Biology FeaturesEnvironmental Science
Native Prairie Areas
Bethel College manages two native prairie tracts of land. The 80-acre Sand Prairie Natural History Preserve comprises a rare sand prairie ecosystem. It is located just a few miles west of campus. The 80-acre Broadie Prairie Preserve in Sumner County, an hour south and east, is in Kansas’ Flint Hills, the largest expanse of original tallgrass prairie left on the continent. Both areas are preserved for education and appreciation and provide numerous and varied opportunities for student research on prairie ecology.
Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Woodland Restoration Studies
The tallgrass prairie is considered one of North America’s most characteristic yet most threatened ecosystems. It is estimated that less than 5 percent of the original extent of the pre-European settlement tallgrass prairie remains intact. Similarly, sparse oak woodlands (such as savannas) throughout the Great Plains have been particularly imperiled and degraded. The restoration of indigenous plant communities, while serving some important conservation goals, also provides excellent opportunities to test various approaches for the regeneration of ecosystems that are both diverse and stable.
From 2006-08, Bethel’s biology department, led by Jon Piper, received a total of $46,802 in grants from the Kingsbury Family Foundation of Virginia to fund the restoration and initial research of two indigenous ecosystem types in Kansas: oak woodland and tallgrass prairie. In addition to identifying and protecting endangered habitats, restoration of original ecosystems is the most important conservation work of the 21st century and may be the only hope for saving many endangered prairie species. This pair of companion studies is designed to test and develop practical methodologies for quickly and successfully re-creating habitat critical for many native plants and animals.
Both studies were established in spring 2007 immediately east of campus on a site that had been under cultivation for many decades. One study is comparing natural successional processes with an “assisted” succession in plots containing young bur oak trees. The hypothesis is that the presence of these oak saplings will increase the density and diversity of woody plant colonists relative to un-manipulated control plots. A second study is an experiment examining the role of plant diversity in promoting the successful establishment of tallgrass prairie.
Because ecological restoration takes place on multi-year time scales, these studies will be monitored for several growing seasons following establishment. Several Bethel students have been working on every phase of the project, including monitoring changes in the plant, bird and small mammal communities with time. Along the way, the research will examine the effects of different initial conditions on the eventual success of restoring land to a condition that resembles the original, native state. The findings from these long-term experiments should be applicable in many regions across the Great Plains.
Anyone wishing to visit or conduct non-obtrusive research at these sites should contact Jon K. Piper, Bethel College biology department), for site directions.