragraph. Sadly, "Corporation Rules" take them down a path of consumption that carry them to their own deaths....without blinking. I can't believe our own specie is stupid enough to watch it happen..

At 07:05, Blogger BentonQuest said...

I hope this doesn't become a "You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone" situation.

The problem is that you don't want people to trample the praries but you want them to see and experience the praries.

It is tough.

At 11:08, Blogger robin andrea said...

An excellent post, doug. You and Mark H remind me of the battles for forest in the northwest. After most of the logging of the virgin forests had been done, then the timber industry screams bloody hell about wanting their fair share of what is left. WTF? I've been reading Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, and I highly recommend it. In many places, he projects, the native plant species will come back, once humans are gone.

At 11:18, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

I only wish we had enough prairies left where a little good natured trampling wouldn't be a worry! As it is, we need to tenaciously guard what remains....

At 17:43, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Thanks to all

Dave- I agree entirely. Education is critical. And in terms of the pride, I think that you already see some of that. Witness the passion with which people have thrown themselves into prairie restoration here in the Chicago area.

Mark- Yes, logging interests have shown the same tendency to make the environmental side of the equation do all of the compromising, while still potesting that the greens are not sufficiently willing to give ground. It's the sort of thing that makes my head explode.

Ben (and Dave)- I'm a pig proponent of getting people out to see the prairies. Up to a certain point trampling is not particularly harmful. ANd a bit of trampling is much less damaging to a prairie than installing a housing development on top of it. The latter sort of thing is the real danger, and it's happening (or at least trying to) even on a bunch of the tiny remaining parcels.

Robin- OK, The World Without Us is officially on my already too long reading list.

At 18:56, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Doug. I get this same type of thing from the public in regards to listed species. I'll be on a property and actually have someone ask me why red-cockaded woodpeckers are endangered "because there seem to be a lot around here". I have no words.

At 07:43, Anonymous Anonymous said...

99.93% of prarie destroyed, is a very sad commentary ....

Having grown in India I was not at all exposed to the prairie flora-fauna ... and it was facinating for me to learn about the it.

I want to talk to you about the Butterfly Haven, could I email you? I dont know your email ID.

At 08:38, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Intern - I'd be delighted to chat about the Haven. My email is dtaronATgmail.com. Teplace the AT with @ I'm trying to evade the Spambots. Also, you are the second person recently to express interest in sending me email, so I've added a clickable "send email" link to the main page near my picture.

At 08:40, Blogger Doug Taron said...

rcw- I hear ya. Your comments reminded me of being at the visitor center at Annza Borrego Desert State Park in California. They have an outdoor pool where they're breeding the endangerd desert pupfish, which are about the size of guppies. A samll group was looking into the pond and commenting derisively that the fish were good for nothing because they were way too small to eat.

At 10:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you doug, for answering the question, and with such detail.


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