What is a functional prairie ecosystem? Where can we begin to address such a huge question? With only a tiny fraction of the once vast prairies remaining, understanding their key functions and how to best preserve or reconstruct these functions is of utmost importance. Questions may begin with vegetation, but quickly propagate downward into soil communities and processes and upward to pollinators and herbivores. These are the motivations for my research.
My goals are to assist resource managers in ways that improve sustainability. Prairie reconstructions that both express the range of species planted and are resistant to noxious weeds, thereby minimizing subsequent management inputs, are more sustainable than those that degenerate into weedy fields in need of repeated herbicide applications. Can we improve planting methods and seed mixes to better achieve sustainable prairies?
Functioning ecosystems support mutualists, herbivores, commensals, predators. How will legacies of prior land use and vegetation impinge on these functions? Can we mitigate negative legacies? Create positive legacies to improve outcomes? What roles do invasive plant species play? If they support mutualists such as pollinators, how will we sustain these mutualists while controlling weeds?