Adopting a Cinderella Ecosystem: A Tale from the Great Plains

James Locklear, Lauritzen Gardens

While our plant conservation work is primarily focused on individual at-risk species, Lauritzen Gardens has taken on an unanticipated role as authority and advocate for one of our region’s most biodiverse but underappreciated ecological systems. Sandsage prairie is a shrub-steppe community dominated by sand sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia). Sandsage prairie occupies an estimated 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of dune habitat in the Great Plains, but discontinuous distribution across the more remote and thinly-populated regions of eight different states masks its significance. Our relationship with this ecological system began a decade ago by conducting rare plant surveys in the sandsage region of Nebraska. Determining conservation strategies for these species required insight into the ecology of sandsage prairie that was lacking in the scientific literature. Subsequent range-wide research by Lauritzen Gardens led to the first comprehensive publication on the structure and dynamics of sandsage prairie vegetation. Expanding on this work, in a soon-to-be-published paper we enumerate for the first time the significant plant and animal diversity supported by sandsage prairie and argue that this neglected ecosystem is a biodiversity hotspot for the Great Plains worthy of landscape-scale conservation efforts.