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Nachusa Grasslands sees record seed harvest

Posted: Wednesday, Feb 13th, 2013

Seeds collected at Nachusa Grasslands

FRANKLIN GROVE — Despite the past summer’s severe drought, volunteers and staff at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands managed to harvest a record number of seeds as the team continued to restore the land to its original landscape.

Some 6,500 pounds of seeds were collected by hand, with conservancy managers, seasonal staff and Nachusa volunteers handling the collection along with many other restoration activities. In the past two years harvests have yielded an average of about 4,000 pounds.

“The drought made it challenging and as a result we had about 50 fewer species,” said Cody Considine, a Conservancy Restoration Ecologist at Nachusa. “But drought is a naturally-occurring event which rights itself in the long-term. Site restoration is like a recipe. Before the seed can be planted, a recipe or planting mix must be developed specific to the planting area. To recreate prairie ecosystems, it all has to work together – function together.”

Nachusa Grasslands is a 4,000-acre preserve in Franklin Grove located in northwestern Illinois. It is one of the largest prairie landscapes in the state, composed of a mix of prairie restorations among remnant prairie and oak savanna habitat. In October, a portion of the site received the Illinois Nature Preserve designation due to its rich diversity of plant and animal species, some of which are rare and state-endangered including the prairie bush clover and eastern prairie white-fringed orchids. The conservancy and its many volunteers conduct prescribed burns, monitor wildlife and stop the spread of harmful, non-native species.

To name some of the larger collections, 633 pounds of pale purple coneflower, 528 pounds of white wild indigo and 208 pounds of wild quinine were gathered. Seeds like copper-shoulder oval sedge and grass-leaved goldenrod are species with very tiny seeds and were collected at 90 and 100 pounds respectively.

“You have to be on your toes and know what seeds are mature for collecting, some seeds can stay ready for weeks whereas others will only be ready for a couple days. he said. “We keep very detailed records of what we’ve collected, where we’ve burned and keep maps showing where and what we can expect to get.”

“People ask me all the time if volunteering at Nachusa is fun,” said Jay Stacy, a Nachusa volunteer of almost 20 years. “Going to Ft. Lauderdale is fun – this is hard work, from the collecting, mixing, loading and unloading of the seeds to the planting, I’ve logged more than 100 hours doing this on about 16 acres.”

Stacy said in order for the team to collect such a large amount of seeds, he and the many other volunteers came week after week, some committing up to six days.

“It’s a lot of ground to cover. But when you go back over an area that you planted and you see troubled species making their homes there and the beautiful colors emerge, that’s the satisfying part,” Stacy said. “Now we’ve got to keep working to maintain that high level of quality prairie here and get ready for those bison.”

The conservancy will reintroduce bison to Nachusa in the near future to continue the restoration process at the site. Bison are known for their ability to revitalize grasslands by breaking up the soil, promoting seed growth and making burrows with their large bodies which promotes filtration.

Considine noted that the harvesting, tending and removal of invasive species and planting of seeds would be impossible without the stewardship and volunteers of volunteers of Nachusa Grasslands.

To date, more than 200,000 volunteer hours have been donated to preserve and restore this prairieland. Since July 2012, it is estimated that Conservancy staff and volunteers have restored over 2,500 acres of wildlife habitat at Nachusa. Recently, 85 acres of row crop agriculture were planted with a high diversity prairie mix with more than 150 species planted at an impressive seeding rate of 60 pounds per acre.

Nachusa Grasslands is best known for restoring and managing wildlife habitat for a rich mix of plants and animal species, including rare Blanding’s turtles and federally-endangered prairie bush clover. All told, it is home to more than 700 native plant species and 180 species of birds.

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