Photo of the Week – February 23, 2017

The weather has been extraordinarily warm for the last couple weeks, but it’s finally getting colder.  While I’ve enjoyed getting outside to play soccer and other outdoor recreation activities, I’m also looking forward to seeing some ice again.  A little snow wouldn’t hurt my feelings either.  It’s been a pretty brown winter so far.

In the meantime, here are a few ice photos from a couple weeks ago, just as the last vestiges of ice were disappearing from the edge of a Platte River wetland.  Let’s hope they aren’t the last ice photos of the winter…

Frozen wetland plants and bubbles near the edge of a frozen, but melting wetland.

Frozen wetland plants and bubbles near the edge of a frozen, but melting wetland.

A frozen rush embedded in ice.

A frozen rush embedded in ice.

Ice and wetland rushes/grasses on the edge of a wetland. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Patterns of ice bubbles and wetland plants.

And before you say it, yes, I recognize the delicious irony of yearning for more winter in this post exactly a week after a post in which I yearned for spring so I could photograph flowers.  What I can I say?  I like flowers, but I also like ice…

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Pill Bug Mystery

Last November, we conducted a prescribed burn at a 3-year old restored prairie.  Two weeks later, I was surprised to be able to photograph green regrowth in that area.  Last week, I revisited the same burned area and got yet another surprise.  Thousands and thousands of dead pill bugs (aka sow bugs, roly polies, wood lice) lay scattered across the ground.

Pill bugs

Dead pill bugs in a prairie burned last November.

cluster

The distribution of dead critters wasn’t consistent across the site, but there were a lot of areas like this with big numbers.

After I found the first few, I noticed them everywhere.  White skeletons of pill bugs, lying on top of the ground – sometimes in large aggregations, other times just a few here and there.  If I’d randomly tossed a hoola hoop on the ground 100 times, I bet I’d have found at least a couple dead pill bugs inside the hoop after 97 out of 100 of those throws.

isopod

I think these pill bugs were probably Armadillidium vulgare, which is a pretty good descriptive name for them.

When I got home, I looked through my photos from last November to see if maybe the dead pill bugs had been on the ground back then too.  If they were still dark gray, instead of white, I might not have noticed them.  Out of about 30 photos, I did find one bug, and it was still dark.  It’s certainly possible there were many more bugs on the ground, hidden by a combination of their dark color and the remaining ash and debris that has since largely disappeared. I’d like to think I would have noticed that many, but I’m not very confident of that.

november

A single pill bug can be seen in this photo from mid-November last year.

I like mysteries, but I also like understanding ecological phenomena.  Pill bugs are detritivores; they feed on dead and decaying material on and below the soil surface.  One possibility is that the dead pill bugs had been feeding above ground, within the layer of thatchy dead vegetation, and were killed by the fire.  A second possibility is that they were belowground during the fire, but came up after the fire (maybe it got too cold and/or dry because the protective thatch was burned away?) and then died aboveground.  There are lots of other possibilities as well, not all of them related to fire.

I emailed photos and questions to several entomology friends, asking for help explaining what I’d seen.  None had ever seen something like this after a fire.  Based on their responses, though, my first proposed scenario (above) seems the most likely.  I just wish I’d looked more carefully after the fire last November, though there wasn’t any reason to do that at the time!  One of my friends also mentioned that I shouldn’t lose any sleep over what happened since the pill bugs are an introduced species (native to the Mediterranean region) and could be having negative impacts on the native detritivore community in prairies.

caught in grass

There were clusters of dead pill bugs in basal clumps of grasses like this one.  Maybe they got lodged here during a strong wind?

This is the kind of thing that keeps me interested in ecology.  Something killed a lot of pill bugs in that prairie.  It was probably related to the fire, but I can’t even say that for sure.  If it was the fire, were there other creatures similarly impacted, but in a less visible way? (We try not to burn entire prairies because of this kind of potential impact, especially on insects overwintering aboveground.) What impacts might the loss of that many pill bugs have on other detritivores, on the decomposition process in that prairie, or on other aspects of prairie ecology?  Lots to ponder; I love it!

Has anyone out there seen anything like this before?  Any other suggestions as to what might have happened?

PLANT GAME ANSWERS:

Thanks to everyone who played the plant game this week.  Over 360 people guessed on the first question, and over 60% guessed correctly that “Widespread Panic Grass” was made up.  Nice work, though I did purposefully try to make the first one easy.

The second question got many fewer guesses, only about 200, as of my writing this.  I got most of you on this one.  Almost half of the guesses were for Yerba Mansa, but that’s a real plant, folks.  It’s a rhizomatous semi-succulent plant in the lizard’s-tail family (Saururaceae) – I PROMISE I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP – and is most common in the southwestern United States, but has at least one record in western Nebraska.

The correct answer for the second question was “Jagged-edge milkwort,” which doesn’t exist.  It’s a little tricky because milkwort is a real thing, but there is no such thing as a “jagged-edge milkwort”.  Only 14% of guessers got it right.  Congratulations to you 30 people!

It looks like people enjoyed playing the game, so we’ll try it again in the near future.

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Introducing “The Plant Game”

Last fall, I invented a silly game to play at a staff gathering.  People seemed to enjoy it, so I’ve decided to test it out as a periodic feature here on the blog.

Plants, like all organisms, have both a common name and a Latin name.  Latin names (e.g., Dalea purpurea) are most useful to scientists, but common names (e.g., purple prairie clover) are easier for most of us to remember.  However, common names can also be really goofy.  In fact, some of them are almost unbelievable, and that is the basis for this game.

The point of the game is to look at four alleged plant names and guess which one of them I made up.  Three of the names are listed in The Flora of Nebraska as official plant names, but one is completely fake.  See if you can guess.  I’m hoping that even trained botanists will struggle with some of these because they tend to use Latin names more than common names.

Let’s see how this goes.  I’ll provide the correct answers in a blog post later this week.  (Don’t cheat – just guess.  It’s more fun that way.)

 

Oh, and it seems like we should have a better name for this than “The Plant Game”, so if you have suggestions, please let me know in the comments section below.  Puns are welcome.

Posted in Prairie Plants | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 16, 2017

You’ve probably noticed that my favorite photo subjects are insects and flowers.  You’ve probably also noticed that insects and flowers are pretty uncommon during Nebraska winters.  By about this time each year, I start feeling a little desperate for photo subjects.  Last weekend, I went for a long walk in a prairie north of town, trying to find something, ANYTHING, with some color other than brown.  The best I could come up with were some small rosettes of common evening primrose (Oenothera villosa) scattered along south-facing prairie hills.  I spent way more time than necessary photographing these little red leaves, but I did feel a little better afterward.

Rosette of common evening primrose (Oenothera villosa).

Rosette of common evening primrose (Oenothera villosa).

There were quite a few different rosettes to choose from, and each had its own unique beauty.

…ok, that’s not true – they all pretty much looked the same.  But there were a few minor differences, and did I mention I was feeling desperate?

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See how different the rosette below looks from the first one?  It’s COMPLETELY different.  A little.

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Look, these leaves have a little green in them!  Isn’t that exciting?

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No, this is a different plant and different leaves from the earlier one.

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Spring is coming soon, right?

(I have about a hundred more photos of these…)

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

The Life of a Single Mom (Bee)

Most of what we read in the news about declines in bee populations focus on (non-native) honey bees.  Yes, those populations are suffering declines from the combined impacts diseases, habitat loss, pesticide use and other factors.  However, there are nearly 4,000 bee species in North America, and many of them are dealing with the same pressures and threats as honey bees.  In addition, honey bees are social insects, living in large collaborative colonies of workers and queens.  The vast majority of bees in North America, however, are not social, and they succeed or fail on the backs of single moms.

Solitary bee

At first glance, some solitary bees might appear similar to honey bees (I’ve certainly been guilty of making that mistake many times) but while their appearance might be somewhat similar, their life stories are very different.  This one is a solitary bee in the genus Svastra.  At least I think it is…

Solitary bees – bees that don’t live in colonies – are all around us, but they go largely unnoticed.  Many escape our attention because of their small size, but others are as big as or bigger than honey bees.  Solitary bees can vary greatly in their diet preferences.  Some are generalists, feeding on nectar and pollen from a wide variety of flower species.  Others have much more narrow diets, feeding only from sunflowers, for example, or other categories of flowering plants.

Most solitary bees in prairies live in underground burrows, though others live in hollow plant stems or similar spaces.  In colonies of social bees, the work of gathering food, maintaining and defending the home, and feeding and caring for the kids is split between hundreds or thousands of bees.  In the case of solitary bees, the single mom does everything.  In most cases, she finds a likely spot, digs a burrow and prepares it for eggs.  Then, she flies around the neighborhood in search of the kinds of flowers she can collect food from.  As she nears the flowers, she’s likely to encounter males of her species, who basically spend their entire lives buzzing from flower to flower, hoping to find females to mate with.

Male

A male solitary bee (Dufourea sp.) waits for females at a sunflower.

Assuming the single mom can find food nearby, she returns from foraging with a load of pollen and nectar, which she combines into a ball of sticky dough.  She places that in a cell within her burrow, lays an egg on or next to it, and seals up the cell.  Then, she takes off to repeat the process: find food, mix it together, lay an egg with it, seal up the cell.  Later, the eggs will hatch, and the larvae will stay in their cells and feed on the dough balls provided for them until they grow into adults and leave the nest.

As you might imagine, life isn’t easy for single mom bees.  They have to gather food for themselves and their kids, while fighting off overly-enthusiastic males with only one thing on their minds.  When they aren’t out finding food, they are building and provisioning baby rooms or sitting vigilantly at the entrance of the burrow, defending it from marauding wasps or other threats.  After mother bees have filled their burrow with eggs-in-cells, they seal up the whole nest and fly away, hoping for the best.

Single mom solitary bees have difficult lives, but there are ways we can help them.  First, we can help ensure the availability of nesting sites.  Some ground-nesting bees need areas of bare ground, and many others need at least access to the soil without having to fight through a dense layer of plant litter.  Similarly, stem nesters would appreciate it if you didn’t chop down all of last year’s plant skeletons, especially those of raspberry, sunflower, rose, leadplant, and other plants with hollow stems.  Providing this kind of nesting habitat is important in prairies and other natural areas, but also in backyard gardens and other urban areas.  Because solitary bees aren’t aggressive toward humans, there’s no downside to sharing your yard or garden with them (and, as pollinators, they’ll work for their housing).

A "long-horned bee" (Melissodes sp) on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).

A “long-horned bee” (Melissodes sp.) on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).

Perhaps more importantly than housing, what bees need most is food.  The key to supporting strong bee communities is plant diversity.  A prairie or garden with lots of different kinds of flowers will support lots of different kinds of bees.  Specialist bees will be able to find the particular flowers they need, and generalist bees won’t run out of food when one kind of flower stops blooming, gets eaten by insects, or is wiped out by disease.  Early spring can be a particularly difficult time for bees to find food because of the relative scarcity of flowers at that time of year.  Boosting the spring-time abundance of both native wildflowers and flowering shrubs in gardens and natural areas can be very helpful.

In prairies and other large-scale habitats, it’s important to think about the flight range of bees.  Honey bees can travel up to several miles to find food.  Most solitary bees are considerably smaller, however, and they may be limited to a range of a few hundred yards or less from their nest.  During their nesting season, bees will need to find everything they need to survive and supply their nests from that relatively small circle of habitat.  The availability of abundant flowers of many kinds within that circle helps ensure that bees can find food throughout the season.  If a large area surrounding a bee’s nest is mowed or grazed intensively, it is left stranded with a nest in the middle of a food desert.

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This tiny sweat bee fits perfectly into this puccoon flower (Lithospermum carolinense).  Its size gives it access to flowers larger bees (including honey bees) can’t get into, but that size also limits its ability to forage far from its nest.

If you’re a landowner or land manager, think about your property from the perspective of a single mom bee.  Pick a few spots on your land and visit them every few weeks to see what the abundance and diversity of flowers looks like.  If a bee was nesting where you stand, could she find what she needs for food within a short distance of that location?  Are there times of year when it’s hard to find abundant flowers?  If so, can you tweak your management or implement restoration strategies to make more flowers available?  Are there places where bees can find bare soil for nesting, or is there a layer of thatch covering the soil across your whole site?  Burning, intensively grazing, or haying portions of your land each year can help reduce thatchiness and help ensure bees’ access to soil.  However, creating patches of prairie habitat representing a full spectrum of vegetation structure types (tall/dense, short/sparse, mixed-height, etc.) will be of maximum benefit to both bees and other insect and wildlife species.

Single mom bees deserve our respect and admiration.  They build and prepare their nest, seek out and harvest food while dodging predators and lustful males, and provision their eggs with food and a safe place to grow up.  Oh, and along the way, they also pollinate and help ensure the survival of the majority of plants on earth.  It seems only fair that we should acknowledge their work and do what we can to help them out.

 

More information:

While the vast majority of native bees are solitary bees, some are social as well, including bumble bees, some sweat bees, and others.  Bumble bees, in particular, are very important pollinators because of their size and mobility as well as their willingness to visit many different kinds of flowers.  As opposed to honey bees, whose colonies can survive the winter intact, all bumblebee individuals except fertilized queens die at the end of the growing season.  Those fertilized queens overwinter and then become single moms in the spring.  Once the queen’s first brood matures, those bees take over the foraging work and take care of the queen.  You can learn much more about solitary bees and other native bees here.

Many thanks to Mike Arduser and Jennifer Hopwood for reviewing this post for accuracy.  Any remaining errors are mine, not theirs.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 9, 2017

Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) is a showy plant, but not because of its flowers.  In fact, the flowers are tiny and very simple.  It’s the leaves (and some bracts beneath the flowers) that make the plant outstanding in its field.

Sno-

Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata)

Like other relatives in the spurge family, snow-on-the-mountain’s flowers have no petals or sepals.  The small round white things that look like petals beneath the anthers are actually bracts, and all the other white parts are leaves.  Most of the leaves of snow-on-the-mountain are green, but they become variegated toward the top of the plant.  The leaves closest to the flowers are often nearly or completely white.

More snow-on-the-mountain.

More snow-on-the-mountain, showing the rounded white bracts beneath the flowers, and the variegated green and white leaves below those.

The weird flower structures and variegated leaves are not the only unique features of snow-on-the-mountain.  Some of you with biology backgrounds know that plants are often divided by their photosynthesis strategy.  There are C4 plants (often casually referred to as “warm-season” plants) which are most efficient at photosynthesis during hot temperatures and drought conditions, and there are C3 plants (“cool-season” plants) which are more efficient during other kinds of conditions.  A few of you might even know that there is a third photosynthetic pathway called CAM, which is particularly effective in very arid conditions.  As it happens, snow-on-the-mountain and other Euphorbs actually use all three photosynthetic pathways – the only genus of plants for which that is true (as far as I know).  There, now you all have something to talk about at your next family gathering.

Snow-on-the-mountain is often maligned as a weed that needs to be controlled via herbicide or mowing.  In truth, while it is closely related to leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), snow-on-the-mountain is an annual plant that is opportunistic but not invasive.  Cattle don’t like the taste of it, so it is often left ungrazed when everything else around it is nipped off near the ground.  Snow-on-the mountain can thrive in overgrazed pastures and other places where the vigor of dominant grasses is suppressed, but it competes poorly against those grasses when they’re allowed to grow again.

I appreciate periodically seeing snow-on-the-mountain in prairies because I know that if it was able to germinate and grow, other plants (including less “weedy” perennials) probably got the same opportunity.  Except around water tanks or other places where repeated cattle impacts or other factors keep grasses suppressed, snow-on-the-mountain doesn’t hang around very long.

A small beetle feeds on pollen, seemingly unaware of the camouflaged danger lurking nearby (crab spider).

A small beetle feeds on snow-on-the-mountain pollen, seemingly unaware of the camouflaged danger lurking nearby (crab spider).

As if the weird flowers, variegated leaves, and triple threat photosynthesis strategy weren’t enough to make you love this unique and beautiful plant, here’s one more cool fact.  Snow-on-the-mountain and other spurges produce white milky latex in their leaves and stems just like milkweed plants and rubber trees.  The latex isn’t sap, it’s made by a completely separate production system and doesn’t travel through the plant.  It’s a defense mechanism that is bad tasting and irritating to the skin of many animals (including humans with latex allergies).

Snow-on-the-mountain is a gorgeous native wildflower.  It used to be more commonly planted as an ornamental because of its beauty, but also because it is relatively free of pests and diseases (due in part to its toxic latex).  Unfortunately, because cattle don’t like to eat it and it can be abundant (and very conspicuous) in overgrazed areas of pastures, it has gotten an undeserved reputation as a nasty weed.  Snow-on-the-mountain doesn’t want to take over the world.  It just likes to grow in places where nothing else is growing anyway, and it gives way politely when the neighbors start getting pushy.

Does that sound like an invasive plant to you?  It sounds to me like a plant that needs a friend.  Let’s be friends with snow-on-the-mountain.  What do you say?

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Compatibility of Cows, Conservation and Climate Change?

I’ve been asked a number of times why I advocate for cattle grazing in prairies when cattle are such strong contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and rapid climate change.  It’s a fair question, but also a complicated one.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can share some of what makes it a thought-provoking subject.  Rather than providing a lot of specific research citations, I’m aiming instead to provide some general information that highlights the complexity of the topic.  Feel free to contribute additional information and perspectives in the comments section below (as long as you keep it constructive and polite).

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Cattle graze among leadplant and prairie clover at Konza Prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills.  What are the ramifications of cattle grazing for greenhouse gas emissions and other contributing factors to climate change?

Cattle: The Downsides

First, here are some reasons people are concerned about the impact of cattle on climate change.  According to the EPA, agriculture is responsible for about 9% of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and beef production makes the largest contribution to that category.  Most of the impact comes not from carbon emissions, but from methane and nitrous oxide, both of which influence climate change more strongly (pound for pound) than does carbon.  “Enteric methane” (cow burps) is a big part of that equation, but so is manure, urine, and application of fertilizers to pastures.  These emissions are bad enough, but there are other negative impacts from beef production as well, including emissions from growing corn and other feed for cattle, emissions from manure in feedlots, water consumption by cattle and feed production, and pollution from sedimentation and nutrient runoff of pastureland.  Reading a list of bad stuff like this, it’s easy to see how people might wonder why I keep talking about grazing like it’s a good thing.

Cattle

Cattle are sometimes their own worst enemy in terms of advocating for their own existence.  I mean, come on, man!  This is just not a good look.

Predecessors to Cattle

As I provide some counterpoints, I’m going to do so from the perspective of the central Great Plains – the area of the world I’m most familiar with.  Outside the Great Plains, the situation varies greatly; there are places in the world where grazing may not be compatible with local ecosystems, for example, and where forest or other land cover types are being converted to pasture.  Here in my part of the country, however, we are in the heart of the historic bison range.  Before Europeans entered the picture in the Great Plains, prairies here were being grazed by bison, elk, pronghorn, and other large animals.  There are many arguments about the size of those historic bison populations, fluctuations in herd size and geographic range over time, and when/where bison impacts were important for prairie ecology.  For the purposes of this discussion, the important point is that cattle (and their emissions) weren’t introduced into a landscape with no history of methane emissions.  Bison were here prior to cattle, and they burped too.

The most cited article I’ve seen on the issue of methane emissions from historic bison populations is by Francis Kelliher and Harry Clark.  They use a fairly standard estimate of 30 million bison across the Great Plains prior to European contact.  Based on their calculations, the methane (CH4) emissions from those bison (2.2 Tg CH4 year-1) are not hugely different from those of today’s 36.5 million cattle across the same geography (2.5 Tg CH4 year-1).  The exact numbers are less important than this basic idea: the prairie ecosystem was contributing large amounts of methane to the atmosphere before humans brought cattle to the Plains.

Of course, feedlots, fertilization, and forage production, along with all the greenhouse gas emissions and other concerns associated with them, were not part of the historic bison landscape.  We definitely have an obligation to examine those aspects of cattle production and do what we can to limit their negative impacts.  In addition, the fact that cattle on native rangeland are producing emissions similar to their bison predecessors doesn’t release us from the responsibility of trying to reduce those emissions where possible.  I’m hopeful that research over the next decade or so will provide us with more guidance on how we might do that.

Bison

Before there were cattle, bison roamed (and burped) across the Plains.

Get Rid of Cattle?

What if we just stopped grazing cattle on the Great Plains?  Well, since the vast majority of the Great Plains is privately owned, grassland still exists primarily because it produces income.  Without cattle production, much of that grassland would likely be converted to row crop agriculture – a scenario that would probably be worse for climate change and would certainly spell disaster for prairie ecosystems.  Some have argued that a majority of the Great Plains should be turned into public land that would support both wildlife and tourism.  There are way too many economic and social issues associated with that for me to deal with here, but from a climate change emissions standpoint, I’m not sure it would solve the problem.  Either cattle would be replaced by bison again (see previous paragraph) or, if bison were not reintroduced, prairies would suffer from the loss of grazing, a major component of ecosystem function (see next paragraphs).

Simply getting rid of cattle altogether is probably not a great strategy for conservation. Plus, how could you get rid of something this cute?

Simply getting rid of cattle altogether is probably not a great strategy for conservation. Besides, how could you get rid of something this cute?

Grazing as a Positive Force

Despite the fact that chronic overgrazing can cause degradation of prairies (loss of plant species and habitat, soil erosion, etc.), grasslands and large grazers evolved together and grazing is still an essential component of grassland ecosystems.  This is especially true in North America’s Great Plains where there are still grasslands large enough to support wide-ranging wildlife species such as grouse and pronghorn.  Grazing, along with fire and drought, is one of the three major forces that affects prairies and prairie species.  For example, large herbivore grazing helps keep grasses from being so competitive that they overwhelm and reduce the diversity of plant communities, something that leads to a cascade of negative and interconnected impacts on pollinators, productivity, wildlife/insect communities, and more.  In addition, grazing alters vegetation structure, creating a wide range of habitat conditions.  Ungrazed prairie provides fairly uniform vegetation structure, even if it is hayed or burned.  Grazed prairie (under the right management) is heterogeneous, with patches of tall/dense vegetation, patches of short/sparse vegetation, and many other habitat types in-between – allowing the widest possible spectrum of prairie wildlife and insect species to thrive.

Maintaining plant and animal diversity, ecosystem function, and ecological resilience within the historic range of American bison would be very difficult without some kind of large ruminant, and in the face of climate change, we need our grasslands to be as resilient as possible.  Resilient grasslands will better adapt and maintain their ecological functions as climate changes, and that means they’ll continue to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it belowground – an incredibly important part of our global climate change strategy.  While the impact of grazing on carbon storage of grasslands is, in itself, a complex topic, the general scientific consensus seems to be that a moderate level of grazing facilitates more carbon storage than no grazing (and more than chronic overgrazing).

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Strategic cattle grazing can create a variety of wildlife habitat structure types and help sustain plant diversity and ecological diversity.  It can also help maximize carbon storage in grasslands.

The Upshot

In the Great Plains of North America, grazing is an essential part of grassland ecosystems – a component that maintains the ecological health and resilience of prairies.  Cattle have mostly replaced bison as the large ruminant on stage at the moment, but they are filling many of the same basic roles – regulating plant competition and creating wildlife habitat, and also pooping, peeing, and burping.  We absolutely need to find ways to minimize the impacts of today’s grazing on climate change.  Livestock confinement operations, pasture fertilization, forage production, and other related practices provide opportunities for continued improvement.  In addition, some rangeland grazing practices, such as chronic overgrazing, are known to be detrimental, and not just from a climate change standpoint, so that’s an obvious place to focus.  Beyond that, we need to figure out how best to limit methane and nitrous oxide emissions and increase carbon storage on rangeland.  That will likely mean changing techniques for managing cattle in pastures, but also dealing with issues related to pasture fertilization, forage production, forage and animal transportation, feeding operations, and more.

The topic of cattle grazing and climate change is incredibly complex.  There is much more involved than I could possibly cover here, and what I did include is plenty complicated.  I don’t pretend to fully understand all the facets of the issue, but for now, I feel comfortable in my stance that cattle (and/or bison) grazing can be compatible with responsible conservation of our prairies here in the Great Plains.

 

More Information and Acknowledgements

Several scientists from The Nature Conservancy wrote a really helpful piece on the beef supply-chain and its impacts on water, wildlife, and climate.  You can see a summary and get access to the full report here.

Special thanks to Jon Fisher and Joe Fargione, who both helped me refine and improve this post.  Any remaining errors are my fault, not theirs.

 

Posted in General, Prairie Management | Tagged , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Hubbard Alumni Blog: Platte Meditations

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, a Hubbard fellow during 2015 and 2016.  Evan is currently working for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.

(This is a post that I wrote in January 2016 while during my Fellowship but didn’t get around to publishing before winter passed.) On a sub-zero Saturday morning I got up early to catch some photos of the sunrise. I had planned to go to a prairie, but as I was driving I noticed a line of steam rising on the horizon like the trail of dust a pickup makes as it races down a dry gravel road. Curious, I headed towards the steam and realized that it was coming off of the Platte River. When I arrived at the bridge I was stunned; all along the river, vapor was rising from the surface and glowing in the sunrise. An endless procession of ice chunks slowly floated by, quietly scraping against the snow on the bank. I spent almost two hours photographing, filming, and recording audio, and I never even felt cold (which is saying a lot for me). There was something special about that morning, something about the stillness that made me feel content and peaceful. I wanted to share that feeling with other people, so I created a short video of how I saw the Platte that morning:

There’s really something special about the Platte and I don’t know if I can explain it. Maybe it’s my instinctive attraction to water. Maybe it’s the languid pace of the Platte that relaxes me. Maybe it’s simply the change in scenery and stark contrast between river and prairie. Or maybe I’m surprised by how beautiful it is each time I make a visit because no one ever seems to talk about it. It’s hard to take a trip in Nebraska without driving over the Platte, yet how often do we stop and explore what’s below those bridges?

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Part of the problem is that there’s so little public access to the Platte. I know of a few observation decks and one tiny trail along it, but the vast majority is private property. Even if you set foot on the middle of the riverbed you’re trespassing! This is such a shame because in my opinion the Platte is one of the greatest recreation opportunities in southern Nebraska. On a sunny weekend it is my favorite place to sit and read, and every time a friend visits I make sure to bring him or her to a sandbar for a picnic. As an employee of The Nature Conservancy, I have the luxury of being able to access a couple sections that we manage.

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Fortunately, even if you don’t have access to a section of the Platte the best option is still available to you: kayaking. I did this with a friend twice during the summer and it remains one of my favorite Nebraskan memories. When there’s enough water for a decent flow you can cover 20 miles in an afternoon while hardly paddling. And boy was I surprised how beautiful the scenery was! I expected the river to be bordered on both sides by corn fields, but the section between Minden and Wood River is actually surrounded by trees, creating the feeling that you are far, far away from it all. No place other than the Sandhills has given me that feeling of isolation in Nebraska. Kayaking the Platte requires two cars to shuttle and renting kayaks if you don’t own them, but it is well worth the trouble.

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The Platte River has a long history of abuse, and now it is often taken for granted, in my opinion. But if more people had a meaningful connection to it maybe we would treat it better. I challenge you to find your own special place or activity on the river, if you haven’t yet; get to know this wonderful feature if you haven’t yet. The Platte deserves it.

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Public Access to the Platte:

  • Platte River State Park, Louisville
  • Louisville State Recreation Area, Louisville
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area, Waterloo
  • The Crane Trust Visitor Center, Alda
  • Alda Rd. and Shoemaker Island Rd. (observation deck), Alda
  • Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, Gibbon
  • Lowell Road and Elm Island road (observation deck), Gibbo
  • Riverside Park, Sottsbluff
  • Platte River Landing, Valley
Posted in Hubbard Fellowship | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 3, 2017

I’ve finally gotten through all the survey responses many of you provided over the last couple weeks, including all of the open-ended comments from the last two questions.  Again, I really appreciate everyone who took the time to take that survey, and I am especially grateful for all your constructive and thoughtful suggestions.

Earlier this week, I shared a close-up photo of ice melting along the edge of a stream, and promised more.  Here they are.  One of the joys of close-up photography is the chance to capture intricate beauty from unexpected places.  In this case, I never would have stopped to look at this half-frozen muddy stream beneath a concrete highway bridge if I hadn’t been looking for photographic opportunities.  Even then, it took me a lot of trial and error before I ended up with any images I really liked.  Notwithstanding my wet, cold, and muddy pants and some suspicious glances from passersby, I’m really glad I took the time.

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Ice

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Ok, enough with ice photos.  I’ll try to get back to some prairie ecology next week.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Survey Data is IN – THANK YOU!

This time of week, I am often putting the finishing touches on a new blog post that describes a prairie species or ecological interaction, discusses prairie management, or at least showcases some recent photos.  Today, I’m a little distracted because I’m going through the data from the blog survey many of you participated in.  AND I LOVE DATA!!  So I’m not doing much writing.

I really want to thank everyone who took the survey over the last two weeks.  Guess how many responses I got?  Guess!

Hint:  There are approximately 2900 people who have subscribed to the blog, mostly via email.  There are also quite a few people who read the blog by just checking in now and then or because they get posts forwarded to them by friends.  What would be an optimistic percentage of readers who would take the time to fill out a survey?  Five percent?  Ten percent?

Ok, I’ll just tell you.  There were 912 people who filled out the survey.  912!!

That’s fantastic.  That’s amazing!  That’s humbling.  I’m very grateful – and not just because it gives me lots of data to play with.

Below are some quick and dirty results from some of the survey questions.  I’ll be sifting through responses for quite a while, and will share more detailed results later, but here’s a sneak peek.  (If you don’t care about any of the results, you can just skip down to the bottom – I included a cool photo from this weekend.)

Let’s start with geography.  Not surprisingly, the largest number of respondents (176) were from Nebraska – the state I live and work in.  But I got survey results from people in 47 states and a total of 8 countries, not counting one person who just responded (“outside the U.S.”).  Only Connecticut, Alabama, and Delaware were not represented among U.S. States.  After Nebraska, the highest number of respondents came from Illinois (93), Minnesota (91), Texas (56), Missouri (52), Iowa (47), Wisconsin (40), and Kansas (38).  No surprises there, since those are states with either a lot of prairie or a lot of people who care about prairies.  Oh, and there were ten of you who chose not to share your location.  Perfectly fine.  I wish you well in your continued effort to stay hidden.

Canada led the way among countries outside the United States with 28 respondents, followed by Australia with 8.  Other countries represented included Brazil, Finland, France, Samoa, and the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, a little more than half of the respondents have been following the blog for between one and three years.   Just less than a third of you have been around longer than that.  I should just start copying and pasting posts from 2011 and 2012 and see if anyone notices…

Most of you found out about the blog either from friends/colleagues (41%) or while doing an internet search for something (29%).  Please keep sharing blog posts with others!

One really gratifying result was that, in contrast to most of my family members, a large majority of you (76%) read all or most of the posts I write.  That’s really wonderful to know, although I harbor no hard feelings toward those of you who aren’t reading this paragraph right now because you mostly look at photos and/or just skim to find posts/information you’re interested in.  No problem at all.  I hope you enjoy what you find.

Finally, it’s really great to see a broad spectrum of people reading the blog.  There is an amazingly even spread of ages among readers, mainly between the ages of 25 and 75, and a majority of you identified yourselves as a nature enthusiast and/or a supporter of nature (or both).  That’s not surprising.  About 40% of you are landowners, and exactly 2/3 of respondents were either a landowner, land manager, or conservation professional (or some combination of those).  There were also a lot of educators (23%) and photographers (25%) among the respondents.  Most of you knew at least something about prairies before you started, but you also indicated you’ve learned more and have become more interested in/supportive of prairies through the blog.

I can’t stress enough how grateful I am for all of you who took the time to fill out the survey.  I promise to read every comment, and I’ll do my best to use all your feedback to make this blog better.   Thank you.

Now, for those of you who really just like to skim posts and look at photos, here’s something for you…

This weekend, my wife and I were walking a local trail through town and noticed some neat ice patterns on the thawing stream.  I returned to the spot with my camera later and got some fun close-up photos.  Here’s one.  I’ll probably share some more later this week.

A black hole?

A black hole?  Well, yes, but instead of the cosmos, it’s just a hole in some thawing ice, with flowing water beneath and lots of frozen bubbles around it.  Lincoln Creek, Aurora, Nebraska.

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