Nine-Mile Prairie sometimes is called a biological treasure.
It is an apt description of this important but underappreciated remnant of virgin prairie, according to David Wedin, University of Nebraska–Lincoln ecosystem ecologist and director of Nine-Mile Prairie.
The 230-acre site is unique because it is one of the largest high quality, intact tracts of tallgrass prairie left in the Midwest and a nationally important outdoor laboratory for grassland studies, Wedin said. More than 390 plant species and over 80 species of birds have been observed on Nine-Mile Prairie. These include the federally threatened prairie white fringed orchid and the rare regal fritillary butterfly. It also is a seed source for grasses and wildflowers for regional prairie restoration.
Most of Nine-Mile Prairie has never been plowed. A small area was farmed in the 1940s but since then all of it has been left in its natural state. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986.
Nine-Mile Prairie is so named because it is approximately 9 miles northwest of Lincoln. It is managed by the University of Nebraska with the stipulation that it be kept in its natural state and used for education and research.
The education ranges from 4th graders having a “prairie experience” to university students identifying plants, learning about the importance of biological diversity and gaining a better understanding of climate change. The prairie is also the setting for public tours and special events to foster understanding and appreciation of Nebraska’s prairie heritage.
Studied longer than any other natural area in Nebraska, Nine-Mile Prairie was the site of pioneering plant ecology research. University of Nebraska Professor John E. Weaver and his students did early research about grasslands beginning in the 1920s.
“Now the research includes everything from basic ecology to different kinds of spiders,” Wedin said.
Additionally, prescribed burning approximately every three years helps maintain the native prairie vegetation and adds knowledge about the grasslands' resilience.
“Many of the management approaches we use, such as prescribed burning, are used in both pristine areas such as Nine-Mile Prairie and in working grasslands and rangelands across Nebraska,” Wedin said. “Nine-Mile Prairie is an important benchmark of how a natural grassland works.”
Prairie stewardship is the responsibility of the Nine-Mile Management Committee, which includes university faculty from several departments and representatives of several natural resources- related agencies and organizations. Oversight is the responsibility of the university's Center for Grassland Studies in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
More information about Nine-Mile Prairie is at grassland.unl.edu/nine-mile-prairie.