Volunteers restore prairie in “the Prairie State”

Maya Fridman, Rachel Cha, Features Editor, Staff Writer

A bonfire, started with just newspaper and dead twigs, roars within an hour and the work begins. On a typical day at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, some volunteers cut woody invasive species as others grab the scraps of wood to toss into the fire. Halfway through the workday, all the volunteers mingle by the bonfire while snacking on peanut butter sandwiches, cookies and tangerines. 

Lisa Musgrave, assistant steward at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, said in a phone interview that Somme Prairie is a very precious area because it has some of the highest quality original prairie left in Northern Illinois, which means it holds a variety of rare plant species. 

“There’s less than [one hundredth] of a percent of the original prairie in [Illinois] left,” said Musgrave. “It’s all gone. So we’re desperately looking for places … to turn them into prairie.”

When freshman Evan Mogilner volunteered at Somme Prairie, he learned to identify and take out buckthorn, a woody invasive species.

“[Invasive species are] not supposed to be there, so they end up disrupting the ecosystem,” said Mogilner. “They take the place of other trees and plants that are supposed to be there.”

Laurel Ross, steward at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, said in a phone interview that invasive woody species were brought overseas from Europe and Asia, so they are not native to Illinois’ land. They were planted at Somme Prairie and continued to grow because, without fire, there was no management of the land.

Laura Jackson, professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center in Iowa, said in a phone interview that the absence of fire allows trees to grow and increase in density, instead of being scattered, contributing to the loss of prairies. Forests replace the prairies, so many plant species that live in prairies are gone or difficult to find.

Ross said the woody species created shade, which killed the native prairie species. By cutting down and burning the invasive species, volunteers are reversing the destruction at Somme Prairie.

“Removing those trees is bringing in the sunlight that will allow the flowers and grass, butterflies, birds and the rest of the really precious natural prairie to be ready to come back,” Ross said.

Mogilner said invasive species cause animals to start dying off because they do not have homes or the food they need. One of the best things volunteers can do is cut down the invasive plants and trees.

Besides cutting woody invasive species in the winter, the main activity for volunteers in summer and early fall is collecting seeds from native plants. The seeds are then planted in late fall so they work their way into the soil and sprout during winter.

 Ross said, “[The] vision for this year is [to] continue with a vigilant care of the prairie and get as much seed as we can into the areas where we had the trees removed [from], so that [it] will become a recovery site.”

According to Musgrave, the restoration process at Somme Prairie is a bit of an experiment because trees are being cut down over a large area. Volunteers have carried out intermediate stages when buckthorn was taken out and prairie seeds were planted among larger trees. This is more of an extreme project because a larger area is being completely cleared of trees. 

The restoration goals for Somme Prairie include maintaining plant diversity and having native animal species return, Musgrave said. Grassland birds were native to the land until tall trees started to grow, and the birds became more vulnerable to predators.

“If we make a large open grassland, then the grassland birds, we’re hoping, will start to use it for nesting,” Musgrave said.

Ross said, since she started volunteering in the ’90s, every year she sees a little more progress towards the goal of a rich and healthy habitat.

“We’ve had many, many, many successes,” said Ross. “So, it’s not like we started at one point and then we’re [going to] be done at a certain point. All along the way, many wonderful [species] are coming back.”

Musgrave said it is satisfying to see native plants being brought back to life through the efforts of restoring the prairie.

“You see the results and you learn what ‘beautiful’ looks like out in nature,” Musgrave said.