What is a prairie?

Prairies were once the dominant vegetation from Ontario south to Texas, and from Colorado and Montana east to Indiana. Prairies are classified as tallgrass, mixeDGrass, or shortgrass depending on yearly rainfall. In Minnesota, tallgrass prairies occurred in the south and west, while coniferous forests covered most of the north and northeast (Figure 2). The two regions were separated by a transition zone, called the oak savanna, which consisted of prairie plants with oak and elm trees. Prairies are ecosystems areas that receive limited rainfall and usually have hot summers and cold winters. Prairies are dominated by grasses and maintained by periodic fires. Prairie soils are typically deep and rich in organic matter from the decomposition of plant material, especially the fibrous roots of grasses produced in previous growing seasons. The tallgrass prairies of Minnesota and Iowa were once the homes for mammals such as the bison and red-backed vole, birds like the greater prairie chicken and the upland sandpiper (Figure 3), as well as unique insects, including the powesheik and ottoe skipper butterflies. The short and mixeDGrass prairies of the Dakotas and Nebraska contained prairie dogs, pronghorn antelopes, and black-footed ferrets. As the prairies disappeared, so did many of these animals.

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