September 30, 2010

Custer State Park - Prairie Edition

Other than wildlife, the main thing we wanted to check out is the mixed-grass prairie at Custer State Park. Custer SP represents the transition zone between two of North America's great ecoregions; the ponderosa pine forests of the west and the once expansive prairies of the Great Plains.

Buffalo grazing in the prairie
So, we decided to do the 3-mile Prairie Trail Loop to check out this transition. It was a fascinating hike full of contrasts and transitions.

It starts along Jimmy Lame Creek, where a beautiful riparian forest of green ash, eastern cottonwood, and burr oak. All of these are eastern species, as is the poison ivy and sumac that is along the streamside.

Then, as you emerge into the grassland you realize, this is no ordinary grassland like we have out west. This mixed-grass prairie is incredibly diverse. It seems almost every other plant is a different species and they are not all grasses. The prairie is full of a variety of wildflowers, small shrubs, and even cactus.

Hard to capture the diversity, but look for the different kinds of plants

The mixed-grass prairie is a transition between the short-grass prairies of Montana/Wyoming and the tallgrass prairies of Kansas/Oklahoma. It also contains a variety for forbs and shrubs from the eastern U.S., the mountains of the west, and the deserts of the southwest.

The ponderosa pine are reaching their easternmost extreme over here and are fading out into scattered stands and isolated seedlings. Buffalo roaming across the prairie help keep the pines at bay, as does the constant wildfires the region experiences.

Hilina and Linda crossing the prairie
Hilina got a little tired after about 1.5 miles and it was naptime
Beautiful green ash in full autumn slendor

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