Techniques for Restoring Native Plant Communities in Upland and Wetland Prairies in the Midwest and West Coast Regions of North America

Prairies are unique from other biomes, in that they are open habitats comprised mainly of herbaceous plants with only a scattering of trees. One of the important ecological attributes of prairies is their high plant species richness. Midwest and West Coast prairies exhibit major differences in climate, vegetation types, disturbance regimes (e.g., fire and grazing), and soils, which provide an important context for restoration activities. Most prairies in the Midwest and West Coast regions have been reduced to less than 1-2 percent of their former size. The remaining remnant prairies are generally small in comparison to historic sizes, exist in isolation and are degraded due to invasion of introduced species and disruption of ecological processes such as fire. Successful ecological restoration of land that was originally prairie requires accomplishing certain objectives: 1) reducing the abundance of non-native species and woody vegetation, 2) reducing the weed seed bank, 3) improving the competitive environment for natives, 4) successful planting of native species, and 5) successful post-seeding management.

After reviewing the scientific literature on prairie restoration in the Midwest and the West Coast regions of the United States, I suggest various restoration techniques for addressing the five objectives, including: cultivation, herbicides, flaming/infrared burning, solarization, carbon addition/nutrient immobilization, mycorrhizal inoculation and implementing various seeding methods and seed mixes. Short and long-term management techniques include hand weeding, herbicides, mowing, grazing and prescribed burning. One of the essential lessons learned by restoration ecologists and practitioners trying to restore native prairie, is that there is not one technique or combination of techniques that work for all restoration sites, i.e., there is no magic bullet. Restoration techniques will need to be site specific and may depend on many things including past disturbance events, assemblage of plants, including non-natives and natives, and site conditions such as soils, topography, hydrology, and climate.