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Preservation and Conservation

Tall Grass Prairie


A prairie is "a complex natural community covered with a dense mixture of tall grasses and other herbaceous plants" (State of Indiana). Tall grass prairies once stretched from Iowa and Missouri through central Ohio, thus covering about 15 percent of Indiana's landscape. Today, however, only small prairie remnants can be found in northwestern and west central Indiana, in addition to very small, isolated remnants in other parts of the state.

Grasslands survive in a climate that is characterized by adequate yet erratic rainfall, bitterly cold winters, and hot, dry summers. Tall grass, medium grass, and short grass prairies are distinguished by the average height of the grasses. For a tall grass prairie, they must be at least waist high and may reach a range of six to eight feet.

Several different types of prairie exist, due to the differences in soil moisture and type. In Indiana, rich black-soil and sand prairies were prevalent in pre-settlement times. Although white settlers initially believed prairies were virtually useless because of their dense network of intertwined roots, they later discovered the deep and nutrient-rich soil that lay just beneath the surface. Due to the introduction of tools like steel plows, the settlers were able to penetrate the extensive root systems of prairies for agricultural purposes.

Before the settlers came, Native Americans would periodically burn the grass, which was a necessary component of its regrowth process. These fires would prevent the invasion of trees: "Hot fires killed tree seedlings but not the prairie plants with their extensive underground roots. Fire, in fact, tended to stimulate the growth of prairie plants, which were quick to resprout following fire" (State of Indiana).

Unfortunately, of the original two million acres of virgin prairie grassland in the state, less than one thousand acres survive today. Many of the small remnant prairie tracts that remain in Indiana are pioneer cemeteries and old railroad rights-of-way that were never plowed (State of Indiana). The loss of prairie land is particularly damaging since hundreds of plant species, including goldenrod, big bluestem or turkey-foot grass, and prairie dock, thrive there. Besides the abundant plant life, creatures such as snakes and ground squirrels make their homes in tall grass prairies. Two species that previously inhabited prairie grasslands, the American bison and the prairie chicken, became extinct in Indiana due to the massive destruction of the habitat.

However, efforts have been made to preserve what is left of this rich ecosystem. Some of Indiana's prairie preservation attempts include Bill Barnes Nature Preserve, located at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco; Gibson Woods Nature Preserve, located in Hammond, and Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, which is located in Lake County.

See also Preservation and Conservation.


Post, Thomas W. "Where Tallgrasses Waved: The Grand Prairie Natural Region." The Natural Heritage of Indiana. Ed. Marion T. Jackson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. 189-94.

State of Indiana. Indiana Department of Natural Resources. "An Indiana Prairie." Division of Nature Preserves. 2002. 13 Nov. 2002 <www.state.in.us/dnr/naturepr/prairie.html>.