Grand River Grasslands

Lois Wright Morton, Faculty, Sociology Department


Iowa was once a land covered by native prairie where vast herds of bison grazed; today less than 0.1 % of this endangered ecosystem remains.  The Grand River Grasslands area of southern Iowa and northern Missouri has some of the largest remaining prairie remnants in the region, but the suppression of fire has led to an increase in woody plants (such as eastern red cedar) and a decrease in more diverse and productive grasses and forbs. Evidence suggests that the use of fire and fire-grazing interactions mimic historical grassland ecosystem processes and can effectively control the spread of eastern red cedar and re-establish diverse plant and animal communities. The goal is to find combinations of fire and grazing that support goals of production agriculture, prairie and grassland conservation, and recreational opportunities, and to then transfer what has been learned for implementation by private landowners in the state.

This project, funded by The Leopold Center, specifically seeks to learn more about the perceptions and management practices of landowners of grasslands in order to pursue outcomes that facilitate knowledge transfer in support of native ecosystems that enhance conditions for biodiversity, protect water quality, and foster sustainable livestock production from perennial forages. 


The 2008-2012 POW Objective 166 under Natural Resources Stewardship (160) focuses on

changing the attitudes and practices of how Iowans use and protect natural resources including woodlands, grasslands, wildlife, energy, and community resources. The targeted outcome is for Iowans to participate in programming directly focused on the adoption of practices that protect natural resources including woodlands, grasslands, wildlife, energy, and community resources. The Grand River Grassland project contributes to this ISU CALS priority by setting the following project objectives

1.      To identify landowner goals and knowledge, information exchanges, and practices on grazing native grasslands.

2.      To discover the barriers to private landowner adoption and implementation of different grazing management practices and prescribed burning strategies.

3.      To design a process for creating local landowner groups that increase communication and learning about the ecology of native ecosystems to promote more sustainable grassland management practices.


In order to achieve these objectives the following actions have occurred.

1.  Survey data collected from the Grand River Grasslands region in 2007 was analyzed to identify landowner goals, practices, knowledge, and information exchanges regarding the use of fire and grazing on native grasslands. Technical report was written to provide the community/landowners a summary of survey findings.

2.      A community forum was convened April 2008 where researchers presented information on grassland ecology and the results of the Grand River Grasslands landowner and community leader survey. The goal of this meeting was to promote an increased awareness about the importance of the local grassland ecosystem to local residents, and ultimately result in more sustainable grassland management practices incorporating the use of fire and grazing. A 2ndary goal was to develop local leadership for grassland maintenance.

3. The new University Extension Bulletin, Prairie Investigators, SP321 was used in Union County Extension 4-H summer camp by CEED director Sharon Wasteney. The youth staff planning the camp used the bulletin as a basis for a nature scavenger hunt at 3-Mile Lake Overnight Camp.  We had about 30 kids, 3-5th grades, led by 5 teen youth staff. Paths were cut into the prairie-like setting and youth staff divided kids into groups and took them down a path looking for things listed on page 5 of the bulletin as a starting place.  They also “found” things not on the list


Regen, Elise, Lois Wright Morton, James Miller, David Engle. 2008. Grand River Grasslands: Survey of Landowners and Community Leaders. Iowa State University, University Extension Sociology Technical Report 1025.

Orlofske, Jessica. 2008. Prairie Investigators. Iowa State University, University Extension SP321

Outcome Statement:   

Short-term results measure awareness and knowledge.

Survey of landowners and community

Eighty-five landowners and 45 community leaders (51% return rate) completed a baseline survey of awareness and knowledge about the Grand River Grasslands [Ringgold County IA; Harrison County MO] sent in fall 2007. A little over 21 percent of landowners say that Eastern red cedar is moderately or extremely abundant and almost 55 percent report tall fescue is moderately or extremely abundant. Fifty-eight percent of landowners use herbicides on grasslands and pastures to control invasive species. The increase in red cedar and other trees is considered a problem primarily because it leads to loss of grasslands (81 percent landowners) and loss of forage (49% landowners). Most landowners (51%) and community leaders (70%) view intentionally setting fires to control invasive species as a legitimate land management tool. Less than 25% of the landowner respondents have ever been involved in a prescribed burn.

Restoring prairies/grasslands is either very important or extremely important to 51.3% of landowners with 17.1% expressing no opinion. Protecting wildlife habitat is either very important or extremely important to 68.7% of landowners. Controlling invasive species is either very important or extremely important to 85.5% of landowners. Over 68 % of landowners feel that grazing in grassland regions is a legitimate land management tool. About 44% of landowners think the increase in red cedar and other trees in grasslands is a major problem, while 32.1% think it is a minor problem.

Youth outcomes

Sharon Wasteney the CEED for Union county facilitated the grassland community forum in April 2008. As a result she used information from our presentations and the new bulletin for youth as the basis for a summer youth camp. The youth staff learned that they didn’t have as much information as they needed to answer all the questions of the campers regarding the prairie so they have already begun planning next year to be sure they are better informed.  Guest speakers sharing interactive lessons at the camp included local NRCS personnel, science teacher (who has “discovered” all the info we have), and some state staff from the DNR.  

Water quality linked to grassland/prairie maintenance

The 4-H camp program leveraged rain garden grants obtained by the Union County Extension by linking water quality issues to prairie plants and animals

Medium-term results measure behavior change. 

As a result of informal conversations and presentations at the community meeting in April, 2008 local landowners and the USDA NRCS local agency expressed interest in forming a burning coop. Wadye Ross, USDA local conservationist, volunteered to work with Extension as the convening point person for creating a specific effort to develop a burning cooperative in the fall 2009. The research team is providing support and resources to help.

Long-term results measure condition (i.e., new standard).

The long term goal of this project is to help private landowners and residents of the Grand River Grassland to develop a common vision for their grasslands. This survey provides a baseline to measure future changes in attitudes, beliefs and actions and the development of a common vision. The creation of a prescribed burn cooperative will help build and sustain this vision.


160 Natural Resources and Stewardship

Page last updated: April 11, 2008
Page maintained by Linda Schultz,