Making a Difference: A Little Piece of Cajun Prairie

collecting seed

Charles Allen is shown here collecting seeds from a compass plant at a Cajun prairie remnant. The leaves of the compass plant face east to catch the sun.

Cajun prairie is a distinct grassland, named for the settlers who lived there. It once covered more than 2.5 million acres of southwest Louisiana. Today, only about 100 acres of Cajun prairie remain. If the work of two biologists and many volunteers pays off, however, a little piece of Cajun prairie will always exist in Louisiana.

“I think that saving Cajun prairie is important because once it is gone, you cannot bring it back,” says Charles Allen, a retired professor from the University of Louisiana and the botanist for Louisiana’s Fort Polk. “There are plants and animals there that have never been tested for uses by humans. We could be losing a plant that would cure cancer, or provide food or fiber,” he says.

Allen and biologist Malcolm Vidrine, a professor of biology at Louisiana State University in Eunice, have been working for almost two decades to restore Cajun prairie.

Although Cajun prairie and the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest both belong to the temperate grassland biome, Cajun prairie soil has unique characteristics. It is made of tight, heavy clays that formed as a result of coastal flooding and rains. This soil, combined with frequent lightning fires, makes it difficult for trees to grow but easy for prairie plants to flourish.

Settling on the Prairie
In the mid-1700s, many French Acadians, later known as Cajuns, arrived in Louisiana from Nova Scotia, Canada. They sustained themselves for over 100 years by fishing, hunting, and some farming. They also sustained their environment because their lifestyle caused little damage to the prairie.

The establishment of the railroad in the late 1800s brought new settlers to farm the rich land. These settlers brought with them new, more intensive agricultural practices and established herds of cattle that overgrazed the vegetation. By the early 20th century, most of the Cajun prairie had disappeared.

Today, the Cajun prairie ecosystem is labelled as “imperiled globally” by The Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving natural communities. There are now fewer than 100 acres of Cajun prairie left in Louisiana. The railroad led to the near disappearance of the prairie, but it has also played an important role in saving the last remaining pieces of prairie. The remaining prairie is mostly in remnants of small, narrow strips along railroad right-of-ways. Because the railroad owned these pieces of land, they were never farmed.

The Eunice Cajun Prairie Restoration Project
In the late 1980s, Allen and Vidrine located as many remnant strips as they could. They chose 10 of the strips and studied them carefully. They found almost 600 species of plants in the 10 strips.

student volunteers

Volunteers such as these students used seeds and sod gathered from remnants to create a new Cajun prairie habitat in Eunice, Louisiana.

The Eunice Cajun Prairie Restoration Project began in the summer of 1988. Its goal was to restore and preserve a small Cajun prairie in the city of Eunice, Louisiana.

A 10-acre site in Eunice was mowed, and herbicide was used to destroy the nonnative vegetation. Volunteers from local elementary and high schools collected bags of seeds from Cajun prairie plants growing in the remnant strips. That winter, controlled burns were used to prepare the site. On a designated planting day, the students spread the seeds they had collected. The site was then lightly tilled. Sod was removed from the remnant strips and replanted at the Eunice site during the next three seasons.

Restoration is an ongoing effort. Yearly controlled burns maintain the habitat. The fires destroy shrubs and trees, but do not kill most of the prairie plants. Spot herbicides are used on the more pervasive nonnative species, such as the Chinese tallow tree, the most threatening nonnative species for the prairie. The seeds of this tree are easily spread when birds eat the seeds and deposit them in droppings.

Today, nearly 300 native Cajun prairie species, including little bluestem, Eastern gama grass, blazing stars, and hairy sunflower, have been reestablished at the site. As well, the rare wild coco orchid (Pteroglossaspis ecristata) has been found at the site. This is a very positive sign because few of these orchids have been found in the remnant strips or in Louisiana. Much of the Eunice site is now almost completely Cajun prairie.

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