Native plants are essential for maintaining the unique and important biodiversity of the northern Great Plains. However, invasive species have wreaked havoc on what were once pristine grasslands in South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska.

The federal government has noticed this problem and begun efforts to restore native grasses and wildflowers in several national parks in the northern Great Plains. To facilitate these efforts, Laura Perkins, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management at South Dakota State University, is working with the National Park Service on a three-year, $900,000 project.

Perkins and her research team will rely on ongoing federally funded research efforts and established capacity through SDSU’s Native Plant Initiative, a Perkins-led project that began in 2019.

Historically, the northern Great Plains had an abundance of native grasses and wildflowers. These have provided the basis for insects, pollinators, birds and other wildlife. When European settlers moved into the area during the 19th century, invasive plants began to grow and spread. While some efforts were made to remove invasive plants, all grasslands, wetlands and forests in the area were eventually significantly affected. Along with historic drought conditions, scientists have blamed the clearing of deep-rooted native grasses as one of the underlying causes of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s — one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in modern U.S. history.

Today, efforts are focused on restoring native species.

“There’s a lot of cultural heritage with these plants that were historically plentiful and then disappeared,” Perkins said. “Many of them are unique species that are only found here in our region. We should embrace and celebrate them.”

In response, SDSU began a research program – the Native Plant Initiative – to provide research and educational opportunities for students interested in the conservation and restoration of native plant species. The program also encourages the use of local plants by small family farmers as alternative crops.

“There are so few grasslands left that we need to maximize native plant biodiversity in every area possible,” Perkins said. “This new reality requires a more comprehensive understanding of native plant restoration and production than currently exists for native plants of the northern Great Plains.”

National parks, monuments and memorials

In South Dakota, the National Park Service maintains the following national parks, monuments, and monuments: Badlands, Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, and Mount Rushmore. Each of these places was once home to native grasses and wildflowers, but now includes many invasive species.

The research team’s project will determine the efforts needed to restore native species for each specific location.

For example, the surface of Joel Cave includes 1,274 acres of open grasslands and pine forests in southwestern South Dakota. The monument was home to a rich variety of native grasses and wildflowers. However, in 2000, a wildfire swept through more than 80,000 acres surrounding Jewel Cave. In the following years, non-native species, such as Canada thistle and leafwort, began to multiply and spread.

While National Park Service staff will deploy pest management strategies to try to remove invasive species, Perkins and her research team will work to restore native grasses and wildflowers at Jewel Cave.

“We will harvest the seeds, study how the seeds germinate, and then find the best way to store them,” Perkins said. “We will give those seeds to farmers so we can get more of those seeds, and then we will put them in gardens for restoration.”

The same efforts will be made at national parks, monuments and memorials in North Dakota, Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.

“All of this work is directed toward better restoration in the parks and this information will help improve all of our natural areas,” Perkins said.

After spending several field seasons evaluating seeds and developing growing seed production protocols, the National Park Service will have the information needed to restore 60 native species for parks, monuments, and memorials in the northern Great Plains.

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