How Should Landowners Evaluate Their Prairies?

This week, I’ll be attending the annual Tallgrass Prairie Seminar in southeastern Nebraska.  The meeting is organized by Kent Pfeiffer (Northern Prairies Land Trust) and other staff of the Tallgrass Prairie Partnership office in Beatrice.  One of the best things about the seminar is that well over half of the 100 or more participants are private landowners (the remaining are mostly agency biologists).  I always enjoy talking with landowners about their prairies because it helps remind me what’s important to them.  I already know what I want to see happen in the prairies I manage, but every landowner has their own individual goals for their prairie.  Many rely on their prairies for at least some income, and that plays a large role in determining their annual management strategies.  However, almost all prairie landowners (that come to this seminar) are also very interested in the wide variety of species, from pheasants to bees, that live in their prairies.

As I was thinking about going to the seminar this year, I started thinking about how landowners measure success related to prairie management.  When I wrote my recent book on prairie management, I felt like some of the most important portions of the book were the ones that dealt with setting objectives and evaluating whether or not management strategies were helping to meet those objectives.  Unfortunately, those were also the hardest for me to write. 

Measuring success is really difficult for professional biologists, let alone landowners with much less formal training in science and monitoring techniques.  In my book, I tried to suggest some examples of fairly simple, but effective, methods of monitoring the biological diversity of prairies, the response of the prairie to management, and threats such as invasive species.  While I think my suggestions were useful, they were also relatively vague.  I’ve thought a lot about the subject since and feel like it’s worth revisiting. 

Biologists find it very difficult to evaluate prairies. It can be time consuming and expensive, and it is also difficult to design evaluation strategies that really measure the right things. (Biologists from the Illinois Natural History Survey collecting data on prairie plants)

What I’d really like to do is lay out some brief ideas in this blog post and get feedback from those of you who read it.  I’m hoping that you’ll help me refine some of my thoughts, and that you’ll add to my short list.  I’d really like to hear from landowners, as well as biologists.  The overarching goal here is to come up with an array of measures that can help track how a prairie is doing.  (Is the prairie maintaining or increasing its diversity of plants and insects?  Are invasive species increasing or decreasing?  etc.) The evaluation techniques need to be effective, but also accessible to biologists and non-biologists alike.  They also need to be logistically feasible, and can’t take too much time or money.  Should be easy, right?

Here are some ideas I have.  I wouldn’t expect anyone to employ all of these, but rather pick and choose the ones that are most feasible for them, and the ones that best meet their individual objectives.

1.       Measuring the number of plant species – at multiple scales.  Counting plant species can be a challenge because of the relative difficulty of identifying plants (especially when they’re not blooming) and because the total number of species in a prairie can be very high.  While it can be interesting to keep a comprehensive list of the plant species in a prairie, the primary value in doing that is probably to help the prairie owner learn plant identification.  However, I think it can be more useful to count plant species at a much smaller scale – at the 1m2 or ½ m2 scale, for example.  A landowner could walk around the prairie and stop in 10-20 random places and simply count the number of different plant species he/she sees within a plot frame laid on the ground.  Identifying the species by name is not necessarily important – just counting the number of DIFFERENT species within the plot is the key.  If grass species are too hard to separate, even just counting the number of broadleaved species would probably work.  I’ve seen some interesting fluctuations in species numbers at this scale as a result of different management techniques, and I also think it can be a useful measure of long-term trends in plant community changes.  Establishing permanent plots and counting the species in those each year would be even more valuable – but more difficult as well.

2.       Tracking rare plant species.  This can be very difficult to generalize because every rare plant species is so different.  Prairie fringed orchids, for example, may bloom one year but not for the next several, and that may have almost no relationship to management.  Some rare plants may occur in only a single patch each year, while others may be spread thinly across an entire prairie.  I think it can be valuable, however, for a landowner to identify rare plants that are in their prairie, and find a way to track them – even if it’s as simple as walking the prairie during the time that plant blooms each year and estimating the number of individual or patches of plants.  Keeping track of long-term (not short-term) changes in abundance can be important.

3.       Tracking insect abundance/diversity.  Because of the incredible diversity of insect species, their wild fluctuations in numbers from year to year, and the difficulty in identifying species, I’m having a hard time coming up with a reasonable method of tracking insect diversity over time.  I like the idea of something simple – like putting out several types of sticky traps and counting the number of different-looking insects they find.  I’m just not sure that would be very effective at detecting changes over time.

I wonder if it would be useful to select a couple of common wildflowers, one that blooms in the early summer and one in the early fall, and count the number of pollinators visiting them?  A landowner could select 5 different plants and estimate the number of different species (and total number) of pollinators that visit each plant during a 10 minute interval. 

Other ideas I have, but don’t really feel comfortable with, involve things like counting spider web numbers on dewy mornings, and the number of galls on goldenrod and other plant species.  Bill Whitney, of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, has talked in the past about being able to hear the difference between a nice prairie and a CRP field because of the cacophony of insect sounds in a prairie, but I’m not sure I can translate that into an evaluation method!  I could really use some help on this…

4.       Counting Grassland Bird Species.  Yes, I just wrote a blog post on how poorly grassland birds work as indicators of prairie quality.  However, they CAN be useful when they’re only a part of a larger monitoring regime – and birds are relatively easy to identify.   I think just counting the number of grassland bird species (those that actually nest in prairie vegetation) across a prairie can provide useful information about the functional size of a prairie and the types of available vegetation structure. 

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the grassland breeding bird species least sensitive to prairie size.

An absence of grassland nesting birds can indicate that a prairie lacks the habitat size or distance from edges necessary to make them feel comfortable nesting there.  Species such as dickcissels and red-winged blackbirds are some of the least sensitive to prairie size, and upland sandpipers, Henslow’s sparrows, and bobolinks are among the species generally considered to be more sensitive.  Seeing only species that aren’t sensitive to prairie size could indicate that a prairie is too small or skinny for those species.  It could also indicate that there are too many trees (or not enough area that is far away from trees) for those species to be present – and that might be something that management changes could fix. 

However, birds also rely on habitat structure, so those needs have to be factored in when interpreting results of bird counts.  For example, if a landowner only finds 3 species of grassland birds each year, and all three tend to nest in the same type of vegetation (short/sparse or tall/dense) the prairie is likely pretty homogeneous in terms of habitat structure.  On the other hand, if there are about 3 species each year, but the species change from year to year, the prairie’s habitat structure type is probably changing from year to year as well.  Ideally, it’d be nice to see more like 5-8 species of grassland breeding birds each summer, and to see them in different locations from year to year – indicating a shifting mosaic of habitat structure across the prairie, and adequate prairie size to attract those species.  Yes, it’d be nice to know whether or not they’re successfully raising broods (looking for adults carrying food to young birds could help measure that) but measuring nesting success is generally well beyond the capacity of landowners, and most biologists as well.

5.       Counting tracks in the snow.  This obviously works better in northern prairies than southern prairies, but I like the idea of somehow incorporating tracks into evaluation.  I don’t know that it has to be very rigorous to be useful.  I’ve noticed here in Aurora that the small prairies right along the edge of town have very few tracks of mice and other small mammals on the snow compared to larger prairies further from town.  My guess is that the lack of tracks in/near town is due to a combination of factors, including high predator pressure from cats, foxes, etc., frequent prescribed fires that burn all or nearly all of each prairie in the same year, and the lack of other nearby grassland habitat for mammals to recolonize from when/if the small populations in our small prairies disappear.  It seems to me that seeing an abundance of tracks (of multiple species) during the winter is a positive sign that a prairie is providing habitat and relatively low threat levels for a number of species.

Can the tracks of small mammals in snow-covered prairies indicate how a prairie is doing?

6.       Tracking Invasive Species.  Just as with rare plants, appropriate methods of tracking invasive species (plants or otherwise) will vary widely by species.  However, I do think it’s important to have some measure of whether high priority invasives are increasing or decreasing in abundance or impact.  Some species, like trees, can be easy to track just by counting the total number or the number per acre.  Others, like leafy spurge or crown vetch, may generally appear in relatively distinct patches, and can be tracked by counting and measuring the size of those patches in at least some portions of a prairie.  Invasive grasses such as smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, or tall fescue can often be so ubiquitous that there is no point in trying to count stems or measure the extent of their occurrence (because they’re everywhere).  With those species, the best measure of whether management is suppressing them or not may be to look at the species the invasives are impacting.  In other words, if smooth brome is everywhere in a prairie, it’s unlikely that management will eliminate it from much of the prairie, but if plant diversity is increasing, that may mean that management is decreasing the dominance of brome in favor of other plants. 

7.       Journal of Observations/Photos.  Finally, I strongly recommend that landowners – or any prairie manager – keep a journal of their observations each year.  It’s hard to recollect exactly how abundant a species was 5 years ago, or how a particular management treatment affected habitat structure, without some notes (and preferably accompanying photos) to record that. 

Journal notes don’t have to be extensive to be useful.  If a landowner got a particularly good kill on Canada thistle last year, writing down what they did and why they think it worked can help them figure out why this year’s treatment didn’t work nearly as well.  If there are an unusually high number of butterflies one year, jotting that down can help in future years when trying to figure out the impacts of management.  Recording general weather patterns (“it was a hot and dry summer”) can help as well.  Maybe the butterflies were abundant because of the spring weather, rather than management, for example. 

Photography can be helpful as well.  Photographs that accompany journal observations can help clarify memories of those observations later.  Some people find that taking photos from the same place, and the same time, each year can help show patterns.  I think that in some cases that can be useful, but it also takes discipline and time, so it may or may not be worthwhile for all landowners. In addition, photo points can help indicate whether or not trees are becoming more abundant, or the blooming abundance of certain flowers, but many other changes don’t show up well in photos.

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Please help me revise and add to these.  You can leave your ideas below under “comments” or “reply” so that others can respond to your ideas as well as mine.  Thank you!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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12 Responses to How Should Landowners Evaluate Their Prairies?

  1. David says:

    Chris,

    Excellent service you are providing here. It is nice to connect with like-minded people. Well done!

    1) First of all, we are still in the early stages of restoration/reconstruction on our 100-acre Wisconsin property. We look at our year-to-year progress of restoring original ecosystems back to our property. This is significant for us as most of all our remnant land is severely degraded oak savanna. Examples include wooded acres converted back to savanna structure, woodland/savanna to planted prairie edge converted from “hard” to “soft”, restoring the hydrology in ag fields and then planting the proper vegetation community. And so on. I think you get the idea, basically, looking the big-picture system restoration activities.
    2) We are always on the lookout for new species.
    3) We measure progress on invasive species control by cost, time and materials, from year to year.
    4) We conduct bird and frog call surveys. We look at species richness and amount of individuals.
    5) We create/build/restore micro-habitat areas (especially for reptiles) to help us observe these animals. Examples include basking logs, hibernaculums, sand pits, etc.
    6) We look at some “easy” items for insects. Examples include number of ant hills in a planted prairie, ground bee nests dug up by predators, qualitative assessment of the number of bees pollinating certain forbs (like cassia patches), and insect ID on certain “easy” species (mostly butterfly, dragonfly, and moth species).
    7) We assess successional vegetation communities for various ecosystems. We base this on similar areas on our property where the restoration progress is several years ahead.
    8) We monitor all at-risk species.
    9) We look economics and affordability from year to year. Are we seeing a downward trend in cost and time commitment? Do we have all the resources (capital equipment, seed sources, labor) necessary to be self sufficient? Are we making progress on affordable long-term protection for the land?
    10) Enjoyment factor. Are our property and our restoration activities making us happier? Are we able to go on walks, take in the sounds, sights and smells, and rebuild our inner self from the day-to-day grind of life? This is, perhaps, the most important measurement of success for us.

    David

    • Chris Helzer says:

      David – thanks very much for the excellent list. You’re doing some impressive work! I really like the concept of measuring progress by looking at time and money expenditures – especially in terms of invasive species control. I don’t think it necessarily replaces the need to measure impact on the ecological community in some way, but it’s a fantastic way to look at overall progress (or not). If a restoration project starts costing more each year for invasives control, that’s probably a bad sign…

      I also really like the idea of building microhabitat areas to help with inventory of species. As I understand it, the primary purpose of these isn’t to increase the numbers of reptiles etc. (though I’m sure it doesn’t hurt!) but rather to make it easier for you to see what you have. Brilliant.

      One question – do you have specific measurable objectives that drive these various monitoring strategies? In other words, is there a certain number of bird or frog species or number of individuals that you could consider to be your goal, and upon reaching that number you could declare a success? Or a certain dollar figure for annual expenditures? I ask because it’s something I struggle with in my own management. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the trajectory of things – especially with a restoration project – but at some point the trajectory will level off. How do you know whether it leveled off at an acceptable place? That’s a tough one to answer, I think, but important. We’ve set some points to shoot for with our restoration and management objectives, but I also have reserved the right to alter those as we learn more about what is or isn’t possible – and the timelines needed to get there.

      Anyway – great stuff, thanks for sharing!
      - Chris

      • James C. Trager says:

        I think it’s important to recognize that as folks begin to be aware of invasive species problems, their costs to control them will most likely rise over several years, before starting to fall. The increase in cost is a “good” thing when it is reflective of increased awareness of the threat these species impose., and greater efforts to control them.

        Another strategy is that landowners might seek out experts in various groups of not very well known and difficult to survey organisms such as reptiles, snails, mosses and the great majority of insects and spiders, etc. These experts can be invited and hosted for annual visits, of a few days duration at peak seasons, to conduct survey work that the landowners lack expertise to do on their own. (This really is not a shameless plug to get invited to do ant surveys, even though I probably ought to get out and do more of this sort of work — At the moment I have no such standing invitations, but also, not yet retired, can’t get away all that much to handle more than a very few.)

        • Chris Helzer says:

          James, I would LOVE to host you up here to help us look at whether or not our restored (reconstructed) prairies are enhancing ant populations in nearby remnants… I know you said you weren’t soliciting, but shoot me an email if you’re interested, and maybe we can figure out a way to get you up here sometime!

          Good point on the invasives issue.

          Chris

  2. David says:

    Chris,
    Yes, building microhabitat areas has helped us identify several species of turtles and snakes that had previously not been observed due to their secretive lifestyles.

    That’s a big question on measurable objectives. I feel that you answered your own question in your comment “We’ve set some points to shoot for with our restoration and management objectives, but I also have reserved the right to alter those as we learn more about what is or isn’t possible – and the timelines needed to get there.” Based on my experience, I certainly agree with your statement. Setting measureable objectives are important but they do need to be flexible in order to adapt to increasing knowledge on ecosystems, a changing environment, and changing surrounding land uses that are not in your control.

    Our overall objective is to manage for as many species as possible given the scale of our property, the current and predicted surrounding land uses, and within the ecosystem communities that were present on our property prior to European settlement. Our rationale here is that this objective allows maximum diversity, and hopefully sustainability, while accommodating the dynamic tendencies of the natural world. For example, in our case, the fluid and ever changing boundary transition areas between oak savanna and prairie. That said, we do give preferential bias to at-risk species that fit within the framework defined above. But, in general, we don’t manage to single species but rather to animal and plant communities recognizing that individual specie populations within these communities will be cyclic over time. So, how is this measured? An ecological inventory with a species list? Well, as you well know, it’s not even close to being that simple. But, my mind is simple so this remains our objective. I have not learned enough to change it. However, I do have “expectations” of what this objective looks like in my mind. Specifically, stable and diverse native animal and plant communities with “soft” and dynamic transitional areas between them. But how to measure this? I really have no idea! It hard to fit my linear thinking into a world where little is linear!

    David

  3. David says:

    As a landowner, one of the most frustrating aspects of ecological restoration is parsing out the conflicting management advice from the various camps (plant folks, bird folks, insect folks, herp folks and so on). For our own sanity, we have chosen to manage within the context of the known plant and animal communities on our property and for the “stage” of restoration that we are in and largely ignore all of this conflicting general management advice. We manage for what we know as opposed to what we don’t know or might be! For example, spending years to clear out an overgrown savanna of buckthorn and non fire tolerant trees and finally get to a stage where some herbaceous layer is starting to take hold, and then being advised you can’t burn it because there may be species present that are fire negative. While it may be true that there are fire intolerant native species present, we know for a fact that if we don’t burn it the buckthorn seed bank will quickly undue all of our previous efforts. Not every site can be grazed and continuous manual removal of woodies is not an affordable option for everyone. We also get advice for the above scenario to burn everything annually. You can probably guess which camps the conflicting advice is associated with.

    James’s statement of advising landowners to seek out experts in the various disciplines to help them with survey work is a good one. Having expert advice within the context of your property is the best possible scenario in my view. Identifying new species and their habitat needs allows the landowner to work with “knowns” rather than “could bes”. However, we have found it difficult to find experts, especially in the areas James mentioned.

    Chris, this is one of the good things about your site. It allows people who care about their natural world to learn and share ideas. You seem like an ambitious guy passionate about your work. Maybe James’s suggestion would be a good subject for a blog topic.

    David

  4. George W. Shurr says:

    Thanks for this post. As a landowner involved in management intensive grazing, I have done some “clip and weigh” sampling in an attempt to estimate our standing crop of biomass. These other monitoring techniques are interesting….hope that you got some other ideas to share.

    On a related matter, I’m looking for a data set on diversity in prairie fragments of various sizes. Do you know of a data base that might have areas and species counts?

    Thanks for your help.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks George,

      I don’t know of any good databases that have comprehensive lists of species (plants or or otherwise) linked to prairie size. I’d love to see something like that, though. Maybe someone else will see this and let us know if they know of something. My hunch is that a database like that will be most valuable by region. The number species in a small prairie in central Nebraska will likely be much less than one in central Illinois, for example. But it’d be REALLY interesting to see if there are patterns of increasing diversity with prairie size in both places. Sorry I can’t be more help.

      Chris

      • George W. Shurr says:

        Good Morning, Chris~
        Yup….the diversity/area relationships maybe will vary from region to region. But, the old island biogeography ideas of MacArthur and Wilson support your comment that diversity should increase with increasing prairie size. I’m not really in the right networks to find the needed data, but I’d appreciate it if you would “keep your ear to the ground”. I’d really like to see some area/ species plots for prairie remnants.
        Thanks~
        George

  5. Ralph A. Jones says:

    Chris, and all -

    Being influenced by my current reading of Macrowikinomics (http://dontapscott.com/books/macrowikinomics/) and its concepts of ‘mass collaboration’ (of which your blog is paradigmatic) and ‘crowd sourcing’ that is afforded to us by currently existing as well as emerging internet and web technologies, I was immediately struck and inspired by your recommendation to journalize findings, particularly those that are long term and span many years of both casual and scientific observation.

    As you know from our work relationship, I am always interested in methods of data retention that will survive the data creator. So the motivation behind my post is mostly to encourage potential electronic means of recording the data, hopefully for time immemorial, and in a manner useful and accessible to the ‘crowd’. This is a central theme of Macrowikinomics — put enough brains on a project or problem, both hobbyist and expert, and not just in your backyard but from around the globe, and some pretty fantastic results can be achieved.

    Tool-wise, it is interesting to see some of the ‘apps’ emerging. A free one that looks promising is available from ESRI (http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/smartphones/app.html). I’m confident there are things that could be done with Google Earth for data collection and retention as well.

    Repositories or potential repositories also exist. While not a direct response or resource for George’s inquiry, the Conservation Biology Institute’s “Data Basin” (http://databasin.org) may evolve as a means for perpetuating and sharing of painstakingly gathered and ‘crowd useful’ data.

    Anyway, just food for thought. I am greatly enjoying your blog.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      I just like the word “Macrowikinomics”!! (also, I’m flattered that my blog is paradigmatic. …I think.)

      Seriously – I appreciate the input. Do you think these applications and data bases (or data basins) will survive technological generation shifts? Or will smartphone apps in 30 years be like punch cards and reel to reel tapes are today? How do we know which applications or venues to invest our time and data in? I can still find old scientific journal articles from 100 years ago by going to the library. Will wiki data survive that long too?

      These are actual questions, by the way, not just snippy curmudgeon gripes. You can reply here or we can just talk about it in person some time.

      - Chris

      • Ralph A. Jones says:

        Well, curmudgeon to curmudgeon, let’s talk sometime. You’re talking to a guy who *for years* has planned to copy his ‘home movie’ VHS tapes to DVD. ;-{)> And this fully appreciating that the lifespan of a DVD is similarly limited.

        My crystal ball is without sufficient clarity to know what technologies will survive. The post-apocalypse aliens will either need to be skilled in deciphering optically or magnetically (or biologically?) stored 1′s and 0′s or otherwise decoding that which Gutenberg provided, assuming either of the two survive the irradiation. ;-{)>

        I think the Macrowikinomics view would be this — increasingly the Prairie Ecologist(s) of [insert your globally remote area of choice here] will have access to an Internet connection and may not have access to a ‘paper’ library. The Internet is now or can be the Library at Alexandria, and not just for people who can afford to travel to Alexandria. And there are some really, really smart people who cannot afford that trip.

        I suppose the purpose of my post was mostly to think about possibilities, not limitations. Like at least one of your other posters, the time demands of work life occasionally preclude what I am able to do and still have a ‘life’. ;-{)> I would *love* to work on providing the platform for the prairie-interested to compile useful data through perhaps even a fun or engaging technology. But that platform would best be the product of several, if not many, brains. My intent was simply to plant a seed. What germinates is up to the ‘crowd’.

        Let’s definitely talk, though. There is much discussion currently in technological circles within the Conservancy about ‘cloud’ computing and how we might end up there. Many futurists see this as how business and science will be done . . . sans paper. ;-{)>

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