Benefits from Every Angle: the Santee Sioux’s Land Restoration Work

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A mid-August view from the “High Bench” before restoration work started.

They call it the High Bench: The view from a prairie ridge south of Santee overlooks a natural heritage of blazing star, goldenrod, little bluestem, and oaks. But the beautiful view is threatened and the Santee Sioux Nation has partnered with multiple conservation agencies to restore the tallgrass prairie and oak woodlands. The restoration work started in October 2018 and will benefit people, plants, and wildlife in multiple ways.

Historically, frequent wildfires maintained open prairies and sunny oak woodlands along the Missouri River by preventing the spread of eastern red-cedar and other brush. Lack of fire in the woodlands has promoted the invasion of shade-tolerant native trees and shrubs, such as hackberry and dogwood, and non-native species such as Siberian elm and buckthorn. The now-dense trees shade out native grasses and wildflowers on the woodland floor and reduce sunlight needed by the next generation of oaks to sprout and grow.

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Rough blazing star and big bluestem thrive in tallgrass prairie on the project site near the edge of the oak woodland.
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Dogwood and eastern redcedar are expanding from the woodland, displacing native prairie plants.
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Eastern redcedar crowds oaks, limiting the amount of light reaching the forest floor, which results in bare ground.

To restore these plant communities, the Santee Sioux Nation partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Northern Prairies Land Trust, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Forest Service to plan 122 acres of cedar removal and 207 acres of woodland thinning. These projects would allow the Santee to reintroduce prescribed fire into the area. The project builds on previous restoration work by the Santee Sioux. Using the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Tribe has controlled invasive brush and adjusted grazing practices to support tallgrass prairie health and the use of prescribed fire.

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The Santee Hazardous Fuels Program crew is working to restore tallgrass prairie and oak woodland to benefit people, plants, and wildlife.

Prescribed fire is a familiar tool for the Santee Tribe. The Santee Hazardous Fuels crew often conducts prescribed fires on its own and other tribal lands in Nebraska. After some training, crew members were able to add tree identification and forest management techniques to their résumés.

Duwayne Traversie, BIA Fuels Specialist, said that employees of the Fuels Program are strengthening leadership abilities and developing career skills in natural resource management through this project. Theo Wright, a crew member, agrees: “training opportunities are more limited elsewhere. [This program] is more diverse and opens more paths.” Brittany Iron Shell, crew supervisor, adds, “I love science and being outdoors and it’s cool to combine it all into one career.”

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Chris Wood (NPLT) and Steve Rasmussen (NFS) provide training in tree identification and forest thinning to the Santee Hazardous Fuels Crew.

The woodland and prairie work will not only benefit native plants, but also game species such as turkeys, squirrels, and white-tailed deer, and rare animals, such as the northern long-eared bat, Bell’s vireo, and monarch and regal fritillary butterfly.

During his lifetime, crew member Jeremy Archampeau has observed a decline in traditional medicinal plants in the area. “I am interested to see if the project helps those medicinal plants come back,” he said.  Crew supervisor Leslie Brownrigg is excited about the effects of their work. “I see more opportunities [on Santee land] to do the same thing: getting more of the landscape back to its natural state, opening up rangeland and bringing back native grasses.”

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Crew members remove dogwood brush from the oak woodland understory. Photo credit: Brittany Iron Shell

Perhaps the most exciting results cannot be seen from the High Bench. The project’s social and economic benefits will strengthen community connections to conservation and the land. Not only were crew members kept employed during a slow time of year, but the crew’s size was actually expanded for the project. Hank Miller, Math and Science Division Head at Nebraska Indian Community College hopes to use the project for environmental monitoring sites for his students. Trees cut from the woodland are available to tribal members for home heating. Brush-free and healthy grasslands and forests will benefit the tribal ranching program and buffer the town of Santee from high intensity wildfires. Crew member David Freemont sums it up well: “I am happy to be part of this project because it will have so many positive impacts.”

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Leslie Brownrigg and Brittany Iron Shell place a post to mark where the crew will take photos to monitor progress on the project over time.
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A regal fritillary we found on the project site. This butterfly is rapidly disappearing from many parts of its range. It depends on healthy tallgrass prairie.

This project is also an effort of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project and NGPC’s WILD Nebraska Habitat Program. In addition to the partners mentioned above, funding is provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Authors:
Jennifer Corman – Northern Prairies Land Trust
Cassidy Wessel – Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

In Memoriam: John H. Davidson

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It is with great sadness that we share that John Davidson passed away last week. We will remember John as an unshakeable conservationist and humble teacher with a deep understanding of the political and social architecture we need in the US to sustain healthy land and water. As a leader at NPLT and in close partnership with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, he worked to achieve real, on-the-ground results to restore and conserve grasslands and woodlands in Nebraska and South Dakota.

We re-posted one of his articles below. You can read another article by John Davidson on how  prairie conservation is vital in our fight against climate change here: http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2010/06/north-americas-great-carbon-ocean

ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE IN OUR NORTHERN GREAT PLAINS

At Northern Prairies we visit each of our conservation projects at least annually.  For the most part, this is a delightful exercise.  We renew friendships with private landowners who are dedicated to protecting the conservation values of their land.  During these visits we are enriched by hours spent walking on healthy and productive grasslands.

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John Davidson (left) and Bob Warrick (right) walk through a prairie easement in Pierce County, Nebraska.

Recently I, John Davidson, walked on a section (640 acres) of native grassland which is protected by a conservation easement held by Northern Prairies.  The land supports healthy cattle grazing and native wildlife of all kinds, including Prairie Chicken.  The owners of this land view protection of the native grasslands as an inter-generational family legacy.  Not too many years ago I could stand on a high point and observe that the surrounding land included ample amounts of native grasslands, stocked with healthy livestock. This year, when I stood on that same place, I saw that our protected native habitat was surrounded on all sides by corn.  Our conservation grassland had become a remote island in a sea of corn.

This is not an isolated incident, but is repeated time and again.  Fields are plowed to the edge of rivers and streams. Formerly rich wetlands are drained with subsurface plumbing as complex as that found in cities. Lands that were formerly considered to be marginal for anything other than grazing are now intensely cultivated, right up to the edge of roads, and often without regard to the resulting erosion and exposure to drought. Because grasslands are closely associated with wetlands, the prairie potholes which formerly defined the Great Plains are disappearing.

Statistics back up these observations. Between 2006 and 2011 about 1,400,000 acres of grass were plowed for corn and soybean production. Currently, the rate of grassland conversion in the northern plains is more than 5% annually.  These are conversion rates not seen since the 1920s, and are comparable to the deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a parallel course, we are losing wetlands at a rate that easily exceeds 15,000 acres a year, resulting in degraded water quality, reduced wildlife habitat, and the inevitable increase in the severity and frequency of flood events downstream.

At a time when nations are struggling to reduce carbon emissions, the plowing of native grasses releases vast amounts of carbon which would otherwise be safely sequestered in the ground.

Proponents of this wastage cite the short-term financial rewards.  They also claim that they are “feeding the world,” which is an asinine red herring, unless the poor of the world are to be fed hamburgers and barbecue. The long-term costs to society will be borne by future generations, and the poor of the world will remain unfed.

This is an environmental catastrophe that will not be brought under control until citizens speak out in large enough number to be heard.

John Davidson

 

Cedars up in Smoke this March

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Al and Ev rallied 18 friends and neighbors to conduct a successful prescribed fire on March 27th in their Sandhills prairie pastures in Rock County, NE. They burned 322 acres to kill cedar seedlings in their pasture. In addition to controlling cedar trees, the burn will improve pasture quality for grazing and improve wildlife habitat.

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Lighting a test fire to begin a 322 acre Sandhills burn in Rock County in March 2019. Friends, neighbors, fire department volunteers, and agency partners assisted on a safe burn that met its objectives.

Participants gathered in the morning to discuss the plan and line up equipment they had brought. Al led the crew as the Burn Boss. Ev provided a delicious lunch for everyone and took her place on the crew in a pickup with a water tank and hose. The fire started shortly before noon and finished around 5 pm with a dramatic smoke plume. Weather conditions remained within the safe range (in “prescription”) for the amount and type of grass and trees present on the site. The crew monitored wind, humidity, and temperature throughout the day.

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Al and Ev had thoroughly planned the burn and prepared over the last year. Tasks included mowing and raking burn boundaries, clearing the mow lines of cottonwood limbs, and filling water tanks. Last summer cattle grazed the area but for fewer days than usual to grow grass fuel for the burn.

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Many thanks to the crew that made the burn possible! With their help, the burn was efficient and safe with no major accidents, injuries, or fire escapes. The Bassett and Newport Fire Departments both contributed equipment and a couple of volunteers to the burn. Prescribed fires make great training opportunities for fire departments. Staff of various natural resource conservation groups that support prescribed fire also assisted, including Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), Northern Prairies Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the Upper Elkhorn NRD, and Pheasants Forever.

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In addition to killing cedar seedlings, the landowners and grazing tenant are looking forward to improved pasture quality for cattle grazing and high quality grasslands for wildlife, including the greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse we have observed on-site and the American burying beetles observed in surveys nearby. The prairie contains a mosaic of wet and dry sandy soils which should be excellent American burying beetle habitat. Changes in vegetation structure and increased forb diversity and abundance due to the prescribed burn could also benefit loggerhead shrikes, long-billed curlews, monarch butterflies, regal fritillaries, and many other grassland-dependent wildlife species.

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The crew puts finishing touches on part of the burn.
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A dramatic smoke plume concludes the burn at the end of the day.
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The goals of the 322 acre burn: control cedar trees, improve grazing for cattle, and sustain high quality grasslands for wildlife.

Trials and Tribulations of Plant ID: Indiangrass

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust

I am a wannabe plant nerd.   I know some of my plants.  I forget some and relearn them every year.  Some I remember and are added to the list of plants I feel pretty darn confident naming. I have one of those curious brains that I cram a lot into but the recall is lack luster.  Currently out here on some parts of the prairie a lot of grasses are blooming and seeding.  It is a beautiful sight.  I went out to snap some pictures and focus in on a couple of key identification characteristics of Indiangrass.  Follow me on the quaking slope of self-confidence known as trying to ID a plant. I’m sure some of you know what I mean.

As best as I can tell, and from years of plant hikes with true blue plant nerds, a couple of characteristics a person wants to take a look at are the auricles and ligules. You can find these parts by pulling down gently on a blade of grass and peaking closely at the sheath that wraps around the stem.   The ligule clasps the stem right there where the blade and the sheath meet. The auricles are the little guys that stick out from the collar. Oh, yeah, the collar is like a shirt collar.  When you see it you will know what I mean.

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Photo Credit

In indiangrass the ligules are ‘membranous’.  I don’t really know what that means, but we can assume right? The auricles ‘extend upward, are pointed and join the ligule’.   Let’s compare.  Looks about right.

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Left: Indiangrass leaf blade and ligule. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann Right: Indiangrass ligules and auricle. Photo Credit

 

 

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Next I took a look at the spikelets.  Spikelets are the flowering/seed parts of the seed head.  I haven’t gotten much further than using the awn as an identifying characteristic.  The awn is the pokey hair-like guy that sticks out of the floret and is attached to the actual seed.

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Indiangrass seed head and awn. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann
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Indiangrass seed head with bent awn.  Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

An awn can be used as a seed dispersal mechanism or aid in getting that spikelet planted in the soil. Indiangrass awns are often bent.  Apparently, and to be more exact, “They are tightly twisted below the bend and loosely twisted above the bend.”   As fluctuations in humidity vary from day to night the awn will alternate between standing erect and slackening, “This movement allows some seeds to effectively corkscrew themselves into the ground.” Needle and Thread grass is a great example of this adaptation.  Check out that awn.  Plants are so cool!

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Needle and Thread Grass Seed Awn.  Photo Credit:

For those of you on my end of the plant nerd spectrum I’m hoping this was helpful. Keep learning those plants.  Don’t let the science of it distract you, but instead lead you to awe and wonder.  For more information on grass identification check out this nifty little publication: http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/ec170.pdf.

I would also like to thank my assistant who actually didn’t help at all to keep grasses from blurring out in my pictures.

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Section 7: A History of Warrick Prairies

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust
With permission from: Robert Warrick, Landowner

Robert Warrick is a conservation minded landowner who has lived most of his life in Meadow Grove, Nebraska.  In 2008, with the help of the Northern Prairies Land Trust, Warrick and Sons Inc. placed a conservation easement on what he calls ‘Section 7’.  Section 7 is a piece of land in Pierce County, Nebraska that Robert first began to know over seventy years ago.  Below, Robert passed on to me a little history of that land now known as Warrick Prairies.

My first remembrance and contact with what I will call ‘Section 7’ was when I was in grade school in Meadow Grove, (about 10 south of Section 7) in the 1940’s.  Section 7 was part of a large area that was taken over by the United States War Department in the 1940’s during World War 2 and was called ‘Pierce Air to Ground Gunnery Range’. It was a couple thousand acres and Section 7 was the center of constant air bombing and fighter plane strafing.  As a young boy in grade school, my parents would take my brother and sister to a hill overlooking the area and we would watch as P47 and B24 bombers would come in at tree top level and practice blasting the poor sand dunes.  Between sorties, we would run out into the range and pick up spent 50 caliber casings and many times, live ammunition.  Dangerous?  Probably, but it was really exciting.  For many years I had an official sign that I had “borrowed” from the range. It read in large red lettering:  ‘Air Ground Gunnery Range KEEP OUT’. It was placed, appropriately, above my toilet stool.

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Landowner Robert Warrick points out gunnery damage still seen today.

Section 7 actually had a target, made on the land, by the Army.  It was many hundreds of feet in diameter, which can still be seen when the light is right.  I remember in the 40’s a large U.S. Army convoy came through Meadow Grove on the way to build a replica of a town on section 7 so that fighter pilots and bombers could practice shooting and bombing.  When I first started grazing cattle on Section 7 I made it a practice to pick parts of bombs that were partially buried or broken.  Many times they would fill the box of the pickup.  I have received notices recently, “As part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, munitions may still be present on Section 7. These munitions may pose an explosive hazard to you, your family other property users, or the public.  The Army recommends you share the enclose information with those who use your property, including those who lease or rent your property”.  THAT I HAVE DONE!

For many years after the closing of the Gunnery Range, farmers in the area would be tormented by ammunition clips of the 50 caliber machine guns from the planes.  They would be picked up by their cultivator on the shovels, while cultivating corn.

The Warrick & Sons Inc. placed the conservation easement on Section 7-25-3 in Pierce County, NE through the Northern Prairies Land Trust on 04/28/2008.  . Warrick & Sons have owned this Pierce section since 1988.  Robert Warrick (the author) is President of Warrick & Sons Inc. My wife Gudrun, my brother Jack and his wife Jean are the only stockholders in the corporation.  It is a family corporation, registered with the State of Nebraska. 

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Conservation Easement Boundary of Section 7.

My Great Grandfather Theodore A. Shafer, homesteaded in Madison County in 1879.  Warrick & Son’s received the Pioneer Farm Award in May, 1979. That land is still owned by my wife and myself. My grandfather J. W. Warrick came west in the 1870’s, He started a rural business in Meadow Grove, prospered, bought the land that I farmed.  My great grandfather Shafer retired to California on a small pension he received from the federal government from wounds he received in the civil war.”

A landowner I know in Dodge County, Nebraska who has spent his life farming and caring for his land was just recently interviewed about proposed cuts to the Farm Bill Conservation Stewardship Program.  The last line he repeated, and it has found a place in most of my days since.  He said, “The land remembers. The land remembers.”

Those of us who have been out to Section 7 with Robert Warrick have seen his work on restoring this piece of land. The scars left behind are easily recognizable.  The land remembers.  Perhaps anyone who spends a lifetime knowing a piece of land understands this secret. Robert Warrick knows the sentiment, “Blowouts can still be seen caused by this military training.  It is all now in private ownership and is healing, but it takes care and time to heal man’s follies and ventures.”

Thank you Robert for sharing this piece of history.  Your passion, dedication and love of the prairie inspires all who you give your time to. Thank you.

Flowers, Fire, and Wildlife

Jen Corman                                                                                                                         Coordinating Wildlife Biologist Northern Prairies Land Trust

Last December, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Biologist, Josh Kounovsky, watched 22 acres of oak woodland and prairie burn on Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA). In fact, he carefully planned and coordinated the burn himself: the burn was a prescribed fire designed with specific goals. One of the overall goals of the fire was to allow the woodland and prairie to function as woodland and prairie again. Great Plains grasslands and oak woodlands evolved with fire. As humans have focused on preventing fires, populations of trees that had been limited by fire, such as eastern redcedar, have increased and reduced the ability for oak woodlands and prairies to sustain themselves and the wildlife that depend on them.

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Prescribed fire has restored an area on Grove Lake WMA where oak woodlands and prairie meet. Small cedars killed by the fire are in the foreground.

Over the last few years, WMA managers have stepped in to cut and remove eastern redcedar that had begun taking over the woodland. They have also worked to thin out some of the hackberry, mulberry, and other shade-loving trees that have also started growing more densely in the forest due to the loss of fire. Cedar and other shade-loving trees shade out young oaks and native plants that grow on the forest floor. Young oaks cannot replace dying oaks where cedar and other trees have crowded into the forest. Cedar was also spreading from the woodlands into the surrounding prairie on the WMA. With the loss of forest plants, young oaks, and native grasslands, Grove Lake WMA was losing quality habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the turkey, deer, quail, and grouse that the WMA was created to support.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida, left) is blooming in the prairie openings and downy blue violet (Viola sororia, right) is blooming in the woodland. As described in a previous post, prairie violet is especially important for the regal fritillary butterfly which feeds only on violets during the caterpillar stage.

The initial, costly removal of many cedars from the woodlands and prairie allowed biologists to use prescribed fire as a more efficient long-term management tool. Thanks to Kounovsky and his experienced burn crew, the fire was a success, killing small cedars that had sprouted since cedar tree removal. Fire also made space for flowering plants that wildlife needs by clearing some of the dense leaf litter from the forest floor and the dense, dead grass in the prairies. The result is a rejuvenated oak woodland and tallgrass prairie with many wildflowers. Wildflowers provide food and cover for wildlife and support insects that anchor the food web. Insects are an especially important food for game bird and songbird chicks.

Hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense, left) and fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum, right) blooming on prairie restored by prescribed fire. Puccoon seeds are a nutritious food for grassland birds.

Fire is a tool that will ensure Grove Lake WMA will provide high quality hunting opportunities for future generations of hunters. Prescribed fire will benefit many non-game animals and plants as well. As spring arrives, we are excited to see what is blooming on the burn. We hope you enjoy these photos of mid-May blooms!

White-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) blooming in the prairie after prescribed fire. This delicate wildflower is not actually a grass.
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Violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) is especially abundant along woodland edges in the burn area.
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Groundsel (Senecio integerrimus), also known as lambstongue ragwort, growing in restored woodland this May.

Pasque Flowers: Harbingers of Spring

“Early in the spring, when the snow has scarcely melted, the Northern Great Plains are covered with gray-blue flowers that look like smoke hovering over the prairie. These are the fuzzy pasque flowers–“very brave little flowers,” say the Cree Indians, “that arrive while it is still so cold that they must come wearing their fur coats.”
~Melvin R. Gilmore, Prairie Smoke 1929
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Pasque Flowers in their “fur coats” ready to bloom. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

I know of a place that holds a secret.  It’s a small patch of prairie soil.  Once, in early spring, during my first years out of a college, a mentor of mine drove out to this southeast quarter section and first shared what came to be for me, the magic of pasque flowers.   A handful of years later, I ended up living on a small acreage just across the road from that very place.  Ever since, spring has been marked by the hunt for the first blooms of spring.

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

The end of winter is always hard on me. I want sun, warmth in my bones and to sleep with my windows open. To me, stumbling upon a south facing slope with eyes trained on the ground, pasque flowers represent the stretching into the light and reaching out from under the symbolic death of winter. Or as Glimore wrote it, “… pasque flowers again bring their cheering promise of coming spring.”  With snow on the ground and all else still dead or dormant, these slight lavender blooms stand out against the gray browns.  Fragile but with a sense of duty to herald the life that is coming back to the prairie, pasque flowers are, again Gilmore, the “…first gladsome harbingers of the lovely hosts to follow.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Ethnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore, among other great accomplishments, collected Native American uses, stories and lore of the great plains plants and animals, including the pasque flower.  He writes,

“They [Native Americans] have songs and stories about many of the species of plants and animals with which they are acquainted such a song being the expression of the life or soul of the species to which it pertains.”

He relays the song of the pasque flower as translated from the Dakota language:

“I wish to encourage the children of other flower nations

Which are now appearing over all the land;

So, while they waken from sleep and rise from the bosom

Of Mother Earth, I stand here, old and gray headed.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

~Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairie Land Trust