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Nature Notes

Prairie Laboratory

The Kankakee Sands Prairie Restoration is more than just a place where the native plants and animals of Northwest Indiana can thrive, or a place for the local community to visit, see, and learn about these remarkable species and habitats. More and more often, Kankakee Sands is becoming a place researchers come to further their knowledge in ecology, biology, and the natural processes necessary to sustain a healthy ecosystem and planet.   There are a number of research projects currently going on here at Kankakee Sands, and there are many more that have been completed during the past decade. 

Current research on the Kankakee Sands projects covers many different fields of study. These projects range from carbon sequestration, soil and water quality, and patch-burn grazing, to bird and plant surveys, conservation biocontrol, and invasive plant management.   Most of this research happens ‘under-the-radar’ in that visitors will not likely see any impact or effects of the research on the property. Researchers have become very skilled in using GPS to mark plots and often only need to collect field data a couple of times per year. In the case of bird research, most happens around dawn and dusk, which means you rarely even see the person collecting the data!

There are some research projects that do have some lasting presence on the prairie. Some of these are in the form of the random posts you may find during your walks. These posts are marking plots, so that researchers can find them easily the next time they need to collect data. In the case of the patch-burn grazing study – well those cows are pretty obvious.

Much of the research being conducted at Kankakee Sands can fall into 3 rather general categories, which can be represented by 3 questions:   How successful is the prairie restoration? How can we become more successful? How do ecosystems function?

Measuring success has always been an important step in all forms of conservation. In the case of Kankakee Sands, part of measuring our success is ensuring we meet our conservation targets and have viable populations of our target species. Current research is being conducted to determine whether we have viable populations of some of our most secretive wetland birds, including the black rail, virginia rail, and least bitterns. We have also had insect, reptile, grassland bird, and amphibian surveys done during past years, and we are constantly collecting information on the plant diversity present on-site. The data that has been collected let us know that we’re doing pretty darn good job.

In order to address our second question, we have someone researching how to create a more invasive species resistant prairie from the get-go, and someone researching the use cows and fire in order to create a more forb (flower) diverse prairie. We are also constantly implementing adaptive management, which is similar to a system of trial and error.  When it comes to treating the highly destructive invasive species present on the property, if something doesn’t work, we try something else. If a process is working well, we see how we can make it work even more effectively. 

The third question is the most broad-ranging group of research, which includes water and soil research, carbon sequestration, and research into the benefits of native insects.  Water quality assessments currently being conducted on –site can lead to a better understanding of how the prairie functions as a system to filter and clean our water. Soil testing can lead to a better understanding of how the prairie is connected underground and how nutrients are stored and cycled. An important aspect of soil research is carbon sequestration, which is the storage of carbon or the (temporary, semi-permanent, permanent?) removal of carbon from the carbon cycle. This group also includes research being done to determine differences between prairie restorations and the few remaining remnants of the original native prairie. This is incredibly important because only by understanding the differences, can we work to bring our restorations closer to remnant quality. 

Even with all of this research going on, there is still so much to learn about our native plants, animals, and habitats found in Northwest Indiana. Always having something new to learn is of the best things about living near and/or working on a prairie. What will we learn tomorrow? -Andrea Locke

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