A grass roots approach Project is restoring prairie at Spirit Mound

A grass roots approach Project is restoring prairie at Spirit Mound Annie Horner, an undergraduate biology student at The University of South Dakota, photographs a blooming Jerusalem Artichoke that is thriving in the restored prairie of Spirit Mound. by David Lias Grass has always grown on Spirit Mound.

But there's no longer cattle grazing on it.

The prominent geographical point on the skyline of Clay County � which is an historic stopping place of Lewis and Clark when the Corps of Discovery sailed the Missouri River in these parts nearly 200 years ago � is being restored.

A wide variety of plants believed to have been flourishing on the mound two centuries ago have been reintroduced to the site.

Accompanying the new flora is a variety of fauna, from butterflies and other insects, to rabbits and deer.

A group of USD faculty and students, led by Karen Olmstead, a biology professor and director of University Honors and Undergraduate Studies, is busy this summer conducting an inventory of the new life at the Spirit Mound.

Rusty Vote, a graduate student in biology, and Annie Horner, a biology undergrad student, are working with Olmstead on a record of the plants and insects that today call Spirit Mound home.

They are also developing a monitoring plan for the prairie restoration project.

Paul Mabee, a USD faculty member, Heather Hoff, an undergrad biology student, and Jay Carlisle, a biology graduate student, are working on a bird list for the site.

Justin Elhoff, an undergrad

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biology/history major, is working on a history of the Spirit Mound Trust under the direction of Mike Card, USD political science faculty member.

Spirit Mound was recently purchased by the state of South Dakota through funds made available by Congress.

This 320-acre site is managed by the S.D. Game Fish & Parks Department in partnership with the National Park Service and the Spirit Mound Trust.

The initial restoration planting was done in fall 2001, but due to personnel limitations, little inventory or monitoring work has been done at the site.

Until now.

Since the fall of 2001, Olmstead said, there have been several projects completed by local organizations to get new plants to take root on the mound.

Spirit Mound is too steep to use modern seeding techniques, such as a mechanized grass drill. Much of the new seeding has been done by hand.

"There has been a lot of Game Fish & Parks effort, there's been a lot of community action � the Sierra Club or the Spirit Mound Trust has been out here," Olmstead said, "and we were invited to apply for a small wildlife diversity grant last winter. In the process of that, I became very aware of the efforts of the community organizations."

State funding has helped with the seeding costs. The wildlife diversity grant has helped pay some expenses of the biological inventory.

But those funding sources can't provide enough to cover all expenses of the restoration project.

That prompted the Sierra Club to kick in $2,000 to help pay some costs of the biological inventory.

"We're seeing what's out here � good and bad," Olmstead said, "in terms of weed species and desirable species of plants. We have a list of everything that was planted and we're seeing if any of that is coming up, and it seems like it is."

The crew is also working on an insect survey.

"We can't survey all of the insects out here, so we're picking species that are of particular interest to people," Olmstead said. "Butterflies generally capture people's imaginations, and there are a lot of butterflies associated with prairies."

The group, she said, will also test the soil of the Spirit Mound site.

"This 320 acres was owned by different people, farmed in different ways, there was a feedlot on the east side of the mound, so the land use history dramatically impacts the plants that we are seeing come up," Olmstead said, "with herbicide residues and things like that."

She noted that the progress being made at Spirit Mound today has been made possible by a broad spectrum of organizations working together.

"I think this is just a wonderful example of how grass-roots organizations, community organizations," Olmstead said, "such as the state Game Fish and Parks Department, the National Parks Service and now the university and its students are really involved."

A new hard-surfaced trail leads to the mound, allowing walkers, joggers, bikers and the handicapped to climb it and experience the prairie climate.

"We want to use this as a way to educate people about prairie stewardship," Olmstead said. "It's a historical landmark, and people are going to be drawn to it, especially next year which is the 200th anniversary of the visit of Lewis and Clark to Spirit Mound.

"We need to talk about the importance of restoration of prairie habitat, because there's about 1 percent or less of tallgrass prairie left," she said. "To be able to restore in some fashion even 320 acres is a pretty big deal."

Grasses that have been planted on the mound include big and little bluestem, Canada wild rye, Indiangrass, switchgrass and porcupine grass.

Broadleaf plants include silver sage, butterfly milkweed, smooth blue aster, purple coneflower, yellow ox-eye, roundheaded bushclover, black-eyed susan, compass plant and ironweed.

"Restoration ecology is extremely difficult because we don't know exactly what was here," Olmstead said. "We have their (Lewis and Clark's) records, but they weren't well-trained botanists. They didn't have access to training for this part of the country because they had never been here.

"The best way is to look at remnants of tallgrass prairie that still exists," she said, "and have them serve as your goal."

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