Photo of the Week – April 17, 2015

We are behind on our burn schedule this year.  The weather hasn’t been great for carrying out safe and effective burns, so we’ve only gotten a few done.  Our prescribed fires are always part of broader management plans, often including cattle grazing, so we have specific objectives for when and how we want a site to burn.  Some plans call for a dormant season fire, other call for a growing season fire.  This spring, we’re already transitioning into the growing season and still have some dormant season fires that we didn’t get done between November and March.  That means we’ll have to adjust our management plans for those properties (as we often do).

During periods of wild weather variability such as those over the last several months, completing a burn is even more satisfying than normal.  Here are a couple photos from a recent fire we used to set up patch-burn grazing and facilitate over-seeding of a degraded prairie.

Mardell Jasnowski lights a "flanking head fire" at a recent burn in our Platte River Prairies.

The Nature Conservancy’s Mardell Jasnowski lights a “flanking head fire” at a recent burn in our Platte River Prairies.

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Here, Mardell is waiting for the rest of the crew to catch up to her.  The ATV driver is pulling a trailer of water and spraying the fire to keep it from creeping into the mowed firebreak.

After the fire is over, the crew relaxes and discusses what went well and what didn't.

After the fire is over, the crew relaxes and discusses what went well and what didn’t.  We share crews with several partners along the river.  In this case, we had help from the Central Platte Natural Resources District.

Posted in Prairie Management | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Introducing: The Prairie Word of the Day

I’m sure many of you are as tired of this blog as I am.  The same old nature photos, natural history, prairie management/restoration information…  It just drones on and on.  Honestly, I don’t know how you manage to drag your eyes through most of my posts.  How much prairie stuff can one person read about, after all?

(…Yes, I’m kidding – there is no limit to how much prairie information one person can read about.  And I am not at all tired of this blog… though you certainly might be, I don’t know.)

Well, the blog isn’t going away anytime soon (why, what have you heard??)  But in an effort to keep it from growing stale, I’m introducing a new feature called “The Prairie Word of the Day.”  …Yes, I know –  a titillating title, isn’t it?  It ought to be, it took me about three months to refine it.  It’s pithy, catchy, and descriptive all at once.  Or at least descriptive.

As with any field, prairie ecology is full of jargon; words that make sense to those of us who spend most of our waking hours thinking about prairies but make no sense to anyone else.  I try hard not to use to much prairie jargon in my posts, but I slip up now and then.  Sorry about that.  There are a lot of fun, but confusing, prairie jargon words out there, so I thought I’d highlight one now and then and try to explain what it means.  I would love to hear nominations from you as well – what undecipherable words do I or others use when talking or writing about prairies?

Ok, without further ado, the inaugural Prairie Ecologist Blog Prairie Word of the Day is:

Tiller

Sure, everyone knows what a tiller is, right?  You use it to prepare your garden for planting.  Or, if you are a pirate, you might use it to steer your ship.  (If you are a pirate and read this blog, PLEASE let me know.  Prairie-loving pirates is a demographic I would love to reach out to.)

However, if you are REALLY into prairies or botany, you might be familiar with a third definition; one that is related to grasses.

Tiller

Although it is used somewhat inconsistently, a tiller usually refers to the aboveground shoot of a grass.  In other words, if you were to look closely at a grass plant you’d see that most of them have multiple stems at their base.  Each of those stems is a tiller.  Usually, the term tiller only applies to shoots that emerge from buds at the base of other tillers, not from seeds.  Thus, when a grass seed germinates and starts to grow, the first shoot that pops out of the ground is not a tiller.  It’s just a shoot.  I guess.  But after that, every new shoot that comes out of the ground from that plant is a tiller.

Tillers are primarily important, as far as I can tell, because professors like to make graduate students count them.  As in, “Hey Sara, take this 1 x 1 meter plot frame out to that prairie, lay it down and count the number of grass tillers inside it. (snicker)  Then do that 99 more times. (guffaw!)  Then we’ll move on to the next prairie.”

Grass greening up in the Derr Sandhills about a week after a prescribed fire.

The tillers of this bunchgrass are all bunched together.

 

A related botanical prairie word is “sward” which basically means a bunch of grass.  Well, not really a “bunch” because that’s its own term (grasses like little bluestem are called bunch grasses because they grow their tillers tightly together and look neat and tidy, as opposed to grasses such as prairie sand reed that across the prairie like they own the place).  A better way to describe a sward, then, is that it’s an area of grass.  However, I don’t think there’s any restriction on how big that area of grass has to be, which makes the term less useful.  That’s probably why you don’t hear it used very often.  Except by grassland poets trying to rhyme something with “charred”.  As in, “Lo, the land was black and charred.  No trees remained throughout the sward.”

There are an awful lot of tillers in this sward.  Too many to count - even for a graduate student.

There are numerous tillers in this sward. Too many to count – even for a graduate student.

If botanists were funny, they might say something like, “Arrr, Matey!  Take over the tiller smartly while I decide whether to shoot this lubber or run him through with my sward.”

(I’m kidding, of course.  Botanists can be very funny.  Sometimes on purpose.  Also, many are quite hirsute.  Except on top, where some are pretty glabrous.)

Well anyway, that concludes the first ever installment of The Prairie Word of the Day.  I hope it was instructive.  Please nominate terms (in the comments section below) you’d like to see included in future Word of the Day posts and I’ll try to use as many as I can.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Pretty but Powerful

Because they can’t run away, plants may seem helpless against the many large and small herbivores that like to eat them.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

This caterpillar may appear to be chewing on a helpless plant, but most plants are not as helpless as they seem.

The plant this caterpillar is chewing on may not be as helpless as it appears.

Many plants have physical defenses such as thorns or stiff hairs to deter animals from eating them.  Grasses contain varying levels of silica, which can increase the abrasiveness of their leaves and help make them more difficult to eat and digest.  In addition, the chemical makeup of many plants helps make unpalatable or toxic to potential herbivores.  While herbivory is certainly a major threat, plants also have a variety of defenses against pathogens (diseases).  If you’re interested in more background on this topic, here is a really nice overview of plant defenses against both diseases and herbivores.

A the stiff hairs on plants such as black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) can make them more difficult for some herbivores to eat.

A the stiff hairs on plants such as black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) can make them more difficult for some herbivores to eat.

Within the last couple of years, there have been a couple of published studies that highlight some fantastic strategies plants use to defend themselves.   In the first of those, German scientists studied a wild tobacco plant and found that when it is attacked by a caterpillar the plant releases a chemical that, in turn, attracts a predatory bug to eat the caterpillar.  The production of the bug-attractant is triggered by the caterpillar’s saliva.  Essentially, then, the caterpillar sets off an alarm that calls in predators to eat it.  How cool is that?

A second study, done at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that a species of mustard plant could detect the vibration signature of a caterpillar chewing on one of its leaves.  When the plant identified that signal, it increased production of chemicals that make its leaves taste bad to herbivores.  Researchers were able to replicate and reproduce the vibrations and trigger the response in the lab.  They also showed that other kinds of vibrations did not cause the plants to defend themselves, so the chemical production appeared to be a direct response to herbivory.

Cattle and other large herbivores have to deal with a number of plant defenses, from silica and other compounds that make plants difficult to eat and digest to chemicals that make them bad tasting or toxic.

Cattle and other large herbivores have to deal with a number of plant defenses, from silica and other compounds that make plants difficult to eat and/or digest to chemicals that make them bad tasting or toxic.

These and other research projects help show that plants are not at all defenseless.  Not only do they have strategies to make themselves more difficult to eat (toxins, spines, etc.), they can also respond when they are attacked.  In prairies, there are numerous examples of plants defending themselves in interesting ways, including sunflowers that produce sweet stuff to attract predatory ants and grasses that increase their silica content under intensive grazing pressure.

Of course, herbivores have evolved their own tricks to counter all those plant defenses. Several insect species, for example, have developed ways to deal with the toxins produced by milkweed plants and happily munch away on leaves that would kill other insects.  Now its the milkweed’s turn to (through natural selection and over many years) come up with a response to that response.  The world is pretty fascinating, isn’t it?

So, the next time you’re walking through peaceful-looking prairie on a pleasant morning, remember that those little plants you’re crushing beneath your feet may not be as helpless as they appear.  Sure, those plants are mostly fighting back against animals trying to eat them, but you may still find yourself an accidental victim of their defense strategies.  Experienced hikers are well acquainted with the abrasive edges of grass leaves and the sharp spines on species such as roses and cacti.  At one time or another, most of us have blundered into a patch of nettles or poison ivy.

No, plants are certainly not helpless.  Let’s just be thankful they haven’t (yet) figured out how to chase us down.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Photo of the Week – April 3, 2015

A month ago, we apparently had a large number of white winged visitors hanging around our Derr Wetland Restoration.  I only know this because our timelapse cameras picked them up.

Snow geese.  March 3, 2015.  3pm.

Snow geese. March 3, 2015. 3pm.

Snow geese are common along the Platte River in the late winter and early spring.  Flocks of tens or even hundreds of thousands of birds are frequently seen, resembling huge white clouds of feathered chaos.  Except, of course, that chaos is not the right word since the geese seem incredibly adept at avoiding collisions as they swirl up and down between earth and sky.

Although it was somewhat less impressive visually, another photo from the same cameras showed two bigger white birds in our wetland a few weeks earlier.  Trumpeter swans are rarely seen in our neighborhood, so it was a real treat to know they’d recognized our restored wetland as a good place to hang out.

Trumpeter swans on the restored Derr Wetland.  February 13, 2015

Trumpeter swans on the restored Derr Wetland. February 13, 2015

We can’t (unfortunately) be out at the wetland every minute of the day, so we miss a lot of action. Even though our timelapse cameras only fire once an hour, it’s amazing how much we can learn from them.

(Thanks, as always, to Moonshell Media for their help with our timelapse project.)

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Media Coverage of Our Restoration Work

Our friends at Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT) created a very nice radio piece about our restoration work that aired on NET Radio (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications) today.   The link below includes that audio, along with a transcript and short video of our staff harvesting, mixing, and planting seed.  You can also see video of me describing what we’re doing and why.

It’s always difficult to distill the complexities of land management and restoration into sound bites and video clips, but this was a very good description of our work.  I really appreciate the time and consideration that Ariana Brocious, Peter Stegen, and others at PBT put into this project.

If you’re interested, you can see and hear the story HERE.

Ariana Brocious (with headphones) and Pete Stegen (green coat) collect audio and video footage as we prepare to overseed a degraded prairie back in January of this year.

Ariana Brocious (with headphones) and Pete Stegen (green coat) collect audio and video footage as we prepare to overseed a degraded prairie in January of this year.

 

 

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Tuning Out and Tuning In

It had been way too long since I’d taken the kids camping.  Earlier this month, however, I managed to get two out of three of them to come with me and we had a great overnight trip to our family prairie.  We go out to our prairie – and other natural areas – pretty frequently, but there’s something extra special about camping.  Maybe it’s the collaborative work needed to set up housekeeping, and tend to basic needs such as food, fuel and shelter.  Maybe it’s the opportunity to slow down and spend time with family away from all the distractions at home.  Maybe it’s the chance to see the stars, listen to wildlife calls, and experience other nature-at-night phenomena that we usually miss by being at home in our beds.  Maybe it’s all those things and more.

(Ok, who am I kidding?  It’s mostly the chance to play with a campfire – at least from my boys’ perspective!)

Against my better judgement, the boys talked me into setting up camp at the bottom of a draw (there was zero chance of rain, fortunately).  One advantage of that location was that we had enough trees to support our hammock.

Against my better judgement, the boys talked me into setting up camp at the bottom of a draw (there was zero chance of rain, so I gave in). One advantage of the location was that we had enough trees to support our hammock.

Anyone who has been camping knows that food always tastes better when cooked on a campfire.

Everyone knows food always tastes better when cooked over a campfire.  We had to have two fires so the boys could “work” with one while I cooked on the other.

We filled our time with simple but profound activities.  We practiced a little archery.  The boys took turns lying in the hammock.  We poked around down by the pond.  Supper was cooked on sticks held over a fire.  When the sun went down, we walked into the prairie, laid down beneath the stars and let ourselves be swallowed up by the universe.  We identified a few constellations and saw either a satellite or the space station, but nobody really cared about identification.  After playing some cards in the tent, we listened to coyotes, owls, turkeys, frogs, and some passing cranes as we went to sleep and woke up the next morning.  I figured the boys would enjoy a chance to sleep in, but well before sunrise they woke me and pushed me out into the cold morning to get a fire started.  (Did I mention the boys like campfires?)  Breakfast was unhurried and delicious.

We weren't remote enough to escape lights from nearby towns, but we still had a pretty great night sky show to admire.

We weren’t remote enough to completely escape lights from nearby towns but we still had a pretty amazing night sky to admire.

I brought along some loppers and saws for cutting small cedar trees out of the prairie, figuring that if the boys got bored we could at least be productive.  As it turned out, they didn’t get bored and we didn’t accomplish anything productive.

Except that we did.  We really did.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 26, 2015

Despite snide comments from certain friends, I do – now and then – take photos of subjects other than insects and plants…

As I write this, the annual sandhill crane migration phenomenon is taking place on Nebraska’s Platte River.  The river valley abounds with tall gray birds feeding in crop fields and meadows and the sound of calling cranes fills the air.  I haven’t had a lot of time for crane photography this year, but have managed to pull the camera out of its bag a few times.  A couple weeks ago, for example, I was in a riverbank viewing blind with a group of birdwatchers, watching cranes coming in to their river roost against a rose-colored post-sunset sky.  The muted light made photography difficult, but I managed a few photos, including the one below.

Sandhill cranes landing on the Platte River, where they will roost overnight.  Because of low light levels, this photo was taken with an ISO of 2000, making it relatively grainy.

Sandhill cranes landing on the Platte River, where they will roost overnight. Because of low light levels, this photo was taken with an ISO of 2000, making it relatively grainy.

After the light and color faded a little more that evening, I decided to try a short video.  If you have never been to the Platte River during this time of year, this will give you a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to watch cranes coming to the river in the evening.

Watching cranes drop into the river at sunset is fun, but I prefer to visit them in the early morning as the roosting birds start to wake up and get ready for the day.  We have to sneak into the blind well before daylight and it’s often difficult to tell how many birds are on the river until the growing light slowly reveals their shadowy outlines.  On a good morning, we may have 10-20,000 birds or more within view as the sun comes up.  The sight and sound of those birds is astounding.  As the sun rises and the air warms up, the activity level of the birds increases, and we get to see a great deal of social behavior – preening, pair-bonding and courtship “dancing”, and aggressive posturing.  The short video below documents that kind of increasing activity through one morning this spring.

I am grateful to have a front row seat to an annual ecological phenomenon that draws birdwatchers and nature lovers from around the globe.  The sound of sandhill crane calls is a pretty great soundtrack to my spring.  The only regret I have is that the majority of crane-watchers never get to see the Platte River Prairies during the summer when – though we have no cranes around – our grasslands are teeming with the sights and sound of birds, insects, flowers, and generally spectacular prairie life.  Please come visit!

Flying cranes silhouetted against the dusk.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Flying cranes silhouetted against the dusk. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  March 2015.

 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

From the Ashes

Last Friday, I wandered through the small prairie we burned back on March 10.  Even though it is still very early spring, there were already a number of prairie plants popping out of the ground.  I posted photos of this site right after the fire was completed.  Today, I’m posting some photos taken 10 days later at the same site, along with some discussion of the impacts and effectiveness of prescribed prairie fires.

Purple poppy mallow (Calliroe involucrata)

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) begins its new year of growth.

Most prairie plants grow from belowground buds, making them much less vulnerable to fire than trees and shrubs, which start their new growth above ground – from buds at the tips of branches.  When fire burns woody plants, those aerial buds and living tissue are destroyed, stressing the plants and forcing them to start over from ground level.  However, fire (at least during the dormant season) simply burns up the old stems and leaves of non-woody prairie plants, causing no injury.  Instead removing those dead stems helps stimulate growth in the coming season, especially via increased sunlight, which warms the ground and is available to new shoots as they first emerge.

Scribner's panicum (Panicum oligosanthes), a native cool-season grass.

Scribner’s panicum (Panicum oligosanthes), a native cool-season grass.  In this photo, you can see that the tips of the grass leaves had just started to grow when the fire came through ten days earlier.  Since the leaves grow from the base, those burned tips don’t impede plant growth.

Increased sunlight hitting the ground has helped the small area we burned on March 10 green up much faster than unburned prairie nearby.  Our main objective for the fire was to remove thatch in order to improve the effectiveness of planned herbicide treatment/re-seeding of some smooth brome patches within the small prairie.  The brome is responding very strongly to the fire, and its rapid growth (and the absence of thatch to intercept spray droplets) will make the grass more susceptible to our herbicide treatment.  However, since many other plants are also popping up, we’ll carefully spray only the thickest patches of brome where no other species are growing.

Green sage (Artemisia campestre)

Green sage (Artemisia campestre) growing next to its old stem from last year.

Prescribed fire can be a useful tool when trying to temporarily flip the balance of power from cool-season invasive grasses (smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, etc.) to native warm-season grasses (big bluestem, indiangrass, etc.).  However, timing is critically important.  A dormant season or early spring fire is actually counterproductive unless it is followed by herbicide treatment, mowing or grazing.  Those early fires stimulate the growth of cool-season plants – including smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass – giving them a big advantage over later-season plants which won’t start growth until late April or early May.  By the time those warm-season plants start growing, the early plants will have had a month or more to extract soil moisture and nutrients, and will be big enough to dominate competition for light and root space.

If we’d wanted to suppress smooth brome solely with fire (and not follow up with herbicide), we would have waited until late April or early May to burn.  That late season burn would have stressed the actively-growing brome and bluegrass and provided direct sunlight to freshly emerging shoots of big bluestem and other warm-season grasses.  More often, we combine periodic fire and grazing to suppress brome and bluegrass and facilitate greater plant diversity.

Here's one of the grasses we would like not to see coming back after a fire - Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis).

Along with smooth brome (Bromus inermis), Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) also responded well to the fire.  This particular plant will likely have a very good year, but the brome and bluegrass in the thicker patches of this prairie will be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide and re-seeded.

The regrowth of prairie plants after fire can seem almost magical.  Fire is absolutely an important natural process and a very useful tool for prairie managers.  However, prescribed fire is not magic, and doesn’t automatically lead to better prairies.  As with any tool, fire has to be applied thoughtfully (and carefully!) in order to meet objectives.

The timing of fire dramatically impacts the way prairie plant communities respond.  Early spring, late spring, summer, and fall fires each have different effects on plants, and those effects are also influenced by soil moisture, the presence/absence of grazers, and many other factors.  Prescribed fire can also have serious impacts on some animals, even during the dormant season.  Many invertebrates, for example, overwinter in the aboveground plant stems or thatch, making them very vulnerable to fire. It’s important not to burn an entire prairie at once – especially if that prairie is isolated from other grasslands.

I'm not sure what species of wildflower this is.

I’m not sure what species of wildflower this is but I’m looking forward to finding out as it gets bigger!

Fire plays many critical roles in prairie ecology – suppressing woody plants, removing thatch, stimulating microbial activity, aiding in nutrient cycling, and more.  However, while fire is important and its effects are both useful and aesthetically pleasing, it is not automatically positive.  Safe use of prescribed fire requires training, experience, and caution.  The effective use of fire requires clear objectives and careful planning that ensures those objectives will be met.

As I’ve discussed before, the actual process of conducting a fire can be very stressful.  However, once the smoke clears and I can relax, its easy to appreciate both the beauty and ecological benefits of prairie fires.  The emergence of bright green prairie plants through black ash is one of my favorite sights, and I love watching plant and animal communities respond and adapt to changing habitat conditions.

In prairies, rising from the ashes is more than a metaphor – it’s a way of life.

 

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 19, 2015

Proof that I’m a biologist:  While driving along a gravel road near our shop this week, I stopped and backed up to see if I’d seen a small snake or just a piece of debris in the road…

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

I’m glad I stopped.  It turned out to be a redbelly snake, a species found in only a few counties in Nebraska.  I think it’s the third one I’ve found in our Platte River Prairies, dating all the way back to when I was working out here as a graduate student in the early 1990’s.

Not a lot is known about the habits or habitats of redbelly snakes in Nebraska.  When I got home with some photos, I contacted herpetologist Dan Fogell to confirm the identity of the snake and learn more about it.  Rather than getting a lot of information from Dan, he instead peppered me with questions about where and when I found the snake because he’s trying hard to gather data and better understand the species.

ENPO150315_D004

This was a big snake (for a redbelly). It was close to 11 inches in length, which is about the maximum size for this species.

 

Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

This particular snake was on a gravel road between two crop fields when I happened upon it.  The road ditches were full of old matted-down smooth brome grass.  It didn’t seem like particularly friendly habitat for wildlife.  Was the snake living in those ditches?  Or traveling to other habitat?  There was a small woodlot a couple hundred yards away, and a stream across the cornfield to the north…  We released the snake where we found her, so whatever habitat she’s looking for, I hope she finds it.

ENPO150315_D010

There are a lot of species we just don’t know much about – not just tiny invertebrates, but also relatively large (and beautiful!) vertebrates.  It’s another reminder of how important the collection of basic natural history information is.  Conservation is difficult, but even more so when we don’t even know much about the species and natural systems we’re working to conserve.

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see and admire this snake.  I hope my kids get the same chance.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Trouble With Fences

This post is written by Dillon Blankenship, one of our two Hubbard Fellows.  

Back in December we kept pretty busy with fence work. The barbed wire fences at a few sites needed to be repaired, and some had to be taken down and rebuilt from the beginning. Single wire electric fences were taken out altogether and will be replaced this spring to accommodate new grazing configurations.

The barbed wire fences we removed were old and in bad shape. Their wire was loose and rusty; t-posts were bent over or leaning.

When we acquire properties, fences are often in bad shape.  This one has multiple layers and ages of barbed wire and needs to be removed and replaced.

When we acquire properties, fences are often in bad shape. This one has multiple layers and ages of barbed wire, has shrubs and trees grown into it, and needs to be removed and replaced.

I am struck by how dramatically the landscape is changed by the mere removal of a fence. Despite the remaining row of interspersing trees or scraggly smooth brome, fencelessness returns a semblance of the infinite horizon. Of course, I want to see the trees and brome erased too, but these things take time and getting the old fence out of the way begins the process.

Even when the next piece of land is a dusty field of corn stalks – much less imposing post-harvest- the lack of fence is liberating. I am free to view the landscape as it once was and I imagine that wildlife can more freely roam about the planet.

Though it is easy to romanticize the open range, fences obviously have some utility.

Barbed wire fencing is a relatively inexpensive way of delineating property boundaries. It confines one’s own livestock and/or protects crops and pasture from being damaged (by stray vehicles, your neighbor’s cattle, etc.). In our restoration work on the Platte we use fences not just to keep cattle in, but also (using single strand electric) to manipulate where and when they graze to suit our particular management objectives – such as controlling certain plant species or promoting others while maintaining a diversity of habitat types.

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Barbed wire fence is the most common type of fence used in most pastures.  It is strong and effective.  It is also visually prominent, and whether or not it is attractive depends upon your point of view.

Though these are compelling reasons to keep fences around, I remain frustrated by the inconveniences they create. I have already mentioned the aesthetic inconvenience. To my eye – even with agriculture playing a prominent role in the landscape mosaic – the Plains look more expansive and beautiful without fence lines. The image of an unfenced pasture is striking for its rarity.

Fences can also be problematic for certain wildlife. While deer are pretty good at jumping over most fences, animals further west like bighorn sheep and pronghorn need special accommodations for safe passage. Free-roaming bison, of course, have little hope in our highly fenced world – we must confine them to their own big area saying “this is yours, but go no further.” Even birds are affected, sometimes colliding with and becoming entangled in barbed wire. Field fences, though not insurmountable, present their own challenges for ground dwelling creatures.

This duck got hung up and died on a fence along the edge of a wetland.

This duck got hung up and died on a fence along the edge of a wetland.

My biggest complaint is that fence lines are often poorly managed. They can be difficult to work around when treating invasive species, which makes them prime habitat for encroaching trees and exotic plants. Substantial tree lines are common along fences in central Nebraska. In many cases, I suspect the fence came first. While a fence itself is usually not too problematic from a grassland habitat perspective, fences that grow up with trees begin to act as fragmenting agents – deterring grassland bird nesting and generally diminishing the openness favored by grassland species.

So where does that leave us?

There are already a lot of good ways to mitigate fence impacts for wildlife – increasing visibility for birds and using smooth wire with particular spacing for large mammals. Sometimes wooden fences are better alternatives, though more resource intensive (got any spare cedars?). While these address the wildlife objection, they don’t do much for the aesthetic or management elements.

Single-strand, smooth wire, electric fences are simple and temporary, offering reprieve from the oppressive four-strand barriers and better accessibility for management – you can drop the wire and drive right across. Moreover, when you move these fences every year like we do, fence-line management is less of a problem because the following year any given line-site will be back in the management regime of fire, grazing, and manual treatment. This system suits my preferences well, but its greatest assets are also its ultimate downfall.

Even when electrified, single wire fences are often not enough to keep cows in – and, I imagine, never keep in sheep or goats. Also, deer are pretty good at going right through, knocking the wire off the insulators – which is hard to monitor when you have a lot of wire out there. I was going to say that their temporary-ness was another drawback – a guarantee that you have to work fence every year. However, tree and exotic species management need to happen every year anyway, so maybe it wouldn’t be that much work and I feel like removing 20 years of trees from an unmaintained fence probably takes much more time than monitoring and moving temporary fences.

Bison fence at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa.

Bison fence at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa.

My dream of fencelessness is really thwarted at scale. At places like TNC’s Niobrara Valley Preserve with over 50,000 acres to manage, you really just need a sturdy fence that doesn’t have to be constantly checked… or so I thought. I recently learned about innovations in fencing that have been experimented with over the last decade. I had been thinking that something like the invisible fences people use for pets might be an interesting option to scale up, but there are better systems already in play.

Instead of building (or burying) an actual fence, there are folks putting GPS collars on cows and then using digital mapping software to “draw” fences on the landscape which deliver a slight shock (like an electrified fence) when cows cross the satellite-imposed boundary. These digital fences can be placed at property boundaries, around sensitive vegetation or aquatic features, and across a pasture to suit a particular grazing regime – all with the swipe of a computer cursor. It could be modified on the fly, which is even easier now that so many people are carrying smartphones (this technology is already being utilized for things like increasing center pivot irrigation efficiency via monitoring and adaptive management). Doesn’t that sound incredible? No fences breaking up the landscape (which is aesthetic, but also means less work for ranchers), safer corridors for wildlife, less potential for tree encroachment, and better accessibility for managing invasive weeds. Cool.

The system is bound to have its own problems – technical glitches will happen on occasion (with the software or and the collars), there will be new opportunities for trouble-makers to tamper with private property (“digital cattle rustlers”), star-up costs, you name it – but I really like the potential something like this has for prairies and the ranching community.

Nonetheless, most of us aren’t quite there yet, which brings me back to the old-fashioned fence. For now I guess I’ll have to get over it and get on to other things; just manage my own fence better and become hardened to the unavoidable taunting of unnatural tree lines and fence rows on the landscape.

It feels good to vent a little bit here. As it warms up I cease writing and return to work on the post and wire repairs. I return to the prairie and reflect on these musing, “Alas, this is a necessary, if unfortunate evil” and the new fence goes up. I find solace that its days could be numbered.

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