Photo of the Week – December 1, 2016

Insect identification is unfair.

I came across this photo yesterday while looking through some images from last summer.  The photo caught my eye and I thought maybe I’d write a short natural history blurb about it and use that as my “Photo of the Week”.  My first task was to figure out what kind of butterfly is in the photo.  No problem.  I’ve got field guides and the internet.  How hard could it be?

A small

A small butterfly uses its long tongue to extract nectar from common milkweed at our family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.  If you click on the photo you can look at a larger version of the image and get a better look at the tongue.

I’m no butterfly expert, but I spent parts of a few summers learning butterflies back in the late 1990’s and have held on to much of my knowledge from that time.  I can usually identify the more common butterflies by sight and narrow others down enough that I can pretty quickly use a field guide to finish the job.  Skippers can cause me some problems, but they can be difficult even for seasoned butterfly biologists.  (Skippers are like the sparrows of the butterfly fauna – little brown fuzzy jobs that all look about the same.)

My first thought was that the butterfly was a pearl crescent.  That’s a common butterfly species around here and it looks much like the critter in the photo.  I looked it up, but the spots on the underside of the wing don’t quite match up.  The butterfly in the photo has more white patches than those in the field guides and online.

Next, I looked at the Gorgone’s checkerspot, another species we see quite a bit here.  No luck there either.  The patterns on the underside of the wings are really different from the butterfly in my photo.  I looked at the “Butterflies of Nebraska” and “BugGuide” websites and browsed through a number of other choices, including some species that only show up occasionally in the state.  Still no luck.  Frustrated, I left for a meeting, figuring I’d try again later.

By complete coincidence, my meeting today was about pollinator monitoring strategies, and the first two people I ran into were both butterfly experts.  Aha!  Since we had a few minutes before the meeting started, I grabbed my laptop and pulled up the photo in question.  They both stared at it, but neither gave me a quick answer.  I felt both better (it’s not just me!) and worse (come on, man, this isn’t supposed to be this HARD!).

After some hemming and hawing, the conclusion was that it’s probably some kind of crescent (Phyciodes sp.) but they couldn’t do any better than that.  To be fair, neither of them had access to field guides and it was a surprise question.  Still…  One of the biologists pointed out that not only do male and female crescents have different patterns, there can also be significant differences in patterns between different generations within the same summer.  What??

As a result of all this, I’m stuck not being able to tell you much natural history about this pretty little butterfly other than it’s probably some kind of crescent.  Interesting, huh?  About 30 minutes of my poking around in books and online, two butterfly experts looking at my photo with me, and that’s the best we’ve got.  Well, that and one unarguable conclusion:

Insect identification is unfair.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Mechanics of Conservation

Years ago, we hired an older mechanic (older than me, anyway) to take care of our equipment so I and other staff could focus more on ecology and land management and less on carburetors and oil changes.  Fred (not his real name) always seemed a little grumpy.  That was completely understandable, given his responsibilities.  Not only was our equipment old and worn out, we tended to be pretty rough on it.

Trained as ecologists, not mechanics, we often used equipment for purposes it was never intended for. (“You know that old Massey combine was built for harvesting soybeans on flat fields, right?  Not for harvesting dense prairie cordgrass in wet meadows or rose hips on steep hills??”)  Even worse, we were pretty cavalier about checking oil, greasing zerks, and other basic maintenance.  When equipment inevitably broke down, Fred would come out with his tools, grumbling under his breath about carelessness and laziness, and fix the problem.  The next time we used that particular piece of equipment, we were likely to see a note scrawled on the equipment in paint marker reminding us to “CHECK OIL BEFORE DRIVING!”, “DRIVE IN LOW GEAR!”, or “BLOW OUT THE RADIATOR!”   We always knew Fred was mad when the paint markers made an appearance.

A paint marker note of "encouragement". Photo by Eric Chien

A paint marker note reminder from “Fred”. Photo by Eric Chien

I’ve often thought that land managers are much like mechanics.  Instead of maintaining machines, we are charged with keeping natural areas working properly.  Sometimes, we’re called upon to fix (restore) land that has been degraded by chronic overgrazing, broadcast herbicide use, or even tillage.  Other times, we just perform minor tune ups to keep things humming along.  There isn’t really an end point to land management, no pinnacle of success to be reached.  Instead, success is being able to hand off a piece of land to the next manager and feel good about it.  “Welp, here’s the keys…”

Because he cared about the equipment he was responsible for, Fred always got justifiably frustrated with us when we would fail to take obvious (to him) steps to help prevent a potential breakdown.  He also felt personally offended when he saw machinery – ours or otherwise – that was obviously neglected and rundown.  We land managers experience the same emotions about land.

We understand the importance of plant and animal diversity in prairies, for example, and know that good management can maintain both that diversity and the ecological function it supports.  It is immensely frustrating to see prairies neglected and over-run by trees or other invasive plants.  It can be even harder to watch a prairie get chronically overgrazed, broadcast with herbicide, or (especially) tilled for row crop production.  We have a deep understanding of what’s lost when prairie is degraded or destroyed, and we appreciate how difficult restoration can be.

Just as Fred got cranky with us because we didn’t take care of the equipment he was invested in, it’s easy for us as land managers to feel the same way about people who neglect or abuse land.  However, whenever Fred would gripe at us about what we were doing, we tended to tune him out (“Oh, that’s just Fred – he’s always cranky about something.”)  Only on the rare occasions did he calmly explain why it was important to do something and how it might affect us personally.  That’s when we actually listened.

I think there is an important lesson here for land managers and anyone involved in conservation.  Being grumpy doesn’t build credibility.  People don’t usually respond well when you lash out at them or make them feel dumb or lazy.  If we want to change the way people treat land, we need to figure out the motivation behind what they’re currently doing and start a conversation there.  Often, they have good intentions but lack the information and larger context that we have.  We can help with that.  Demonstrating what good land management looks like and showing how better habitat helps wildlife, pollinators and humans will go a long way toward improving the world around us.

Land managers

It’s vital that land managers share what we learn with other land managers, land owners, and others.  Looking at management results on site can be the most effective way to trade ideas and strategies, but there are other options as well.  Starting conversations is the first step.

A related lesson is that working in isolation doesn’t change the hearts and minds of others.  Most land managers tend to enjoy working alone, or in small groups of like-minded people.  While that may be comfortable, it doesn’t help inspire action on other lands.  Inviting people to well-managed land for field days, volunteer work days or similar events can show others what great habitat looks like and motivate them to imitate good work.  Sharing effective strategies and important lessons through presentations and publications can reach a broad audience.  All land managers are constantly learning, but unless that knowledge is shared, it isn’t advancing conservation.

There is plenty to shake our heads about these days.  The human race does a lot of silly things, and it’s tempting to just around and grumble to ourselves about it – or to snipe at anyone who offends us.  That doesn’t really get us anywhere, though, does it?  Instead of griping, let’s start conversations.  Let’s find out what others care about and explain what conservation looks like to us and why it matters.  Let’s be proactive about sharing both the lessons we learn and the wonder we gain from our lands.

After all, I think we can all agree that empathy and conversation are more effective than paint markers…

Posted in Prairie Management | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 23, 2016

Prairie landscapes are often defined by broad sweeping vistas and big skies.  A wide-angle lens can be great for capturing that kind of huge open landscape.  However, I’ve gotten some of my favorite Nebraska landscape photos when I’ve exchanged my wide angle lens for a telephoto.

Sandhills

Sandhills and windmill in Cherry County, Nebraska.  My zoom lens was set at 122 mm for this shot, just long enough to get both the horizon and windmill in the photo, but still short enough to still show some landscape breadth too.

Using a long lens compresses a landscape and shows off the depth and texture of a landscape in a way that is very different from an image taken with a wide angle lens.  The above photo of the Nebraska Sandhills came after several attempts to capture the immensity of the prairie with a wide-angle lens.  My wide-angle lens showed a lot of the landscape, but it looked relatively flat and unimpressive – especially because there wasn’t anything going on in the sky.  A longer lens brought the distant hills closer and made them more prominent.  It also cut most of the sky from the image, leaving only the interesting parts of the scene.

Sandhills sunrise

In this Nebraska Sandhills photo, a 300mm lens not only compressed the hills, it also made the rising sun look large enough in the image to reflect the way it looked in real life.

Sunrises and sunsets, along with moonrises and sets, can often be disappointing in photographs because the sun/moon looks much smaller in the photograph than it does in real life.  A long lens can help make the orb look more like our eyes see it when we’re there.

Setting moon

What works for the sun also works for the moon.  On this early morning, the moon was going down behind the bluffs at Scottsbluff National Monument in western Nebraska.  (Zoom lens set at 230 mm)

The photo below is one of my all-time favorites from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and is actually a scan of a slide from back when color slide film (Fuji Velvia!!) was the state of the art in nature photography.  Just as in the windmill/hills photo above, there wasn’t anything interesting happening in the sky, but the light was good (getting close to sunset) and the sideways light provided great texture on the distant hills.  One of the hallmarks of the Niobrara Valley Preserve is that it hosts a convergence of multiple ecosystems, and this photo shows many of them.

Niobrara Valley Preserve

The Niobrara Valley Preserve as seen from a ridgetop north of the river.  The use of a 300mm lens allowed me to include many of the different ecosystem types all in one photo, including tallgrass prairie/oak savanna in the foreground, the Niobrara river and its floodplain, deciduous woodland and ponderosa pine stands, and Sandhills prairie.

If you find yourself standing on a high ridge or hilltop and can’t seem to make the landscape look as impressive on camera as it does in real life, try using a longer lens (or using the zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera).  Though it seems counterintuitive, zooming in can sometimes help show off a broad landscape better than zooming out.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 18, 2016

Back in April, I wrote a post about the regrowth after one of our spring prescribed fires.  That’s a fun time of year to burn because the growing season is getting started and the response of green plants pushing through the black ash comes strong and fast.  Typically, fall burns don’t show any green-up until the next spring.  This year, however, the crazy warm weather has changed things a little. In the two burns we’ve done this fall, most of the ground is still black and barren, but here and there, some green is pushing up through the ash as well.

Here are some photos I took this week of a burn we conducted two weeks earlier.  The site was a recently restored prairie (2013 planting) and this was the first burn at the site.  Green plants weren’t the only interesting things I found as I walked around.

Big bluestem skeletons

Big bluestem skeletons stand tall in the ashes.

Cedar tree

Cedar trees are uncommon on our land because of our consistent use of fire.   This one won’t give us any more trouble….

Some grasses and sedges

Despite the lateness of the season, patches of grasses and sedges were showing signs of growth, taking advantage of warm days and some recent rain.

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Sedges often stay green well into the winter, but I was still surprised to see these actively growing after a fire.

Goldenrod galls

Among the scorched plants were goldenrod stems with galls.  The insects in these galls left well before the fire, but there other invertebrates overwinter in aboveground plants and are vulnerable to dormant season fires.

Gophers

The bare sand of pocket gopher mounds stand out against the dark background.  Ant hills, vole runways, and mole tunnels were also spread across the burned area.

Sunflower stalks

Most plants burned completely, but in some places, fire intensity was lower and bigger stems of sunflowers and other plants only partially burned, sometimes falling as if they’d been chopped down.

Back fire

Lines of fallen grass and forb stems show where the fire backed into the wind, rather than being pushed by it.  In a backing fire, only the lower parts of plants are consumed, and the wind blows them over into the already burned prairie where they escape being further burned.

skeleton

A white skeleton of a long dead rabbit (I think?) was left tarnished but intact by the fire.

Grasshopper

Near the edge of the burned area, grasshoppers skipped away from my feet as I walked.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Scaling Up the Emotional Impact of Prairies

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric comes from Minnesota and brings great energy to our prairie stewardship work.  He’s also very bright, and an engaging writer, as you’ll see in this and other posts.

I recall vividly the moment I was swept up by prairies; when what had only been a textbook description of geography was sparked into a fidelity to place. The view of sandhill cranes swirling over a starkly beautiful late-spring prairie had an immediate impact on me. It was the first time I felt what I was seeing.

Sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes.

I have been recalling this moment lately because I have been thinking a lot about impactful experiences. I was there that blustery Spring morning for work. There was no one there to interpret or inspire. No learning objective or deliberate takeaway. Yet, that experience sits amongst the foundation of where I am now and the path I continue to take.  Impactful, emotionally rich experiences are the touchstone for action and commitment, and in prairies, in relation to other landscapes, they seem a little harder to come by. Prairies just don’t give themselves up easily. Identifying those places, characters, and moments that bridge the gap between knowing and caring could be a powerful tool for the achievement of conservation goals, and enriched human lives.

I have often struggled to facilitate powerful prairie experiences for others. Deep appreciation always seems to end up relying on the context of my own knowledge and memories, and thus unapproachable to my companions. One of the few places where prairies do not play hard to get is the Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP). It has long been a place that confers experiences capable of tying together people and prairies. Its reference list is long and diverse. Somewhere within the consistent transfer of emotional weight that NVP delivers is an important guide and mold for reaching others.

Sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska.

Sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska.

On a recent evening, I found myself sitting quietly beneath a cedar in Niobrara River valley prairie at dusk. Within minutes of my settling in, a small group of bison had quietly foraged their way down from the hills, and into this football field prairie flanked by oak-cedar woodland and the river. They were unhurried, only the occasional soft grunts accompanied the sound of little bluestem, cured wine red, being clipped off. I felt lucky that from the 12,000 acres of prairie on which they could wander, this small group had happened to choose this minute pasture for the evening. They were soon joined by a large flock of Merriam’s Turkeys. Their white tipped tail fans flashed as they scratched at the ground, flipped bison paddies, and bantered with purrs and clucks. A young whitetail buck also joined the evening stage. You can see him inquisitively wander towards me in the video below.

Before it became too dark I walked up and out of the river valley, cresting the hills, and was confronted with the stretching upland prairie of the Sandhills. A spooked pair of young bison bulls thundered off the river ridge and into the hills out of sight. I walked the sandy, two track back to the bunkhouses in the dark. These are not uncommon moments at NVP. The source of gravitas in these experiences may seem obvious, filled with charismatic wildlife, but I think it is more than that. The widely shared appreciation of NVP says a lot about where we are coming from in prairie conservation and where we want to be.

Young bison bulls at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Young bison bulls at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Conservationists will accurately tell you that a 54,000 acre preserve is still far from a whole system. The Nature Conservancy does not control the entire Niobrara River Watershed, our bison herds need to be fenced in, and invasive plants still find their way onto the preserve. However, it is one of an elite few locales that feels whole. I believe it is this sense of wholeness that beckons people to deeply connect with it in a way that is difficult in most other prairie landscapes. When I am showing people prairies, I often find myself asking them to imagine. Imagine if this highly diverse, visually stunning, 80 acres of prairie stretched to the horizon. Imagine if a herd of bison lay hidden behind that low swale. Imagine if you did not know what else might be out there. At NVP, one does not have to imagine, and in that lies its power to move us.

Large, intact, productive grasslands, like the Niobrara Valley Preserve let us transcend the conservation context in which much of our work takes place. We can escape the long road of restoration in the human dominated landscape, characterized by fragmented, degrading, homogenous, biologically depauperate prairies. We can see the prairies and landscapes we are driving at. As prairie professionals and conservationists, we should and do spend most of our time on this long road, but as we seek to bring others into the fold we should strive to impart them with a vision. Head off the question about why prairies are important; the one that often seems to accompany a trip to some isolated remnant in a sea of cropland. Take them to somewhere where the importance of prairies is unspoken and self-evident. Seek to move our potential prairie allies from “is that all?” to “what else is out there?”. I know that is harder for us here in the prairie than for those sharing other ecosystems. It is especially hard in the eastern tallgrass prairie where we have been left with nearly no truly large prairies. That said, the hard work of many (Nachusa Grasslands IL, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie IL, Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge MN, Kankakee Sands IL/IN) has made it more of a possibility than ever.

For some, the beauty found in small prairie patches is sufficiently captivating. For others, however, a sweeping landscape of prairie

For some, the beauty found in small prairie patches is sufficiently captivating. For others, it is the sweeping sea of grass that triggers a love of prairie.

There will always be those who will come to prairies more subtly; those who are innately curious about the details of plant communities, who can discern and explore the intricacies of prairie ecology that happen at the smallest of scales. I will happily continue to walk with anyone who shows enthusiasm for finding fritillary caterpillars on rare prairie violets. Prairie conservation and restoration by necessity has been built on the backs and through the sweat of those who can delight in our valuable remnants, and push forward from there. Let’s also begin to work from the other direction. Recognize that there are those who will only come to prairies through experiences of grand space and wildlife. Bring them to the end, let them see what else prairies can be. After that we can walk them back to where we are, and begin the work of the return journey to wholeness with the expanded support of more “prairie people.”

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 11, 2016

On Wednesday of this week, we took advantage of the eerily warm November temperatures to conduct our second prescribed fire of the fall.  This one will help concentrate some spring grazing in an area where we want to suppress grass dominance and rehabilitate forb diversity.  The fire was also a great opportunity for further training of some young conservation staff.  In addition to Eric and Katharine, our two Hubbard Fellows, we also had three young interns/technicians from a couple of our conservation partners, the Crane Trust and Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary.

Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows, ignites the west flank of the fire.

Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows, ignites the west flank of the fire.

A firefighter in a UTV with a slip-on pump unit follows Katharine's ignition and prevents the fire from creeping into the mowed firebreak. By this stage in the fire, the wind was mostly blowing the fire into the unit, making this job easier.

A firefighter in a UTV with a slip-on pump unit follows Katharine’s ignition and prevents the fire from creeping into the mowed firebreak. By this stage in the fire, the wind was mostly blowing the fire away from the break and into the unit, making this job easier.

Here, Eric, our other Hubbard Fellow, ignites the head fire, which runs quickly with a tailwind until it is stopped by the backing fire and blackened area at the far end of the unit.

Here, Eric Chien, our other Hubbard Fellow, ignites the head fire, which runs quickly with a tailwind until it is stopped by the backing fire and blackened area at the far end of the unit.  He is followed by another UTV and pump unit.

Nothing to do now but watch.

Nothing to do now but watch.

At the end of every fire, we hold an "after action review" in which every member of the crew shares what went well, what they learned, and what might help us do better in the future.

At the end of every fire, we hold an “After Action Review” in which every member of the crew shares what went well, what they learned, and what might help us do better in the future.

Anyone who has seen prairie fires up close gains an appreciation of their speed, heat, and power.  Harnessing a force like that to achieve prairie management objectives takes careful planning, solid training and good equipment.  The fire this week went as smoothly as could be hoped for, but  – as with every burn I lead – my stomach was still knotted up until the last of the big flames had been extinguished.  After we were done, I took a leisurely and therapeutic walk around the perimeter of the burned area, both to confirm that everything was secure and to envision the positive impact the burn will make as next year’s growing season begins.

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Management, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Photos, not Politics

I felt like a little natural beauty might do us all some good today.

Four-point evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) and sunrise in sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Four-point evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) and sunrise in sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Dragonfly in Pawnee County, Nebraska

Dragonfly in Pawnee County, Nebraska

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Liatris aspera, blazing star. Lincoln Creek Prairie.

 Blazing star (Liatris aspera). Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

Katydid nymph on black-eyed susan. Aurora, Nebraska

Katydid nymph on black-eyed Susan. Aurora, Nebraska

Bison at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve - Nebraska.

Bison at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve – Nebraska.

Shell leaf penstemon and rainwater. Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Shell leaf penstemon and rainwater. Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

(INTERNAL RIGHTS ONLY, CREDIT IS MANDATORY) Sunrise over meadow along Central Platte River, Nebraska. Hall County, Nebraska. May 1995. TNC Caveny Tract. Cottonwood tree. Lowland tallgrass prairie. Central Mixed-Grass Ecoregion. © Chris Helzer

Cottonwood tree, fog, prairie, and sunrise.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Caterpillar on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea). TNC's Derr Tract. Central Platte River, Nebraska

Caterpillar, ant and inchworm on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

Crab spider on annual sunflower in sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve. North-central Nebraska.

Crab spider and ant on annual sunflower in sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Water droplets on spider silk on a foggy day. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Water droplets on spider silk on a foggy day. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

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Autumn prairie. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , | 43 Comments

A Milestone for Prairie Restoration

Because conservation work can sometimes seem like blowing into the wind, it’s important to pause periodically to celebrate progress.  For example, I am really excited about what has been accomplished in the field of prairie restoration.  We’ve known for a while that we can convert cropland to prairie vegetation with a high diversity of plant species (150 or more species per planting), and that we can do that on a scale of thousands of acres.  The Nature Conservancy has large projects in states like Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota where restored prairie landscapes now range from about 5,000 to 20,000 acres in size.  The U.S. Forest Service is transforming an old U.S. Army Arsenal into 20,000 acres of prairie in Illinois.  Prairie Plains Resource Institute, the organization that pioneered restoration techniques in Nebraska, is planting up to 1000 acres a year now and has established well over 10,000 acres total across the state.

Our staff celebrates a successful year of seed harvest back in 2015.

Our staff celebrates a successful year of seed harvest back in 2015.

Here in our Platte River Prairies, we’ve restored more than 1,500 acres of cropland to prairie.  That’s not insignificant, but more importantly, we’ve been testing the idea that those restored prairies can help defragment the ecological landscape around them.  Habitat fragmentation is one of the largest threats to today’s prairies because it shrinks and isolates populations of species, making them vulnerable to becoming locally extinct without the chance of recolonization from nearby sites.  The real promise of prairie restoration is that it can enlarge and reconnect scattered remnants of native prairie, providing populations of animals and plants a much better opportunity to survive and thrive.  It’s not feasible or desirable to convert the majority of cropland in the central North America back to prairie, but there are particular sites where strategic restoration work could make a huge difference in the potential survival of prairie species and ecological services.

In order for prairie restoration to help defragment landscapes, restored prairies have to provide suitable habitat for the species living in small isolated prairies.  Many bees and other insects specialize on certain plant species, for example, and other animals rely upon an abundance of prey, a diversity of seeds, or other particular food or habitat conditions.  Satisfying the individual needs of all those prairie animals is a critical measure of success if prairie restoration is going to successfully stitch isolated prairies back together.

Over the last several years, we’ve been collecting data to see whether the species of bees, small mammals, grasshoppers, and ants in our unplowed prairie remnants have moved into adjacent restored habitat.  The results have been very positive.  While not every species of animal living in our remnant prairies has been found in nearby restored habitat, we’ve found the vast majority of those we’ve looked for.  We suspect that most of the remaining species are also present but that our limited sampling effort just hasn’t yet picked them up.  We’ll keep trying.

Dillon Blankenship, a Hubbard Fellow, compared grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket communities on three pairs of remnant/restored prairies back in 2014. Almost all species were present in both restored and remnant habitats. In the three species that weren't, only one or a very few individuals were found, so it's likely just a sample size issue.

Dillon Blankenship, a Hubbard Fellow, sampled grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket communities on three pairs of remnant/restored prairies back in 2014. Almost all species were present in both restored and remnant habitats. In the three species that weren’t, only one or a very few individuals were found, so it’s likely just a sample size issue.

Data from James Trager and Kristine Nemec has helped us compare ant species composition in restored versus restored prairies along the Platte River. So far, we've documented 30 species and only one has been found exclusively in remnant prairie (and, again, it's likely to be a sample size issue).

Data from James Trager and Kristine Nemec has helped us compare ant species composition in restored versus restored prairies along the Platte River. So far, we’ve documented 30 species and only one has been found exclusively in remnant prairie (and, again, it’s likely to be a sample size issue).

Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter have both helped us compare small mammal populations between restored and remnant prairies. This table shows some of Jasmine's data from one site. In general, we're finding that the same species are in both restored and remnant prairies, but the relative abundance of those species is often different - with some apparently favoring remnant habitat and others favoring restored areas.

Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter have both helped us compare small mammal populations between restored and remnant prairies. This table is from Jasmine’s data from one site, showing the number of trapsites in which each mammal species was caught back in 2014. In general, we’re finding that the same species are in both restored and remnant prairies, but the relative abundance of those species is often different – with some apparently favoring remnant habitat and others favoring restored areas.  We’re now looking at how our management affects presence and abundance of each species through time.

We've had several research projects look at native bees in our prairies. Mike Arduser, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow), Bethany Teeter, and Shelly Wiggam Rickets have all helped us compare restored and remnant prairies. So far, we've found over 72 species and the vast majority have been in both remnant and restored prairie.

We’ve had several research projects look at native bees in our prairies. Mike Arduser, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow), Bethany Teeters, and Shelly Wiggam Rickets have all helped us compare restored and remnant prairies. So far, we’ve found over 72 species and the vast majority have been in both remnant and restored prairie.

I've collected more than 15 years of data showing that plant diversity and the frequency of occurrence of prairie plant species has remained stable through time. These four graphs show four species in one restored prairie where we're comparing fire/grazing management to fire only management.

I’ve collected more than 15 years of data showing that plant diversity and the frequency of occurrence of prairie plant species has remained stable through time. These four graphs show four species in one restored prairie where we’re comparing fire/grazing management to fire only management.  The long-term persistence of prairie plants and diverse plant communities is critically important for plant communities, but also for the success of efforts to defragment habitat for animals.

These results mean that where prairie landscapes have been largely converted to row crops, we don’t have to just watch while insect or small mammal populations careen toward local extinction in tiny isolated prairies.  We’ve shown that we can make those prairies larger and more connected, and that animal populations can grow and use new restored habitat and diverse plant communities.  We’ve also shown that restored prairies can sustain their biological diversity for decades, even through periods of intensive grazing and drought.  While there are still plenty of questions and potential improvements we can make, we’re now at the point where society needs to decide whether and where to do this kind of restoration.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty exciting!

Nebraska and other states in central North America have large swaths of productive and important cropland.  As I said earlier, I’m not advocating that we convert most of that back to prairie.  However, there are specific sites where row crop agriculture is marginally productive/profitable and the long-term interests of both society and local landowners might be best served by putting land back into diverse and productive grassland.  Agricultural policies and subsidy programs will obviously play a huge role in this kind of strategic large-scale restoration, and getting the policies in place to facilitate this kind of common sense restoration will be plenty difficult.  That’s nothing new, however.  What’s new is our confidence that if we can implement targeted restoration work, it can make a real difference to prairie conservation.

Restoring the viability of prairies in fragmented landscapes is critically important to prairie conservation success.  The challenges of conserving species in small isolated prairies are immense, and many of those prairies will continue to see declines in biological diversity and ecological function over time unless we can make them bigger and more connected with other prairies.  Helping to document our ability to do that – at least for many prairie species – has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done during my career.

 

Important footnote:  Restored prairies are not the same as remnant unplowed prairies.  Soil organic matter levels, for example, can take many decades to recover from tillage, and relationships between plant and microbial communities may take just as long to become reestablished.  Our success in prairie restoration should definitely not be used as justification for plowing up remnant prairie!  However, it’s equally true that prairie restoration efforts aren’t failures just because they can’t create an exact replica of prairie as it existed before it was converted to farmland.  If defragmenting prairie landscapes is the primary goal of restoration, we just need to create restored prairies that complement – not copy – remnant prairies. 

 

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 3, 2016

To this prairie photographer, milkweed seeds are like candy – I just can’t get enough.  As I’ve walked around this fall, I’ve had a very difficult time walking past any milkweed plant without stopping to photograph the silky seeds shimmering in the light.  They’re just so FLUFFY!

(And yes, botanist friends, I know the fluffy part isn’t actually the seed, but is an ‘appendage’ called the coma – or less accurately, the pappus – that aids in wind transport of the seed.  And the brown parts are actually the follicles that CONTAIN the seed.  Yes, yes, and yes. Allow me this vulgarization for the sake of simplicity, ok?)

FLUFFY!!

Whorled milkweed

Common milkweed

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It’s getting a little harder to find milkweed seeds that haven’t yet blown away, but they’re out there.  I keep seeing them as I walk through prairie and drive down the highway.  I can hide the Halloween candy so I don’t snack on it all day, but who’s going to hide all those milkweed seeds?

Posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Family Roundup

During the 20 years of my employment with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, I’ve been involved in at least 20 bison roundups (we usually do two a year – one for each herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve).  Last week’s was my favorite, hands down.  It wasn’t because the roundup went well – though it went as smoothly as any we’ve done.  It wasn’t even because the weather was perfect – though it was.  Nope, it was my favorite because it was the first time it’s ever worked out to bring my kids along.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year's roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year’s roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I didn’t get to bring all of them, but everything lined up just right for John and Daniel, who were on fall break from school and were old enough to be helpful and safe.  They had a great time, and the experience was far richer for me as well.

Now, to be perfectly clear, we don’t typically involve kids in our roundups, but I was able to supervise the boys personally and make sure they were safely doing work appropriate to their age and ability.  To begin with, both of them just watched the process to learn how the animals are moved quickly through a series of alleys and gates with as little noise and stress as possible.  Later in the day, they were both able to join in the work.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing "quality control" - helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing “quality control” – helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn't effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn’t effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.  Before long, however, he took over a sliding gate.

John seemed to enjoy the experience...

He seemed to enjoy the experience…

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Eric hides behind a gate while bison move past.

Here, Eric is hiding behind a gate while bison move past.

Then he gets to show off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

Then he shows off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town, where they (fruitlessly) waited for the prairie dogs to come back out of their holes.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town.  They learned that no matter how long you wait, prairie dogs don’t re-emerge from holes while you’re sitting there.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Management, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments