Chris Newbold over the last approximate 16 years has worked to reconstruct prairie land in eastern Callaway County at the Prairie Fork Conservation Area. His efforts were recognized Aug. 28 during a virtual awards dinner of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.
Newbold is a natural history biologist from Boonville with the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Central Region. He is based in Columbia and his work is tied to either restoring or reconstructing prairie land in Central Missouri. He received the Bill T. Crawford Prairie Professional of the Year Award.
“I was proud to receive it. It is nice to be recognized by your coworkers and peers,” Newbold said.
Prairie Fork is a 900-plus acre reconstruction project, which means transforming former agricultural land back to tall-grass prairie. His focus is on the plant life. Restoration is done to an area of remnant prairie that has degraded and needs rehabilitation. Remnant prairies are land areas relatively untouched by European settlers moving to Missouri between 300-400 years ago.
“[Prairie Fork] was donated to the Missouri Department of Conservation and another part was donated to the Missouri Prairie Foundation,” Newbold said.
While the land was donated around 2000, the reconstruction project did not start until sometime in 2004, he said.
“We are doing a lot of invasive species control,” Newbold said. “We go out to a lot of remnant prairie sites to collect native remnant seed throughout the year and then we do a lot of site preparation work and then we plant those acres.”
With Newbold’s restoration and reconstruction projects, he also hopes to rebuild the Regal Fritillary butterfly population on Missouri prairie lands. The butterfly is listed as a species of conservation concern, according to a status assessment report provided by Newbold. Its main food source is a variety of prairie violets, which Newbold has not had the ability to source enough seed to effectively plant the flowers at Prairie Fork and other locations.
“Regal Fritillaries are tied to remnant prairies that still have that prairie violet plant community,” he said.
The reconstruction of Prairie Fork has been relatively successful despite this, he said. He and other conservation staff have collected around 250 native seeds to repopulate the conservation area’s plant life. Around 190 have taken hold, Newbold said.
“We kind of have really completed the plantings,” he said. “There are still native things that are hard to collect, hard to grow or we can’t figure out why they aren’t doing well that are missing from that community.”
That doesn’t stop Newbold from trying, though.
Since plant life is returned to Prairie Fork, it is now time to focus on fauna, he said. This includes insect recolonization and other creatures.
“We recently reintroduced crayfish frogs over there, which is a grassland obligate species,” Newbold said.
The work doesn’t stop, he said, referencing people who ask when the project will complete.
“We are always learning pieces of the prairie system that are missing that we want to try to learn how to do a better job of re-establishing,” Newbold said.
Missouri remnant prairie land is relatively irreplaceable, he said. When an area loses a prairie, it nearly is impossible to get all of the native species of plant life back, he said.
“We try to do the best job we can with the knowledge we have. That is where the continual learning process comes in,” Newbold said.
The work Newbold has done was featured in the March 2020 edition of Restoration Ecology, a journal from the Society for Ecological Restoration. He wrote the article with Brian O. Knapp of the University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources and Lauren S. Pile of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Newbold conceived the project and collected and organized the data. Knapp and Pile analyzed the data and all three wrote and edited the article.
“The paper was specific to evaluating different site preparation methods and what was most effective in the prairie reconstruction process,” Newbold said. “It also tracks how that prairie reconstruction progresses.”
The work he is doing could eventually help restore the Regal Fritillary butterfly, if not at Prairie Fork, but at other areas with enough acreage to support the species. A lot of remnant prairie land with the butterfly’s food source are too small — 40 acres or fewer — to support a thriving population. Most of the population is in Western Missouri, but is in danger due prairie land reductions, Newbold said.
The butterfly’s typical habitat is tall-grass prairies. Historically, they were in the midwest to the east coast, Newbold said. Now, however, it is less likely to find them east of the Mississippi, he said.
Because of their low population, they are part of a petition to be added to the endangered or threatened species list.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing a status review, which means they are looking at if it is warranted to list the species,” Newbold said.
Knowing there still is a population in Missouri, Newbold set about analyzing the distribution and how common the butterfly is on the prairie.
“My contribution is more from a statistical, counting standpoint,” he said.
So, he developed a sampling protocol to get population estimates and distribution through an easy-to-use method. He is working with the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg to help with survey data, which has found the butterfly populations do move among remnant prairie lands that have their food source.
“It doesn’t have to be done by censusing or survey experts, it can be done by citizen scientists,” Newbold said. “We are still evaluating how effective it is, but it seems to be doing what we want it to do.”
If Newbold is able to collect enough prairie violet seed to make it like a crop at Prairie Fork, that would make it a potential site to reintroduce Regal Fritillary butterflies.
“We have to solve that first because it is their host plant,” he said.