How Should We Manage Small Prairies?

Prairie management can be complicated, regardless of how big a prairie is.  Managing small prairies, however, is especially challenging, and it can be difficult to know how to set appropriate objectives – let alone how to achieve them.  Living in east-central Nebraska, I’m in the transition zone between the small fragmented grasslands of the tallgrass prairie to the east and large expansive prairies to the west of me.  Because of that, I have done a lot of thinking about what objectives and strategies might apply to small prairies, large prairies, or both.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I thought I’d lay out some thoughts and get some input from those of you reading this blog.

When thinking about small prairie conservation there is good news and bad news.  I always like to start with the bad news…

BAD NEWS

Size Restrictions

There are some prairie species that simply can’t survive in small prairies.  The prairie size limitations of birds, for example, have been well studied.  Very few bird species will attempt to nest in a five or ten acre prairie, and the few that do will likely face high predation rates.  Red-winged blackbirds and dickcissels are examples of birds that often will nest in small prairies, while upland sandpipers, bobolinks, and Henslow’s sparrows typically choose much larger prairies – perhaps 100 acres or bigger.  Greater prairie chickens need large prairies too, but chickens also need the surrounding landscape to help provide the full suite of their habitat requirements (courtship display sites, nesting areas, brood-rearing habitat, and winter cover).

The bison is another example of a prairie species not often found in small prairies.  Since bison are also livestock (outside of a few very large public refuges in the west) their need for large prairies is due to a combination of the life history requirements and the logistics of handling and caring for them.  The necessity of strong fences, watering facilities, robust catch pens and corrals for annual inoculations, and other infrastructure associated with appropriately handling bison as livestock makes the species expensive to own and manage – especially on small sites.  More importantly, bison are just made for large spaces.  Their social structures, feeding behavior, seasonal movement patterns, and other characteristics are best suited for very large grassland areas.  Because of all these factors, the bison managers I know and respect typically recommend prairie sizes of several thousand acres as a bare minimum for the species.

Bison fit best in prairies that are thousands of acres in size.

Population Viability

Small prairies mean small population sizes for the species living in them.  You can only fit so many individuals of a species into a tiny area of habitat.  This creates problems because small populations are much more vulnerable to local extinction (disappearing from a particular place) than larger populations.  For example, a deadly pathogen such as a fungal or bacterial infection that might affect only a small portion of a species’ population in a large grassland could easily wipe out the entire population of that species in a smaller prairie.  Similarly, it’s rare that a single fire consumes all of the vegetation in a large prairie, so unburned refuges are left for insects and other animals that are particularly prone to being killed by fire.  However, a prescribed fire or wildfire that burns an entire small prairie could easily kill every single individual of a sensitive insect species.  This kind of vulnerability means that populations of rare or sensitive species are really just hanging on by their fingertips in many small prairies, and a single event could completely eliminate them.

Isolation

Often, small prairies are geographically separated from other prairies.  That kind of isolation means that if one of the events mentioned above happens to knock a species out of a small prairie, there is little to no chance of the species recolonizing from another similar site.  In addition, a small population in an isolated prairie is not interacting genetically with other populations, and that can lead to degradation of the genetic health of a species.  Poor genetic health increases a species’ vulnerability to diseases and reduces its ability to adapt to changing conditions.

The conditions that create isolation differ by species.  Birds, for example, are much more able to move from one prairie to another – even across relatively great distances – than a walking stick insect.  Because of that, two prairies could both be easily accessible to a bird, but to a stick insect those prairies might as well be on different planets.  In addition, the land cover between prairies affects species differently.  A mouse might not have any trouble moving across a gravel road, but Ron Panzer’s research near Chicago (and that of others) has shown that some leafhoppers and other insect species see those kinds of roads as impenetrable barriers.

Management Challenges

In addition to biological issues, small prairies can also present many logistical challenges to managers.  For example, grazing is usually not feasible at small sites because the cost of necessary infrastructure is prohibitive.  Small prairies can also be difficult to break into multiple management units so that one portion can be hayed or burned while another is idled.  In some cases, small prairies that are near urban or suburban areas – or other areas sensitive to smoke – can’t be managed with prescribed fire because of local regulations or because it’s not possible to prevent smoke impacts to neighboring areas.  All of these factors reduce the number of options available to a prairie manager already struggling with the biological challenges listed above.

Prescribed fire is an important tool for prairie management, but can be difficult to use in some small prairies.

As a final insult, small prairies are also much more vulnerable to outside threats such as invasive plant species, as well as domestic cats and other predators.  In a large prairie, Siberian elms invading from a nearby woodlot might affect one corner of the prairie, giving a manager time to recognize the threat and suppress it before it spreads across the entire site.  Smaller prairies can often be completely overrun by an invasive species before the manager even recognizes its existence. In addition, raccoons, cats, and other predators can range easily across a small prairie and greatly reduce the possibility of survival for many bird, mammal, or reptile species.  Large prairies contain interior areas that are far enough away from wooded edges and neighboring farmsteads to escape those “edge habitat” predators.

Uncertainty

Unfortunately, our state of knowledge about small prairies, habitat fragmentation and isolation, and the ways in which those conditions affect prairie species is pretty limited.  Which species are most vulnerable to small prairie size?  What counts as a prairie to various species?  Is a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grassland planting with warm-season grasses and a few wildflower species sufficient to maintain bird populations?  What about bees or other species?  Can those low-diversity habitats facilitate travel between otherwise isolated prairies?  If so, for what species?  How well do prairie habitats along road ditches act as corridors between prairies?

What kind of plant diversity and/or landscape configuration is necessary to support populations of bees?

In many ways, we’re flying blind.  It’s easy to say “the bigger the better” but that doesn’t do much to help managers who are trying to conserve what they can in prairies that are small and likely to stay that way.  There is research underway – including some that I’m involved with – that will help us better understand the impacts of habitat fragmentation and small prairie size on grassland communities, but we’re a long way from understanding some very important fundamentals.

GOOD NEWS

Fortunately, though the prognosis for small prairies can appear bleak, there is also much reason to hope.  There are numerous examples of very small prairies that have maintained populations of hundreds of plant and insect species through more than a century of isolation from other prairie habitats.  Yes, there are some rare butterfly species and other insects that are often missing from tiny grasslands, but most other species have managed to hang on.  In addition, while it’s no longer possible to support wide-ranging species such as prairie chickens or bison in small prairies, the absence of those species doesn’t impact the chances of survival for the vast majority of others.  Sure, it’d be nice to have those large charismatic species, but missing them is more of an emotional issue than a functional one.

Life in small prairies is not getting any easier, and many of the species that have survived to date are likely to face increasingly greater challenges.  In addition to the plight of individual species, ecological processes such as pollination and seed dispersal that help hold prairie communities together are much more fragile in small sites.  However, I think we can take great hope from the resilience that prairies have shown so far, and use that hope to fuel us as we forge ahead.

DECISIONS

So what’s the right way to look at small prairie management?  Perhaps the most difficult (and most important) task is to set appropriate objectives.  Let’s assume for the moment that we’re trying to select management objectives for a 10 acre isolated prairie.  I think it’s safe to say that we can exclude prairie chickens and bison from the list of species to aim for, but what about a rare insect?  Let’s say there’s a rare butterfly species that lives in that prairie, and that the larvae overwinter in the litter from previous years’ vegetative growth.  Spring fires are probably deadly to those overwintering larvae, and one fire that spreads across the entire prairie would probably wipe out the species from that site for good.  This brings up some hard choices for a manager.  Is prescribed fire off the table as a management tool?  If so, what are the ramifications for the rest of the prairie community?  What if there was a rare plant species in the same prairie that relied on periodic spring fires?  What if the absence of fire led to rapid expansion of woody vegetation or an invasive grass species, thus changing the plant community in ways that decreased overall plant diversity – thus decreasing habitat quality for the rare butterfly?  (eek!)

It would be hard to fault the prairie manager for deciding that the rare butterfly should be the top priority for management objectives.  On the other hand, a strong argument could be made that the long term survival of that butterfly is unlikely, regardless of the manager’s best efforts.  A single wildfire, a late freeze or cool/wet spring, a disease outbreak, or innumerable other events could spell the end of that tiny vulnerable population.  Is it worth putting other species at risk or decreasing the overall ecological resilience of the prairie in the faint hope of preserving one species for a while longer?  Maybe.  I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer – just tough choices.

If the rare butterfly was a rare plant species instead, the choices would still be difficult.  Should the manager attempt to maximize the survival of the individual plants within that species even if that management decreased the survival chances for other prairie species?  If a more balanced approach was desired, would it be ok to implement a management regime that prevented those rare plants from blooming in some years, or even decreased the population size?  If that management strengthened the surrounding prairie community, making it more resistant to invasive species or supportive of a stronger pollinator community, would that offset the decrease in population size for the rare plant?  Maybe.  Again – tough choices.

What if a prairie manager decided that the best and highest use of a 10 acre isolated prairie was for education?  Would it be ethically wrong for that manager to burn the entire prairie each spring to maximize showy wildflowers as a way to draw people to the prairie?  If that wildflower display led the prairie to be used by classroom teachers, and hundreds of kids a year had a chance to explore the prairie, would that be worth the potential sacrifice of a rare butterfly species and/or a rare plant species at that particular site?  If that application of fire eventually led to the loss of other plant and animal species not favored by annual burning, would the ensuing loss of ecological resilience and the potential risks associated with that be worth the educational value gained?  Maybe.  That’s a lot of school kids.

Capturing the attention of the public might be the highest and best use of some small prairies - even if that comes at the expense of other conservation values such as plant diversity or rare insects.

Narrow or Broad?

In some ways, the management choice comes down to a choice between narrow and broad.  Should the manager restrict management in ways that favor a particular species or a particular “look” or should the manager attempt to manage for a broad suite of species at the potential expense of a few rare ones?  If the former choice is made, there are certainly risks associated (see my earlier post on Calendar Prairies).  However, if the latter choice is made, the risks may be equally high.

In my opinion, the broad option – managing a prairie for biological diversity and ecological resilience -means that each portion of the prairie needs to be exposed to a shifting mosaic of disturbances over time.  Theoretically this kind of management gives every species in the prairie an opportunity to thrive.  In our example of the 10 acre isolated prairie, this might mean that several different management activities occur each year.  For example, in one year, a third of the site might be hayed in the summer, a third might be burned in the early spring, and a third might be left idle.  In the next year, ½ of the site might be burned in the late spring and the other half might be idled – and so on.  Over time, a plant growing in any particular location should get the periodic opportunity to bloom and reproduce in conditions that favor it. Relatively mobile animal species should be able to locate suitable habitat in most or all years.  Less mobile animals might have to suffer through a tough year now and then in return for banner years in between.  Of course, all of this is much easier to accomplish on larger sites than on smaller ones, and the margin of error – and the penalties for those errors – would be less of a concern if the prairie was 300 acres in size instead of ten.

Is this really the best approach for small prairies?  While this kind of dynamic management could help support a wide diversity of species, it might also have the opposite effect.  With narrowly-focused management, selected species are continually favored over others, and those less fortunate species will probably fade from the community over time.  However, with dynamic management, EVERY species has to survive periods of management that make life hard.  When dealing with small populations, every hardship a species has to endure could potentially be its last.  Does adversity make those species tougher, or does it slowly weaken them until they die?

As a final consideration, most small prairies have long histories of fairly repetitive management (annual haying, regular burning, etc.) and it’s not always easy to predict what positive or negative impacts might result from changing that management to something more erratic.  It’s possible that altering the management regime that has allowed the current suite of species to survive so far would shake things up in a way that makes the situation worse, not better.

Taking into account the potential benefits and risks from broadly-focused management, is it really smart for a manager to choose the dynamic management approach?  Is the risk of losing rare species or the uncertainty about the results of shaking up a long history of consistent management worth it?  Again – maybe.

CONCLUSION

There are no easy answers when it comes to the management of small prairies.  Poor population viability, increased risks from invasive species and other threats, and inherent management complications can make a manager’s job seem almost impossible.  On the other hand, it’s important to remember how many species have survived thus far – largely on their own.

Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) is a tough species that has been able to thrive in prairies that have been highly fragmented and/or otherwise degraded. Many other species have also found ways to survive too - and likely will for the foreseeable future.

The biggest challenge for a manager is to identify appropriate objectives.  It can be easy to try to make a small prairie be more than it can be.  Wide-ranging species and rare species that have narrow habitat requirements can both be very difficult to maintain.  While there is no right or wrong way to set objectives, choosing to manage for those species is likely to lead to frustration and failure unless the surrounding landscape is very supportive.  Managing too much for a few species may also lead to the loss of other species and a degradation of the ecological web that supports the very species being targeted for management.  On the other hand, particularly in the case of rare species, it may be that prolonging the survival of small populations can give larger region-wide recovery efforts needed time to be successful.  Again, there are no easy answers.

In most situations, I think it probably makes the most sense to manage small prairies with the objective of maintaining the highest possible number of species (and hopefully, ecological processes) – even if this might result in the loss of some of the less common or adaptable species over time.  Because species diversity is strongly tied to ecological resilience, and small prairies are already more vulnerable to many threats than larger prairies, it seems logical that sustaining diversity and resilience should be paramount.  When doing this, it’s important to provide dynamic and non-repetitive management treatments, but also to recognize and respond to the high risk posed by invasive species and predation coming from the borders of.  Vigilantly patrolling for invasive plants and minimizing habitat that encourages predators such as raccoons and cats are examples of strategies that can help.

Even if a prairie manager does everything right – whatever that means – small prairies are destined to lose species over time.  Weather events, diseases, wildfires, population cycles, and other occurrences are outside a manager’s control but inevitable.  It’s probably smart for managers to resign themselves to that inevitability and focus on what they can control.

Ending with Hope

While it can be depressing to think about the long-term future of small prairies, there are two big rays of hope worth remembering.  First, as mentioned earlier, some small prairies lend themselves very well to providing educational opportunities for the public.  If those prairies can be used to raise awareness and help build a stronger constituency for prairie conservation, that’s an awfully big contribution to the world.  Second, in an earlier post, I described the ways that prairie restoration (aka reconstruction) can and is being used to enlarge and reconnect small prairies.  It’s expensive, and not feasible in all situations, but we have the technology and expertise to do it.  That means we don’t  have to just sit and watch the long-term degradation of tiny remnant grasslands and the populations of species they support.  Our growing ability to stitch the prairie landscape back together might be our greatest hope of all.

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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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29 Responses to How Should We Manage Small Prairies?

  1. Carol Rice says:

    I realize that your discussion of prairie size is pertinent to much larger areas than the “prairies” in my yard, even for the remnant small prairies you discuss. There are three very small prairie gardens on my property – in total, about 1/2 acre. These are all reconstructions of course, and all have a different assortment of species – depending on topography and soil.

    Your conversation about education being a worthwhile objective for small prairies had a lot of resonance for me. The oldest of my prairie gardens was seeded in 2005, one in 2006 and one in 2007. Since they were planted and started developing, I have hosted four yard walks, with approximately 175 people visiting, in addition to small groups of friends and native plant enthusiasts. While I can’t in any way create the dymanic of larger areas, it is my hope that these plantings have been ambassadors for native plants, and the amount of wildlife they have attracted to the property is significant.

    I envy the opportunities that the larger prairies offer, but even these miniscule areas have some role to play, even if it is only to help inspire others, and to attract some of the more common insects and birds.

  2. Ted says:

    Hi Chris,
    I can think of several reasons why your suggestion to manage small prairies for “the highest possible number of species” makes sense. With that objective in mind, here is a question: How do you accomplish that for animal species, especially if you are managing an isolated reconstruction? Is there something you can do besides just hoping that if you build it, they will come? Thanks!

  3. Tom says:

    It isn’t a perfect world. We need all absolutely each and every square foot of “natural” space there is or can be made – period.

  4. Patrick Swanson says:

    Chris, do you feel the priorities change at all if you are considering a reconstruction vs a remnant? I think I would tend to lean toward management regimes that would favor the very rare in remnants, since highly diverse reconstructions could theoretically be readily produced in other areas. That said, sometimes the management regimes are not easy to incorporate on a regular basis, especially for private landowners, due to expense, time, personnel, etc. So we do the best we can, because the alternative is greater neglect or conversion.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      It’s a good question. It depends upon the reconstruction. In the case of the reconstruction work we’re doing on the Platte, we’re using reconstructions to reconnect and expand remnants. There, I try to look at the complex (remnant + reconstruction) as two parts of the same whole, and I manage them as I would any other prairie. In the case of a stand-alone CRP field, or a reconstruction that was planted with only a few forbs, I’d think very differently.

      I don’t know that just because a prairie is unplowed, managing for rare species is necessarily the right choice. (It’s also not necessarily the wrong choice – which is kind of the point of the post). If the prairie is small enough that rare species are unlikely to persist long-term, the manager has a difficult choice to make – regardless of whether the prairie is a remnant or reconstruction.

      As you say, you do the best you can, and I think that’s great. And you’re right that the alternative is probably worse. What I’d like is for small prairie managers to at least come up with a vision and/or objectives for their prairie so they’re aiming in a particular direction. I’m not sure it matters too much what the vision is, but I think it’s important to have one. Otherwise, how do you know whether or not you’re making progress?

      Finally, I think it’s important for small prairie owners/managers not to beat themselves up too much trying to save rare species. I think it’s ok to make saving those species a priority, but I also think it’s ok to decide not to. There tends to be pressure to save rare species at all costs, and I just don’t think that’s always the best choice. If the species is rare and the prairie is small, it’s likely that trying to save it will end in frustration – and the attempt might end up reducing diversity/resilience to the overall community.

  5. Excellent post and an extremely important topic. I would like to add one thing however. A worthwhile question of every prairie manager with a small remnant prairie should be how and why has this remnant survived? I think that all too often prairie management focuses to much on the plant community without any consideration for the hydrogeomorphic processes underlying how that community formed. Nature is replete with examples of small naturally isolated plant communities; fens, bogs, rock outcrops, even sand prairies on isolated sandy knobs can, and do, occur as natural ‘islands’ in the landscape and have survived that way for millennia. Understanding the processes that not only formed that prairie, but also helped it survive (e.g. was it to wet to farm? to rocky? to dry?) should always influence future management decisions.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      An excellent point. Besides the hydrogeomorphic processes and substratum, however, the disturbance regime (fire, grazing, drought, etc.) is also important. The prairies – (and fens, bogs, etc) have not been static. They are resilient because they can change over time. Our management needs to reflect that, I think. Thanks for the great reply.

  6. Tiffany says:

    Thank you for this article! We have a small prairie on the land we just bought and I have been at a loss as to what to do with it. We were considering a burn this year but now I’m not sure if that is the right approach. It’s about 10 ac of prairie that runs along a decent creek and lots of trees (yet another dilemma in itself). From what I can tell it has been untouched for decades possibly forever. I have noticed several bird species, and numerous types of insects, I would like to preserve their habitat and food source. I wish I knew more about all of this, making management decisions has been extremely overwhelming thus far. I have heard that there is a person in Cass County, NE that will come out and look at your property to give you an idea of tree species, habitat and such would you happen to know who this is or what office he/she works out of?
    Thanks!
    Tiffany

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Tiffany – congratulations on your new property! Don’t let me make your life more complicated…

      In terms of someone to come look, I think I’d start by calling Scott Luedtke (Pronounced “lood key”) at Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln (402-471-0641). He can tell you who might be the best person locally. When you do talk to someone, be as specific as you can be about what you’d like to see/aim for on your land.

      I wouldn’t shy away from burning. Just be aware of the potential consequences. In general, you’ll do much more good than harm by burning, but there are some species that can be vulnerable to fire. If possible, leave some unburned areas as refuges for those species to recolonize from. Maybe you can burn 1/2 this year and 1/2 next?

      Most of all, enjoy the land.

      Chris

    • Patrick Swanson says:

      I like to hear stories like this…they’re hopeful. You’ll have fun exploring it through the seasons. Speaking from experience, I can say that if I looked at the whole property, the work required to restore it all seemed too daunting too even know where to start. But by breaking the restoration work into bite-size pieces, and biting a little every weekend, I am making a major dent and really seeing the land respond. I always think that what I’m doing on a given day might not seem like much progress to an outside observer, but to the plants and little creatures that live in that little patch, it’s making a world of difference. Good luck!

  7. James McGee says:

    Chris, I just wanted to relay my experiences with small prairies. There is a railroad prairie near my home that has been deemed too small to be worth saving by the Nature Preserve Commission. I disagree. I have been collecting seed from this prairie for years, growing plants, and donating them to restorations that are secure and much larger in size. There are a number of these prairies that are smaller than an acre which have been used as seed sources for larger restorations. The people who work to preserve these small patches see their work as conserving the source for local eco-type seed that is required for local restoration efforts. Often the larger prairies that have been deemed ‘worth saving’ are off limits to the collection of seed for restoration efforts. This experience has made the conservation of small prairies seem disproportionately important to me. If it was not for the prairie that was too ‘small too be worth saving’ then the diversity of species available for restoration efforts would be severly limited.

    In the end, with 99.9 % of Illinois prairies destoryed, I think any size prairie is worthy of conservation organizations protection until it is lost from either succession or the lack of volunteers will to maintain them.

    James

    • Chris Helzer says:

      The value of small prairies as seed sources is very important. So the question then is, is that an appropriate management objective (trying to maximize seed production of the most “valuable” species for prairie restoration efforts.

      Maybe…

      : )

    • Dan Carter says:

      A question yet to be adequately answered is: Is the genetic variation available from small populations of single species in small, isolated prairies adequate to ensure that restorations (which already are undertaken on lands that already differ quite profoundly in terms of biophysical conditions from even nearby remnants) are robust to large environmental changes that are nearly certainly coming by century’s end? This is especially true when one small population is available to use as the “local source”. That said, if small prairies have limited variation, but different variation from one another, then they are important, because the only way to recover adequate variation may be think of many small prairies and their constituent populations as one whole.

      • Chris Helzer says:

        Yep, another great point. Maybe less of an issue with plants, assuming that the restored prairies bring in seed from other populations. But for insects and other animals, it’s a clear issue. Hopefully, we can do at least some projects where we reconnect currently isolated prairies together, and maybe that will help some, but we just don’t know enough about the genetic populations of prairie species to understand where we’re at now – let alone what we need to do.

    • James – I agree with your assertion that very small prairies can be very valuable. Not only for the genetic resources that can make a contribution to larger reconstructions, but also for the role they can play in helping any individual, who might not have ready access to a larger prairie, in getting familiar with and learning to appreciate prairie plants and animals.

  8. George W. Shurr says:

    Hey, Chris~
    We’ve already traded some ideas on this —island biogeography. Area-species curves suggest that diversity is intrinsically related to area. Are there applications of island biogeography concepts that could help sort out alternative management strategies? No obvious answers, but maybe a different set of questions would help?
    Thanks for another good post~
    George

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hiya George,

      It’s a good point to bring up. I think the species-area curve is one important factor. Proximity and connection to other prairie habitats might be even more important. They both feed into the ecological function of the prairie, but I’m not sure they necessarily help with strategies. Sure, to some extent they do, but at the best (assuming we had much better info than we do) they’d help nail down the % chance that a particular species would survive or be able to recolonize. The manager would still have the difficult job of deciding how to play the odds. And we really don’t have enough information to come up with very good odds for most species or natural processes.

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  12. I really like the idea of using different management regimes within even small remnants. It seems to me that in tailoring a management strategy to one rare organism, you run the risk of damaging a population of something that might be just as rare, but that you didn’t know was there. As an example – I’ve been working on restoring prairie and savanna remnants on my land for the last 12 years. In the last 2 years I’ve gotten interested in moths, and have started black-lighting to attract and record them. Once last year, and once this year, I attracted a single Golden Borer Moth (Papaipema cerina) to my lights. They’re quite rare, and since I never knew I had any, I didn’t know that I should be trying to protect them. Experiences like this have made me wary of doing any one thing to a whole area – but to keep trying different things in different places.

    Thanks for starting the discussion Chris. I’ve enjoyed reading it.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Marcie – great story, thanks for sharing it. It’s really nice to hear about/from people who are actively looking to see what’s living in their sites and who are being more thoughtful managers as a result. Keep up the good work.

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