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Fires, grazing help biodiversity of tallgrass prairie

"There's a lot of research that indicates that biodiversity influences the health and functioning of the ecosystem."

By Staci Hauschild



Studying the effects of various fire and grazing regimes helps determine the biodiversity of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

Previously, research has focused on how burning and grazing practices affect the productivity of grasses and animals, said David Hartnett, professor of biology at Kansas State University, and director of Konza Prairie Biological Station. While Konza researchers use burning and grazing to study the tallgrass prairie, they also study the effect fire and grazing have on the diversity of vegetation, including the diversity of species and the genetic varieties maintained in the grassland system.

"It's important because there's a lot of research that indicates that biodiversity influences the health and functioning of the ecosystem," Hartnett said. "If you alter the diversity from a natural ecosystem that characteristically contains 36 to 40 species in a small area and by the way you manage it reduce that diversity down to six or eight species, there could be some significant consequences in terms of the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem."

Hartnett said maintaining biodiversity within ecosystems is also important because the species provide natural resources for humans, including food, fibers and pharmaceuticals.

After several decades of studying different burning and grazing regimes, Hartnett said there is evidence that indicates that both fire and gazing interact very closely to regulate the biodiversity of the tallgrass prairie.

"If you increase the frequency of burning on the prairie, you decrease plant diversity," he said. "However, if you burn it every year and graze it at moderate intensities at the same time, you completely reverse the effect. An annually burned prairie that's grazed will maintain the same level of biodiversity as a prairie that's not grazed and burned every four or six years."

June 2002