Trusting the Resilience of Prairies

Note to my son (and others who mainly follow this blog to see if there are cool pictures or pictures of them):  This is a pretty long and involved post – sorry.  The first picture is probably the best one, though there are a couple other decent prairie photos further down (though none with you in them).  The other pictures are more instructional than aesthetically pleasing.  Don’t worry, I’ll put up some better photos later this week.

Restored sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. This prairie

Restored sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. This prairie was seeded in 2002 and has been managed with sporadic intensive grazing and fire.

Great Plains grasslands are more resilient than most of us give them credit for.  Just recently, for example, they survived the drought of 2012, the worst single year drought on record in many places (including at our Platte River Prairies).  In a post I wrote during 2012, I compared that drought to similar conditions described by famous prairie ecologist J.E. Weaver back in the 1934.  In both cases, prairies recovered nicely.  In fact, in a 1944 paper, Weaver and collaborator Frederick Alberts provided a detailed summary of how prairies in Iowa, Nebraska, and east-central Kansas persevered and recovered from repeated drought conditions between 1933 and 1943.

This is a brief summary

This brief summary was part of the 1944 paper referenced above that documented how prairies reacted to the drought years of the 1930’s.  The paper is worth reading if you’re interested in how prairies might respond to droughts in the future.  You can click on the image to make the print larger.

Nebraska prairies have also shown resilience to intensive fire and grazing – historically by bison and currently by cattle.  Chronic overgrazing, of course, can decrease plant diversity and cause cascading negative impacts on prairie animals and critical ecological processes.  However, most prairies can easily withstand periodic bouts of intensive grazing followed by comparable rest periods.  We’ve been tracking plant community responses to this kind of fire/cattle grazing management in our Platte River Prairies since 2002 and have seen plant diversity remain stable.  Even grazing-sensitive plants such as rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), prairie clovers (Dalea sp.) and others have maintained their populations.  Likewise, at our Niobrara Valley Preserve in the Nebraska Sandhills, prairies managed with more than 25 years of periodic fire and intensive bison grazing are still healthy, diverse, and full of wildlife.

Since coming to dominance in the Great Plains after the last ice age, prairies have survived and thrived through long droughts (some lasting multiple decades), severe fires, and intensive grazing episodes.  Yes, we’ve managed to destroy and degrade many prairies through tillage, herbicide use, and chronic overgrazing, but those are departures from the kinds of stresses prairies have evolved with over time.  The more time I spend in Nebraska prairies, the more important I think it is to run prairies through their paces now and then.  That includes beating them up with periodic intensive grazing.


Western ragweed is visually dominant this summer in this part of my family prairie which is recovering from being grazed hard most of last year.  Big bluestem and other grasses are still present, but are weakened from last year’s grazing.  Stiff sunflower and other perennial forb populations are expanding.

Not only can prairies rebound from droughts and intensive grazing, some aspects of prairies seem to depend upon those patterns of disturbance and recovery.  As we’ve experimented with variations of patch-burn grazing over the years, I’ve observed a consistent response pattern from plant communities.   We burn a patch of prairie, let cattle or bison graze it hard all season and then provide a different burn patch for the grazers the following year.  In the year following fire and grazing, prairie patches get a weedy look to them because dominant grasses are weakened by the previous year’s grazing and there is open space for new plants to establish.  Often, I see an increase of roughly 25-30% in the number of plant species found at the 1 m2 scale in the year after grazing.

Many of the plants that fill spaces left by weakened grasses are opportunistic (‘weedy’) species that grow, bloom, and produce copious amounts of seed within a year or two – and most of those plants disappear within a year or two as grasses reassert their dominance.  In addition to those short-lived plants, however, I also see expansion of long-lived perennial plant populations that are taking advantage of weakened competition.  Prairie clovers, leadplant, perennial sunflowers, and many others spread via both rhizome and seed during those periods when grasses are weakened.  What I don’t see is the death or disappearance of plants following intensive grazing bouts that last a year or two.  Even plants – both grasses and forbs – that are cropped close to the ground and kept that way by repeated grazing regain their vigor within a few years of rest.

Prairie animals also seem to benefit when prairies go through periods of severe stress and recovery.  For example, many of the plant species that flourish following intensive grazing (and/or severe drought) are very attractive plants for pollinators.  Annual sunflowers, hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), and biennial primroses (Oenothera sp.) are just a few examples.  The prolific seed production by those opportunistic plants also provides a bonanza of food for insects and wildlife species.

Annual plains sunflowers (Helianthus petiolaris) were super abundant throughout the Nebraska Sandhills in 2013, following the severe 2012 drought. I would love to see this kind of prolific blooming of short-lived plants on portions of our Niobrara Valley Preserve each year.

Plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), an annual, was super abundant throughout the Nebraska Sandhills in 2013, following the severe 2012 drought. I would love to see this kind of prolific blooming of short-lived plants on scattered areas of our Niobrara Valley Preserve each year.  We are trying to create that scenario by intensively grazing selected pastures/patches of prairie each season and then letting them recover while others are hit hard.

Animals also benefit from habitat structure created by patterns of intensive grazing and recovery.  Because every animal has its own individual habitat preferences, the highest diversity of animals are found in prairies with patches of intensively grazed vegetation, patches of recovering vegetation, and patches of tall/thatchy vegetation.  Mobile animals can move to their favorite habitat structure and less mobile animals need only wait a few years for conditions that allow them to prosper.

Vegetation recovering from intensive grazing can provide particularly unique and valuable habitat.  Habitat structure consisting of short, weakened grasses and tall ‘weedy’ forbs provides wonderful brood-rearing habitat for birds such as grouse, quail, and pheasants, for example.  The low density of grass leaves and litter at ground level makes it easy for young birds (and other wildlife) to move around and feed beneath a canopy of protective cover.  Coincidentally, insect abundance also skyrockets under those same conditions, which is good for insects and also for the wildlife that eats them.

This 2013 photo shows a restored Platte River Prairie recovering from severe drought, fire, and intensive grazing from the previous year. Grasses are weak, but opportunistic forbs are prolific, including many that provide excellent resources for pollinators and lots of seeds for insects and wildlife.

This 2013 photo shows a restored Platte River Prairie recovering from severe drought, fire, and intensive grazing from the previous year. Grasses are weak, but opportunistic forbs are prolific, including many that provide excellent resources for pollinators and lots of seeds for insects and wildlife.

What are we afraid of?

I’m more and more convinced of the importance of putting prairies through periods of stress and recovery, especially when those stresses are applied in a way that provides a shifting mosaic of stressed, recovering, and full strength vegetation patches across a prairie.  No matter how hard we have grazed prairies, even during severe and extended drought periods, the plant communities have always bounced back during the recovery periods that follow.  In addition, my own observations and data collected by many researchers have documented benefits to wildlife and invertebrates that come from the variety of habitats provided by this kind of management.  (You can read more about patch-burn grazing here and the way I manage my family prairie here.)

While I’m confident that it’s valuable to beat prairies up now and then, I’m having a hard time convincing others to try it.  Both ranchers and public land managers tend to have strong visceral reactions when I walk them through patches of really intensively grazed prairie.  Ranchers are often convinced that I’ve killed the grasses and created weed and erosion problems that will never go away.  Conservation area managers worry about potential weed invasions too, and some also wonder if sensitive wildflowers will survive the stress.  Many of those land managers also flinch at the lack of habitat structure for wildlife species they care about.

Walking tour participants from an intensively grazed patch into a nearby area of recovering vegetation doesn’t usually help things.  Ranchers tend to see the flush of opportunistic plants as validation of their fears about dead grass and weed problems, even when I next show them patches where the grasses have regained dominance after a few years of rest.  Some wildlife managers recognize the value of the weedy vegetation as habitat, but worry about the perceptions of neighbors and the public who just see weeds, not habitat.  Others see the weedy vegetation as a sign that the plant community has been degraded, despite the fact that the plant species they like better haven’t gone away.

This fenceline photo from our family prairie was taken in September 2014. The pasture on the left had been grazed hard all season, while the one on the right had been largely rested for more than a year.

This fenceline photo from our family prairie was taken in September 2014. The pasture on the left had been grazed hard all season (the grass is about 2-3 inches tall), while the one on the right had been mostly rested for more than a year.  Besides helping to increase plant diversity, this kind of grazing also creates a variety of habitat conditions across the prairie.

This is the same fenceline as shown above (just slightly uphill). The grasses on the left have recovered from the long intensive grazing in 2014 and are ready to be hit hard again next season. The ragweed on the right is enjoying a good year after that area was grazed intensively for most of 2015.

This is the same fenceline as shown above (just slightly uphill) as it looked in mid-August of 2016. The grasses on the left have recovered from the long intensive grazing in 2014 and are ready to be hit hard again next season. The ragweed on the right is enjoying a good year while the competing grasses are recovering from being grazed intensively for most of 2015

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all prairies would benefit from the kind of periodic intensive grazing I’m talking about here.  Some prairies, for example, are simply too small and isolated.  There are big logistical challenges associated with fencing and providing livestock water in small prairies.  More importantly, there just isn’t space to graze some portions of small prairies while leaving other areas to rest and recover.  (Small prairies have a number of other challenges that make any kind of management difficult.  If you’re interested, I tried to address some of those in a blog post several years ago.)

I also have a number of lingering questions about how best to apply intensive grazing and recovery periods to prairies.  For example, I strongly suspect that the best results come from intensive grazing bouts that last between a couple months and a full growing season.  Grazing for only days or weeks doesn’t seem to stress the grasses as much as longer periods of repeated grazing on those plants.  In addition, different grass species grow strongly at different times of year.  Because of that, grazing for a short time can just shift dominance from the grasses growing strongly during the grazing bout to species that peak in their growth after grazers leave.  Since my objective is to really weaken the entire grass community, I don’t think short grazing periods will do the job – but I’d like to test that more.

This is one of our restored prairies at the end of August of this year. The grasses were grazed hard all season, and eventually went dormant during a hot dry spell. Many of the forbs were also grazed, but not all of them. This site will likely be very weedy looking next year.

This is one of our restored Platte River Prairies at the end of August of this year. The grasses were grazed hard all season, and eventually went dormant during a hot dry spell. Many of the forbs were also grazed, but not all of them. This part of the site will likely be very weedy looking next year.

This is the same restored prairie as shown above, but the photo was taken several years ago during a year it wasn't being grazed. It will look like this again in a few years.

This is the same restored prairie as shown above, but the photo was taken several years ago during a year it wasn’t being grazed. It will look like this again in a few years.

I’d also love to see more data on the responses of various vertebrate and invertebrate populations to intensive grazing, recovery periods, and the overall mix of habitat provided by the kind of management I think is important.  There is strong research showing benefits to small mammal and bird communities, and some information on invertebrates, but only some of them.  Learning more about the response of reptiles and a wider selection of invertebrates to this kind of grazing management would be really helpful.

In the meantime, however, I’m going to keep beating up my prairies.  Not only do I think they can take it, I think the prairie communities I work with thrive best under that kind of management.  (I will keep an eye on what happens, however, constantly vigilant for signs that I’ve gone a little too far.)  I’ll also keep trying to convince others to stop babying their prairies so much.  I’m hoping I can find a few ranchers willing to push pastures a little harder than they usually do – allowing longer rest periods to compensate, of course.  That shouldn’t require changing stocking rates, but might provide some really nice benefits for pollinators and wildlife species.  I know I’m going to continue to face skepticism from many corners, but I really think this concept needs to be explored further.  Prairies have shown their resilience over thousands of years.  I think we can trust that kind of track record.

So…who’s with me?


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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32 Responses to Trusting the Resilience of Prairies

  1. Paul says:

    I enjoyed this post a great deal Chris, and agree that prairies can likely handle stresses that they have evolved with even if we don’t trust them to so so. What are your feelings about the stresses they haven’t evolved with – – exotic plants and perhaps some animals (including insects) for example? Cheat is one example that comes to mind. In my part of the world in central Illinois, there are plenty of others. Thanks Chris!

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Paul, there are definitely some exotic plants that have dramatically changed the way prairies function. Some of the most important are invasive grasses that have simplified the plant community, reducing its resilience. Invasive forbs, shrubs, and trees like sericea lespedeza, crown vetch, leafy spurge, Siberian elm, autumn olive, and many others can also have severe impacts on plant diversity and habitat. Some of those species need to be dealt with outside the regular management applications of fire and grazing by direct application of herbicide or manual removal. Others, like the grasses, are often best addressed by trying to set up fire and grazing treatments to suppress those grasses and keep them from becoming overly dominant. Even bigger stresses for many prairies, of course, come from habitat fragmentation, which leaves prairies, small, isolated, and particularly vulnerable to invasion and loss of native species. Our best hope for saving those smaller isolated prairies is to make them bigger through restoration of adjacent habitats. In addition to increasing population sizes and decreasing exposure to edge issues (including invasion) bigger prairies also provide more options for management, including grazing.

      • Paul says:

        I certainly agree that bigger is better Chris, when that objective can be achieved. That is sometimes difficult in a state like Illinois that is filled with very high value land – – but it does happen as you well know.

        I am happy to see places in or close to Illinois like Nachusa and the Kankakee Sands expanding prairie simulations/restorations. I am also very happy to see bison being used experimentally to achieve objectives, and that progress toward those objectives is being closely monitored. I believe (hope?) that TNC has the necessary will and fortitude to remove or reduce bison grazing if the response is not as predicted and the objectives are not being met.

        The PR value of these big animals is incredible . . . but if they are not the right tool in the right place, TNC should be ready to weather some public outcry if they are removed.

        Thanks as always Chris for your insights and for helping us all to think broadly about prairies – – and also for sparking interesting discussions!

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Paul, I agree that those two bison herds will be extremely interesting. Fortunately, both sites are doing their best to learn as much as possible about the grazing impacts (both positive and negative) and we should all learn a great deal from their pioneering experiences. Even if they find that everything comes up rainbows and sunshine, however, there still aren’t very many sites in the eastern tallgrass prairie where that kind of grazing will be feasible (not many prairies in the hundreds, let alone thousands of acres in size), so I’m not sure how much extrapolation will occur.

  2. Jim Stockie says:

    Disturbance patterns (or periodic stress) are what keep sub-climax systems (prairies) in existence. There are some disturbances we can mimic (fire and grazing). And some we can’t (flood and drought). If it had a roll in the system before European settlement, I would bet that the plants and animals occurring AND that belong in that system have a strategy for dealing with it. The seasonality and frequency of these disturbance are responsible for the ebb and flow of each species relative abundance at any particular time. Prairies, savanna’s and early succession forest (such and the southern pinelands) are all dependent on some form of destructive disturbance.

  3. Suzanne says:

    This was a great post…. I have been guilty of “babying” my small remnant. But feel I can worry a bit less, and play a bit more! Thanks Chris.

  4. Susan says:

    I am a new prairie owner, and many times I do feel protective of it, maybe overly so. My question is in reference to haying. Does haying have the same stress as grazing as far as what the prairie tolerates? Are there different results for example how much of the plant is left? Is grazing harder on plants in general? Does it pull plants out or cut them off? Is the main difference between grazing and haying an “uneven cutting” effect? Also I suppose you factor in that animals only choose to eat certain plants, where with haying everything is cut the same height.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Susan, those are excellent questions. Briefly, haying is very different from grazing in that it is a one-time defoliation that allows immediate regrowth. It’s also different because of the homogenous nature of most hay cuttings – everything is cut to one even height. Cattle grazing almost never pulls plants from the ground, but cattle can graze lower than most hay equipment and can repeat that defoliation, delaying regrowth and stressing plants more severely (which I think is great, as long as those plants are later given adequate time to recover.) That said, haying can be better than doing nothing, and in places where grazing isn’t feasible, it can help provide at least some disturbance that breaks up the grass mafia’s stronghold on the plant community and provides different habitat structure than tall idle thatchy vegetation. Haying works best ecologically when it is done in ways that leave some patches of tall habitat behind (don’t hay the whole prairie in the same year) and when haying takes place at different times each year so the same plant species aren’t always suppressed/favored every time.

  5. Pat says:

    As much as I love your photography, I’m here because I’m interested in what’s happening in our prairies. I’m not a scientist, just an enthusiast. The more you write about what’s going on in your prairies the better. And if the post gets a discussion started that’s frosting on the cake. But thanks for the pretty pictures, too.

  6. Robert Dana says:

    What is the basis for the assertion that “insect abundance skyrockets” in vegetation recovering from intensive grazing? Anything published? What about the species composition?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Robert, The best info I know of comes from a 2008 publication by Engle et al. (Rangeland Ecol Manage 61:55-62) that looked both at biomass in the “transitional” patches and abundance/biomass within particular orders. Not much detail in species composition (which is something I’d really like to see more of). Tony Joern also has looked at grasshoppers and their response to intensive grazing. One good paper that described species abundance/richness/composition responses was his paper in 2005 Ecology paper 86(4)861-873.

  7. James McGee says:

    I think management with intense grazing is fine where monitoring shows objectives are being achieved, as in prairies in western regions. However, I would not support grazing in any of the remnant prairies where I work in northeastern Illinois. I would support grazing in prairie restorations where tall grasses often dominate. However, I am concerned that grazing might allow woody or invasive species an opportunity to establish that would cause more problems in the long term than would be compensated by short term benefits.

  8. Justin Thomas says:

    This may work in Nebraska, but such broad generalizations should probably not be made for “prairies” across the board. For example, research (with actual data and analyses) in Missouri prairies is finding that though species richness and diversity may stay the same or even increase in intensely grazed prairies, the populations of rare, sensitive, and conservative plants plummet. Six years out, there has not been “recovery” and several of the once common sensitive species appear to be locally extinct. Research demonstrates that prairies are sensitive. That is why so few good ones still exist. Richness and diversity are not absolute indicators of prairie health and I doubt that floristic integrity variables would justify the “beatings”, even in the long-term. Plus, just the use of the term “beating” scares me. It literally implies harm and is a little too “spare the rod, spoil the child” for my liking.

    • Justin Thomas says:

      The only way I can reconcile our differing opinions is if the prairies you manage have been beaten for decades and are thereby have been reduced to weeds and generalists already, Then, further beatings may not matter or will simply be perceived as maintenance of a degraded state; the dangers of a shifting baseline. But for folks that are managing prairies that do not have a history of beatings, and therefore still have intact high quality flora, prescribed beatings are a horrible idea. Most people don’t know the difference and if armed with misinformation or information that doesn’t apply to their situation they could do very bad things with all the best of intentions.

      • Chris Helzer says:

        Justin, I really appreciate your comments. I’ll be very curious to see your results when published. I’m hoping to publish some of our long-term data from here soon as well, which should hopefully help infuse more data into these discussions. I have presented some of those data in past blog posts, hoping to show that I’m not just making up things. I am not doubting your results, however, and am curious to hear what you think the mechanisms might have been for the disappearance of the plants you’ve seen go away. Defoliation? Trampling? Alteration of surrounding environment? The work you are doing and the work that is taking place at places like Nachusa Grasslands where bison have been introduced into high quality remnant prairies will be really useful in helping us understand where and how grazing might be useful or not. In terms of extrapolation, I thought I was being pretty careful to say (and said it several times) that I was talking about my experience with Nebraska prairies in the post. I think that grazing shows potential for diversifying animal communities (many species of which are equally or more imperiled than plant species) with limited impacts to plant communities. But you’re right to point out that we don’t know where, geographically or by prairie type, that kind of grazing is necessarily best suited. You could be right that intensive grazing causes some lasting impacts to plant communities in some Missouri prairies. If so, the discussion then moves to one about what kinds of impacts are we willing to accept (and in what places) in return for what kinds of potential positive impacts to other taxa. That is a difficult discussion with no clear answers to me. Thanks again for your comments.

        • James McGee says:

          If you want to know about repeated defoliation causing plants to disappear all you need to do is ask gardeners. I lost a nice Cypripedium reginae after critters in my yard trampled it one night. I was luckily able to salvage a second plant by protecting it from further damage. I would not have any Phlox pilosa if I did not cage my plants from the rabbits.

          I have even used repeated defoliation to control invasive species on property where the owner will not allow me to apply herbicide. It is not easy, but cutting the resprouts off buckthorn once a month four times in a row usually takes care of the problem. It is too bad cattle don’t like buckthorn and deer do not eat near enough of it to be helpful in any way.

        • James McGee says:

          The real crux of this situation is the habitat for a few now very rare species appears to have been bison trails. Plants that fall into this category include Buffalo clover and Short’s goldenrod. Prairie bush clover likely would also fall into the category of being grazing dependent. However, it is difficult to believe that the intensive grazing from the management discussed in this post would mimic the patterns needed by these species. The remaining areas that were historical bison trails and possess the associated rare species are surely limited. As Justin discusses, management for these bison trail dependent species across the board would irreversibly damage what little quality prairie remains.

          • Teresa says:

            James can you expand on these plants (botanical names) and the bison trail connection? I’m just an enthusiast, not a scientist, but I’m fascinated by the interactions that are or may have been in place when native animals roamed more than they do today. I’m especially interested because Lespedeza capitata is one of my favorite prairie plants, I don’t have it in my small remnant prairie, and would like to add it. But if it would happen to be one of those plants that ‘needs’ periodic grazing to be successful, I’d like to take that into consideration.

          • James McGee says:

            Below is an article about each of the previously mentioned species.



            Restorations throughout my area in northeast Illinois have good populations of Lespedeza capitata and none of these restorations are grazed by cattle. You should be able to get this species established.

            If grass dominance is a problem then you could use a scythe or brush cutter to selectively weaken the grasses and mimic grazing. This may be useful if you are trying to establish species from seed. Otherwise, removing all competing roots from an entire shovel pull of dirt should reduce competition enough to get plugs established. I would also suggest adding some rhizobium, especially if you do not see any nodules on the roots of the plugs.

            I think grazing is much more important for maintaining diversity in the western tall grass region because water is more limited. Grass is very efficient at extracting and using water. Grazing the grass means more soil moisture is available for wildflowers. In the east the moisture limitation is not such an issue. Grass dominance in the east is usually due to past land abuses like plowing, herbicide application, or chronic over grazing. Grazing often can be conducted to favor (or at least not harm) rare plants, but stocking rate and timing appear to be very important.

          • James McGee says:

            I forgot to give a link for the species you were most interested in knowing about. Below is a link discussing conservation of prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya).


  9. Patrick says:

    Here’s a question I haven’t seen asked Chris. What is your experience (or others in the prairie management community), regarding conservation easements and the use of “conservation grazing” as a management tool? I am wondering whether folks with a voluntary conservation easement that did not specify grazing would be allowed by the easement holder to graze or if the easement holder or owner could request to “retrofit” the language to permit “conservation grazing” as a management tool. I would also be curious as to how you might try to define what “conservation grazing” could mean in a legal context to support biodiversity. Thanks,

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hey Patrick,
      Conservation grazing, to me, includes any kind of prescribed grazing with conservation objectives. I don’t think it’s possible to define it much beyond that because every site has a different set of conservation needs, so it’s not necessarily right or possible to prescribe any particular grazing strategies or systems. In terms of conservation easements, I usually think of those as most useful and powerful for preventing obvious conversion activities like housing developments or row cropping, and not very good at influencing management. If management is a high priority, the best way I’ve heard to achieve some influence is by writing the easement document in a way that requires the easement holder to approve annual or multi-year management plans by the landowner. That’s possible, but obviously places a heavy set of restrictions on infinite generations of future landowners, so is not something that many landowners would want to be saddled with. A better approach, assuming a conservation easement is a given, is for the easement holder to cultivate a positive relationship with the landowner, and try to ensure that conservation management occurs through conversations and sharing of information. If there are specific management needs of a property and the conservation values of the site would degrade severely if they aren’t met, a conservation easement might not be the best tool for that job.

      • Patrick says:

        Based on your response, it would seem that including conservation grazing in a conservation easement would necessitate having a plan to make sure the conservation grazing is meeting its conservation objectives. The way it might best be written is to have grazing allowed subject to planning and approval by the easement holder. The problem is that there will always be a threat of land conversion if there are no legal protections against it, so the question for me is how to make sure future owners not only don’t convert the land, but also make appropriate efforts to maintain ecosystem integrity and biodiversity, As you point out, having the easement owner develop and keep positive relationships with future landowners is a necessity to achieve success, but let’s face it, greed and percieved necessity will get in the way occasionally and then you may need to bring down the hammer, which is why easement language that can hold up to legal scrutiny is so important.

        • Chris Helzer says:

          I think you’re characterizing things the way I see them, yes. Now, I’m not the world’s expert on easements, so there may be other tools and strategies I’m not aware of, but that’s the way I understand things. I am skeptical of conservation easements being effective in some contexts, and the points you make are a big part of that. Again, conservation easements can be very effective when the most important threats are conversion. The big push for easements in the Dakotas, for example, during the cropland conversion boom over the last 10 years or so make a lot of sense to me. The primary threat there is/was conversion, and something was needed to prevent that. BUT, beyond that protection against conversion, I don’t trust that easements are effective tools for preventing poor management, and in some cases that poor management can end up having similar negative impacts to conversion (tree encroachment to the point of becoming a woodland, for example, or chronic overgrazing to the point where the site becomes Kentucky bluegrass and weeds). Ensuring that private lands are managed in ways that maintain ecological integrity is tricky because, with few exceptions, private land ownership means the land owner has the right to manage as they wish. For the most part, I agree with that – I don’t want others having the power to tell me how to manage my land, and I imagine most others feel the same. Influencing land management in positive ways, then, means building relationships, transferring information, and other similar strategies. Or, in some cases, working out management agreements or buying the land can be good ways to go, but of course the cost of that becomes prohibitive pretty quickly. I just don’t see an effective way to handle management through easements in a way that is as flexible as it would need to be as conditions change over many years (other than management agreements, which – as I said earlier – really limits who would be willing to own that land under that kind of restriction. Feel free to email or call if you want to talk about this in more detail – I can help you find someone who knows more about easements than I do.

          • Patrick says:

            Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think for native remnants in particular, and restored prairie in general, I would still advocate putting an easement on it so it can’t be converted, but I acknowledge that an easement itself will not ncessarily protect it from becoming degraded by neglect or mismanagement. If a landowner wants to ensure that, they should probably eventually donate or sell the property to a conservation-based organization. If that proves difficult, one might alternatively endow a “conservation fund” to the easement holder to support and incentivize conservation management activities by future landowners (like a cost-share program). Good discussion. As a landowner, coming to terms with how you want your property managed after your stewardship days have passed necessitates confronting whether you think of land as a commodity or as a place. If it is left unprotected, then in my opinion, it represents nothing more than a commmodity, as the “place” may ultimately be lost…to memory, to heirs, and to the future.

  10. James McGee says:

    Looking at your photos, I was surprised at how few long lived flowering plants were present. I think that instead of reducing dominating grasses the intensive grazing you are doing is actually selecting for them. Grasses are champions at withstanding grazing. Once the grazing has eliminated all but the most robust long lived flowering plants and after the flush of short lived species is out competed all that remains is mostly just grass. It seems this management puts you in a continuous cycle of trying to knock back dominating grasses when the result is you are actually favoring them.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      So to recap, you’re saying that your interpretation of a few photographs leads you to question my honesty and/or my interpretation of both my observations and data, and to come up with the exact opposite conclusion from mine. While you are certainly welcome your opinions of me, my sites, and my data, I continue to wonder why you follow this blog so intently.

      • James McGee says:

        I apologize if my comment came across as questioning your honesty or ability to interpret data. That was not my intention. Although, in retrospect I can definitely see how you would come to that conclusion considering my comment and previous criticisms.

        The speculation in my comment was not based solely on the photos in your post. It was more heavily based on the results I have observed from restorations that are occurring on multiple sites that were intensively grazed pastures. Although seed of quality species is spread in these sites the results tend to be very predictable and very different from remnant prairie. These restorations all tend to end up being dominated by a few tall grasses. This is the result I fear will occur at Taberville Prairie.

        When I wrote the part about “long lived” flowering plants in my comment I was actually thinking of plants that are slow to recover from defoliation. The genera that I have observed to be the slowest to recover after defoliation events are lilies and certain orchids. Often an individual plant that is weak will not survive. These are most often the younger plants. I worry that patch burn grazing management rotations will not have enough time between grazing events to allow certain genera to recover enough to set seed and also might repeatedly kill off young plants. I also worry it will change the ecosystem, shifting it toward something completely different like the restorations I previously mentioned.

        I hope the above clarifies my concerns. To answer your question as to the reason I follow your blog so intently, I think it is the same as the reason you decided to become a prairie ecologist.

        • James McGee says:

          The following does not apply directly to this situation, but since I found it I feel I should share it.

          “Herbivory-tolerant plants are generally palatable to large herbivores, and have in some cases been found to increase in resource-rich environments following herbivory or intense trampling (Olofsson et. al. 2001) and may form preferential grazed patches where nutrient cycling may also be enhanced by the greater herbivore presence creating a positive feedback loop (Section 9.5.5; Olofsson et. al. 2001; Harrison and Bardgett this volume).

          “The Ecology of Browsing and Grazing”, pp. 229, Iain J. Gordon, Herbert H.T. Prins

  11. Edd Brown says:


    I very much enjoy reading this blog, and have had several interesting discussions with colleagues on several of your posts.

    One question came to my mind while reading this interesting report on the impacts and response of prairies to grazing. Do you have any experience, research or anecdotal, with the short and long term impacts of prairie grazing to first order prairie streams? I would love to see a write up on this topic sometime if you do, particularly if prairie streams are able to adapt and respond to grazing in a positive manner as part of the prairie ecosystem.

    Thank you and look forward to more enlightening and interesting posts,

    Edd Brown

    Edward K. Brown, Ph.D.
    Private Land Services Regional Supervisor
    Department of Conservation
    Kansas City Regional Office
    12405 SE Ranson Road
    Lee’s Summit, MO 64082-8910
    816-622-0900 x1234

    “It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US president

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Edd,
      I don’t have enough personal experience with first order stream impacts from grazing to comment. I haven’t heard whether or not the study on some of the patch-burn grazing on MDC lands/streams has come up with results yet? I did have a good conversation with a biologist who studies and loves small stream fish, and his opinion was that the best grazing for providing habitat for fish was essentially what I would recommend for prairies. Intermittent grazing and rest to remove vegetation from stream banks but not allow long-term degradation of stream banks. That’s just one conversation, though, so I’d love to hear from others with data.


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