Native grasses: Long may they wave

Texas was once a sea of grass. From South Texas, through Central Texas, all the way up the Panhandle was prairie. So much prairie, in fact, that settlers going north from Galveston and San Antonio would get bored with the never-changing landscape.

Milam County was part of this large expanse of prairie, split in half by the Blackland Prairie to the west, and the Post Oak Savannah to the east.

Texas is classified as having 91 percent rangeland (includes prairies, savannahs, grasslands, wetlands). The other 9 percent is forestland. Texas has 560 species of native and introduced grasses. We also have 850 different species of sunflowers.

The state's landscape has changed drastically through the years. Over 99 percent of the rangeland early Texans found no longer exists. Texas originally had 20 million acres of tall grass prairie, now less than one percent of that remains.

This is not just a Texas problem, the tall grass prairie is the most endangered ecosystem in North America. Most of the prairies have been replaced by tame pastures with imported grasses used to graze livestock, agriculture, and urbanization.

The dense undergrowth we have now like the yaupon, Eastern Red Cedar, and winged elm are consequences of not maintaining the native state of the prairies. Along with the herds of buffalo that roamed through the state, naturally occurring wildfires helped keep unwanted brush from taking over.

More and more Texans are beginning to understand the importance of native flora and fauna, including native grasses. Native grasses are not only important in providing food and cover for animals, but also in conserving that most precious commodity, water. Grasses protect the soil from raindrop impact (which can be quite abusive), erosion and floods. They help rebuild and maintain the organic content within the soil, and are perfectly adapted to funneling water into the soil.

Rain falling onto rangeland is the main source of water to creeks, streams, and rivers, as well as recharge to aquifers. In an average rainfall year (is there ever one?), about 42 percent evaporates before it hits the ground. Of the water that makes it to the ground, plants use 47 percent, about 10 percent becomes runoff, leaving the remaining to recharge the aquifers.

Prairie conservation is also important in protecting game wildlife species like the Bobwhites, turkeys and Mourning doves. Grassland birds are in decline due to loss of native prairies, as they make their homes in these grasses. You will not see them in tame pasture. Texas Parks & Wildlife has identified the Blackland Prairie, along with the Gulf Prairies and Marshes, as the highest priorities in their conservation plan. The Blackland Prairie is an important stopover for migrating songbirds and wintering raptors.

Humans have introduced about 1,500 plant species into Texas rangelands. Introduced grasses and plants require an over abundance of management to keep the natives out, as well as to keep the invaders in. Already many introduced plants have naturalized, such as Bermuda grass, scarlet pimpernel and crimson clover. Too many of these occurrences can out compete and even kill native plants, threatening not only our state's biodiversity, but our natural history.

For those who own acreage, creating a good range management plan to include re-introduction of native grasses is a great idea. This website is a good start: www.tpwd.state.

For the rest of us, consider using native grasses in your landscape, or even buffalo or blue grama as turf grass. You can find grass and wildflower seed at Native American Seed in Junction (www.seedsource. com).

Become active in conserving the prairie. Check out the Native Prairies Association of Texas (

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2009-07-02 digital edition

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