Horses mimicking bison on BRIT’s restored patch of prairie

Posted Sunday, Nov. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The bison are long gone, but a dozen quarter horses are mimicking their impact on the landscape at a restored patch of prairie in the heart of the city’s Cultural District.

Just like the buffalo, deer, pronghorns and even their ancient ancestors, the horses are adding to the health of the restored prairie at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. They’re just doing it while reflected in towering glass walls as traffic whizzes by on University Boulevard.

“The way that this works, you’ve got the horses eating grass and compacting tall grasses. Right now the tall grasses are shading the seeds underneath so they can’t germinate. As the horses eat them down, the sunlight comes through and the seeds germinate,” said Karen Hall, an applied ecologist at BRIT.

“To add to that, they are eating the tops of the seedy grasses and of course pooping it out. They then stomp it into the ground. Next spring it will be fantastic to see it all come up,” she said, noting that the loaned horses will only stay on the reborn prairie for a month or so or until about 50 percent of the once-knee deep grasses have been eaten.

The hooved ecological workout is all part of the “sense of place” that the BRIT is working to create on the two-acre native prairie it is nurturing at its facility tucked between the Will Rogers complex and the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens.

“It’s part of BRIT’s mission of conservation and sustainability to help people in Fort Worth understand what was here first and how we can get back there because that prairie system that was in place was the healthiest system of them all,” Hall said.

Called the Fort Worth prairie, it once encompassed most of Tarrant County. It’s a variant of the once-vast tall-grass prairie that stretched through the central part of America, but with the addition of some plants unique to Texas.

“It consists of grasses like big bluestem, which is very tall, little bluestem which is a beautiful shade of blue-stemmed grass that turns orange in the fall. You also see switch grass, buffalo grass and lots of flowering plants,” Hall said.

The BRIT site was part of the Trinity River flood plain before the river was channeled, and two-and-a-half years ago former TCU professor Tony Burgess, a botanist and ecology expert, discovered a few similar river’s edge prairie systems and was convinced they could be replicated.

“This prairie had been under a huge building and a parking lot and the soil was very compacted. Tony decided it was possible to re-create it with an alluvial soil. We scraped 4 inches of soil from a local ranch and then seeded with native grasses,” Hall said.

Now, even in the midst of a ferocious drought, between 100 and 150 plant species are growing on the “donor soil” at the little prairie, she said.

“We’ve been in the drought for three years and that’s the best news, because the plants have thrived during that period. For us, that’s indicative of why natives are the way to go,” Hall said.

“I think everyone was surprised how fast it emerged. It speaks to the resiliency of systems. Systems bounce back if you bring the conditions back,” she said.

A ‘delicate dance’

There’s another key factor in the prairie life cycle, but it’s a little more problematic to introduce in the middle of the city than horses: fire.

“We wanted to burn but that will be complicated. We hope we can do it sometime in the future,” said Sy Sohmer, president and director of the research and learning center which maintains a botanical herbarium with more than 1 million plant specimens.

“There hasn’t been a prairie here in 150 years. That first year was tough. The soil was wrong and we had the best crop of Johnson grass that first year. But we figured it out and I’m amazed how quickly it has approximated a native prairie,” he said.

“We still have a ways to go and these horses are part of it,” Sohmer said. “In the old days, a huge buffalo herd would have come through every year or so and trampled it down. We knew we had to do something,” Sohmer said.

Prairies won’t stay prairies unless they are maintained by grazing herbivores, periodic fires and episodic drought, Hall said.

“Left on its own it will turn into a woodland. Tree growth in this system is trimmed back by fire,” she said. “I look at this region and I see this delicate dance of woodlands trying to encroach and prairies trying to maintain.

“The horses are part of that.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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Video: Ecologist talks about BRIT efforts restoring prairie with horses, seeds

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