Ask The Prairie Ecologist – (Part of an Extended 10th Anniversary Celebration)

Many thanks to everyone who submitted questions in response to my last post celebrating 10 years of this blog. I got enough questions that I’ve decided to split my responses into two batches. I’ll do one here and save the others for later this week or early next.

Before I get to the questions, here’s a quick notification. Tomorrow night (Thursday, September 24) I’ll be a featured speaker for a conservation webinar hosted by Pollinator Friendly Alliance. The session begins at 6pm Central Time and you can find out more at this link. I’ll be talking about how plants, insects, and other small organisms are really what make ecosystems resilient and functional, regardless of how much attention gets paid to birds, big mammals, and other large charismatic animals. If this sounds interesting to you, please consider joining in! (You can pepper me with hard questions afterward if you want.)

It’s no bison or mountain lion, but this little tawny-edged skipper – and lots of other small organisms – make the world go round.

Ok, here is the first batch of questions and answers. I hope you find them interesting.

Angie Miller asks: 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

Well, I wrote the book precisely because I was having trouble finding published materials on those topics.  I think there is a lot of local knowledge, but it’s often not easily accessible by people other than by finding local experts.  I’m hoping others will chime in here with suggestions. 

In some parts of the country, there are local clubs/associations (Prairie Enthusiasts, Wild Ones, Audubon Chapters, etc.) that do fantastic work and have lots of knowledgeable people to learn from.  Volunteering for a local non-profit or government agency who is doing the kind of work you’re interested in is another great way to learn. The North American Prairie Conference is always a great one to go to if you’re looking for non-technical (as well as technical) information and advice.  If you tell me where you’re from I might be able to help connect you with some local expertise.

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John Helzer asks: Where do you see this blog in another 10 years?

Thanks for asking.  In ten years, this blog would like a position with more responsibility and a considerably higher salary.  It enjoys its current role, but feels like it could contribute more to the organization if it was given a broader reach, and maybe a few interns to help cover basic tasks.  It thinks its track record so far has shown that it can handle additional responsibility.  As an aside, this blog would like to inquire about its 401k options.  The writer of this blog, however, is very happy in his current job and would like to continue splitting his time between research, advising land stewardship, and communication work.

Here’s the above question-asker ten years ago. I’m sorry I can’t include 10 year old photos everyone who submitted photos, but I happened to have one of John, who is now a college sophomore.

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Lisa asks: 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?

I’ve always appreciated Willa Cather’s accurate and effective portrayals of prairies in her writing.  She put the right plants in the right places and had them blooming at the right times of year, which is impressive.  When I was college age, I read most of the authors you listed there, as well as William Least Heat-Moon and some others.  I would say, though, that Aldo Leopold is and was the most influential in terms of my overall approach to conservation – especially his writings about a land ethic. 

Having said all that, I’ve found that I’ve learned most from direct interactions with people who have been thinking about and working in land management for a long time.  Riding around in a truck and walking side by side through prairies with people like Bill Whitney, Gerry Steinauer, and Al Steuter, in particular, has taught me more than any book.

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Anna Helzer asks: 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?

My favorite child would never ask that question.  Also, did I tell you about what the square meter book did when we were at the park the other day?  It was adorable…

The river otter running gag has been fun – I probably need to revisit that again soon.  I also love photographing, learning about, and sharing images and information about insects most people have never heard from.  I really enjoy it and don’t imagine I’ll ever run out of material for that kind of post.

Apart from that, I hope one of my more productive messages has revolved around the idea that prairies are more resilient than many people give them credit for.  I’ve advocated for the importance of habitat heterogeneity and the idea that it’s ok to manage in ways that temporarily set back the vigor of plants, including the ones with pretty flowers, in order to create that suite of habitat conditions.  I know I’ve made people uncomfortable by expressing opinions on that topic, but I hope that discomfort has led to helpful conversations and experimentation.  Local expertise should absolutely drive how prairies are managed, but I’m proud that I’ve helped push people consider a broader set of options as they make local decisions.

Well, look at that, I happened to have a 10y-year-old photo of another question asker. This young lady is now a high school teacher.

Bruce Morrison asks: 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 neighbors 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?

Thanks very much, Bruce. It sounds to me like your approach to reducing impacts to invertebrates is sound.  Have you seen changes in the plant community over those 18 years?  I wonder if the invertebrates are potentially responding to plant community changes, though there are a lot of reasons you could be seeing fewer Argiope spiders, using your example.

Pesticides could certainly be an issue, but so could isolation/fragmentation of habitat.  If the other pastureland around you has decent species diversity, maybe it’s not an issue, but having only 3 acres of isolated habitat can make it hard to maintain healthy communities, despite your best efforts.  If a species has one bad year, either because of something you’ve done or for other reasons, it could easily blink out and never return, especially if there is no connection to other good habitat. 

Regardless, I think what you’re doing makes sense.  You might consider augmenting your fire regime by creating habitat heterogeneity with some small patch mowing. That could be a way to give inverts and other small animals some habitat choices. It could be as simple as mowing a variety of patches at different times of year and at different heights.

A Banded Argiope on a dewy late summer morning.
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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.

2 thoughts on “Ask The Prairie Ecologist – (Part of an Extended 10th Anniversary Celebration)

  1. Thank you Chris – (In reference to my small pasture and invertebrate diversity question you spoke to above) I have not done anything like small patch mowing on our 3 acre native pasture – I will give that a try in the next years! And as to any changes in plant community – we have been fighting a nasty incursion of Heliopsis helianthoides (Ox-eye Sunflower). It has now taken over nearly 1/3 of an acre in just the past 4 years…I now pull it whenever I can find it small enough…after the Mrs. and I discussed it a couple weeks back – we plan on mowing about a 1/5 acre patch of it for the next 2-3 years and see if it helps…kinda falls into your small patch mowing suggestion :)

  2. Pingback: Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 2) | The Prairie Ecologist

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