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May 28, 2014 5:01 PM by PRESS RELEASE (PHOTO COURTESY: USGS WEBSITE)

USGS Researcher Recognized for Dedication to Coastal Prairie Conservation

USGS National Wetlands Research Center Botanist Larry Allain will receive the 2014 Prairie Excellence Award in recognition of his "tireless dedication to coastal prairie conservation through both his professional and volunteer work" according to Jaime Gonzales, President of the Coastal Prairie Partnership (CPP). The private, nonprofit CPP presents the annual award in recognition of career achievement in coastal prairie conservation, restoration, and education, and works to promote the conservation and restoration of coastal prairie ecosystems in coastal Texas and southwest Louisiana.

Allain began studying the coastal prairies of Louisiana and Texas in 1994 after visiting a proposed restoration site at Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge. The challenge of establishing a diverse native grassland appealed to him after two decades of experience as a horticulturalist. His interest was further piqued by the high diversity of insects visiting the many wild flowers, having just finished graduate research in pollination biology. In addition to restoration and management of this grassland ecosystem, his research interests eventually expanded to cover invasive species, effects of fire, and grassland bird habitat quality. Allain said, "After studying insect pollination in forests I was astounded to see the diversity and abundance of pollinators in prairie. Even in small remnants of a few acres, this rare ecosystem was teeming with plant and insect diversity."

Allain's award-winning publication, Paradise Lost: The Coastal Prairie of Texas and Louisiana, has introduced thousands of people to the wonder and plight of the highly imperiled coastal prairie ecosystem and has inspired many community members to get and stay involved in efforts to protect these special grasslands. Allain's online photographs and species descriptions serve as a baseline for botanical knowledge related to local prairies. Gonzales says that Allain's advice is sought and valued because he "possesses a deep and thoughtful approach to conservation, particularly in the area of native seed collection, propagation and usage." Allain served as one of the first board members of the CPP and is a past president of the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society.

Gonzales states, "Each generation of conservationists produces a handful of professionals whose work and wisdom far extends past their careers - we are certain that Larry Allain will be one of those select few."

Coastal prairie, listed as critically imperiled by major conservation organizations, is a native grassland found along the coast of Texas and Louisiana. It is estimated that, in pre-settlement times, there were nine million acres of coastal prairie, with 2.5 million acres in Louisiana and 6.5 million acres in Texas. Today, it is estimated that less than 1,000 acres remain in Louisiana and less than 65,000 acres in Texas. Much of it has been converted to pasture for cattle grazing, while the majority has been altered for growing rice, sugarcane, forage, and grain crops. In Louisiana, most of the remnants are found on narrow strips of land along railroad tracks and on large coastal ranches. More remains in Texas because it was used for cattle production and never plowed, however many species have been lost through overgrazing. In the past, fire would maintain the grass-dominated ecosystem by suppressing the establishment of native woody species. Besides development, overgrazing, cropping, and lack of the natural fire regime, they are threatened by exotic invasive species of plants such as the Chinese tallow tree and old world bluestems such as King's Ranch bluestem.

Coastal prairie vegetation consists mostly of grasses overlain by a diverse variety of wildflowers and other plants. Nearly 1,000 species have been identified in coastal prairie and almost all of them are perennials with underground structures which ensure survival after fire. Native Americans and European settlers in the area used plants for foods, spices, dyes, textiles, and medicines. The landscape provides important habitat for migrating and resident birds and other wildlife, as well as a unique diverse array of insects including butterflies, dragonflies, and numerous kinds of bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, beetles, and preying mantis. Twelve species of milkweed occur in coastal prairie, making the area an important element in the migration flyway of monarch butterflies.

The prairie vole and Louisiana Indian paintbrush are two plant species known to now be extinct, and many other species are now quite rare. The black-lace cactus and Texas prairie dawn-flower are the only coastal prairie plant species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species list, yet more than a dozen plant species are listed as imperiled or critically imperiled and another 15 are listed as rare to very rare. The federally-endangered Attwater's prairie chicken, North America's most endangered bird, calls the area home, as do critically imperiled animals such as the gulf coast hognosed skunk and the Cagle's map turtle.

The award will be presented to Allain at the 2014 State of the Prairie Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 30. The CPP is a collaboration of governmental agencies, non-governmental institutions, private individuals, and landowners working to achieve common conservation and education goals to help foster a more connected and empowered prairie community in coastal Texas and southwest Louisiana.

For more information about USGS NWRC's Coastal Prairie Research Program, see http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/prairie/tcpr.htm.

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