Prairie Dock at Twin Creek Valley

By Chad Bladow, Nature Conservancy Fire Manager

On Aug. 13, 1984, in a memo to the Indiana State Director of Nature Preserves, the state botanist describes a visit to Henderson Park owned by the City of Salem. Two limestone glades occur in the northeast quarter of the park. These open areas are recognizable by the presence of broken, shaley limestone with little or no soil, and by the presence of plant species normally restricted to a glade and barrens environment. Small barren remnants are located to the east of the southern glade. These open sites are similar to glades, except for the presence of a defined soil layer. Present here are prairie dock, puccoon, little bluestem, Indiana grass, and white indigo (Baptisia leucantha). These glades and barrens represent an exceptionally rare plant community.
Fourteen years pass by and after several attempts to set up a higher level of conservation for the glades, Allen Pursell of The Nature Conservancy successfully negotiated a conservation easement with the City of Salem in 1998. The Nature Conservancy now owns the rights to manage the glades and barrens as part of the Twin Creek Valley Preserve. An Aug. 14, 1998, environmental assessment of the area found only a couple prairie dock plants of the hundreds photographed in 1984 and no wild white indigo.
The small barrens remnant located east of the south glade had grown dense with underbrush and cedar trees. The open area was no longer recognizable as a barrens environment and the associated plants were no longer found or were found in very few numbers. As the primary target for protecting the area and being a significant loss of biodiversity, something had to be done.
Clearing cedar trees and underbrush from the barrens quickly followed the signing of the conservation easement. Volunteers completed the work by hand, cutting, dragging and piling the underbrush. The piles were burned and The Nature Conservancy completed the first prescribed fire at the site on Feb. 29, 2000.
Most of the cedar and understory clearing work was completed by 2004. The small remnant barrens area was burned again in March 2001 and March 2003. The glades and barrens are once again open and prescribed fires are being used to maintain the openings.
By 2006, the prairie dock was again growing in a large patch within the barrens remnant. At least a hundred plants were found then; however, none of them were flowering. They needed a few more years of growth before they would send up flowering stalks.
Prairie dock now numbers in the hundreds and is recovering across the barrens and glades. The hard work and cooperative effort of the City of Salem, Indiana Division of Nature Preserves, The Nature Conservancy and volunteers has paid off with the rejuvenation of this exceptionally rare habitat. The work continues today to conserve the biodiversity found at Twin Creek Valley.
The spring of 2006 was the last burn before giving the area a rest for several years to allow the prairie dock and other plants to grow. In as short as seven years the underbrush once again became dense. Two more prescribed fires in March 2013 and November 2015 reduced the underbrush.
This cycle of burning and regrowth will continue on and on. This will be necessary for the lasting conservation of the significantly rare barrens and glades found in just a few special places in southern Indiana. It will take the continued dedication of The Nature Conservancy, our partners and most importantly the support of the people who love and care for our nature world.


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