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Think native grasslands are just a bunch of “boring grass”? Think again.

   
Indiangrass in Flower (Image 1 of 8)

Indiangrass is prominent in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it provides ground cover and nesting areas for gamebirds and songbirds, year-round cover for white-tailed deer and nesting material for native bees.

   
Beauty and Color (Image 2 of 8)

Butterfly milkweed flowers add a splash of color to the prairie. This vibrant plant boasts a number of medicinal uses and has been used historically by several indigenous groups to treat a variety of ailments. According to the USDA, the Omaha-Ponca people of Nebraska and Iowa ate the raw root to treat bronchial and pulmonary woes. It is also used to treat diarrhea and relieve sore throats, among other things.

   
Milkweed in Seed (Image 3 of 8)

A seed from a butterfly milkweed plant prepares to take to the wind on its tuft of long, silky white hairs. The seeds emerge from ripened pods, and their wispy hairs help set them afloat in the breeze to reseed in another location. While in bloom, butterfly milkweed serves as an important stop for pollinators such as monarch butterflies.

   
Hoverfly (Image 4 of 8)

This tiny hoverfly feeds exclusively on nectar and pollen, making it an important prairie pollinator. Helzer identified 22 species of flies during his project.

   
Prairie Monarch (Image 5 of 8)

Each year, North America’s monarch butterflies travel between their northern summer breeding grounds to the refuge of warmer southern locations like Mexico. Along the way, prairies provide important stopover habitat where they can rest and drink nectar that will aid them during the remainder of their journey.

   
Jumping Spider (Image 6 of 8)

This jumping spider was one of seven spider species Helzer photographed. Spiders are important members of balanced prairie ecosystems, serving as tiny predators that eat a variety of insects including grasshoppers, crickets, moths, flies and beetles.

   
Mining Bee on Leadplant (Image 7 of 8)

The leadplant is another important component of a prairie ecosystem, helping to fight against erosion and providing nutrition for grazing animals. It also powers this mining bee, Andrena quintilis, which feeds exclusively on its nectar.

   
Bumblebee on Sunflower (Image 8 of 8)

Prairie is threatened by residential, commercial and agricultural development, which can all fragment the ecosystems that help sustain important pollinators like the common eastern bumblebee, seen here feeding on a Maximilian sunflower.

 

Prairie grasslands are considered North America’s most endangered ecosystem. Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Nebraska director of science, says they suffer from an image problem. And he’s out to fix that with, well, images.

“What most people see is just a bunch of boring grass,” Helzer says. This viewpoint breeds disinterest and hinders those who are working to preserve prairie, he says.

According to Helzer, that “boring grass” offers plenty of benefits to people, such as clean water. Prairies also provide habitat to a number of species, including many pollinators. And they can store carbon in more long-term ways than forests, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.

Helzer embarked on his year-long Square Meter Photography Project in 2018 to highlight the beauty of prairies, from the aesthetic power of a huge landscape to their small-scale complexity. The project, which aims to draw awareness and appreciation to this ecosystem, is set within a single square meter of Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

Over the course of a year, Helzer snapped hundreds of photos, capturing 113 species including 15 plants, 22 flies, 18 beetles, 14 bees and one vertebrate (a frog).

“It’s never the same prairie twice,” Helzer says of the project. “It’s like checking your favorite TV show.” He notes that he was surprised by the level of emotion and inspiration he felt during his endeavor. “I didn’t expect to be as blown away as I was.”

Prairie ecosystems historically covered 170 million acres (70 million hectares) of North America; today, native prairies are in danger of disappearing altogether. According to a 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report, 95% of historic acreage of tallgrass prairie has been destroyed or altered by humans, while 70% to 90% of mixed-grass prairie has vanished.

Their biggest threat? Residential, commercial and agricultural development, Helzer says. When large, expansive prairie landscapes are split into tiny parcels to accommodate development, it divides and isolates animal and plant populations, making them more susceptible to threats such as disease. According to Helzer, fragmented prairie is also more vulnerable to invasion by trees and woody landscapes.

One prairie conservation tactic used by organizations like TNC is buying existing prairie and converting it into nature preserves. Another method is funding conservation easements, which encourage landowners to manage tracts of prairie privately.

However, both approaches are expensive and limited in scope, Helzer says. Additionally, he adds, the sole existence of a conservation easement does not ensure its proper management into the future. Long-term conservation requires working with landowners to help them find ways to make money off of their prairie habitats while at the same time encouraging them to share knowledge with future generations, he says.

Although the photo project can’t do the conservation work itself, Helzer hopes his snapshots will inspire appreciation and concern for this endangered ecosystem. Even if people don’t visit, he says, “If they feel like they got to know something, they may care.”

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