Endangered ecosystem: Kansas prairie

Konza Prairie. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Konza Prairie. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Along with individual species, ecosystems themselves can be at risk. One of the rarest is the prairie in Kansas.

Once it spread over 170 million acres from north into present day Canada and south into Texas and east of the Mississippi to the Rockies. 1% of that prairie is left, much of the tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills, since it was too rocky to plow under, it was protected.

It’s a uniquely North American ecosystem, and from the shortgrass prairie closer to the western edge of the state to the tallgrass prairie in the eastern edge, the prairie is home to dozens of types of grasses, hundreds of types of flowers, and these grasses once fed hundreds upon hundreds of bison, antelope, and deer.

Fire helps form the prairie by burning out the woodier vegetation, and burns were started naturally by lightning or by Native Americans. Today, conservationists still work to preserve the prairie by burning it.

One of the success stories of prairie conservation is the Kansas tallgrass prairie. 80% of the world’s remaining tallgrass prairie land is in Kansas, and the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance brings together private landowners, government agencies, and conservationists to help learn more about, protect, and expand the resource that is the prairie ecosystem.

For more information on the tallgrass prairie, visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. To check out the shortgrass prairie, visit Smoky Valley Ranch or Cimarron National Grassland in western Kansas.

Or consider making your yard into a prairie. It takes less water and it provides the natural beauty of swaying grasses and wildflowers.

Black-footed Ferret: Once dead and gone

At the Nature Conservancy‘s Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County, you can explore the remote prairie. It’s a unique spot, not just for its Cretaceous formations, but for the wildlife that live here. It’s home to one of the state’s rarest mammals: the black-footed ferret.

Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

One of the greatest threats to a prairie dog, other than people, is the black-footed ferret, who use the prairie dog as a food source. And as prairie dogs were much more common in the prairie before the 1900s, so were black-footed ferrets. They helped keep the populations in control, and helped create balance to the prairie ecosystem.

But by 1964, with the conversion of much of the native shortgrass prairie to cropland and with the prolonged and legally required (in 1901, a law mandated townships to forcibly eradicate prairie dogs) attacks on prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret was left with little to eat, began dying out, and was placed on the federal endangered species list.

In 1979, it was declared extinct. After the discovery of a small population in 1981 in Wyoming and after years of careful monitoring and after convincing some local landowners, in 2007, ten black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to the Smoky Valley Ranch by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This rare, nocturnal mammal has made a place for itself again on the prairies of western Kansas.

It was thanks to ranchers in the county who volunteered their land as habitat for the nocturnal creatures and the Nature Conservancy land, and the released ferrets have been raising wildborn kits. And in 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service released more ferrets in Logan County to help “jumpstart” the population.

First ferret released back into Kansas. Photo by Dan Mulhern/USFWS

First ferret released back into Kansas. Photo by Dan Mulhern/USFWS