Choosing Your Destination Before You Choose Your Mode of Transport

Last week, I attended a science and stewardship conference of The Nature Conservancy in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was an inspiring and thought-provoking week.  There were a lot of topics that will provide fodder for future blog posts, but I wanted to start with an issue that came up in several sessions.  The topic had to do with setting appropriate objectives for conservation strategies, and for land management in particular.  In short, it’s really important to make sure we’re not setting objectives that are focused on strategies rather than outcomes.

This mixed-grass prairie is managed with both prescribed fire and grazing.  However,  neither fire nor grazing is the objective, they are tools that are strategically employed to create desired outcomes.  Gjerloff Prairie – Prairie Plains Resource Institute

Here’s an illustration of what I mean.  If I was planning a vacation for next summer, I probably wouldn’t start with the following question: “What mode of transportation should I take on my vacation next year?”

Clearly, it’s tough to answer that question without knowing more about the ultimate objectives of the vacation.  Where do I want to go?  What time of year am I going?  How many people are going with me?  If I’m planning to travel from Nebraska to Ireland, I probably won’t be able to do that by bus.  I could conceivably travel by motorcycle (if I had one) to the Rocky Mountains, but probably not if I was going during the winter or planning to take little kids with me.

It seems silly to start by thinking about how to get somewhere before deciding where to go, but as land managers, it’s easy to fall into exactly that mindset.  We sometimes set objectives about using fire or grazing, for example, instead of first defining the outcome we want and then thinking about what tools and strategies might get us there (which may or may not include fire or grazing).  In this post, I’ve provided examples of how this trap can present itself, both to managers of conservation land and private landowners, and some thoughts about how to avoid the trap.

Significant research has helped us understand the kinds of fire and grazing patterns under which North American prairies developed.  For example, in many places, we have a pretty good idea how often a particular site burned, on average, before European settlement.  We also have reasonably good information on the presence, abundance, and behavior of historic grazers.  Based on that information, a land manager could decide that the best management for their prairie would be to reinstate, as closely as possible, the timing and intensity of historic fire and grazing that site likely evolved under. 

Historically, prairies in this region probably burned on an average of every 4-5 years.  However, within that average range, there would have been wide variation.  More importantly, this prairie sits within a very different landscape today, with challenges not faced by those historic prairies.

Patch-burn grazing is often described, for example, as “mimicking historic fire and grazing patterns.”  Mob grazing advocates trumpet (though I’m skeptical) that their system replicates the way bison moved across a landscape.  Some in the Upper Midwest region of North America point to research showing high populations of indigenous people and scarce evidence of abundant bison and argue that their prairies should be managed only with fire.  We can argue about all three of those examples – and many more – but the bigger point is that none of those arguments should determine our management strategies.  Again, we shouldn’t be setting objectives about the strategy we want to use without first identifying the outcome we want.

To make a clunky return to my vacation travel analogy, it would be silly of me to choose horseback as my preferred mode of transportation across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains just because it’s what worked several hundred years ago.  Today’s landscape is broken up into countless fenced off private land parcels, which would make cross-country horse travel difficult, to say the least.  In addition, there is a pretty nice set of modern opportunities (roads and vehicles) I can take advantage of nowadays.

Likewise, our prairies exist within a different world today, with a new set of challenges and opportunities.  Mimicking historic disturbance regimes won’t necessarily keep prairies in good shape in a world with habitat fragmentation, massive invasive species pressure, climate change, nitrogen deposition, and other factors.  And speaking of good shape, our first and primary concern should really be to define what “good shape” is, right?  Are we managing for plant diversity or a few rare plants?  Are we trying to sustain diverse bird populations?  Habitat heterogeneity? Is ecological resilience the goal?  If so, what are the factors driving resilience, and how to we sustain those?  There are countless reasonable goals for land managers to choose from, many dependent upon scale, but those goals should be based on the outcome we want.

This annually-hayed prairie maintains high plant diversity but provides only one type of habitat structure for nesting birds and other wildlife species.  Depending upon the objectives for the site, that could be fine, but it very much depends upon what the manager wants to accomplish.

I feel it’s important to say this here:  I am a big proponent of both fire and grazing as management tools – you can find myriad examples of that by searching through my previous blog posts.  However, while I think combining fire and grazing can create some fantastic results, those strategies/results don’t fit all objectives.  More importantly, your particular site may or may not respond well to those kinds of fire and grazing combinations.

Let’s say your primary objective is to provide habitat for as many species of grassland birds as possible.  First, you’ll need a pretty big swath of land – many bird species have minimum habitat size requirements.  Assuming you’ve got sufficient land, the major factor grassland nesting birds respond to is habitat structure.  Some birds prefer tall thatchy structure, others like short/sparse vegetation, and others want something in-between.  A reasonable outcome-based objective might be that you want to provide all three of those habitat types across your prairie each year (and you’ll want to make sure the habitat are being successfully used by a diverse bird community).  Perfect.  Now, how will you create those habitat types?

 Grasshopper sparrows tend to nest in prairies with relatively short structure, but with some thatch (which they use to build nests) along the ground.  Some of the highest abundances of grasshopper sparrows around here are found in relatively heavily-grazed prairie.

Fall or spring fires can create short habitat structure that some birds really like to nest in.  However, some bird species (e.g., grasshopper sparrows) usually like short habitat with a little more thatch in the ground layer than is usually found in recently burned prairies.  Also, while burned areas are short and unburned areas are tall, it’s difficult to create in-between height/density habitats using only fire.  This is where other tools such as mowing and grazing might be helpful.  Mowing can reduce the height of tall vegetation and create short or mid-height structure that grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and other species prefer.  Grazing can do the same and can have the advantage that cattle or bison are selective grazers, eating some plants and leaving others.  This can create structure with both tall and short vegetation mixed together and can also help suppress grasses and allow for greater expression of forbs (broadleaf plants) – something birds such as dickcissels often prefer.

Upland sandpipers prefer to nest where vegetation structure is short, but often move to sites with strong forb cover and a little patchier structure when their chicks become active.

If we’re trying to create optimal bird habitat, then, fire, mowing and grazing might all be useful tools to consider.  It’s important to understand how each tool can be used to affect habitat structure, as well as the potential risks of using each (fire can sometimes kill aboveground animals and stimulate invasive plants, grazers can sometimes target vulnerable plants and create issues via trampling).  With all of that information, you can start putting together strategies that employ the right tools, and then test those strategies against the OUTCOMES you desire.  Notice that the process I’ve just described is independent of the kinds of historic fire returns for your area or whether or not you think grazing was a significant factor in the evolution of regional plant communities.  Define your objective by the outcomes you want and test/adapt strategies based on that objective.

Other examples: At my family prairie, we aren’t using prescribed fire because we’ve been able to use grazing to meet our objectives of habitat heterogeneity and increasing plant diversity, and we use loppers/herbicide to successfully control woody invasion.  In small prairies where preserving particular plant species is the objective, a strategy using only fire or mowing could be most appropriate.  If that small prairie has rare insects or reptiles that are especially vulnerable to fire, maybe mowing is the best tool.  Regardless, the right tools and strategies depend upon the outcome-based objective.

This photo was taken in the burned patch of a patch-burn grazed prairie at Konza prairie, near Manhattan, Kansas.  The grazing created varied habitat structure because of the selective grazing by cattle.  Leadplant and other ungrazed forbs contrast with surrounding short grasses.

For ranchers and farmers who manage prairies, this same objective setting process should apply, but of course those prairies also have to help provide sufficient income to keep a family or business thriving.  Even in those cases, however, it’s still important to start with outcome-based objectives.  Those objectives can include a certain amount of needed income but should also include specific habitat or other ecological objectives.  Once you’ve decided, for example, that you really want to manage in a way that provides a certain amount of quail habitat or provides consistent pollinator resources through the season, you can look for ways to accomplish that while still providing the needed income.  When a conflict between income and habitat objectives arises, you can make the decisions that make sense to you, but at least you’re making those decisions with all the information needed to fully consider the options.

Prescribed fire can be a great tool for accomplishing some objectives, but it can also be difficult to implement for some managers.  While it is an important ecological process in prairies, employing prescribed fire should still be seen as a tool/strategy, rather than as an objective in and of itself.

There are plenty of reasonable prairie management objectives to choose from, but they should be based on outcomes rather than on tools and strategies.  Employing more frequent prescribed fire is not a good objective.  However, using more frequent prescribed fire might be a great strategy to reach a particular outcome.  (It could also be a terrible strategy, depending upon your objective.)  Don’t fall into the trap of choosing your transportation method before you know where you want to go. 

P.S. I’m sure some of you are thinking it, so let me address what might appear to be a weakness of my vacation transportation analogy.  Yes, it’s perfectly fine to start vacation planning by deciding that you want to take a cruise ship or motorcycle if the OUTCOME you really want is to ride on a ship or motorcycle.  If you don’t care where you go, the destination isn’t the outcome, it’s just a by-product of your mode of travel.  Fine.  But I think you understand what I was trying to say, right?  Sure, you could argue that conducting prescribed fires could be your objective if all you want is a legal way to light things on fire and watch them burn.  If that’s your objective, though, you’re not managing prairies, you’re lighting things on fire – and there’s a big difference.  Ok?  Ok.

18 thoughts on “Choosing Your Destination Before You Choose Your Mode of Transport

  1. Thanks for this level-headed blog post. We manage just under a thousand acres of native grassland in northeast South Dakota with prescribed fire, rotational grazing, some mob grazing, and integrated pest management which includes pesticide application at times. Of all the strategies we employ, rotational grazing and timely mob grazing are most effective at habitat restoration. Fire is over-rated in my opinion. First, it’s difficult to get a qualified team together and secondly, perfect timing is nearly impossible to achieve. Plus, I’ve had serious noxious weed outcrops following fire. Still, a few textbook academics push prescribed fire, an unnecessary burden on the private land owner.

  2. I am saving this article for a future re-read. I have a small (200′ x 50″) area adjacent to a much larger prairie (oak savannah actually) and have used burning in the past. For the above reasons burning is not always practical. The problem I have is native species taking over my small area.
    In other words a balanced look for the prairie is more desired. How about your thoughts on controlling Cup Plant, Showy Milkweed, Big Bluestem and woody plants that are way too happy here. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

  3. Some of your early comments in this article brought to mind something of interest that came up iIn a previous life (before retirement). A soil scientist from the University of Illinois had been retained for some work by another researcher. Although it is far from my chosen field, I had always been somewhat interested in prairie ecology. One of his primary areas of expertise was the silicon dioxide signatures of grasses. If my memory serves me correctly, these are unique for each variety of grass, remain more or less coherent after disappearance of the grass’s organic matter. Thus it should be possible to infer some grass related historical information from soil analysis. I never did any additional follow up and the individual passed on, but additional information should exist in the literature.

  4. In northeastern Illinois the mantra seems to be burn as often as possible. The objective is to reduce the invasion of woody species, with particular emphasis on setting back common buckthorn and Asian honeysuckle. The flip side is burns scarify sweet clover giving you a flush of this invasive species if it is present. I also think frequent burning after clearing might be helping tall goldenrod dominate savanna restorations.

    Some restorations appear to be resisting sweet clover after many decades of development with a burn only management regime. However, this results in grass domination and sparsely scattered forbs. Remnant prairies do not appear to resist sweet clover over time when managed only with fire. This must be a result of invertebrate herbivores, parasitic plants, or other organisms that make food out of the grasses that would otherwise dominate.

    In short, there are no good answers when a management action both achieves your objectives and also sets your objectives back.

  5. Ah, yes! Whether a novice or a pro, the difficult part is determining one’s goal. This is a topic that’s been discussed here on more than one occasion, and for some of us, well, we kind of want it all — biodiversity at every level, whether one manages an urban yard and just plants a bunch of natives or manages a prairie or woodland of thousands of acres. Thanks for reminding us to stay focused, even if our goal, determined by circumstances, must be modest. Knowledge helps, but so does a heart with good intentions.

  6. There always seems to be some level of consternation, guilt, frustration, and angst when it comes to trying to achieve management objectives for land, particularly when the factors of time, money, and other resources prevent us from achieving what is our imagined ideal for the land. On the one hand, these emotions are important for us to feel to inspire improvement in our techniques, but they can be destructive if they overwhelm our sense of purpose. Sometimes it’s just important to take a little time, sit in the middle of the land you’re working on, and use your senses to grasp the life around you for awhile to understand that your efforts are making a difference, even if it feels like it’s not perfect. Just ask yourself what it would be like if you did nothing, and whether the place is better than it was when you started. I think this will help keep you moving forward.

  7. I did a quick Google search of upland sandpiper and grazing. It lists two articles that say grazing reduces nesting success rate (B.S. Bowen, 1993 and B.K. Sandercock, 2014). I must wonder if the best way to create habitat for upland sandpipers would be to plant the sedges that have been almost completely ignored by those working to restore and reconstruct prairies. In contrast, I found multiple resources that state light to moderate grazing is beneficial for grasshopper sparrows.

  8. This essay is disturbing to me because it assumes that mankind has control over Nature. The word “management” was used several times. Nature, and its ecosystems are “complex systems” which cannot be controlled simply because it is impossible to predict the outcome of a human action on a complex system. Why don’t we simply back off and let Nature do Her own thing?? This is a very difficult thing to ask because man has this false fantasy about controlling Nature. You suggest using fire and chemicals. Both methods can easily get out of control because we fail to recognize that everything in Nature is connected and interdependent. It is impossible to define the complexity of this phenomena and predict the nature of the result. I am deeply saddened that prairie people do not understand or accept this basic fact.

    • Bill, thanks for your comments. I understand your concern, but Ild encourage you to consider some additional context. Prairie, in particular, is an ecosystem that is strongly tied to people and our actions. Since the North American prairies first emerged after the last ice age, people have been present and actively managing them. In fact, many eastern prairies relied heavily upon the actions if people, especially related to fire, to prevent them from becoming wooded. I don’t think any of this makes prairies less natural, less interesting, or less magical, but it does put them in a somewhat different context than the one you’veaid out. You might be interested to read a post I wrote on this topic a few years ago. Thanks again for reading and thinking about this topic.

      • Thanks for your comments and the reference you offered me, Chris. With utmost respect, it is highly unfortunate that your highly anthropocentric worldview, along with the fantasy that mankind can control Nature, is in concert with most of western mankind. It is a worldview that could possibly lead to the destruction of mankind by the year 2100. So what if a prairie became a woodland?? That is how nature works. And you mention invasive species regularly. Some are a natural process but inconvenient to mankind. To me, prairies no longer exist. They are simply fenced lots created by mankind in a way that fragments and destroys natural habitat. I have visited and camped at national grasslands hoping to feel the ambiance of natural prairie. Instead, I awake each morning to the sound of cows who are placed there by way of government allotment. I leave with a deeply saddened heart. I am an environmental educator. More and more, we are taking a strongly holistic approach about Nature’s energy flow. We are searching for ways, through our youth, to modify mankind’s highly destructive worldview of control over nature and separation from nature. There is strong science behind the high value of a systems view of life which does not include the kind of “management” that you are passionate about. We see Nature as a living system that does not need human interference or “management”. We focus on the idea that conservation is the act of identifying and protecting Nature’s energy flow conduits. A passive approach. We teach these ideas in our environmental education programs in hopes that a new legacy of interdependence is being created in the minds and hearts of our youth.

        • Here is a blog post by Stephen Packard that I think you might find interesting. It is a collection of short pieces from volunteers which gives insight into why they freely give their time trying to, as you put it, “control nature.” I think this blog post is profoundly interesting because the motivations are very complex, just like the ecosystems that are receiving their management.

          Here is a picture of a prairie garden behind a nature sanctuary visitor center compared with a similarly planted, but not tended by me, area on the other side of the trail. I think the contrast in these two pictures is the reason I give my time to prevent nature from doing, as you say, “her own thing.”

          • Hi James: Thank you for your comments and particularly your reference to the blog post on volunteers. I am a biologist who works with volunteers all the time. Our focus is to avoid controlling Nature and pursue an environmental conservation strategy of passive restoration whenever possible. That usually means educating people rather than trying to manipulate Nature. We believe that environmental education is a powerful conservation strategy. I want to be clear. I am not criticizing your volunteers. I read your reference carefully. One volunteer stated “Education is the key from the earliest levels. children move their parents in amazing ways”. Another volunteer in your reference says that he/she volunteers “time to help get kids into the woods with the birds and bunnies”. I completely agree with these two volunteers. Your organization, TNC, has a history of manipulating Nature for the benefit of humanity — many times a futile endeavor. Your former chief scientist is the top evangelist in the “people first” movement. I refer you to another organization called Center For Humans And Nature. You might be interested in their mission and value statement at .The conservation philosophy of this group is very much in synch with my views and the views of my colleagues. It is a philosophy that I wish TNC and all of its money would embrace. That said, I fully understand that some passive restoration must start with a “Kick in the pants” by human beings. But, corrective measures have a high chance of failure because it is impossible for we humans to predict the outcomes of our efforts in a highly complex ecosystem. Good luck to you guys.

          • I should mention the volunteers who wrote short pieces for Stephen Packard’s blog “Strategies for Stewards” in the aforementioned link volunteer for the Forest Preserves of Cook County. I do not supervise these volunteers and have only helped at the workdays where they are located a few times years ago.

            Also, I should mention I am not an employee of The Nature Conservancy. I have never even volunteered for them because their preserves are so far from where I live. My only association with The Nature Conservancy is I donate money. The nature sanctuary I mentioned previously is ran by the city where I live.

    • I think you should know that your comments to Chris were very unfair. I personally disagree with him on many things often including grazing. However, I applaud him for agreeing to pay back his relatives in a rent to own type manner so he can keep land in his family. I also completely understand his decision to allow grazing on his land to help with the payments and the taxes that are owed. I would much rather his land be grazed than turned into soy and corn. A director of natural resources in a county adjacent to where I live said it is very hard to convince politicians to allow prairie to be reconstructed on land when the county loses 25,000 dollars per year from taxes on agricultural income. It is an easier decision when it can be shown that grazing would provide some income to make up the difference.

  9. Pingback: Let’s talk about (shudder) monitoring | The Prairie Ecologist


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