The South Puget Sound Prairies

A Unique and Imperiled Landscape

People who care about the South Puget Sound prairies are looking to the Chehalis for all kinds of lessons in land management. “Grasslands and fresh water, by far, are the two most imperiled landscapes in the world,” said Carrie Marschner, The Nature Conservancy’s Mima Prairie Steward.

In Washington, “we have less than 3 percent of our original prairies remaining and only about half of those are in good condition – so it’s a pretty imperiled landscape.”

“If you start with the geology of the area, one of the coolest things about this region is the mounded landscape. There are 3 to 15 foot high mounds spread very regularly across the prairie. It’s really quite strange and it’s a globally unusual geographic feature.”

The South Sound is also home to a suite of rare, threatened and endangered species that live on the prairies, and, in many cases, no where else.

Natives to the region, among others, are Golden Paintbrush; Streak Horned Lark and Vesper Sparrow; the Mazama Pocket Gopher and four butterflies that are listed, or candidates for listing, as rare, threatened or endangered: Taylor’s Checkerspot, Puget Blue, Mardon Skipper and Valley Silver Spot. These and other grassland species all over the U.S are rapidly disappearing, said Marschner, “so any species that is dependent on prairies is rare and worth preserving.”

For the past fourteen years, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Thurston County, the U.S. Army base at Fort Lewis, and local land trusts and volunteers have been working together to “restore the prairies that remain and help them return to a more native state,” said Marschner.

Thus far, the cooperative work has won protection for a variety of natural areas: the 1,000-acre Glacial Heritage Preserve, the cornerstone of the South Sound prairies; Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, a 637-acre site that protects an extraordinary, almost otherworldly landscape of regularly mounded prairie. It is perhaps best imagined as the most difficult mogul course in the world, blanketed in tall grasses and wildflowers, and spun 180 degrees to a horizontal plane. Scatter Creek Wildlife Area protects lands for fishing and hunting. Wolf Haven is a re-location site for the endangered Mazama Pocket Gopher. And the Black River Preserve is the home of the Conservancy’s native plant nursery. Meanwhile, the Army Compatible Use Buffer program preserves nearly 7,000 acres of prairie lands in the vicinity of Fort Lewis, which act as a safety net for recovering populations of threatened species.

All of the groups and agencies involved in prairie restoration are applying the lessons learned from the Upper Chehalis and other prairie peoples. They are learning that humans can have a beneficial relationship with the land. They are using fire as the Chehalis did. They are controlling invasive species; collecting and propagating seeds; observing the life-cycles of plants and pollinators; and re-introducing endangered native plants to the prairie.

Volunteerism Takes Root

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