Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Plains Pocket Mouse

This post is written by Jasmine Cutter, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  She has been studying the way small mammals use our restored and remnant prairies.

Remember when I said I was going to highlight some more of our small mammal species? Well, at long last, here’s the second installment!

The plains pocket mouse.

The plains pocket mouse (Perognathus flavescens).  So Cute!  Notice the small eyes, small ears, and white dot under the ear.  Top tends to be brown/buff-colored, with a yellowish line along its side and a white underbelly.  Photo by Chris Helzer

Arguably the sleekest and most adorable of the critters I caught, the most distinguishing feature of the plains pocket mouse (Perognathus flavescens) is its fur-lined cheek pouches. Fur-lined cheek pouches!!! Imagine if, when you opened your mouth, on each side there was a little fur-lined pouch that ran all the way back to almost your shoulders! Gives me the heebie jeebies to think about, but pretty awesome if you’re a pocket mouse. The diet of the plains pocket mice is almost entirely grass and weed seeds, and the pouches allow them to carry seeds back to their burrows and cache them.

Based on what I read, it’s thought that the purpose of these pouches being fur-lined is to conserve spit. Pocket mice and their relatives (other pocket mice, kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice) are often associated with arid environments and these critters are all extremely water efficient. The thought is that if pocket mice had a hamster-like pouch, then every time they spit out the seeds they were carrying they’d be wasting precious moisture. If the pouches are fur-lined, then no spit wasted!

fur-lined pockets

Look at those cheek pouches!  Remember, I was only holding this critter for a few seconds before I released it.  only a temporary undignified moment, and then back to the sandhills!

These adaptations help the plains pocket mice go for six weeks without water! Most of the moisture they need is obtained from seeds and their kidneys are extremely efficient. Furthermore, their habits also lend to water conservation; pocket mice spend most of the day underground in burrows where it’s cooler and more humid, they plug their entrance holes to keep in moisture (and keep out predators), and they can change slow their metabolism (enter torpor) when it’s too hot or too cold.

The other crazy thing about the plains pocket mouse is that it is not closely related to any of the other rodents* that I caught. Those other rodents  — northern grasshopper mouse, deer mouse, harvest mouse, voles — all belong to one taxonomic family Cricetidae (which includes true hamsters, voles, lemmings and New World rats and mice), whereas the plains pocket mouse is from the family Heteromyidae. Heteromyidae includes kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice, and pocket mice, though none are technically rats or mice. In fact, the plains pocket mouse is more closely related to pocket gophers than to any other rodent I caught!

This is a very simplified phylogenetic tree of the Order Rodentia. Phylogenetic trees show the inferred evolutionary relationships among species based on similarities/differences in physical and/or genetic characteristics. So whenever two branches come together, it's understood that the join represents the most recent common ancestor. FYI, there are a lot of other critters in the Order Rodentia that are not shown; there are 5 suborders I'm not showing and many branches that diverge from those suborders. Also length of lines is for convenience and doesn't represent any timescale.

This is a very simplified phylogenetic tree of the Order Rodentia. Phylogenetic trees show the inferred evolutionary relationships among species based on similarities/differences in physical and/or genetic characteristics. So whenever two branches come together, it’s understood that the join represents the most recent common ancestor. FYI, there are a lot of other critters in the Order Rodentia that are not shown; there are 5 suborders I’m not showing and many branches that diverge from those suborders. Also length of lines is for convenience and doesn’t represent any timescale.

All this is very interesting, but doesn’t help you identify a plains pocket mouse if you saw it in the field… In my mind, its key identifying features include its small size (usually 7-15 grams, 99-150mm nose to tail tip), small ears usually with a white dot below them, grooved upper incisors (if you hold them by their scruff, you’ll see a line down each upper incisor), and of course, their cheek pouches! They tend to be dark on their back, with a yellowish (“buff-colored”) line on their sides and white/pale underneath.

They are most frequently found in (usually sandy) areas with friable soil. Sandhills are a good bet, as are other fields that have open sandy patches, especially ones that are grazed so they’re more open. In general, plains pocket mice seem to prefer sparsely vegetated areas (hopefully my data will test whether that holds up on our properties).

The author collecting vegetation data for her small mammal research project.

The author collecting vegetation data for her small mammal research project.  Photo by Chris Helzer

In terms of why we care about them, well, they have awesome cheek pouches and barely need any water!!! What else do you want?? Just kidding, there are many more reasons why it’s worth paying attention to them. Most importantly, we still don’t know that much about them. Not a lot is known about their mating or winter habits, and until recently there were sizable gaps in our understanding of their distribution in Nebraska (see Geluso and Wright 2012).

The plains pocket mouse can be found throughout the Great Plains – from Northern Mexico to Minnesota and the Dakotas; yet, it’s local distributions are less well understood. There also seem to be noticeable differences between critters on the western end of their range and the eastern end. So much so, that there are two recognized subspecies of the plains pocket mouse. There is a western subspecies, P. f. flavescens and an eastern subspecies, P. f. perniger.** The eastern subspecies is considered rarer and has been deemed a Tier 1 At-Risk species by the Nebraska Game and Parks Natural Legacy Program.

Look!  A photo of me taking a photo of a pocket mouse!

A photo of me taking a photo of a pocket mouse!

Our Platte River Prairies are right at the edge of the alleged dividing line between the range of the western subspecies and the range of the eastern subspecies, which makes it an especially interesting place to study them. Are we seeing the eastern subspecies, or the western? At this point, the answer seems to be “yes!” Hopefully our population(s) will help the experts to parse the differences between the two subspecies and their range. Trying to define ranges is always tricky, especially because sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a species is actually not in a place, or if people just haven’t looked for it there.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot more work to do! It’s exciting to study a critter that is still fairly enigmatic, and I’m excited to see what future studies discover both in terms of life history knowledge and range/subspecies questions!

* Rodents are from the Order Rodentia, i.e., all the critters I caught except the shrews, the weasel, and the frog.

** The differences between the subspecies are very nuanced and my previous description (and pictures!) should still allow you to identify them as a plains pocket mouse.

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 27, 2015

Here are two photos that are completely unrelated to each other.

Why?  Because I feel like it.

So there.

An old truck in a snowy prairie.  Leadership Center Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska.

An old truck in a snowy prairie. Leadership Center Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.  February 2015.

Long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

Long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.  August, 2014.

Ok, I guess both photos were taken in a Nebraska prairie.  That’s makes them kind of related, right?

5 points to anyone who can come up with other good (or at least funny) suggestions of relationships between the two images.

Have a good weekend.

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Ice Jam Flooding

As I mentioned last week, recent ice jams on the Platte River caused some flooding in some of our prairies.  I was able to photograph the flooding from a couple perspectives.  On February 5, we got some aerial footage with our drone, and then late last week, I walked through some of the flooded area after most of the water had receded.

This road was closed due to flooding.  Everything to the right (north) of the road is prairie.

This road was closed due to flooding. Everything to the right (north) of the road is prairie.


Another shot of the same area from higher up.  The river can be seen at the very left edge of the photo.  A windmill can be seen in the prairie near the right edge.

This was and will be an ecologically-interesting event from several standpoints.  Floating ice and ice jams have been an important component of the Platte River ecosystem for a very long time.  Ice likely played a critical historic role by helping to scour vegetation from sandbars, allowing that sediment to be carried off and deposited elsewhere, and creating valuable habitat for many species – including the ducks, geese, cranes, and other water birds that pass through during migration.  Today, we see much less of that scouring and many sandbar islands and banks have become relatively permanent and covered by trees and other perennial vegetation.

river channels

River water flowing through prairie.  Most Platte River floodplain prairies still have their river-formed topography of sloughs (old river channels) and ridges (old sandbars).  During the flood, many of those sloughs became active (albeit temporary) river channels again.

Before the Platte River’s channels were stabilized and restricted to their current locations by human activity, ice jam flooding might have been an important driver of the shifting of channel locations over time as well.  This year’s flood created new river channels through floodplain prairies and woodland, but as the water receded, it returned to its stabilized channels.  Historically, the river was a broad series of braided channels, and flood events would have changed the shape and location of those channels frequently – though I don’t know how important ice jams were relative to annual high flows from Rocky Mountain meltwater.

I have a few predictions about how this year’s flood will impact prairies, but they are just educated guesses….

The grasslands that were covered by water for a few weeks will get a boost in their soil moisture for this upcoming season.  We’ve had a relatively dry winter, so that soil moisture should create some very different growing conditions for plants in flooded versus non-flooded prairies.  Depending upon a number of variables, flooded areas might also retain more standing water in sloughs, creating valuable habitat for many wildlife species.


Floodwaters carried grass and other debris into fences and pushed them right over.

The flooding carried more than just large chunks of ice out of the river and through the prairies.  It also picked up and carried downed trees and branches, along with other assorted buoyant objects, natural and man-made.  In addition, the ice and water scraped vegetation from some places and deposited it elsewhere.  We burned a portion of prairie last year and left it ungrazed as a seed harvest site, so it was covered in tall big bluestem and other grasses.  The ice essentially shaved some of that area as it came through, scraping away most of the standing vegetation and leaving behind a site that now looks as if it had been intensively grazed.  That shaved off grass was deposited further downstream along obstacles (such as fences) and in high spots as the water levels dropped.  As a result, some areas of prairie are now covered by a foot or so of fairly dense thatch.  It will be fun to watch how that thatch affects vegetative growth and wildlife use.


This area was burned last spring and ungrazed.  Before the flood, it was a stand of tall dense big bluestem and other tall grasses.  The ice and water essentially shaved the tall stems and leaves off and carried them away.

This Canada goose appeared to view the

This Canada goose decoy appeared to view its new surroundings with equanimity (look it up, Dillon) after being deposited by receding flood waters.


A second decoy looked a little less at ease.


This layer of flood-deposited thatch is about a foot thick.  It will be interesting to see what impact it has on vegetation beneath it.

I’m guessing most of the impacts of this flood will be positive, or at least interesting, from a land management standpoint.  One exception is that we’ll have some fairly major fence repair to do this spring.  A bigger concern is a potential influx of invasive plants carried in to our prairies as seed or vegetative material from the river.  Phragmites, reed canarygrass, and purple loosestrife are probably the most likely and potentially serious invaders, but others such as Canada thistle, salt cedar, and Russian olive are also possible.  We’ll need to be vigilant over the next few seasons to make sure we catch new populations of those invaders before they can become well-established.

This ice

Ice fields like this make it difficult to travel across the prairie and get a full picture of what was flooded and what wasn’t.

Once the remaining ice melts away,  we’ll get out and explore more of our flooded areas.  After we have mapped out (at least generally) the boundaries of the flooded areas, we’ll watch and evaluate what impacts the ice and water actually have on the prairie this season and beyond.

And then we’ll  see how good my predictions are…

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Photo of the Week – February 20, 2015

Nebraska’s Central Platte River always becomes a focus of attention about this time of year as migratory ducks and geese descend upon the river by the thousands and millions, followed shortly after by a half million sandhill cranes.  This year, the river grabbed our attention a little early when ice jams shunted flowing water across several thousand acres of nearby land, including some of our prairie.  I’ll provide some more descriptions and photos of that event next week, but for today, here are two images I took yesterday as I walked around an ice field sitting on top of that prairie.

(And don’t worry, the flood shouldn’t cause any major damage to the prairies, though we’ll be watching closely for a potential influx of invasive plants brought in by the water and rebuilding a few fences.)


A crust of ice across the top of a prairie slough cracked apart as the water receded beneath it.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.


A prairie slough, normally a groundwater-fed wetland, flowed with river water for a week or so during the flood.



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More Timelapse and More Wetland Restoration

Having just downloaded nearly two months of images from the timelapse cameras at our Derr Wetland Restoration Project (I showed photos and video from this site last week as well), I went through the images to see what stories the photos might tell.  Long term, of course, those images will help show changes in water levels, habitat conditions, and many other aspects of the site, but even in the short term, the timelapse images tend to have interesting stories to tell.

Canada geese on the Derr Wetland Restoration.

Canada geese on the Derr Wetland Restoration.  January 24, 2015.

This batch of photos showed the wetland hosting quite a few Canada geese.  That’s not a new occurrence – I’ve shown that in prior posts from this timelapse project.  However, it’s good to see them back again this winter, especially because much of the wetland has become more fully vegetated during the last couple of years, and I’m glad they weren’t just coming to hang out on bare sand.  Comparing this year’s photos to the photos in that prior post also shows that the water level in the wetland is considerably higher this year.  Some of that is because of this winter’s high groundwater levels, but it’s also because the beavers have a couple of big dams just downstream of these images.

Another interesting story from this batch of photos has to do with ice.  This wetland is valuable habitat for many species because of its relatively consistent water availability – water levels go up and down, but I’ve never seen it completely dry, even during some pretty severe drought conditions.  However, the wetland is also valuable because the strong groundwater influence at the site means the wetland rarely freezes completely over (water flowing from underground helps keep the water temperature warmer than if the water was just sitting on top of the ground).  Among other things, this means there is usually a place for waterfowl to land on open water during the winter months.

The site does freeze over at times, however, and apparently it can happen pretty quickly.  The following two photos were taken 15 hours apart, and the first photo shows completely open water on one evening and the second shows the site nearly frozen by the next morning.  The temperature dropped significantly overnight, but the speed at which the wetland surface froze still surprised me.

photo 1

5 pm. January 31, 2015.  32 degrees F and 6 mph wind.  Ice free.

photo 2

8 am. February 1, 2015.  10 degrees F and 35 mph wind.  Two inches of snow and nearly complete ice cover.  Clicking on photos will bring up a larger and sharper version of them.

Only a few tiny areas of open water remained after the cold night.  The ice was thick enough, at least in places, to support the huddled group of geese near the right side of the photo.  The wetland remained in this mostly (but never completely) frozen state for a few days, but by the morning of February 4 a line of open water appeared along the main stream flow corridor, and by February 6 the big numbers of geese returned.  The  photo below was taken on February 7.

geese again

Geese again  February 7, 2015.

The geese apparently adapted to the freezing of the wetland just fine, though I’m very curious to know where they went during the five days they were gone.  I’d also like to know why they felt it was ok to return when there wasn’t enough open water for all of them to swim in, and it looks like most of them just stood on the ice anyway!

Regardless, one of the fun things about timelapse photography has been the ability to see changes – sometimes very rapid changes – in the habitat conditions at places like this wetland.  Sometimes, those conditions can literally change overnight!

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Why Does Plant Diversity Matter? Help Us Figure It Out!

How important is plant diversity in restored prairies?

Are diverse prairies more resistant to drought and invasive species than less diverse prairies?

How does plant diversity influence invertebrate communities and their ecological functions?

These kinds of questions have been the focus of multiple research projects in our Platte River Prairies over the last decade or so.  We have numerous restored (reseeded) and remnant (unplowed) prairies that provide excellent field sites, and have also established two sets of experimental research plots to help focus specifically on questions related to plant diversity.  Those plots are 3/4 acre (1/3 ha) in size and represent varying levels of plant diversity, allowing us to investigate the functional differences between them.  Researchers from the University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, the University of Illinois, and Simpson College have been involved in data collection efforts so far.

2013 photos from

2013 photos from our experimental research plots.  The plots from left to right were planted to a monoculture (big bluestem), a low diversity mixture (mostly grasses and a few late season wildflowers) and a high diversity mixture (100 plant species).  We are investigating functional differences between these kinds of plant communities.

Craig Allen, Leader of the Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, and I are hoping to take the next step in these efforts by bringing on either a PhD or Post-Doctoral Research Associate.  We have data to build upon, including some intriguing results regarding invasive species and insect herbivory rates at varying levels of plant diversity, but want to greatly expand upon those data.  If you or someone you know is interested in these kinds of questions, please read below and contact Craig or me with questions.

Here is the official description of the position:

Ph.D. or Post-Doctoral Research Opportunity:  Grassland diversity, restoration and resilience

Ph.D. graduate research assistantship or Post-Doctoral Research Associate.  Available starting in May 2015, to investigate the relationship between grassland restorations and ecosystem services and resilience.  The assistantship (or Post-Doc) is with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, working closely with the Nature Conservancy scientists and resource managers.   The research project will include a synthesis of literature to identify prominent knowledge gaps related to the restoration of grasslands and resilience.  In addition to synthesis, field work will occur on a suite of restorations in central Nebraska.  Some questions of interest are listed below, but ultimately, successful candidates will be expected to develop a specific research project(s).  The candidate could approach this project from a broadly ecological, or botanical, or entomological frame.

The successful applicants will be highly motivated, with a strong work ethic, strong and demonstrated writing skills, a passion for field work, and the ability to work in collaboration.  Experience in restoration ecology is helpful, but not required.  Ph.D. applicants should possess a M.S. in Wildlife, Biology, Zoology, Botany, or Entomology, or a related field and have a valid driver’s license.  Post-doctoral applicants should possess a Ph.D.

Interested applicants should send a cover letter, names and emails of 3 references, GPA and GRE scores, and an updated CV as an electronic PDF or Word document to Craig Allen,

Review of applications will begin March 15 and continue until a qualified candidate is identified.  For more information on the Nebraska Coop. Unit and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln please visit us at:

Applicants should also review:

Specific projects could include all or part of the following:

Relationship between restoration diversity and ecosystem services, such as invasion resistance and herbivory; interactive effects that might mediate some resilience properties; responses to multiple disturbances; how invasions might weaken the ability to cope with disturbance; microbial diversity and ecosystem function and services; response to pulse and press disturbances and mechanisms driving responses; functional trait diversity and redundancy and resilience.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 12, 2015

Last week, Jasmine (one of our two Hubbard Fellows) and I spent a morning at the Derr Wetland Restoration here in the Platte River Prairies.  We wanted to get some photos and video of the site before the latest snow melted.

…Ok, to be honest, we were mostly hoping to test out the capabilities of our new drone (UAV).  Two of our Nebraska board members, Jim and Nancy Armitage, donated the funds to purchase the drone as a way to help us better capture our sites and the work we’re doing here in the state.  We’re just starting to figure out the potential for drone photography, but I sure like what I see so far!

Here is a short 3 minute video of footage shot from the drone, followed by some still photos from the same morning.  Both the aerial video and still photos provide powerful images, but the video certainly captures the context of the site in a way that’s not possible for me as I walk along the ground with my camera.  I think the drone is going to be an awesome complement to the other ways we photograph and monitor our sites – it’s going to be exciting to keep exploring the possibilities.  Stay tuned for future videos!

Click here to see the video on YouTube.


Tracks of a river otter sliding across the ice/snow.  No, I didn't see the otter.  Thanks for asking.

Tracks of a river otter sliding across the ice/snow. No, I didn’t see the otter. Thanks for asking.

Canada goose tracks were all over the site, along with coyote, mink, rabbit, and many others.

Canada goose tracks were all over the site, along with coyote, mink, rabbit, and many others.

Photographing from the surface of the ice provides a neat perspective of the wetland, but a very different one from the drone's aerial view.

Photographing from the surface of the ice provides a neat perspective of the wetland, but a very different one from the drone’s aerial view.

A final ice-level photo.

A final ice-level photo.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Concerns about EARTH A New Wild’s Messages About Grassland Conservation

I know that many of you watched the first two episodes of EARTH A New Wild last week on Public Television, including Episode 2: Plains.  I watched as well, and while I was glad for the attention paid to grasslands, I also had some concerns about the content of the Plains episode.  If you didn’t see it, you can watch it here.

The recent measles outbreaks in the United States have been the topic of much discussion lately.  While there is a great deal of finger pointing going on regarding vaccinations, I worry that a bigger issue is being ignored; in today’s noisy world, it is very difficult for the public to know what information is based on good science and what is not. The growth of the anti-vaccination movement is a good showcase of the issue, but the problem is much broader, spanning topics from climate change to dietary supplements.  It often seems that anyone with charisma and/or a loud voice can gain credibility and a following, especially if they are promoting a message that feeds people’s fears or tells them what they want to hear.  Cutthroat politics and a desire among media outlets for provocative stories both stoke the fire, and there is almost no way for the average citizen to sort truth from propaganda.

As a scientist who spends a lot of time and effort communicating about science, this is something I really struggle with.  I try really hard to present only the best information I can, and to distinguish between facts, assumptions, and opinions.  At the same time, I do have an agenda – I want to see prairies conserved, and I feel strongly that factors such as biodiversity, habitat heterogeneity, and ecological resilience are critically important.  While there is a lot of research that backs up those assumptions, I still have to acknowledge my biases, and I try to be careful not to pass off opinions as science.  It’s very difficult.

All of this is leads back to my main topic of this post; my disappointment in the Plains episode of EARTH A New Wild that aired on Public Television last week.  I was disappointed with the program because I thought it presented a very one-sided perspective on some ideas, and their promoter, Allan Savory, that are very complex and widely disputed. To be fair, the narrator of the series, M. Sanjayan, did mention that Savory and some of his theories are controversial, but not that numerous scientists and studies have actually contradicted those theories.  Instead, he appeared to endorse Savory’s ideas, and much of the episode explored how they could be applied in grasslands around the world.  I welcome any attention paid to prairie conservation issues, but I felt the Plains episode led people to believe that the strategies it advocated were better supported by science than they really are.

My intent with this blog post is not to discredit or disprove the theories and ideas promoted by Savory or the Plains episode.  Instead, I want to provide additional information that I hope will help round out some of the topics presented in the episode and facilitate a productive discussion among those who watched it.  The following are a few pieces of information I feel are important to be aware of as you consider the potential value and application of the ideas presented in last week’s show.

Controversy over Savory’s Big Ideas

  • Allan Savory gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk back in 2013 that gained a lot of attention because of its assertion that “planned grazing” was necessary to reverse desertification and climate change. In fact, he claimed that his method of intensive, concentrated grazing is the only viable solution to reverse those two processes.  The most specific rebuttal (among many) to that talk was published by five eminent grassland scientists in a Society for Range Management journal (Rangelands 35(5):72-74. 2013).  The rebuttal addresses each of the main claims made in the TED talk and refutes them.  Unfortunately, the article is not available online to those who don’t have a subscription allowing access to SRM publications.  A brief summary and links to some responses to the rebuttal are included at the end of this post if you’re interested.
  • There were many other critiques and rebuttals of Savory’s TED talk, including one by George Monbiot in The Guardian and another by James E. McWilliams in Slate.  Both echo many of the points made in the Rangelands rebuttal, and also provide links to other information, including numerous scientific studies that refute both Savory’s TED talk claims and the broader success of his Holistic Management grazing practices.  You can read a rebuttal to Monbiot on the website of the Savory Institute.
  • To be fair, it’s important to separate Savory’s “bolder” theories about desertification and climate change from his more moderate Holistic Management and planned grazing ideas, which have been incorporated by a segment of the ranching community across the world.  Among other things, Holistic Management encourages careful planning and monitoring, which is certainly positive, but its proponents also tend to promote the use of higher stocking rates than many rangeland scientists feel are sustainable.  The results of scientific studies evaluating the results of Holistic Management and planned grazing have been decidely mixed.  Some studies have supported Savory’s theories, but many others showed that planned grazing either didn’t deliver the promised benefits or performed less well than other grazing systems.   As is typical in the scientific process, more data needs to be collected and research projects need to be repeated to resolve the inconsistent findings so far.  In the meantime, however, it seems premature to conclude that Savory’s grazing strategies are obviously and significantly better than other options.
  • Allan Savory is vocal about his distaste for the use of fire for managing grasslands and excludes it from his land management recommendations. Coincidentally, there was no mention of fire in the entire Plains episode, despite it being one of the three major forces that control grassland ecosystems (along with grazing and drought).  An example of Savory’s thoughts on fire can be found in a quote from An Overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making from the Savory Institute’s website, which says that fire “pollutes the atmosphere and exposes soil contributing to desertification/climate change.”  Climate change and its contributing factors comprise a very complex web, and I sure can’t say that fire is not part of that web, but it’s also important to consider the way fire affects carbon in the atmosphere, a topic I covered in an earlier blog post.  Of course, fire can have both negative and positive consequences, as can any management tool, depending upon the way it is applied.  However, most people working in prairie conservation feel that prescribed fire is a very important tool, and there is abundant research that supports that view.  One synthesis of that research can be found here, and Chapter 4 (page 29) deals with central North America, in particular.

The Complex Issue of Prairie Dogs

  • During the segment on prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, the Plains episode highlighted the ability of prairie dogs to increase the health of grasslands. They create habitat for other species by burrowing, and grazing/clipping of vegetation by prairie dogs can increase the forage quality of grassland areas.  All of that is true and important.  However, research also shows that prairie dogs can change the composition of a plant community in ways that lower forage quality and/or quantity available for livestock and other animals.  As a result, there is strong evidence that prairie dogs can compete with livestock for forage.
  • I was disappointed that the Plains episode focused only on the positive aspects of prairie dogs, especially because it also talked about (and showed) ranchers working to eradicate prairie dogs without really explaining why.  Balancing the ecological benefits of prairie dogs with the economic impacts they can have to ranchers is a key component of prairie conservation in North America.  It is a complex and multi-faceted issue that requires understanding and empathy on all sides if it is going to be resolved. Here are links to two recent research publications that highlight the complexities of the prairie dog issue.  The first is publicly accessible, but the second is only available to those who have journal access subscriptions.  Thank you to my friend Stephen Winter for providing these citations.

Both Savory and Sanjayan are charismatic speakers, and very effective salesmen.  The ideas presented in the Plains episode of EARTH A New Wild are attractive because they appeal to our romantic sense of balance in nature, and imply that we can play an important role in re-setting that balance.  I agree that large predators are key components of ecosystems, and that we should find ways to live with them when it’s possible, and attempt to replicate their role when it’s not.  However, I felt the Plains episode unnecessarily focused on a very narrow set of theories and proposals for grassland conservation; a set built upon widely and vigorously challenged assumptions.  I am very optimistic about our ability to conserve our grasslands and other ecosystems, but doing so will require robust and well-rounded conversations and a wide range of strategies.  As we continue those conversations, it will be imperative that we are upfront with each other about which strategic options are based on good science and which are not.


Here are the main points from the rebuttal to Savory’s TED talk that was published in the journal Rangelands.  The rebuttal essentially focuses on Savory’s presentation piece by piece, including:

1) Pointing out the fallacy of Savory’s statements that all non-forested lands are degraded and that rangeland science fails to either understand the reasons for or to be able to mitigate that degradation;

2) Laying out the physical impossibilities of Savory’s claim that changing the way grasslands are managed could solve climate change;

3) Pointing out that photos were the primary evidence used to support Savory’s claims of restoring degraded grasslands and that several of the photos he used either had a different grazing history than Savory claimed or were from a completely different location than Savory stated.

4) Refuting Savory’s statements about the benefits of hoof action breaking up biological crusts in desert grasslands  to increase water infiltration by pointing to the well-studied ecological roles (protecting soil from wind erosion and carbon loss) played by those same crusts.

For those of you who do have access to the Rangelands journal, I hope you will read not only this rebuttal article, but also a response from Richard Teague and the subsequent response to that critique.  In addition to providing context around Savory’s climate change and desertification theories, the series of three short articles also provides an excellent synopsis of the many arguments among scientists trying to understand the complexities of grazing management.



Posted in General, Prairie Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 5, 2015

Snow!  The long range forecast last fall called for a wet winter, but we’ve had very little snow so far.  This week, we finally got a couple good snow storms (and two days of cancelled school).  However, the high temperatures is rising into the 50’s (F) tomorrow and it will be warm all weekend, so the snow will be short-lived.

I took my camera for a short walk after each of the snows this week, and managed to get a few photos (mostly close-ups, of course).  Here are three of them:

Frost on prairie grasses.  Leadership Center Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

Frost  and snow on prairie grasses. Leadership Center Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.

Ice on the seed head of switchgrass.  Leadership Center Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

Ice on the seed head of switchgrass. Leadership Center Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.

A small aster (or relative) flower poking out of the snow at sunset.  Springer Basin Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.

A small aster (or close relative) flower peeking out of the snow at sunset. Springer Basin Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.


Posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Seeing Past the Ugliness

I’ve spent much of my career restoring prairie, and I gain immense satisfaction from watching bare ground turn into beautiful prairie.  Following the lead of Bill Whitney and Prairie Plains Resource Institute, we have tried to harvest seed from as many plant species as we can for those prairie restoration projects, often collecting from more than two hundred species.  As a result, most of our restored areas are full of color and beauty throughout the growing season.  It’s a pleasure to walk through those areas, photograph them, and take visitors out to see them.

Our restored prairies can be very beautiful.

Our restored prairies can be very beautiful.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

However, not every square foot of our restorations is lush and beautiful.  In fact, some areas are pretty ugly; dominated by weedy species and abundant bare ground.  Those are the areas I don’t usually take visitors to see, and when I walk or drive through our sites, I tend to either avert my eyes or just avoid traveling past them in the first place.

It’s actually not my fault those areas are ugly.  I tried to make them beautiful…  I seeded them with dozens of showy wildflower species, but none of them took.  I re-seeded many of them, but nothing changed.  The alluvial soils beneath our lowland prairies were deposited by old river channels meandering across a broad floodplain, carrying and dropping many layers of sediment.  As a result, our sandy loam soil consists largely of a thin layer of sandy topsoil (4-8” or so) over sand and gravel.  In places, that topsoil may be a little thicker, but in other places, it’s non-existent.  That’s especially true in former cropfields that were scraped flat to aid irrigation, but even in unplowed prairies, there are strips of coarse sand with little or no organic matter – and that’s where my ugly patches are.

weedy patch

This little ugly patch is part of a restoration in its twelfth year of establishment, but it is still dominated by annuals, including annual brome, black medick, and annual sunflower (among others).  This patch is maybe an acre in size. Most of the rest of the planting looks very nice, though there are other ugly patches scattered throughout.

There are few plant species that can grow in almost pure coarse sand.  During periods of relatively consistent rainfall, seeds can germinate and plants can grow, but when the rain stops, most of those plants wither and die once the last of the soil moisture is used up or drains away.  Plants in these sites tend to grow and bloom during the spring, which is typically our wettest season, and then die or go dormant during the hot summer when rainfall is more sporadic. Our ugly patches are largely dominated by species such as daisy fleabane, annual sunflowers, annual bromes, buffalo bur, black medick, sweet clover, mullein, and “rougher” grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass or tall dropseed. While some of them are exotic species, most of those are either innocuous or already common throughout our sites, so it’s not like the ugly patches are breeding evil invaders.  They’re just ugly.

Ok, hold on a minute…

Ecologically, of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with these areas.  The plants in those coarse sandy soils are exactly the ones that should be there, given the options available.  Just because they are not species often considered to be attractive, or even desirable from some people’s aesthetic viewpoints, they are still the right plants for the job.  Not all are native, but none are problematic in those little patches where very little else can grow anyway.

Hoary vervain (purple) helps trace the outline of this ugly patch, which is also filled with species such as sweet clover, tall dropseed, and Kentucky bluegrass.

Hoary vervain (purple) helps trace the outline of this ugly patch, which is also filled with species such as sweet clover, tall dropseed, and Kentucky bluegrass.

The primary objective for our restoration work is not to create pretty flower gardens; it is to create new prairie habitat that expands and reconnects formerly small and isolated prairies in a fragmented landscape.  To be successful, those restored areas need to be floristically diverse enough to provide for communities of pollinators, herbivores, and other organisms that rely on that kind of diversity.  They must also provide habitat that allows the plants and animals in adjacent prairie fragments to expand their range into, and through, our restored areas.  Larger and more connected habitats facilitate larger and more connected populations of prairie species, making those populations more viable.  We don’t want to precisely replicate the habitat in nearby prairie fragments, we just want our restored habitats to be useable by the species living in those fragments.  In fact, we hope our restored areas provide some complementary conditions – valuable habitat types that might not exist in the prairie fragments.

According to those criteria, our “ugly” patches are perfectly fine.  In fact, they add value to our restored prairies.  A prairie planting that is relatively uniform in plant composition and structure throughout would be much less useful in terms of habitat diversity.  The bare ground in the sparsely-vegetated “ugly” patches provide great places for invertebrates and reptiles to sun themselves.  They are also excellent brood-rearing habitat for quail, prairie chickens, upland sandpipers and pheasants, whose chicks can’t move through dense vegetation but still need overhead cover from predators.  Pollinators probably find our “ugly” patches quite beautiful when they are filled with resource-laden annual sunflower or hoary vervain blossoms, and even less popular species such as daisy fleabane offer food value for at least some insects.

fleabane a

While daisy fleabane is not usually found on lists of species to plant for pollinators, it does provide food for many insects.

Intellectually, I know these rough-looking areas aren’t truly ugly, and I am glad to have them, but my mind doesn’t always think intellectually.  As the person who collected and planted many of the seeds for our restored prairies, I sometimes catch myself thinking of them almost as gardens, or even works of art.  (I imagine architects rarely take visitors to the furnace rooms or utility access areas of the buildings they design, though they certainly appreciate their value.)

Putting ourselves in the role of artist or gardener is a trap many of us can fall into, but it’s a dangerous trap indeed.  The greatest risk is that aesthetics start to guide the way we design and manage restored sites.  We could, for example, devise seed harvest strategies that emphasize greater collection of seeds from big showy plants and minimize harvest of plants with less aesthetic value.  Even worse, its tempting to avoid defoliating prairies during the peak flowering period of our favorite flowers, even though we know periodic mowing or grazing has no long term impact on their populations.  It can also be tempting to spend time removing plants we think are unattractive or undesirable, even though they don’t actually cause any harm (e.g., exotic plants that aren’t truly invasive).  Since I’ve never met a land manager who feels he/she has enough time or resources to deal with the invasive species they have, wasting effort on the removal of non-invasive species is just silly.

Here in the Platte River Prairies, we’ve been very careful to set and follow clear ecological objectives for the restoration and management of all of our sites.  We consider habitat diversity and availability rather than blooming periods of attractive plants as we devise annual management plans, and we harvest seed from every plant species we think can play an important role in our restored prairies (excepting those species we know will colonize on their own).  However, I still find myself tempted to chop down any “ugly” plants I come across while I’m out on musk thistle patrol.  I was also appalled to find that I had almost no photographs of the “uglier” patches among our restorations when I started working on this post (but lots of photos of “pretty” patches).   Clearly, I’m not immune to the gardener/artist mentality – I just resist it the best I can.

P.S. We also have other scattered “ugly” patches in our prairies caused by factors such as high soil nitrogen or grazing/loafing patterns of cattle.  While I don’t often photograph them either, they are just as valuable as the ones featured in this post – they add to the heterogeneity of our prairies.  Next time you stop by, remind me and I’ll show them to you.  That’ll be fun…  


Posted in Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , | 25 Comments