The wide-open prairie of the American West is perhaps the country’s most iconic habitat, emblematic of a wild and untamed past. But prairies are not solely a western fixture, they once stretched far across the eastern US as well. A mixture of wildfires, prescribed burns, and migratory herbivores molded the landscape into a mosaic of woodland and grassland, mixed with transitional habitats for people and wildlife to thrive.
But much has changed. Gone are the wildfires and large herbivores, replaced by encroaching woodland, invasive species, pesticides, and widespread human development, leaving the Southeastern prairie a shadow of its former self.
To understand the precipitous decline of the Southeastern prairie, we must look back before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Back then the Southeast, an area that includes states like Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and beyond, was a human-dominated landscape. Tribes like the Cherokee and Choctaw cultivated domestic crop staples like maize, beans, and squash (often in three-sisters plantings) and managed large expanses of woodland to bear plentiful masts of chestnut, hickory, acorn, walnut, and berry crops. And, to help feed the bison, elk, deer, and black bears that they liked to hunt, native tribes maintained prairie habitats across flat ridge tops and bottomlands, protected from the encroachment of woody vegetation. Prairies were so successful that 200 years ago, they were likely the most dominant ecosystem, not the forests that dominate the landscape today.
The use of prescribed fire to burn off woody vegetation encroachment allowed native grass species like Kentucky bluegrass, bluestem, gamagrass, and native switchgrasses to grow in abundance. Mixed with limited old-growth forest, it created a highly biodiverse savanna, productive for humans and native wildlife alike. This habitat was so diverse that its remaining vestiges are designated as the 36th world biodiversity hotspot, home to over 500 species of plants and hundreds of animals. The mix of cultivated crops, semi-old growth forest, and prairie country also created a diversity of transition zones perfect for transition zone specialists like white-tailed deer, turkeys, cottontails, and bobwhite quail to thrive.
Like many threatened ecosystems, the prairie’s demise is a death by a thousand cuts. The arrival of Europeans brought about the removal of large native herbivores, as well as the introduction of domesticated livestock, widespread plantings of grain crops, and monoculture forestry. All of these factors are significant contributors to the disappearance of prairie ecosystems, but the absence of one practice has likely had the largest impact of all—fire.
“Both wild and intentional fires set by humans aren’t present like they once were, and the remaining flora are proof themselves. Look at savanna species like post oak, blackjack oak, shortleaf pine, longleaf pine, and countless other upland tree species that are fire tolerant and drop leaves that easily carry fire. This is a defense mechanism of these trees ensuring that their young that can handle fire will make it to adulthood and that species that can’t handle fire don’t stand a chance,” Kyle Lybarger said. Lybarger founded the Native Habitat Project, an organization that works towards the preservation of the few remnant patches of prairie in the Southeastern US.
“These Native tall grasses serve the same purpose. They burn easily to make sure the landscape stays open enough that they’ll get their required amount of sunlight to survive. Especially in the southeast, with its long growing seasons and warm climate, it takes no time for these ancient grasslands to be converted to forests with the absence of fire.”
Then you have the issue of invasive weed species encroaching on the few remaining prairies we have left. In the absence of fire and free-roaming bison, uncontrolled cattle grazing and heavy pesticide use has allowed species like reed canary grass, birdsfoot trefoil, and smooth brome, to crowd out native species. Once they’re established, it can take one to six years of targeted pesticide treatment, burning, and mowing to remove them, leaving behind seas of weeds that are largely useless to native wildlife.
Since the arrival of Europeans to the continent, these changes in land management have eliminated over 90% of the Southeast’s prairies. What’s left is highly fragmented, relegated to the least fertile or accessible patches of land. But as the US becomes more developed, it’s placed additional strains on what little grasslands are left over. While the impacts of actions such as overgrazing, lack of prescribed fire, and pesticide use are ultimately reversible, tearing up these remnant prairies to build malls, parking lots or condos is not. Often developers are drawn to these open plots of land, oblivious to their ecological importance, because its lack of trees makes it incredibly easy to build on.
The long-term encroachment of woody vegetation threatens to shrink the habitat of the species outdoorsmen love to pursue, particularly white-tailed deer, turkeys, and quail. Prairies and woodland savannas not only provide optimal forage, but they also create cover for fawning and raising chicks, places to hide from predators, and the perfect environment for them to successfully mate.
Most notable is the demise of the bobwhite quail. Once widespread and incredibly abundant across eastern grasslands, they were a delectable staple to many outdoorsmen in the fall. Like many species, they thrive best where they have access to a variety of habitats for nesting, raising young, and foraging. Uniquely, they require at least 30 to 40% prairie habitat, meaning that as prairie remnants have slowly shrunk, quail populations have also crashed by almost 80%. In areas where quail used to be found in coveys of 20 to 30 birds, it’s now sometimes hard to find any birds at all.
Turkeys and whitetails have also begun to feel the heat because the absence of healthy prairies has started to lead to fewer poults and fawns each spring. Particularly for turkeys, the insect abundance within prairies is an indispensable part of a turkey poult’s diet during the first few months of its life, before it switches out those protein-filled bugs with more herbaceous foods. For both turkeys and deer, the long grass is the perfect hiding space for their young, protecting them from most predators until they’re strong enough to run or fly away.
Deer and turkeys are generally less vulnerable than quail to habitat changes because they can still thrive in agriculture-dominated regions, but the shrinking prairie habitat is fueling the ongoing habitat crisis that many American game species are suffering from. Some states, like Alabama and Mississippi, have already recorded a 20 to 40% decline in turkey numbers, largely attributed to habitat loss.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has a long history of prioritizing not just the protection of species themselves, but the preservation of the habitat all wildlife needs to survive. Most of the time, such preservation has mostly consisted of removing human impact from ecosystems and allowing them to function naturally. Prairie conservation in a fragmented and human-dominated landscape is different. Instead, its very existence depends on intentional human impact, applied to preserve the habitat and increase local biodiversity. Increasing the application of prescribed fires, more responsible production of cattle and crops, and protection of the small pockets of intact prairie habitat are essential going forward.
Such action is a large part of what organizations like the Native Habitat Project and the Nature Conservancy have begun to implement on a larger scale, but it also needs to be conducted on smaller properties managed by private individuals, such as the “Back 40” so many hunters spend all deer season tending to. Putting aside a small patch of land as intact prairie on your hunting property, or advocating for conservation practices on public land, not only preserves biodiversity, but is also beneficial to all sorts of game animals, particularly coveted deer, turkey, and quail.