March 21, 2016 - The fight to stave off extinction of Louisiana’s remaining coastal prairie might be viewed as an uphill battle, at best.
But it’s a fight Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries botanist Chris Reid has taken on with passion. His work has been recognized by the Louisiana Wildlife Federation as an important contribution to Louisiana conservation. Chris has been selected to receive the 2015 Professional Conservationist of the Year Award for the 52nd Governor’s State Conservation Awards program, set for April 2 in Baton Rouge.
Prior to the late 1800s, coastal prairie, found extensively in southwest Louisiana, amounted to approximately 2.5 million acres. This once-expansive native grassland is an extension of tall-grass prairies from the eastern Great Plains.
Since that time, almost all Louisiana coastal prairie land has been plowed and converted to agriculture. The estimated amount of coastal prairie remaining on the landscape today is 5,000-6,000 acres, nearly all of which is found on private lands.
Despite this drastic reduction in acreage, Reid is convinced something substantial can still be done to save Louisiana’s coastal prairie.
Most remaining Louisiana coastal prairie is found near Lake Charles, where prairie remnants are primarily used for cattle grazing. This land use may well have prevented the complete loss of this habitat in the state.
These prairie rangelands have never been plowed but are degraded. Some of the main prairie grasses have apparently been overgrazed by cattle. Also, invasion of prairies by trees and shrubs due to lack of adequate prescribed burning is a problem.
“We went out to a prairie remnant on a ranch in southwest Louisiana and it was about the second or third one that I had gone to,’’ said Reid, part of the LDWF’s Natural Heritage Program. “And that’s when the light went off. It dawned on us that there was still a chance to do something really meaningful to benefit prairie conservation.’’
Since that revelation in 2012, Reid has worked tirelessly to restore coastal prairie. He has cultivated relationships with private landowners in southwest Louisiana to conserve prairies found on their property. Chris has had great success in restoring coastal prairie through several methods, but primarily through prescribed burning, a process of planning and applying fire to a predetermined area to produce desired to benefit prairie plants and control invading woody plants.
“Chris’s work to enhance the remnant prairie habitats is bringing visibility to a valuable effort,’’ said Randy Myers, LDWF assistant secretary for the Office of Wildlife.
Reid’s work with private landowners in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, all of whom are cattle ranchers, has been key in working to restore coastal prairie. Reid has obtained funding through the State Wildlife Grants (SWG) Program, which is the primary funding source for the conservation of nongame species and their habitats. These funds have been used to conduct both research and stewardship activities, including chemical brush control and prescribed burning. Funding from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Gulf of Mexico Program has also been secured to support this work through the next few several years.
Reid said the landowners with whom he’s partnered have already seen the numerous benefits of restoring this rare and unique native grassland.
“The landowners are interested for several reasons,’’ Reid said. “They are genuinely sympathetic to prairie conservation and care about the land. The practices we’ve employed improve the condition of the range, in addition to benefiting grassland plants and wildlife. Prescribed burning and brush control improves forage quantity and quality. The regrowth of grasses following prescribed burning provides excellent forage quality for cattle.’’
Since winter 2014, Reid’s coastal prairie SWG project accomplished prescribed burning on more than 2,000 acres, an impressive total considering the very limited remaining acreage of coastal prairie in the state.
“This project was only possible through the dedication of Chris and the support of Louisiana private landowners,’’ said Amity Bass, a biologist director for LDWF.
Coastal prairie also serves as a refuge for pollinators, primarily native bees, butterflies, and other insects.
“Pollinator conservation is an important issue on today’s landscape,’’ Reid said. “Prairie provides very high plant diversity and therefore abundant nectar and pollen resources for pollinators to sustain pollinator populations, as well as nesting habitat.’’
Reid said he’s driven to conserve Louisiana’s coastal prairie because it is a rich part of the natural heritage of Louisiana.
“The coastal prairie is an ancient grassland, and is part of our natural heritage just as historical buildings, cemeteries, battlefields, and American Indian sites are part of our cultural heritage,’’ Reid said. “So when we enhance these remnants, we’re really bringing out the true nature of Louisiana. It’s a reminder of what the real Louisiana is like. It really is magical, if given the opportunity to express itself.’’