Starting near the Texas-Oklahoma border and running South through Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio lies the narrow band of blackland prairie. It is characterized by tall grasses, very few trees, and rich, dark soil. The blackland prairie is a type of tallgrass prairies, an ecosystem that ranges from Texas all the way up into Canada. Like all tallgrass prairies, the blackland is a disturbance ecosystem, meaning that it depends on periodic wildfires and bison grazing to clear away the trees and make room for grasses. What makes the blackland prairie unique, however, is its high biodiversity. Due to the varied geology underlying Texas, blackland prairies cover a range of different soil types, with each one harboring its own unique plant community.
Native Americans lived in the blackland prairie for thousands of years before the first Europeans. They hunted bison and other grassland mammals, and some sources believe they set many of the fires that kept the prairie grassy. In the nineteenth century, Europeans began to colonize the prairie. The first settlers Early settlers used the tall grasses to graze their cattle because the grasses’ deep roots kept them from breaking up the soil to plant crops. Steel plows first made it to the prairie in the 1870’s and wrought havoc on the ecosystem. The plows rendered accessible to agriculture the rich blackland soils. Cotton grew marvellously in the “black gumbo,” and for several decades, the blackland prairie region produced more cotton than anywhere else in the world. The prosperity, however, was short lived: tilling the soil resulted in massive amounts of erosion and unsustainable farming practices quickly depleted soil nutrients. By the 1950’s, most of the cotton farms had been abandoned. Even the areas left as cattle pastures watched their productivity and biodiversity fall off due to overgrazing and encroachment from woody plants.
Today, less than 1% of the original blackland prairie remains. Most of it is on private property and areas managed by the Nature Conservancy. Almost all of the land in Texas is privately owned, so the future of the blackland prairie lies in the hands of landowners across the state.