Prairie Border Nature Preserve
Prairie Border Nature Preserve Prairie Border Nature Preserve © TNC

Places We Protect

Prairie Border Nature Preserve

Indiana

Bringing a little "wildness" back to northwest Indiana.

Why You Should Visit 

When arriving at Prairie Border Nature Preserve, you'll be standing in what was once the southern portion of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

Three hundred years ago, depending upon the season, your knees may well have been wet.

In pre-settlement times, the Kankakee River was inseparable from its wetlands. Known to the Potawatomi Indianas as the Aukiki (land of wolf and river), the Mawhahkeki (wolf country) or simply Kiakiki (swamp country), the river and marsh were one. Freshwater wetlands and the meandering river covered nearly one million acres.

This was a bountiful land for the Potawatomis. They lived on the low sand rises scattered throughout the wetland, taking advantage of the plentiful fish, wildlife and waterfowl here.

Early settlers called this area the “Grand Marsh of the Kankakee.” Like the Potawatomi, early pioneers used the marsh wildlife for subsistence. While fur trapping drove early economic activity, the region’s vast numbers of waterfowl soon attracted attention from across the country.

Newly constructed railroads brought wealthy hunters from faraway places such as New York, Philadelphia, and even Europe to hunt the seemingly infinite flocks of migrating waterfowl.

Progress brought agriculture to the surrounding uplands, and summer haying of the marshlands provided critical forage for livestock. Soon, that livestock grazed the marsh itself, using the sand rises for shelter during the wet seasons, and the marsh proper as the water table slipped downward each summer.

As the economy and culture modernized, the rich wetland wildlife habitats became viewed as unproductive. “Improvements” could reclaim the land for productive use. By the mid-19th century, the wetlands were drained. The Kankakee River was dredged and straightened. The infinite flocks of waterfowl were gone. The Aukiki had been tamed.

Today, this preserve’s restored prairies and wetlands are drier than what you would have seen 300 years ago, but the sandy rises in front of you may well have looked much as they do today—islands of prairie grasses and scattered oaks surrounded by a sea of prairie and marshes.

The Nature Conservancy’s restoration attempts to recreate a bit of that original wetland grandeur, where habitats of wetland, prairie and savanna mixed freely across the landscape. Please enjoy this piece of wildness returned to the Aukiki as you hike our 1.5-mile interpretive trail.

A Unique Partnership

This restoration at Prairie Border is the culmination of years devoted to restoring key habitats that surround Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. Piece by piece, The Nature Conservancy acquired key lands that impacted our public resources. A collaborative effort by NIPSCO and the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified the resources used to re-wild the site. The Nature Conservancy has led the restoration and is committed to the long-term stewarding of natural resources here and across the State.

Ecoregion

Central Tallgrass Prairie

Owned & Managed By

The Nature Conservancy

Partners

Indiana Heritage Trust & Natural Resources Conservation Services

What The Nature Conservancy is Doing/has Done

Once every 2 - 5 years, the Conservancy prescribes burns in the Prairie Border's natural communities because we believe that fire is a fundamental tool in restoring and managing the prairie. Other conservation efforts go towards protecting and restoring the savanna and wetland areas as well as protecting viable populations of plants and animals found at the site.

What to See: Results of Our Restoration Work

When you reach the second interpetive sign at Prairie Border, you are actually standing on top of an old ditch! The ditch was filled with sand excavated to create the wetland located just east of you.

In sandy soils, ditches and streams work differently than those in other parts of the state. Streams in this area only rarely receive direct runoff from adjacent fields. Instead, the sand allows rain to rapidly soak into the soil. Then it moves slowly but surely towards the stream through the sand.

Deep agricultural ditches, which are really just man-made streams, suck the water out from under adjacent areas.  Even when the fields are dry, ditches continue to pull groundwater away. To create tillable farmland, landowners built ditches, which lowered the water table and drained wetlands.

Filling the ditch beneath your feet has slowed the movement of water and brought the water table closer to the surface. Groundwater once exited the site rapidly through the ditch, but it now creeps slowly northward, where it is intercepted by ditches that drain adjacent farm fields.  

In this sandy landscape, pools and wetlands are formed in low depressions where the water table extends above ground. The original wetlands here were probably much deeper, but this restoration was carefully designed to not impact our neighbors. Our goal was to restore a semblance of original hydrology that supports the habitat mosaic that originally occurred here. These prairies and wetlands complete that rich habitat mosaic.  

Planting the Prairie and Wetlands

The restored prairie and wetland you see were planted with over 140 species that occur in similar nearby habitats. These species-rich plantings support diverse communities of pollinators, such as native bees and butterflies. Because many insects have very specialized food requirements as adults or larvae, we attempt to restore as many appropriate plant species as possible. This helps ensure that we also conserve a diverse and healthy insect community.

Most of the seed was produced at our Kankakee Sands seed nursery in Newton County. Rarer species were collected by hand from our nearby preserves. Several important species do not establish well from seed, so we grew and hand planted thousands of plugs throughout the property and particularly along the edges of our restored wetlands. Over the coming decades, “seed-rain” from the adjacent savannas will continue to enrich the plantings. With every growing season that passes, these restorations will behave and look more and more like the native grasslands that once thrived in this region. 

In the summer of 2018, the Conservancy installed a 1.5-mile trail and interpretive signage throughout Prairie Border. The easy-to-moderate terrain will make a delightful hike. Nearby is the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area for more outdoor activities. Visitors should be cautious of hunters during all legal seasons. For more information, please read the Conservancy's Preserve Visitation Guidelines.

For More Information

Division of Fish and Wildlife
Division of Nature Preserves