Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine previous issue link Image Eye on Kansas Magazine previous story link  Image Eye on Kansas Magazine table of contents  link Image Eye on Kansas Magazine next story link Image Eye on Kansas Magazine next issue link  Image


Tallgrass Prairie

Big Bluestem Prairie grass.By Alan Hynek
Fish and Wildlife Biologist
DES, Conservation Division
Fort Riley

As Lewis and Clark made their way up the Missouri River in 1804, they came upon an unexpected discovery.  In the Northeast corner of Kansas they took a left turn up a smaller, yet mighty river later to be named the Kaw. What they did not anticipate was the end of the deciduous forest and the beginning of the tallgrass prairie. 

 

Military tank nearly hidden by Prairie grasses.
Fort Riley Soldiers utilize the tallgrass prairie for training. Several measures are taken to preserve the prairie and its wildlife inhabitants. Photo by April Blackmon.
 

Bison covered in snow.They had never seen or heard of a prairie like this before. The grasses in the fall of the year were sometimes head-high to a person. Not only were the prairie plants strange, but the wildlife as well. Prairie animals like bison and prairie dogs were first encountered on their brief stint up the Kaw River. To the explorers, it was almost like entering a new world. 

Soldiers from Fort Riley training on the Prairie.
Photo by Amanda Stairrett of Fort Riley PAO of Infantrymen training.
 

Today, less than 5 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains unbroken and in good condition. It is considered by many to be the most endangered ecosystem in North America. Most of the remaining acres of tallgrass prairie are in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma, simply because the ground was too rocky and the soil to shallow to be useful for crop production. To the east of Fort Riley, most of the remaining tallgrass prairie is found in small hay meadows. States like Missouri have only a few fragments of tallgrass prairie remaining. 

Henslow's sparrowFort Riley is located on the northern edge of the Flints Hills. You can see the characteristic rolling hills on the southern and eastern parts of the installation. The western part of Fort Riley begins the subtle transition to the Smoky Hills region of Kansas.  Across the installation, a host of indigenous wildlife such as greater prairie chicken, Henslow's sparrow and elk can be found, even as they are increasingly rare or absent elsewhere. elkLesser known species like prairie mole crickets and the regal fritillary butterfly are also present on Fort Riley, which are indicative of the quality of habitat found on the installation.

Although this area receives enough rainfall to produce an abundance of trees, the occasional wildfire keeps the forested areas confined to narrow belts along major streams.  There was nothing to stop the fires except for the large rivers and rainfall. Today, landowners mimic the natural fires by setting prescribed burns in the spring of the year.  These fires are critical to keeping the prairies in good condition. 

burning of the Praire, Flint Hills
Prairie fires are common. To help minimize the impact on surrounding communities, Fort Riley schedules a series of controlled burns in the spring. Photo by April Blackmon
 

Many factors have shaped the landscape of the Flint Hills from drought, flood, fire, extreme heat and cold. grassland floraThe many plants and wildlife that inhabit the tallgrass prairie have adapted to life out here on the plains. We see influence from the deserts of the southwest, the deciduous forest to the east and prairie to the north. In essence, it is where east meets west and north meets south.Therein lies the subtle beauty of the Flint Hills of Kansas.

Additional Photo Credits:

Image 1) Big Blue Stem photo by Tulora Roeckers.

Image 3) Buffalo in snow contributed by April Blackmon.

Image 5) The Henslow sparrow population at Fort Riley has helped keep it off the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's endangered species list. Conservation Division photo.

Image 6) Kansas Elk contributed by April Blackmon.

Image 8) Wild flowers grow abundant on the prairie.  Photo contributed by April Blackmon

 

Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Last Updated April 6, 2009
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image
Eye on Kansas Magazine Blank Image