The Dutro-Ernst Prairie Project

Photo by: Jake Gamble

The Dutro-Ernst property is one that we here at Red-tail have an amazing vision for. While limitless potential lies within the forested sections of this property, a different, exciting, and unique challenge presents itself on the eastern half of the land; a native Indiana prairie. Prairies have long since been a symbol of the Midwest and part of Indiana’s natural heritage. In fact, 15% of Indiana’s total land was historically native prairies! As protectors and restorers of Indiana’s natural areas, Red-tail has decided to take on the task of giving this abandoned area a lesson in history by converting it to a native prairie. So, what exactly does this mean? What does this process look like? Let’s find out.

Things may begin to look a bit strange in the prairie part of the property in the coming years, but not to worry! It is all part of our plan. Due to its historical usage, this area will need to go through a series of preliminary burns, disking, and mows. Burns in this case are both chemical and physical in nature. Often, chemical applications onto the land harbor quite an intense stigma, however the application of chemicals (in our case glyphosate) can be invaluable in clearing large sections of invasive flora. Glyphosate does not persist in the soil and does not stop seeds from emerging. When used responsibly, chemical applications can be a powerful tool in restoring and managing native lands. This process could take over a year to get the property ready to be seeded, and this is the step we are at now. Over the coming years you may notice our staff mowing or even burning this area to control invasive species. This may seem harsh, but the flora that has established itself over the years of being ignored was largely invasive, which makes for a very poor-quality area and would prevent our native plants from taking root. Native flora is essential to creating a healthy ecosystem that promotes animal diversity, varied niche space, and overall habitat quality. Simply put, the ends justify the means in this case.

After the invasive species have been eradicated as much as possible, we will begin the next step towards our glorious goal, seeding! If all goes according to plan, our native seeds should germinate, take root, and establish themselves as the rightful owners of the land. Unfortunately, this process can take several growing seasons to complete. However, that does not mean there won’t be anything to observe in the mean time! Certain plants become established before others, so early prairie development can result in the land being covered in blankets of yellow from the black-eyed susans, pockets of wispy native grasses, and patches of pink and orange rising from the milkweed. Watching a native prairie grow and establish year after year can truly be a natural wonder.

The final process in all of this is a step where Red-tail arguably has the most important role, maintenance! After establishment, perhaps the most important factor in having a beautiful native prairie is having a management plan unique to the needs of the area. Most commonly, this means burning the land on a 3 to 5 year basis. Disturbance is crucial to native prairies and without it, trees and invasive plants begin to encroach on the land. The native prairie plants of Indiana have evolved with frequent natural fires and other disturbances, so believe it or not, burning the area actually promotes a healthy prairie ecosystem!

When it is all said and done, this area will be a beautiful gem in our community. Somewhere to walk your dog, take family picnics, or just enjoy the outdoors. However, it all starts and ends with disturbances of all varieties. So, don’t be alarmed if you see us mowing, burning, or disking the land, it is all part of our plan. And possibly most importantly, the first letter of prairie is a ‘P’ and that stands for “patience.”