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Prairie Check-Up

Posted by kevinwolz on August 1, 2010

Last week, I finally got to cross something off my list that I’ve been meaning to do for quite a bit longer than just this summer: participate in some sort of plant audit. A plant audit has the same basic idea as a tax audit; it’s a way to make sure everything at a restoration site is going as planned.

Generally, the first step is to document every species present at a site, bad and good. As plants are identified, information like location (via a grid system), water conditions, bloom period, and abundance is documented as well. Later, some sort of quality rating is assigned to each species. In the Chicago region, for example, these ratings are obtained from the book Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm…the bible of Chicago plant identification and ecology. This system essentially assigns each species a number from 0 to 10, with 0 meaning something like “this plant is invasive and aggressive” and 10 meaning something like “this plant will only be present at a stable, natural site.” As ecosystems vary across the country, so do the plant compositions. Therefore, different rating systems exist for different regions.

As all this data comes in, an impressive and encompassing picture of your site begins to form. The plant abundances and ratings can be used to compute the overall “quality” of the site (often termed a Plant Quality Index). Furthermore, the locations of the plants can be used to find disconnected populations of the same species, indicating that something may be wrong in the area in between.

The best information, however, comes with time…after several plant audits over several years. As habit restoration does its magic on the site, the plant community typically responds dramatically. Re-auditing a site shows how restoration is affecting a site, which is essential to knowing where to work next and to get further organizational support.

Over time, the quality index of the site would hopefully increase, along with the proportion of native, high-quality plants. The species abundances and locations can also be used to determine aggressive and recovering populations. Finally, of course, you can put all this data into a graph! I love graphs.

Conducting a full site audit takes lots of plant systematics knowledge and heaps of time throughout the growing season…neither of which I have. Nevertheless, I was able to spend a morning in Hidden Pond Prairie with site steward (all around inspiring person!), Roger. Our goal wasn’t to document everything we saw since we both know most of the common and abundant plants at the site off-hand. These plants can later be simple checked off old audit lists to assure that they are still present. Instead, we looked for anything that we couldn’t instantly identify, took out our arsenal of identification books, and determined what this new plant could be. We ended up finding two native plants that were previously unknown to be at the site or had moved in following restoration. We also identified several goldenrods and sedges…or at least thought we did, as these families are infamously hard to distinguish.

After all my involvement at Hidden Pond over the last few years, it felt great to connect with the prairie on this new level. I felt like a doctor and detective at the same time. If you have a prairie anywhere near you, now is the time to go check it out. The prairie is alive.

Awesome pictures courtesy of Roger Keller.

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2 Responses to “Prairie Check-Up”

  1. Alex said

    I don’t remember if I’ve told you this before but I’ve actually done one of these before. BG did a stream restoration project and I went out with the consulting engineer who came back and did one of these surveys to make sure that the plants they had put done were still there and noting what was happening at the site. It was pretty interesting, and I learned a lot despite my absolute lack of any plant knowledge.

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