Grasslands, pollinators and our health

By Deacon Tom Cervone, Ph.D., Sister Maureen Houlihan, D.C., and Nicole Cervone-Gish, Ed. M.S. 

Our Mother Earth

Editor’s note: This series takes a deeper look at Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical On the Care for Our Common Home, “Laudato Si’”.

Grasslands go by different names. In the U.S. Midwest, they’re called prairies; in South America, pampas; in Central Eurasia, steppes; and in Africa, savannas. What they all have in common are perennial, bunch grasses (little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass) and wildflowers (milkweed, coneflowers, sunflowers). 

Prescribed fires conducted by authorized and trained personnel are essential to maintaining prairies and killing tree saplings before they produce seeds. Fires also clear out ground litter so sunlight can reach prairie plants, with roots of some prairie plants extending 10 feet or more into the soil keeping plants protected from fires. One excellent example of a prairie is Kankakee Sands (Visit - Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands, 2021, The Nature Conservancy) including its grazing American bison.

About one quarter of Earth’s land is covered with grasslands. Many of these grasslands have been converted to farmland because their rich black soils (with soil carbon) and other nutrients are great for growing crops. For this reason, the Indiana State Wildlife Action Plan identified grassland habitat loss as the largest habitat decline in the state.

Grasslands are important because they absorb water; recharge groundwater; reduce flooding and run-off into streams; keep watersheds free of pollutants; and serve as habitat for many animals. Many of our most vulnerable species live in grasslands. Examples are bobwhite quail, Henslow’s sparrow, loggerhead shrike and ring-necked pheasant. Some species no longer exist in Indiana, like the greater prairie chicken. Its last sighting in Indiana was 1972 (Greater Prairie Chicken, Tippecanoe Audubon, posted June 21, 2012).

There is hope with Indiana DNR’s plan to establish more acres of new grasslands, which will benefit threatened and endangered species and pollinators. Pollinators are any animals (bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, beetles, birds and mammals) that help carry pollen to the female part of the same or another flower. 

Did you know grasslands are globally important, because they are natural carbon sinks? These ecosystems capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and act like forests, oceans and wetlands, capturing and storing this heat-absorbing molecule. “A study from the University of California, Davis, found grasslands are more resilient carbon sinks than forests” (Kat Kerline , July 9, 2018). Also ― did you know about 15% of Indiana was once grassland with less than 1,000 acres left today (Our Land, Our Literature: Environment – Tall Grass Prairies)? 

Indiana DNR is making a difference though in more grasslands with its 2015 Grasslands for Gamebirds and Songbirds (GGS) Initiative. Its goals are to:

  • develop and improve grasslands and pollinator habitats
  • improve soil health and water quality
  • promote species diversity
  • grow outdoor recreation opportunities
  • enrich human health
  • increase funding to local economies
  • preserve cultural heritage

By preserving and developing more grasslands, we improve air and water quality, and protect soils, plants and animals. Through many years of conversion into farmland, grasslands have decreased in size and number causing a loss of vulnerable species like the Monarch butterfly, rusty patched bumblebee, grasshopper sparrow and many others. Fortunately, the Indiana DNR manages and restores grasslands for birds and other species on public land and private land.

What can you do? 

Dr. Tom Cervone is a deacon at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Evansville, Indiana with 50 years of experience in ecology. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan University. Sister Maureen Houlihan, D.C. is a support sister on the Seton Harvest Farm started by the Daughters of Charity in response to the Communities - Care of Mother Earth. This CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farm grows all natural produce for shareholders and the poor. Nicole Cervone-Gish, Ed. MS. is an award winning ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, who lives in Evansville, Indiana with her family.