In Depth: Biology professor hopes to save endangered animals through grassland restoration

Grassland Restoration
Posted at 11:22 AM, Nov 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-26 19:27:13-05

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For just $5 and a little gas in your car, you can take a trip centuries back in time. "It’s well worth it. You go through here and see elk and bison," said one father, sitting in the front seat of their SUV with his kids in the back seat.

In the heart of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, there's a three-mile circuit that's home to elk and bison. "We have people who come every weekend," said Fritz Hashagen, a Volunteer Monitor out at LBL.

More than 200 years ago, a lot of Middle Tennessee might have looked and sounded much the same as the range. Nowadays, the only Bison around don't roam. More like, cast in stone as statues along Dickerson Pike in downtown Nashville. But the casts of buffalo do pay homage to why Nashville was settled in the first place. "All these old buffalo trails, they led to Nashville because there were these great salt licks there," said Dwayne Estes, a Biology Professor at Austin Peay State University.

Reversing History

While roaming buffalo herds are likely gone for good, the reason why they thrived here may be making a comeback, at least if Estes has anything to do with it. Estes, and his group Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, is the driving force behind and effort to reverse history. "Tennessee had 7.5 million acres of naturally open landscapes or grasslands when Europeans first came here. Today, we’ve lost 90% of that habitat," he said.

Estes says when settlers moved in, wide open savannas were either converted to farmland or were no longer burned, so trees grew in their place. In the process, it eradicated the natural habitats of many animals now on the brink of extinction. "Species like Northern Bob White Quail, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, a whole host of birds," said Estes. "If they didn’t have this, they would have nowhere to go. They have to have this kind of habitat."

Transforming the Land

Over the last few years, entities both public and private have agreed to let Dwayne transform the land. Two years ago, tech giant Google gave him 50 acres out at their Clarksville data center to convert a soybean field into a sprawling savanna. "We planted a mixture of about 77 species out here, all of which are adapted to this place," said Estes.

But that's just one site the group has restored. Over at Dumbar Cave State Park, a former hay field turned prairie is starting to reach maturity. "Already this is transformed a ton from what it looked like five years ago," explained Estes.

Not only is the grass taller, it's also thicker to allow some native species to return. "Sometimes you’ll come in, you’ll see little rabbit pellets where the rabbits are moving through here," he said.

At the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, the stunning transformation is nearly complete. "All these rare songbirds are on the upswing, bats are improving," said Estes.

Stoking Controversy

But the restoration effort hasn't always gone picture perfect. Back in October, TWRA held a public meeting about doing a similar project out at the Bridgestone Wildlife Management Area in White County. But in order to do so, TWRA would have to cut down 200 acres of hardwood forests. Most of the crowd was incensed.

"Why not leave the hard woods alone?" asked one speaker.

It also pitted hunters against hunters. "To you it’s a project, to us it’s a lifestyle," said another speaker.

Many were upset that land for deer, squirrel and rabbit hunting would be lost. "I didn’t know we were into bird watching guys, I thought we were into fish and game and other things, not bird watching. Thank you," said another concerned citizen.

The few speakers in favor were quail hunters, hopeful it would allow the Northern Bob Whites to bounce back. "You can’t find a darn quail unless you go to a preserve and you pay $400 a day," said the hunter.

Estes says he's one of the first to fight for the preservation of trees, but in this case, most of the hardwoods in the Bridgestone WMA are hurting the environment more than they're helping. "Because the species that need our help the most, are not able to live right now with that dense closed canopy forest," said Professor Estes.

Pushing forward

Thankfully, most of the projects Dwayne is involved with doesn't involve any controversy. "We’ve got some purple cone flower in here, and here’s common milkweed," the biologist told us, as he walked through one of his converted prairies.

In fact, a restoration at the Google Data Center has gone so well, soon they'll be giving Estes another 50 acres. Another chance to pay a little back into nature all that we've taken.

"It’s not just about biodiversity, it’s about American history," said Estes.

If you'd like to learn more about the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, you can visit their website here.