The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the largest (39,650 acres) protected remnant of tallgrass prairie left on earth. Originally spanning portions of 14 states from Texas to Minnesota, urban sprawl and conversion to cropland have left less than 4% of this magnificent American landscape. Since 1989, the Conservancy has proven successful at restoring this fully-functioning portion of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem with the use of about 2,500 free-ranging bison and a "patch-burn" model approach to prescribed burning.
Biodiversity Threats in the area include habitat fragmentation and loss, current grazing and fire practices, invasive plant species such as sericea lespedeza and eastern red cedar, and stream degradation due to land management practices and soil erosion. One way to measure the success of efforts to restore biodiversity is to track species.
What the Conservancy is doing now will offer conservation-minded ranchers an alternative to traditional grazing practices. Conservancy staff have already conducted several "patch-burn" workshops with area cattle ranchers to illustrate the potential rewards of embracing this wildlife-friendly method of land management, while continuing to meet the bottom line for their cattle production operations. In addition to alternative grazing practices, The Nature Conservancy is offering to hold conservation easements for land owners who would like to ensure the preservation of their property.
Our "Patch Burn" approach utilizes prescribed burning on roughly 1/3rd of productive rangeland each year, leaving the remaining portions undisturbed by fire. Early research by Oklahoma State University indicates that the complex and mosaic plant communities produced by this "patchy" approach offers huge rewards for biodiversity. Approximately three dozen prescribed burns are conducted each year totaling 15,000 - 20,000 acres. Since 1991, over 730 prescribed burns have been conducted totaling 354,000 acres. In addition we have assisted neighboring ranches burn 518,000 acres and helped them suppress 127 wildfires.
The Tallgrass Prairie Ecological Research Station was completed in 2004. This state-of-the-art facility offers field researchers the opportunity to conduct extended studies and initiate laboratory analysis for rangeland research. The research station will also be utilized as a workshop destination for university students, researchers and conservation professionals from across the United States.
More than three dozen research projects are active on the preserve, and 180 publications in scientific journals have been produced. An exciting "patch-burn" was initiated with Oklahoma State University in 2001 on 11,000 acres. The objective is to develop and export creative cattle management techniques that will improve wildlife habitat diversity, while maintaining a profit margin for cattle ranchers.