How Can it Be 10 Years Already?

In September 2010, I launched The Prairie Ecologist blog. My book on prairie ecology and management had just been published and, though I was proud of it, I was frustrated by not being able to update it as I learned more and developed new ideas. I also wanted a more interactive forum for discussing ideas about prairie management and restoration. A book can transmit information but it’s one-way communication. I really wanted to learn from others and get their responses to some of my ideas and experiences.

Here’s a photo I took in September of 2010. You can see my taste in subject matter hasn’t changed much… This is a salt marsh caterpillar (along with an ant and inchworm) on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in our Platte River Prairies.

In addition, I wanted to share the beauty, diversity, and resilience of prairies with a general audience – one that might be interested in nature, but not necessarily in grasslands. I felt my combined interests of photography and writing might lend themselves to that mission, and a blog seemed like a reasonable platform to try. I had only a vague idea of what a blog was at the time, but with the help of Bob Lalasz (The Nature Conservancy) and others, I started to learn.

I hope those of you who have been around since the early days still find the blog engaging and worth your time. The number of people who follow the blog, or at least check in regularly, is pretty staggering, given my low expectations and inexperience when I started. Over 5,000 people are currently subscribed, but many others are regular readers. Some of you also follow my Instagram account (@prairieecologist), where I post lots of photos and natural history blurbs.

While the blog has been running for 10 years, I know that quite a few current readers have only been aware of the blog for a few years at most. Because of that, I wondered if you might have questions for me, either about prairie topics or about me, personally. This might turn out to be a terrible idea, but I figured maybe I’d solicit questions and try to answer as many as I can.

Here’s what we’ll do: If you have a question for me, ask it in the comments below and I’ll try to answer it in one of three ways. I’ll either answer directly in the comments, answer it in a blog post later this week, or try to incorporate an answer into a blog post in the future. Questions can be about whatever you like (within reason, of course). As an attempt to get you started, I’ve invented a few questions and answered them below.

Above all, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for supporting this goofy blog and for helping me justify my blogging time to my bosses…

Ok, here are my answers to a few example questions. I’m sure you can come up with better ones.

Question: How do you know so much about invertebrates when you studied birds in graduate school and focused on learning plant identification/ecology during your early career?

As I’ve said many times, I’m not an entomologist, I’m an insect enthusiast. I’ve learned most of what I know about invertebrates by photographing them and then trying to figure out what I just photographed and learn about its back story. I use Bugguide.net and an assortment of very generous friends to identify species. Once I know what it is, I go looking for whatever information I can glean from online and print sources, as well as from those generous friends I already mentioned. Often, I use my own blog as an information source to help me remember facts I know I’ve previously learned and reported!

Question: You’ve written several times about river otters, mostly complaining about never seeing one at the Platte River Prairies, despite it being one of the places in Nebraska with the highest density of otters. It’s been 10 years now (and more than 25 years that you’ve been working on the Platte River). Surely you’ve seen one by now, right?

Next question.

Question: You write a lot about cattle grazing as a prairie management tool. Are you getting paid by the livestock industry?

I’d like to say this is a goofy question, but I’ve actually been accused of this. No, I’m not getting kickbacks from anyone for talking about cattle. The truth is that I think cattle (and bison) grazing creates some unique habitat structure and provides some prairie management options that can’t be replicated through other approaches. Grazing is not appropriate in every prairie, but where it’s feasible, I’ve not found a substitute that can create the kind of habitat heterogeneity that helps many prairie creatures thrive. In addition, the vast majority of prairie acres remaining in North America are on ranches, so developing and testing approaches to grazing that promote plant and animal diversity has obvious (I think) relevance to conservation.

Cattle grazing is an incredibly flexible tool for prairie management because we can vary the timing, intensity, and duration of grazing. That allows us to create a wide variety of habitat conditions for animals and growing conditions for plants.

Question: I bet you haven’t changed in appearance at all in the last 10 years. Is that true?

Absolutely. The difference between 38-year-old Chris Helzer and 48-year-old Chris Helzer is nearly impossible to see. Here are two photographs that demonstrate that.

2010 (left) and 2020 (right). It’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?

Question: Gosh, I love what you’ve done with your hair. How do you get it to do that??

I have a very rigorous hair care routine. I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been known to spend as much as $3 for a bottle of shampoo. I think I’m worth it.

Ok, those are examples of the kinds of pithy questions you can ask me. If you have any actual questions, please submit them in the comments section.. Thanks!

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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.

48 thoughts on “How Can it Be 10 Years Already?

  1. My personal stake in your blog is the Turkey Creek Ranch, directly across from TNC Niobrara. My grandfather ranched and died there; my mother was born there; the happiest days of my childhood were there; and my return visits have been magnificent. I live in Idaho now, happily so, but seeing your post in my Inbox always touches my heart as my soul returns for just a moment to a spectacular place. A spectacular place recorded by a gifted and giving individual: you.

  2. Aside from reading The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States (which is a given), what advice would you give to folks who would like to learn more about practical ecological restoration and land management techniques? Any other book recommendations? Conferences? Professional organizations? Thank you!

  3. When I attended University of Nebraska many years ago, I took a class from Paul Olson called The Literature of Agriculture. We read Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Ole Rolvaag, Wendell Berry, and others. Are there books of fiction or non-fiction that have particularly influenced your work or your interest in Midwestern landscapes and culture? Or your philosophy of land management?

  4. Who is your favorite child? (Other than your square meter photo book)

    On a less serious note, do you have a favorite blog post or conversation from the last decade?

  5. I just discovered your blog this past winter/spring – you do a great job! I live on a very small remnant (3 acres of pasture), surrounded by crop and other pasture ground. We have found many native plants here – both grasses and forbs. We try and burn parts of the small pasture ground we own and leave parts for 2-3 years between. We do worry about invertebrate diversity and I have seen changes over the past 18 years here, for instance we used to see 2 different species of Argiope spiders fairly regularly, but have not seen any the past 6 years. They even used to be in our gardens and yard, but no longer. We do not spray any gardens or orchard trees – never. However our neighbor’s spray their crops which surround us on all sides. I worried about our burning frequency causing invertebrate population drops – but suspect the crops are a larger issue. Is breaking a tiny space into 4 sections and burning one or two sections every 2-3 years still too much for invertebrate pressure in your opinion?

    • I have an Argiope with a web in between the yews in front of my house. My yard is landscaped with native plants around the borders, but nothing on the scale of three acres. In suburbia, we have problems with drift from lawn chemicals. However, these are much different than what is used in agricultural areas.

  6. Chris,

    Thank you for taking the time to document your wanderings, happenings, and musings. Besides being entertaining, it’s helpful. And a great public service from you & The Nature Conservancy.

    Cheers.

  7. You still have a lot of hair, Chris. Lucky you! ;-)

    I’m wondering about prairie dogs. As I understand it they are very important for a prairie’s ecology.
    So, what’s the current attitude to prairie dogs and how common are they typically?

  8. After some thought, I realized that I’ve never been in the state of Nebraska, apart from one quick trip across I-80. I think a visit’s in order. Which grasslands, preserves, forests, or refuges should be on my must-see list? And which guides or books could I begin reading now to prepare for a trip? I probably could manage two weeks.

    And I have to ask: after looking at Google’s satellite map, what kind of land form is that ripple-y area bounded by highways 20, 27, and 83 — west of the Valentine refuge? I can’t remember seeing anything like it. The land looks extruded, like spaetzle!

  9. Legit question: After moving to the midwest, I’ve had to learn a lot about the prairie (and savannah) ecosystem(s). One of the early things I had read was that while bison provided valuable ecological services to the system, cattle were much harsher on the landscape and should not be promoted (this had to do with hooves, movement patterns, and possibly diet as well). THEN I read a piece that said there was no real difference – grazers are grazers, hooves are hooves. It sounds like you may fall in the second category, but I’d like to hear/read your thoughts on this. Thanks!

  10. Your blog has been bringing delight and knowledge into my life on a regular basis for much of those 10 years. Thanks! And your hair care regimen is an inspiration to all of us!

  11. Thank you for this blog. I’m here because of the ‘joke’ book about identifying wildflowers from a moving car, but I think something like that could certainly be very real. So, I guess my question is, do you have any thoughts about publishing a guide to the most common flora and fauna of the Nebraskan Prairie, to help those of us who are not able to study same in depth, be more appreciative?

  12. Hi Chris, Have been enjoying your blog for just the past six months or so. Good work!

    My question relates to my imminent conversion of 110 acres of classic corn/soybean farmland in Nemaha County into prairie habitat under the CRP program. The feds prescribe what is planted, (includes 15 pollinator acres), but as we launch into this endeavor I’d like to know what the most common mistakes are, how we can know we are on the right track early in the process, and what the optimal management, (not just the minimum required), might be to optimize the habitat.

    I would love to have your insight on all aspects of this endeavor, but any time you can give toward advice regarding this project will be greatly appreciated.

    Roger Harms

    • Roger,
      I thought I’d jump in on you post. I, too, have restored a sizable area under the CRP program. While there are requirements on species in the various titles of the Continuous CRP, particularly the pollinator habitat program, you can have significant impact on the species composition. Your local NRCS employee working on your contract will probably be happy to work with you to modify or augment the species list to help attain a better restoration. You can also gather native seed from native prairies if you have access and spread that seed over the top of the “official seeding. It will be difficult to find the time or money to augment the entire 110 acres significantly (I spent a lot of money and worked very hard at gathering seed and was able to upgrade about half of a 150 acre project), but perhaps choose a small area where you go wild and find out what can be accomplished. 110 acres can seem like a continental expanse when you walk around spreading seed by hand, but 10 or 15 acres is much more manageable. In any case, good luck on your project.

      And Chris, what luck have you had in overseeding existing degraded prairies?

      • I have experience attempting overseeding. I work in southwest Minnesota and have done seedings to upgrade existing planted prairie grass stands starting in 2010. The first thing I try to do is severely stress the existing grass stand to open space for new seedlings and to create bare ground for better seed to soil contact.That involves haying the existing grass when it is starting to flower, and haying it as low to the ground as possible to minimize regrowth that summer. We then follow up with either heavy disking (I try to leave no more than 20% residue on the surface) or intensive grazing prior to fall, although there usually isn’t much to graze). I then try to follow up with an additional stressor on the existing grass the following growing season, usually mid summer haying but sometimes intensive grazing. All sites have increased in species diversity over time, but sites with rich soil and well established grasses (big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass) always seem to get the poorest results. On dry sandy soils I’ve seen things improve for 6-8 species to over 30 within four years. I believe the aggressive grasses recover much faster on good sites than on poorer ones. I’ve also had a couple if fields where adding wood betony to the mix really reduced grass competition and allowed more forbs to establish.

  13. Pingback: Ask The Prairie Ecologist – (Part of an Extended 10th Anniversary Celebration) | The Prairie Ecologist

  14. Chris, thank you for your time and efforts into the prairie ecologist. It is fantastic, and has helped me continue to learn about these amazing communities.

    To the question:
    1. What grassland topics haven’t you talked about that you would like to discuss about more in the next 10 years? i.e is it related to burning, how to improve or restore grazing/haying systems?, lessons learned seeding, or collecting seed, wildlife monitoring and results related to stewardship actions, connecting people to nature, future threats, carbon storage/climate change, landscape scale restoration ect.

  15. I think I’ve been following for the last half of the decade, thanks for a co-worker friend sharing a post.
    I have many posts saved in a folder in my email. I keep them because of inspiration along with a ‘back up’ to my stances on prairie management. I’m not always great about pulling direct information to a question, but I know I have the resources saved so I can get back to a person.
    I’m located in the PPR portion of Montana, a breeze away from the Canada border. Many times when I read your blog posts, I have to remind myself that what works in NE doesn’t necessarily work in MT (precipitation, species composition, growing degree days…). So, my question, what about the NE prairie entranced you? I’ve worked tallgrass to the shorter, mixed grass prairie. While I find beauty everywhere, it is this drier prairie that holds me (it could be the humidity thing??).
    Thank you for sharing your passion, and promoting all the wildlife that get overlooked!

  16. Ecologist in my area say pulling or digging weeds can cause invasive species to invade. These ecologists literally will not let me pull up small invasive species by the root. Yet, they have no problem spraying herbicide all over the place. In some instances, I think the only reason they have observed less invasive species in the years after they have applied herbicide throughout an area is because nothing will grow.

    I have been using a tool to remove small invasive species by the root for many years. I try to minimize soil disturbance and the mixing of soil layers. Years later, there are noticeably less invasive species in areas where I have worked. Areas where spraying has been done are full of weedy species. Don’t even get me started on burn scars. Those are complete weed magnets.

    Yet, all the ecologists I know insist on using herbicide over manually removing weeds. They also insist on labor intensive piling and burning instead of letting wood stay where it is located and decompose or burn up in a later prescribed fire. These burn scars destroy a significant amount of the natural areas where they are working.

    Are all ecologist of this opinion or only the ones in my area? I think they are all crazy.

    • I can only agree with you regarding the use of herbicides. In my view it should never be used in nature at all.
      I also agree that letting wood stay where it is located and decompose is good for the ecosystem. On the other side, I don’t think that moderate burn scars are such a bad thing either.

      • I look at the use of herbicides as being like a doctor using chemotherapy to treat cancer. If used correctly it can cure the patient. However, when used inappropriately it can cause horrible side effects. If it is targeted, then herbicide can rid the ecosystem of the cancerous invasive species without causing damage to other things. I just don’t understand why ecologists require using herbicide, chemotherapy, over manual removal, surgery, when the invasive species are small and soil disturbance would be minimal. I asked a PhD in the field about this years ago and this is what he told me.

        “Disturbing the soil by pulling weeds is fine IMO. That is what ants, rodents, crayfish and other animals do. Plowing the soil or building a bike path are disturbances on a scale that damages the area disturbed and the neighboring area.”

        and

        “The FPD ecologists get ideas from reading and not from doing. Because they have not regularly worked as stewards, they sometimes misapply ecological ideas like disturbance. Pulling one plant in a square yard of a semihealthy (or better) does not lead to domination by weeds. Using herbicide OFTEN creates huge opportunities for weeds.”

        When herbicide causes dead zones, the ecologists defend the practice saying the area will fill back in with vegetation within a few years. Yet they won’t let me manually remove invasive species because it “can disturbs the soil, creating an opportunity for other invaders to become established.” Seriously? After herbicide creates dead zones, what kind of vegetation returns? Native and non-native weedy species. How long does it take conservative species to come back? I don’t know, but it is a very long period of time often requiring a lot of weeding to get back to that original state.

        As for the burn scars, they are removing wood from an area as far as they are willing to haul it and piling it for burning. The intensity of these brush pile burns is much greater than anything found in nature. It sterilizes the soil. In woodlands, the vegetation that was there before does not grow back. These burn scars fill with various non-native invasive species. This practice is justified by saying it is a small part of the overall area. However, when these burn scars are made all over a preserve the area adds up quickly.

        When invasive species control is done, people need to measure success by the changes in the quality of the ecosystem, not merely by if they have been successful in killing the target weed. If piling and burning wood must be done, then the size of the piles should be limited, and they should be burned in winter when the ground is frozen and on top of snow.

        • Yeah, I can see your point in using herbicides as a kind of chemotherapy, but, I still think this should be the absolute last resort when everything else (like manual removal) has failed.
          Besides, it’s possible to use natural substances like concentrated vinegar or salt instead of herbicides.
          Regarding burn scars, I first thought you meant in a prairie. But when we’re instead talking about a wood ecosystem then I can only agree that the best solution is to leave the wood in piles to stay and decompose over time.

          Hopefully Chris will also give his thoughts on these issues; it shall be most interesting.

          • Salt and vinegar are not necessarily safer for the environment than herbicides. You can look at difference in vegetation on the side of roads or from acid rain to see potential impacts.

            Herbicide being applied to the cut stumps or cuts around the stem, called frilling, of woody invasive species is the best practice (medicine) available if done appropriately. Woody invasive species get very large and it would be unreasonable to expect that they be removed manually. Some invasive species can be so large that heavy equipment would be needed to remove the roots causing massive soil disturbance. One issue is that people actually put too little herbicide on the cut stumps. The stump then sprouts requiring spraying the leaves of the sprouts from the stump with herbicide. When too little herbicide is put on the cut stumps, then most of them sprout. This creates a lot of spraying which impacts a lot of other things.

            If herbicide was put into cuts around the stem made near the ground, called frilling, then basal sprouting would not occur. The herbicide kills the tissue needed to form basal sprouts. With frilling, if not enough herbicide was applied to kill the roots then the stem would be girdled, and the plant would leaf out, but the roots would receive no food. This would kill the plant after at most a few years. The exception to the above are woody species that form root sprouts. With species that form root sprouts, like dogwood and Sumac, you need to apply enough herbicide the first time to kill the roots or you are going to be repeating the process a number of times.

            In areas where standing dead wood creates a danger from fire or is deemed aesthetically unpleasing, this “heavy fuel” could be removed later. The problem with piling the wood and leaving it is these piles are also weed magnets that burn later when fire, prescribed or otherwise, occurs. This is why I think the dead wood should just be left in place to decompose when possible. It’s a hell of a lot of work to pile it all.

            Actually, any invasive species control effort is a hell of a lot of work. This is why organizations like The Nature Conservancy need lots of volunteers, fellows, interns, etc.

  17. I’m sure that herbicides are effective; but I just worry that they contain substances that are not going to be decomposed properly by nature and/or remain as toxins in the soil and water. That’s what I don’t like.

    A very effective way of killing a woody invasive (tree) is to cut of a strip of the bark all the way around the trunk low to the ground. In a year or two it will be dead. This is an old trick. No herbicides necessary either.

    And dead standing trees are actually very good for the ecosystem :-)

    • It’s is a real concern that herbicides might persist in soil or water. That is the reason independent testing occurs to measure the rate at which herbicides degrade before they can be approved for use by regulators. Some herbicides are not used in natural areas specifically because they have been observed to migrate from the application site and kill other things up to several feet away. As for herbicides being toxic, they would not be approved if they affected people in this way. Still, I treat them as if they were toxic and make every attempt not to get herbicide on me or breath in vapors.

      Removing “… a strip of bark all the way around the stem low to the ground.” is girdling. I have tried this technique and most trees will form suckers at the base. This is the reason a little herbicide applied to the girdle, or frill, is so helpful. The herbicide kills this tissue preventing sprouting. If herbicide is not applied, then the sprouts must be cut repeatedly until the tree dies. This takes years and is many times the amount of work.

      I understand prairie ecologists not wanting to wait 25 years for trees to decompose when grassland birds are in such a steep decline. I just think leaving the wood to decompose and getting more work done is preferable when grassland birds are not the conservation priority.

      • I’m a bit surprised that you say most trees form suckers at the base after girdling. I’ve not seen that myself; even if I’ve seen the tree continue living for more than a year. But of course it’s most efficient and easiest to do the actual girdling during spring when the sap is flowing.

        Leaving big standing dead trees is for woodland only of course. But there it’s really good for the environment. On prairies I personally would prefer to burn dead wood, but leaving small quantities could also be an option I guess. Like you say, it depends on the priorities.

        • Certain trees, like Juniperus virginiana, do not form suckers. However, Rhamnus cathartica, Frangula alnus, Morus alba, and many native trees that invade prairies like Acer negundo all sucker readily. The trees that don’t sucker are more the exception than the rule.

          • Yes, I can understand that trees without a main trunk – what I’d call more of a bush – would not effectively be killed by girdling.

      • I should mention the 25 years for a large old hardwood tree to decompose is if it is prevented from catching fire and burning. This is typically the case when prescribed fires are conducted because people don’t want to wait around until the wood of large standing dead trees has completely burned, which can take days.

        • For the ecosystem in a forest it’s actually very beneficial for a lot of different species that a dead tree is left standing and not burned to the ground.
          Forest fires are obviously natural, but normally big mature trees can survive several fires over hundreds of years. And even if some trees should die then they are still standing. That’s what the forest ecosystem is adapted to. Humans are too tidy.

          • Yes, I stopped volunteering at some places because I felt like I was doing more work cleaning up the woods than actual conservation. In population dense areas, groups cut, pile, and burn woody invasive species. This makes the area look “tidy” which helps with the public acceptance of the work.

            However, my above comment was about people extinguishing burning dead trees, which we call snags. In this case, the natural process is the dead tree would burn up if the fire was not extinguished by people. Here is an example.

            https://m.facebook.com/LanghamIsland/photos/pcb.2853423128226049/2853422441559451/?type=3&source=49&__tn__=EH-R

          • Yeah, the problem obviously is that people don’t understand and/or accept how a natural fire actually works.
            That’s really bad for the ecosystem – that being forest or prairie – as well as for people living in areas where fires are devastating to their property.
            The only solution would be to limit where people are allowed to live. But I suppose that goes against the so-called free market. Humans have never been any good at thinking long term unfortunately.

  18. Trees like oaks, black cherry, and cottonwood might act like a “bush” until the fires stop. We call them grubs. However, without fire knocking them back they grow to be some of our largest trees.

    • As I’m from northern Europe, it’s really strange for me to understand that you have such big problems with bushes like Rhamnus cathartica and Frangula alnus.
      In our climate Frangula alnus is very common but absolutely no problem as such. It just grows as a small bush here and there.
      Rhamnus cathartica is actually a rather rare bush here – even a bit endangered – and will only grow on highly calcareous soils, which there is not that much of.

      Recently I also understood that you have problems with our highly valued earthworms in your forests.
      Possibly even in prairies?

      Well, it just goes to show that moving stuff from one continent to another was and is never smart. Too bad nobody thought about that.

      • Steinar – Just curious, in your area is Rhamnus cathartic being kept in check through grazing or browsing by other animals? In Minnesota, buckthorn is very abundant in areas that were once oak savanna (fire, people grazing being key processes). Many of these areas had a history of intensive grazing in the early to Mid 1900’s followed by grazing and fire suppression to present day.

        • I’ve actually never seen any signs of grazing on Rhamnus cathartica here, no.
          So, I suppose it must be the colder climate and our very limited areas of calcareous soils that mainly limits this bush here.
          On the other hand I’ve never heard that this bush is invasive further south in Europe, where climate and soil should be much more like in the US.
          So it’s not really obvious to see why this bush should be so invasive.

        • Another calculated guess could be that some kind of organism in the soil kill most of the seeds over here in Europe; an organsim that you’re missing in the soils over there.

        • I’ve seen evidence of deer browse on Rhamnus cathartica in Illinois. It is just a drop in the bucket compared to the massiveness of the invasion. In an elk enclosure at a local forest preserve there is no Rhamnus cathartica. Where Rhamnus cathartica grows along the fence, it has leaves on the side of the fence outside of the elk enclosure but none inside the enclosure. The elk gobble it up. However, this does not mean they necessarily prefer it. They might only be eating it because they are stuck in an enclosure without other things to browse.

          Here is an image I saw on the Photography at Nachusa Facebook page I thought some of you might enjoy. I think a lot of you will recognize what the bison is eating. The continuous range of this invasive makes it all the way out to Nebraska.

          https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=3291626027590276&set=pcb.2003459646457932

  19. Pingback: Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 3) | The Prairie Ecologist

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