September 30, 2005 | By: Terri McLean
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Long before Kentucky’s rolling hills were swathed in bluegrass, a wild mix of native prairie grasses stood tall and thick. Indiangrass, switchgrass and other native species covered millions of acres of Kentucky landscape, creating wide open prairie vistas that today are nearly extinct.

If people like Tom Barnes have their way, however, Kentucky may once again be able to recapture this part of its past. Barnes, professor and wildlife specialist for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, is one of several people working to restore UK’s Silver Lake Farm in Harrison County to its “pre-European” condition.

“It’s part of our natural heritage,” said Barnes, who has the only funded research project currently underway at the 410-acre farm.

The farm, which was purchased with $1.3 million in funds from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund Board and is managed by UK’s Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment, contains one of the best remnants of the unique Bluegrass savanna woodland ecosystem. For his part, Barnes is conducting research aimed at removing exotic, or non-native, grasses such as bluegrass – but particularly tall fescue – so the native grasses can be restored. 

“I had been working in native grassland restoration for over a decade,” he said. “Originally, we looked at it from the standpoint of wildlife – particularly quail and rabbit numbers. We’re not in very good shape, and a lot of it is attributed to habitat.”

When he was approached by the Nature Preserves Commission, Barnes initially declined. “But they ultimately convinced me … that we’d learn a lot. So I agreed,” he said.

What they are most interested in learning is how to kill the exotic species of grasses without inhibiting the growth of native species. Monsanto, a provider of agricultural products such as herbicides, is providing funding for the project.

“Obviously, some herbicides favor the return of native species more than others,” Barnes said. 

Barnes has completed the first year of the two-year project. He and his graduate student have already begun collecting data, but it is still “rough.”

“It’s all preliminary,” he said. “The data has not been analyzed.”

One thing Barnes is sure about, however, is the benefits of native grasses – particularly to wildlife, his specialty.

“We’re quite interested in quail because their populations have been declining quite precipitously throughout the South,” he said. “The whole issue behind a lot of the work I have done is to try to create better nesting and winter cover for quail. Of course, cottontail rabbits have a very similar habitat, so when you’re providing for quail you’re providing for rabbits.”

Additionally, Barnes said some native grasses are also good to use for hay and for grazing and they are helpful in preventing erosion.

“And in some cases, we’re looking at them for biofuel … especially switchgrass,” he said.

With a renewed interest in converting exotic grasses to native grasses nationwide, Barnes is often asked why native species were eliminated in the first place. 

“It was usually agronomic in nature,” he explained. “Some exotics were brought in for grazing, some for turf. They’re used for a lot of things. They’ve been around for a good long while.”

Barnes said the goal of his project is not to completely eliminate non-native grasses. Rather, he is interested in the best method to control it in areas where native species can grow and thrive.

“There’s no way you could ever eliminate it. That’s not the goal,” he said. “We’re just looking at it from the standpoint of natural communities. We’ve been at this a long time and only converted 65,000 acres.”
 

Contact: 

Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Tom Barnes, 859-257-8633