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Lousiana's Cajun Prairie: An Endangered Ecosystem

Lousiana's Cajun Prairie: An Endangered Ecosystem

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Published by Jaime Gonzalez
Article by Fred Kimmel about Louisiana's imperiled Cajun Prairie.
Article by Fred Kimmel about Louisiana's imperiled Cajun Prairie.

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Published by: Jaime Gonzalez on Apr 22, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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and Prairie Ronde, serving as a testa-ment to the landscape that greeted thefirst settlers.The Cajun Prairie was characterized by relatively flat terrain that was tree-less except for forested areas alongstreams and rivers known as “galleryforests.” Trees were limited to galleryforests because the soils beyond thewaterways consisted of heavy clay, notfavorable for tree development.Another important factor that limitedtree growth on the prairies was the fre-quent fires ignited by lightning andnative people.Although relatively flat, the CajunPrairie is not without interesting geo-logical features. Unique to the CajunPrairie are mounds of well-drained soil3 to 7 feet high and 30-50 feet in diame-ter known as “pimple mounds.”Pimple mounds occur only on prairiesoils called alphasols, but their origin is
magine the scene described bySamuel Lockett around 1870, “theseprairies are all vast, treeless expans-es, covered with a luxuriant growth of grass.” It may come as a surprise thatthe scene described was not inOklahoma or Kansas, but in southwestLouisiana. Until about 150 years ago,this prairie covered nearly 2.5 millionacres in Louisiana and 6.5 million acresin coastal Texas. Mr. Lockett went on tosay, “Altogether I look upon the prairieregion as naturally the loveliest part of Louisiana.” The prairie of Louisiana isknown as the Gulf Coastal Prairie, orinformally, as the Cajun Prairie. InLouisiana, the Cajun Prairie extendedfrom the Sabine River to the west, theAtchafalaya bottomlands to the east,the pine woodland to the north and thecoastal marshes to the south. The mapof this region is dotted with names likePrairie de Femmes, Prairie Laure n t ,
sCajun Prairie:
An Endangered Ecosystem
Louisiana Conservationist
Photo by John Pitre Natural Resources Conservation Service 
Prairie phlox flower
(Plox pilosa) 
Story by
F r e d 
Summer 2008
not known. There are also low
areas ordepressions forming natural wetlandsthroughout the prairie.Unfortunately, many of us are con-ditioned to view a landscape withouttrees as somehow lacking. However,when it comes to the Cajun Prairie,nothing could be further from thetruth. Over 500 species of plants havebeen identified in the Cajun Prairie.The dominant vegetation of theprairies are grasses such as switch-grass, little bluestem, big bluestemand Indian grass. Common grasses inCajun Prairie that don’t occur in othertallgrass prairies include brownseedpaspalum, Gulf Coast muhly, andslender bluestem. Among the grassesgrow a diverse array of wildflowerssuch as prairie coneflower, blazings t a r, compass plant and butterflyweed.The wildlife of the Cajun Prairiereflects its diverse vegetation. Bison,red wolves, whooping cranes andprairie chickens were once found onthe prairies of Louisiana. Thesespecies are now gone, but the arearemains home to a wide variety ofgrassland birds, waterfowl and shore-birds. In addition, over 100 species ofbutterflies and skippers and 86species of dragonflies have beenfound in the Cajun Prairie.The prairie landscape described bySamuel Lockett can no longer befound in Louisiana. Of the 2.5 millionacres of historic Cajun Prairie, onlyless than 1,000, in its natural condi-tion, can be found today. The CajunPrairie was settled during the late1800s and was gradually converted topasture and agriculture uses. Today,the few remaining intact patches arefound along railroad rights-of-waysand other isolated areas that were notplowed. The Gulf Coastal Prairieecosystem is considered one of themost imperiled ecosystems not only inLouisiana, but globally as well.For years, a few dedicated conserva-tionists have labored in relativeobscurity to preserve remnants of theCajun Prairie. There have also beene fforts to collect seed or sod fromprairie remnants and use it to reestab-lish prairie land. However, becauseadequate seed was lacking andrestoration was so labor intensive,efforts of large scale prairie restora-tion have not been attempted inLouisiana, but, that is changing.One of the biggest obstacles toprairie restoration efforts has been thelack of suitable seed. Seeds of prairiespecies are available from growers inthe midwestern U.S. and great plainsregion. However, experience hasshown that plants grown from theseseed sources do not persist in southLouisiana. Plants from the Midwestand Great Plains can not adapt to theh u m i d i t y, rainfall, growing season,and soils found in southernLouisiana. To address this, severalgroups interested in prairie and grass-land restoration formed the LouisianaNative Plant Initiative (LNPI). LNPIvolunteers and partners collect seedsfrom prairie plants on remainingtracts and then grow the seeds in anursery setting. When enough seed isgrown, the seed will be released tocommercial growers to produceLouisiana adapted seed for the com-mercial market.Another obstaclefacing prairierestoration efforts inLouisiana is the needfor specialized plant-ing equipment.Many of the prairiegrasses have veryfluffy seeds that can-not be eff e c t i v e l yplanted with con-ventional seed drills.While broadcastseeders have beene ffective, successrequires extensiveseedbed preparationthat is often cost pro-
Askipper butterfly
(Thymelicus sylvestris) 
resting on a rattlesnakeflower
(Brazoria truncata).
Louisiana Conservationist
Kansas blazingstar
(Liatris pycnostachya) 
onprairie remnant.
hibitive. To complicate matters, other
native seeds are hard, but very smalland should be planted at low seedingrates. To address this need, three drillscapable of simultaneously plantingfluffy seed and small hard seed at verylow rates were purchased and are avail-able for rental by land managers inLouisiana.While prairie restoration and grass-land revegetation methods are well-established in much of the nation, theyare relatively new in Louisiana. As aconsequence, most of the naturalresource professionals that landownerstraditionally seek for guidance andassistance are unfamiliar with grasslandrestoration. The A c a d i a n aGrassland RestorationInitiative (AGRI) is ap roject now in devel-opment that will pro-vide Louisiana’s natu-ral re s o u rce pro f e s-sionals training andexperience in prairiea n dgrassland plant-ing and management.In addition the AGRIwill provide “turn-key” grassland andprairieplanting serv-ices to landowners.The re s t o r a t i o np ro g ress will be fornaught unless landown-ers are interested andwilling to dedicate portions of their land tograssland and prairie. While a few whoa p p reciate the intrinsic value of the CajunPrairie will be willing and financially ableto do so, many more will re q u i re financialincentives. Fortunately, there are severalp rograms that off er cost-share assistancefor prairie and grassland restoration.There are also a couple of programsthat offer rental payments in additionto cost-share payments. Most notablyis the newly approved Gulf CoastPrairies SAFE Project. SAFE, StateAcres for Wildlife Enhancement, ispart of the USDAConservation ReserveProgram (CRP). The Gulf Coast PrairieSAFE Project will target 3,500 acres inportions of southwest Louisiana forrestoration of prairie vegetation andassociated wetlands. In addition, asimilar project targeting 28,000 acres isunder consideration.While it would be ideal to restore thenatural plant diversity of the CajunPrairie, for now, restoration efforts inLouisiana will have to take a pragmatica p p roach. Locally adapted nativeprairie seed sources are not yet avail-able. There f o re, these early prairierestoration efforts in Louisiana will uti-lize only the few species of plants thatare commercially available, thus moreclosely resembling a grassland planting
Northern bobwhitequails
(Colinus virginianus) 
areone of the manyspecies that liveon the CajunPrairie.
Photo by Larry Allain USGS National Wetlands Resource Center 

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