Where buffalo roamed: Blackland Center project restoring native prairie grasses

By Fred Afflerbach – Telegram Staff Writer

The Blackland Research & Extension Center in Temple has planted the seeds for a new program that celebrates the legacy of native prairie grasses here in Central Texas and cultivates a dozen varieties in test plots.

Dr. Tracy Baker addressed 40 folks at the center on Friday, including a couple of master naturalists and several members of the Temple Farm and Ranch Club. Baker said urban sprawl is the biggest threat to the shrinking Blackland Prairie, a belt of rich soil once covered with knee- and waist-high native grasses.

“It’s one of the most endangered ecosystems in all of America, and less than 1 percent remains . . . in my view, a rural-urban interface issue that’s the disappearing landscape here in Texas,” she said.

In January, staff at the center planted a dozen varieties of native grasses in a two-acre plot. Baker said plans are under way to publish a brochure, install signs and a trail to the demonstration plot, and maybe put together a small educational seed packet for students who would one day visit an exhibit there.

“A lot of these kids, that might be the best exposure they get to this landscape,” Baker said. “I really see this as a start for something fantastic here at Blackland.”

Baker said she got the idea from a county extension agent who said he fielded numerous calls from folks wanting to restore property to native habitat. And in this part of Texas that means grasses such as little bluestem, alamo switchgrass and Indian grass.

Since restoring overgrazed and farmed-out pastures isn’t as easy as tossing seeds on the ground, the Blackland Prairie restoration program would be a starting point for people with little agricultural experience.

Like these native grasses that send roots deep into soil over time, Blackland director Tom Gerik said this program would be a sustainable, long-term project. The center has ample room to grow the program, both as a research and demonstration center.

Pointing out that highways and subdivisions are gobbling up more and more Central Texas rural property, Gerik emphasized the important role native grasses play in the environment.

“How we manage that landscape and that land is going to be critical to our natural resources – water quality as well as storm events, erosion,” Gerik said.

James Alderson, program director for the non-profit Native Prairies Association of Texas, sat on the front row at Friday’s meeting. He expanded on Gerik’s thought. He says losing these native grasses has endangered certain sparrows and the bobwhite quail.

“The reason they’re endangered is because all the prairie is gone. It’s either in farms, or cities or roads, or they’ve been converted to non-native grasses,” Alderson said.

Alderson believes programs like the one the research center is growing can meet a demand for a growing number of folks moving onto small and large tracts of rural property. Rather than farming, they enjoy watching wildlife. And native grasses attract these animals.

“They really aren’t farmers, and they are interested in putting it (the land) back to what it ought to be,” Alderson said. “They don’t want to be constantly fertilizing and baling hay. They just want something they can enjoy.”

Looking ahead at what the nascent program could accomplish, Baker said she hoped users could take away from it what fits their needs or goals.

“We would like to show you there are many different values (of native prairie grass): water conservation, erosion, aesthetics, wildlife, livestock.”

Blackland researchers plan to plant several more acres in early fall. It will be a demonstration event in which people could learn how to get started growing native prairie grasses.

–Reprinted with permission of Temple Daily Telegram

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