Briar Cliff students embrace ‘rewilding’ in prairie restoration project
Briar Cliff students worked together to help restore a large western Iowa prairie back to its original ecosystem.
The western Iowa university sits right across the road from one of the nation’s largest urban prairies, the Sioux City Prairie. Junior biology and environmental science major Zach Allen led a group of students last month in an effort to “rewild” the area – a burgeoning model for ecological restoration.
“We're all coming together for the same goal of restoring the prairie and keeping the prairie in the ideal condition,” Allen said.
The principle of rewilding is all about restoring Iowa land back to its natural state. One component is clearing out invasive species – which is what Allen and 20 others students worked to do. They cut down black locust trees, which aren’t native to Iowa and can threaten the existing prairie ecosystem.
Biology professor David Hoferer said the trees can lead prairie grass to die and subsequently force out species, like the American woodcock, that nest in the land.
“It's not going to live there, if there are trees there. It wants the prairie,” he said. “That's the thing: when you get these prairie species, they're not going to be there if the prairie is taken over by a forest.”
Allen said he didn’t want to see the land so close to campus lose the natural benefits that prairies produce – like carbon storage and soil erosion prevention.
“It kind of helped teach us a little bit about why human intervention is necessary sometimes,” he said.
“We have so altered the natural landscape, that wildlife doesn't really have much of a chance anymore."
But, Hoferer said rewilding extends beyond just eliminating invasive species. The movement to rewild Iowa takes ecological restoration a step farther with three core principles: cores, corridors and carnivores.
Hoferer said the first step is creating wildlife cores – or large spaces like the Sioux City Prairie, where Iowa’s natural habitat is supported. Next is the re-introduction of carnivores, like wolves or foxes, which are often keystone species that help define and sustain ecosystems. Finally, each core should be connected through long passageways, or corridors, so that species can migrate.
He said it’s a potential solution to what he, and many other scientists, see as an imminent threat: mass extinction of native species.
“We have so altered the natural landscape, that wildlife doesn't really have much of a chance anymore,” Hoferer said.
In Iowa, prairie used to cover around 80 percent of Iowa land. Now, it’s down to less than one percent. It’s one of the state’s with the least amount of public land, ranking 49th according to the Natural Resources Council. Today, more than 85 percent of Iowa is farmland.
Hoferer said that makes it challenging to apply the concept of rewilding. But, he hopes that ecologists can collaborate with farmers to find practical ways to restore wildlife – like utilizing land not suitable for farming.
He said if one looks at wetland and steep areas as potential sites for rewilding, nearly 25 percent of Iowa land could become natural again.
“It takes all of us working together to want to do something better for the future," Hoferer said.
Allen said his project on the prairie was inspired by all that he learned in the classroom. He said he wants to see more efforts across the state to preserve natural habitats.
“Instead of just looking at current benefits they can get year over year, to start looking into the future,” Allen said. “And make sure that the ecosystems in our environment are going to be sustainable for those future generations.”