Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Konza Prairie Research Natural Area is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the Division of Biology of Kansas State University as a research site. As such, it is a unique outdoor laboratory that provides an opportunity for the study and preservation of the tallgrass prairie. Experimental manipulations, including fire and grazing by bison and cattle, are employed to simulate natural conditions on the native tallgrass prairie. KPRNA also serves as a benchmark for comparisons with managed habitats, and as an educational facility for students and the public.
Konza Prairie Habitats
The tallgrass prairie, which dominates the Konza Prairie landscape, is named for its dominant native tallgrasses, which may reach heights over 8 feet in good years. Short and midgrasses also occur on Konza Prairie, usually in dry, shallow, or rocky soil.
While grasses are the dominant plants on Konza Prairie, over 500 species of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees add variety and color to the prairie landscape. Konza Prairie also provides habitat for over 290 species of vertebrates and a variety of invertebrates.
The tallgrass prairie once extended from Illinois northwest to the Dakotas and south to Texas, but most of the original North American tallgrass prairie has been converted to farmland. KPRNA is located in the midst of the Flint Hills of Kansas, a region inappropriate for farming because of its steep slopes and rocky soils. The Flint Hills are composed of flint-bearing limestone layers alternating with layers of softer shale. Water readily penetrates the highly fractured limestone layers, flows down to the underlying impervious shale, and seeps laterally to form springs along slopes beneath the limestone ledges.
Tallgrass prairie results from the interaction of soil, climate, fire, and native animals. If any of these elements are absent or altered, the entire prairie system may be affected. For example, in the absence of fire, trees invade the prairie and replace fire-adapted grasses. Studies of these factors and their interactions are a major part of research on KPRNA.
Research on Konza Prairie
Konza Prairie was established to provide a natural laboratory for the study of ecological processes in a native tallgrass prairie. The area also serves as a "benchmark" for comparisons with areas that have been affected by human use. Results from research on Konza Prairie will contribute to an understanding of how the native prairie functioned prior to settlement, and provide a more general understanding of natural environments.
Historically, the primary influences on the tallgrass prairie were weather, fire, and native grazers (such as bison). The latter two serve as the primary large scale experimental manipulations on KPRNA, while the effects of weather are investigated with smaller-scale experiments.
Experimental grazing and fire treatments are imposed at the watershed level. Grazing manipulations include watersheds with bison (over 150 roam Konza Prairie) or cattle. Fire regimes include watersheds burned every 1, 2, 4, 1O, and 20 years in various seasons. Grazing and fire treatments are combined to yield watersheds that have either fire or grazing, both, or neither, providing a complex array of conditions that are used in analyses of many natural phenomena.
An array of organisms, from tiny microbes to large bison, are investigated in relation to the natural and experimental conditions on Konza Prairie. Studies take place at the level of individuals, populations, communities, and entire ecosystems. Because Konza Prairie is a protected area, it provides an opportunity for long-term research. One of the major research projects is being conducted as part of the Long Term Ecological Research program (LTER), supported by the National Science Foundation. This program acknowledges that many ecological processes occur on time scales of decades or centuries. LTER researchers collect and maintain over 70 long-term data sets containing detailed information on the weather, soils, vegetation, animal populations, and ecosystem processes.
Konza Prairie has been the location of many research projects by many other agencies. Kings Creek, which originates on and flows through Konza Prairie, is part of the U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Benchmark Network and represents the only stream USGS monitors that is entirely in an unplowed tallgrass prairie watershed. Other agencies, such as NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Commerce, and Energy use Konza Prairie for research.
Individual research projects also are an important part of research on Konza Prairie. Kansas State University faculty and graduate students from 4 colleges and 14 departments have been involved in research on KPRNA and other departments use the site for teaching students. The operation of KPRNA is supported by KSU and Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, and many KAES and Kansas State University College of Agriculture scientists conduct research on the site. In addition, dozens of visiting scientists from other institutions conduct research projects on Konza Prairie.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit, private, membership-governed organization. Its objective is to preserve natural diversity by protecting lands containing the best available examples of all components of the natural world. The Conservancy has been responsible for the acquisition of millions of acres of forests, marshes, prairies, mountains, deserts, and islands worldwide, and these sites have become centers for education, research, and preservation. For more information about The Nature Conservancy, contact the Kansas Chapter at 3601 SW 29th Street, Suite 112B, Topeka, KS 66614.
Public Use of Konza Prairie
The primary function of Konza Prairie is research. However, as one of the largest tracts of native tallgrass prairie in the United States, Konza Prairie also serves as an education facility for students and other interested parties. A number of opportunities exist for public use of Konza Prairie. Three public hiking trails, open from dawn to dusk, are located near the main entrance to Konza Prairie (see map on back panel). Konza Prairie Visitors' Day, held biannually in even years, provides many opportunities for the public to view the operations of Konza Prairie. Visitors' Day activities include van tours of the bison area, interpretive hikes, hay rides, and exhibits. At other times of the year, tours and visits to the prairie chicken observation area can be arranged for appropriate groups by contacting the Konza Prairie Office.
In 1956 several Kansas State University faculty members, led by Dr. Lloyd C. Hulbert, began a search for a tallgrass prairie field station for ecological research. The group identified 916 acres (371 hectares) of tallgrass prairie along I-70 in Geary County as a suitable site. In 1971, the property was purchased for Kansas State University by The Nature Conservancy with funds from an anonymous donor. The site was named Konza Prairie Research Natural Area for the Kanza Indians, a tribe that once inhabited the region.
In 1975, funds from the same donor were used by The Nature Conservancy to purchase the adjoining 7220 acre (2923 hectare) Dewey Ranch. The ranch had been purchased in the late 1800's by Charles P. Dewey, and was later operated by his son, Chauncey. Between 1915 and 1920 a large limestone barn and house were built to serve as the ranch headquarters, and remain today as the Konza Prairie headquarters. An additional 480 acres (190 hectares) on the west side of Konza Prairie were added in 1979.
After her death in 1979, it was revealed that Katharine Ordway had donated the funds which had allowed The Nature Conservancy to purchase Konza Prairie. During her lifetime, Ordway provided funds to purchase more than 31,000 acres of prairie throughout the Great Plains.
Konza Prairie Research Natural Area is an 8,616 acre (3488 hectare) tallgrass prairie preserve dedicated to research on native prairie ecosystems. The preserve is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the Kansas State University Division of Biology for ecological research. Current areas of research include ecology, hydrology, systematics, animal behavior, geology, and remote sensing.
Research by visiting scientists, working independently or in conjunction with Kansas State University faculty members, is encouraged. Comparative studies with other grasslands or habitats are especially welcome. User Permit requests must be approved by the Konza Prairie Office prior to any work on KPRNA.
Visitors are welcome to use the 14 miles of hiking trails on the north edge of Konza Prairie, and are invited to the biennial Visitors' Day in the fall of even years. Guided tours for interested groups should be arranged well in advance of the prospective visit. Those interested in learned more about KPRNA, and assisting its programs, may join the Friends of Konza Prairie.
John Zimmerman Biology Division Kansas State University Manhattan, KS 66506-4901 Telephone: 913/532-6620