The city of Manhattan lays snuggled within miles of amber grass and rolling hills. Just south of the city, sprawls of North American tallgrass prairie are reserved for scientific research — this land is called the Konza Prairie Biological Station, and though it attracts hikers and photographers, it exists to provide a base for conducting studies on tallgrass prairie ecology.
The benefits of having this massive, outdoor laboratory attract scientists from all over the world.
John Blair, professor of biology at Kansas State and the director of the Konza, said the it was initially set up because there weren’t any other research sites that focused on North American tallgrass prairies.
“Even though tallgrass prairies covered a large portion of the continental United States when North America was still being explored by European explorers — that’s changed tremendously,” Blair said. “There’s less than four percent of tallgrass prairie left in the U.S. right now. So, for one thing, for people that are interested in the history of tallgrass prairies and how those ecosystems function, we’re in the best location in the world to study those ecosystems.”
K-State students can get involved in research on the Konza. Victoria Gaa, freshman in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology, began working at the Konza in August 2018. She works with the Long Term Ecological Research program as a research technician to collect data.
“We’re looking at the effects of climate, burning and grazing on the prairie,” she said. “We do different things at different times of the year. Last semester, we were clipping grass samples and taking height and density measurements.”
The Konza occupies more than 3,400 hectares of land and is used for a variety of different types of research, whether it studying the effects of burning or grazing on grasslands.
Along I-70, patches of land are visible where burning is or has taken place. Burning on the Konza has been happening for around 40 years, Blair said, and it’s essential to maintaining the land. Research on burning can help determine what timeframes are best to follow when doing it.
“If you don’t burn at all, [you would] convert these prairies to woodlands,” Blair said. “Within a couple of decades, you can get closed canopy forests. The grassland species that were there are gone. If you burn every four years, you still have a problem with shrub invasion, specifically … the seeds will establish, they’ll start to grow and when you burn them, you just kill the [top of] the plants but not the root system. They reproduce asexually so they grow like an island and if you burn every four years, those islands actually grow faster than if you didn’t burn at all.”
Blair said burning at least every three years is best to maintain the prairie, and those burns takes a lot of hard work from a lot of different people.
“This year we burned over 4,200 acres,” Blair said. “We did that with mostly volunteers, and we have a small staff that oversees burning. Collectively it took over 800 hours. We did that in 30 days and we did it without incident, without accident, without wildfire … to keep these experimental treatments going we have to be very precise about where we burn, when we burn — it’s a pretty big undertaking. ”
Konza researchers also study how to best preserve grasslands.
“There’s research on restoration — understanding how better to build diverse communities where they’ve been degraded,” Blair said. “There’s research on best practices for managing grasslands for multiple purposes. A lot of the Flint Hills grasslands are managed for cattle grazing, and we’re working on testing ideas about ranching practices that are both profitable for ranchers but can also be a little better for promoting biodiversity.”
Blair said there is an interest in woody plant invasion of prairies. This phenomenon threatens grasslands all around the world and the animals who live in them, he said.
Though much of tall grass prairie has been destroyed in the U.S., Gaa said she thinks it’s important to research and determine the effects of certain things on the prairie in order to restore and preserve the land.
“I think it’s important to learn how this habitat works,” Gaa said. “That way, we can conserve it better.”