Loss is restored one acre at a time
My inspiration for this article was conceived while recently watching one of the many hunting shows when it was too rainy and dreary, at least for me, to venture into one of my haunts. Greenbriar Hunting club was the feature of this particular episode and although history of this iconic duck club runs deep, what captivated me most is where this legacy of John M. Olin is located and the history thereof.
The Grand Prairie is a sub-region of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, commonly called the Delta, in Southeastern Arkansas. Located between the White River and the Arkansas River, this flat bottomland once encompassed an estimated 900,000 acres before it was settled in the 1800s. This was once a true prairie, which by definition means a type of habitat dominated by herbaceous plants and in this case primarily grasses. Due to soil texture and a shallow hard pan, water permeated these soils much slower than typical alluvial soils, which was more conducive for the propagation of grasses instead of typical hardwood timber. In fact, this land was much more suited for grazing rather than the cash crop of cotton and lumber. It was described as a truly inexhaustible pasture by Thomas Nuttall in 1819.
With an efficient water holding capacity and a variety of grass species this not only provided prime grazing for cattle but ideal habitat for migrating waterfowl. Many waterfowl species overwintered in this region, notably the mallard and the northern pintail. Waterfowl frequented not only the flooded savannas but also the hardwood forests where they fed upon acorns, seeds, and tubers of woody plants. In addition to an abundance of waterfowl, this region was home for other birds including northern harriers, prairie chickens, a variety of larks, and dickcissels. Mammals included the whitetail deer, the beaver and river otter, and the red wolf and the cougar. A multitude of plant species thrived here as well.
As crops sometimes fail, there were at times issues with enough native grasses to support cattle. Around the turn of the century, experimental rice production began. The first successful rice crop in the Grand Prairie was grown in 1904 near Lonoke. Soon rice production exploded, expanding acres in the tens of thousands. Harvest methods during this time were not very efficient and from 20 to 30 percent of the rice crop was left in the field. Along with other native grass seeds, this food source created a mecca for waterfowl. Many duck species moved from their traditional feeding areas to this new habitat. It was estimated that as many as three million birds once used this region to overwinter.
As farming practices became more efficient, the excess grain waste became less and less, which led to a reduced food source for overwintering waterfowl. In addition, more and more acres of this vast prairie were drained and tilled to maximize food production for the human race with wildlife suffering the consequences. Acres of diversity changed drastically. A few examples include pre-settlement acres of prairie grasslands at 400,000 acres with the current area remaining at only 430 acres. Bottomland hardwood forests totaled 438,000 acres. The current area remaining now is 200,000 acres. Savannas at one time totaled more than 30,000 acres; less than 700 acres now exist. We must realize though, that our population is much greater now than in the early 1900s. The demand for food production is much greater and it takes more land to produce an adequate protein supply. So whose fault is this loss of such a diverse landscape? The answer is simple: It’s our own fault. Human population worldwide is spiraling out of control. People have to eat and our wildlife habitat, like the Grand Prairie, suffers from our demand for nutrition. So when we complain about reduced duck numbers, maybe we should ask ourselves what we can do to reach a balance to provide enough food for the world but also protect and conserve fragile ecosystems that we exploit.
Given where we are, how do we even remotely begin to restore the Grand Prairie and other natural landscapes that have suffered from the hand of man? The answer is really quite simple. Habitat is lost one acre at a time. Habitat is restored the same way, one acre at a time. There is substantial interest by farmers, conservationists and sportsmen, to address this problem. Theoretically it makes sense to start restoration efforts in close proximity to existing landscapes that have been restored. By doing this the impact is of much greater benefit to the environment by having larger tracts than a multitude of smaller scattered tracts. Once a block is restored, we can then move on to another, then another. Will we ever have this valuable resource fully back like it once was? Of course not, but at least we could make strides to do the best we can. Maybe we won’t have three million mallards overwintering but if we helped increase the numbers from 200,000 to a half a million at least we would be headed in the right direction. I encourage you to study this vast ecosystem as it once was. Read about the soils, the grasses, and the fauna that comprised this region. Who knows, you may even come up with a novel way to help bring it back as it once was. I hope you do.
Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it the way we found it.