Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 2)

Well, when I ask for questions, you deliver! This might have to become a more regular feature of this blog. I thought maybe I could answer all the questions in two posts, but it’s going to take at least three. And you’re welcome to keep sending in questions – I’m happy to answer them. I’ll do at least one more post to catch the ones that have come in so far, and then might start saving additional ones for down the road.

These questions are also helpful to me as I think about topics for future posts. Sometimes, it reminds me that it’s been a long time since I’ve written about a particular subject, other times, it’s just helpful to hear what’s on your mind so I can research and/or write about it when I get a chance. Thanks to everyone who has sent in questions so far.

Here are more questions and answers…

Steinar Karlsen asks:

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?

Prairie dogs definitely create important habitat for many other animals, as well as plants.  I’m a big fan of them.  However, their ecological value is hard to separate from some of the baggage that comes along with the species in today’s landscape.  For example, in Nebraska, most of our large grasslands are part of private ranches.  While there is much discussion about the (potentially positive) impact of prairie dogs on forage quality, and the idea that their holes cause lots of cattle to break legs is mostly mythology, there’s no question that prairie dogs compete for forage with livestock.  As a result, prairie dogs are seen as pests by most ranchers because they reduce the amount of forage (and thus income) produced by the areas they inhabit. 

Black-tailed prairie dogs have a big impact on grasslands. Depending upon your perspective, those impacts can positive, negative, or both.

Fans of prairie dogs and their associated ecological benefits might feel angry about ranchers eliminating prairie dogs from their land.  I understand that, but a more productive approach might be to consider ways to financially compensate ranchers for the losses they incur from prairie dogs.  It’s no more fair to expect ranchers to lose money by coexisting with prairie dogs than it is to expect a restaurant owner to give away food.  There might be some ranchers and restaurant owners who can afford to do that, but others who are riding a tightrope between profit and loss aren’t bad people for trying to stay in business.

Aside from the financial aspect, the other big obstacle to increasing prairie dog numbers on private ranches is that there is a big social stigma attached to them.  Ranchers who co-exist with prairie dogs risk scorn from their neighbors.  Social norms are real and important pressures that influence how we all behave.  Just as it takes a lot of confidence and bravery to dress in a drastically different way than your peers at a business meeting, it can be difficult to be that rancher in a rural landscape where everyone knows and relies on each other. 

In addition to the social stigma, prairie dogs like to spread out, so neighbors have a legitimate worry that one rancher’s prairie dog population might spill over into another’s.  Because of both the financial and social implications of that, the situation mirrors that of a landowner’s worries about the noxious weeds on a neighbor’s land.  In fact, there is a statute in Nebraska that gives county officials the ability to control prairie dogs on private land to prevent their spread, though that statute is not frequently enforced, as far as I know.

Prairie dogs are doing better on some public lands, though it sounds like disease and other pressures are still significant.  There certainly aren’t many places where the size of a prairie dog town is large enough to host a viable population of the once-thought-to-be-extinct black-footed ferret.  For that to change, we’ll probably need to figure out a way to deal with the aforementioned issues on private lands.  It’ll take some creativity and patience, and probably some significant funding.

.

shoreacres  asks:

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!

Linda, you’ve got a wonderful way with words.  First, the spaetzle landscape is the Nebraska Sandhills, 12 million acres of sand dunes covered in prairie and wetlands. It really does have a unique look from above, doesn’t it?

The Nebraska Sandhills is an amazing prairie landscape.

Nebraska has plenty of great sites. There are some pretty nice oak woodland sites with tallgrass prairie ridges in the east.  A couple public examples are Indian Cave State Park and Fontenelle Forest (you could also skip across the Missouri River to see the Iowa Loess Hills).  Elsewhere, most of the best remaining tallgrass prairie in southeast Nebraska is on private land, but Wachiska Audubon has worked to protect some of those remnants, and some are publicly accessible.  During college, I spent a lot of time at Nine-Mile Prairie in Lincoln, and it is still a nice place to wander around.  Spring Creek Prairie, just west of Lincoln, is a great site too, with some excellent interpretative displays.

Further west, check out the prairies owned by Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  Don’t skip Gjerloff Prairie, a wonderful loess hills site with interesting topography and habitat, as well as a view of the Platte River.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, of course, are also nice (if I do say so myself) and we’re working to improve our hiking trails and visitor facilities over the next few years.  Let me know if you’re coming and I’ll try to meet you out there!

In the Sandhills, both the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have big public areas to visit and they’re all worthwhile.  Crescent Lake and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges are especially nice if you want to see some beautiful groundwater wetlands/lakes.  The amazing Niobrara River also has a number of publicly-available sites, including the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Fort Niobrara, and Niobrara State Park, to name a few.

In the panhandle, Fort Robinson, Chadron State Park, Toadstool Park, and the Wildcat Hills are among my favorites.  I’m sure other Nebraskans can help with other recommendations, especially with areas I’m not as familiar with.  For example, I love the northeast and southwest portions of Nebraska but don’t spend enough time there to know the best locations to visit. 

.

Laura asks:

How do you feel about bats?

Bats are adorable, amazing, and sadly misunderstood.

How do you feel about smammals?

Smammals are adorable, amazing, and sadly misunderstood.

What’s your favorite dinosaur?

Wow, it’s been a long time since I spent much time thinking about dinosaurs, but if pressed, I’d probably choose Pachycephalosaurus.

Small mammals, aka smammals, play lots of important roles in prairies. They’re also stinkin’cute.

.

Ellen Rathbone asks:

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!

Not surprisingly, I do have thoughts to share on this topic!  In fact, I’ve spelled out a lot of those thoughts in a post written back in 2014. You can read that, but I’ll summarize a few points here too. 

Bison at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve are in 10,000 acre pastures, giving them plenty of room to move around the landscape.

Cattle and bison have pretty similar diets, if given the same choices and pasture sizes.  Bison might be a little more selective toward grasses, but both eat primarily grasses and fill in nutrient needs with wildflowers when they need them.  Some of the biggest differences are behavioral, especially related to the use of water and trees/shade.  Bison don’t hang around water or trees much.  They tend to get a drink, rub on a tree, etc., and then head back out into the open prairie.  Cattle often stand around in water during the summer, mostly (as I understand it) to escape biting flies that attack their legs.  They also seek out shade trees and will loaf around those trees enough that they’ll disturb vegetation significantly there.  As a result, there are some issues with pollution, erosion, and vegetation disturbance that can come from those cattle behaviors.  Most of that can be mitigated by management – fences, limiting/rotating access to water/trees, etc., so that there is no permanent damage done. 

Bison also come with hassles.  In most cases, prairie managers have to own the bison and keep them on the prairie year-round.  That means annual roundups, good fences and corral systems, and a lot of constant responsibility.  Ranchers often own their own cattle too, of course, but it’s usually their full time job to take care of them. Managers of public or private prairie preserves usually just bring cattle in on a temporary lease basis, so the animals are there for up to 6 months or so per year and then go somewhere else.  Typically, the owner of the cattle is in charge of any doctoring that needs to happen too, so the prairie manager’s job is easier than it is as a bison owner.  There’s a lot of variability in how all that works, but that’s generally the way it goes.

In short, both cattle and bison can do positive things for prairies if they’re managed thoughtfully.  Both can also be problematic – both logistically and ecologically – if they’re managed poorly.  If grazing is an important component of the management objectives for a particular site, the bison vs. cattle question often comes down to scale and logistics.  Unless you’ve got a few thousand acres of prairie, bison are probably not very feasible, both from cost (fencing/corrals, etc.) and ecological (bison like/need bigger areas to feel and act like bison) perspectives.  Cattle provide more flexibility in management options, and can be used in relatively small prairies, but also need a little more planning to prevent some of the potential issues surrounding water and trees.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

8 thoughts on “Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 2)

  1. Good post. Enjoyed and learned.

    On Mon, Sep 28, 2020 at 12:06 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > > > > > > > Chris Helzer posted: ” > Well, when I ask for questions, you deliver! This might have to become a > more regular feature of this blog. I thought maybe I could answer all the > questions in two posts, but it’s going to take at least three. And you’re > welcome to keep sending in que” > > > >

  2. Thanks a lot for your very interesting and informative answer on prairie dogs, Chris!
    And of course I can see your points on economy, social stigma and loss of forage quantity.
    However, like you say, and as I’ve also understood it, bison actually favors the grasses around a prairie dog town. I would imagine that’s because of the better taste and quality. But how much that extra quality makes up for lost quantity is another matter. Someone should do a research on that.

    I would also imagine that most of the natural prairie dog predators are missing on private ranches, which then will result in prairie dog numbers getting out of control. Missing important parts of the complete ecosystem is of course a problem in itself.

    So, I can certainly see why it’s not easy accommodating prairie dogs while trying to make a living.
    And I can only agree with you that ranchers should be financially compensated for the losses they incur from prairie dogs. Absolutely! That could indeed be a way forward. Hopefully you’ll think of some creative solutions and get them implemented in the not too distant future :-)

  3. New post on The Prairie Ecologist

    Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 2) by Chris Helzer Well, when I ask for questions, you deliver! This might have to become a more regular feature of this blog. I thought maybe I could answer all the questions in two posts, but it’s going to take at least three. And you’re welcome to keep sending in questions – I’m happy to answer them. I’ll do at least one more post to catch the ones that have come in so far, and then might start saving additional ones for down the road.

    These questions are also helpful to me as I think about topics for future posts. Sometimes, it reminds me that it’s been a long time since I’ve written about a particular subject, other times, it’s just helpful to hear what’s on your mind so I can research and/or write about it when I get a chance. Thanks to everyone who has sent in questions so far.

    Here are more questions and answers…

    Steinar Karlsen asks:

    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?

    Prairie dogs definitely create important habitat for many other animals, as well as plants. I’m a big fan of them. However, their ecological value is hard to separate from some of the baggage that comes along with the species in today’s landscape. For example, in Nebraska, most of our large grasslands are part of private ranches. While there is much discussion about the (potentially positive) impact of prairie dogs on forage quality, and the idea that their holes cause lots of cattle to break legs is mostly mythology, there’s no question that prairie dogs compete for forage with livestock. As a result, prairie dogs are seen as pests by most ranchers because they reduce the amount of forage (and thus income) produced by the areas they inhabit.

    Black-tailed prairie dogs have a big impact on grasslands. Depending upon your perspective, those impacts can positive, negative, or both. Fans of prairie dogs and their associated ecological benefits might feel angry about ranchers eliminating prairie dogs from their land. I understand that, but a more productive approach might be to consider ways to financially compensate ranchers for the losses they incur from prairie dogs. It’s no more fair to expect ranchers to lose money by coexisting with prairie dogs than it is to expect a restaurant owner to give away food. There might be some ranchers and restaurant owners who can afford to do that, but others who are riding a tightrope between profit and loss aren’t bad people for trying to stay in business.

    Aside from the financial aspect, the other big obstacle to increasing prairie dog numbers on private ranches is that there is a big social stigma attached to them. Ranchers who co-exist with prairie dogs risk scorn from their neighbors. Social norms are real and important pressures that influence how we all behave. Just as it takes a lot of confidence and bravery to dress in a drastically different way than your peers at a business meeting, it can be difficult to be that rancher in a rural landscape where everyone knows and relies on each other.

    In addition to the social stigma, prairie dogs like to spread out, so neighbors have a legitimate worry that one rancher’s prairie dog population might spill over into another’s. Because of both the financial and social implications of that, the situation mirrors that of a landowner’s worries about the noxious weeds on a neighbor’s land. In fact, there is a statute in Nebraska that gives county officials the ability to control prairie dogs on private land to prevent their spread, though that statute is not frequently enforced, as far as I know.

    Prairie dogs are doing better on some public lands, though it sounds like disease and other pressures are still significant. There certainly aren’t many places where the size of a prairie dog town is large enough to host a viable population of the once-thought-to-be-extinct black-footed ferret. For that to change, we’ll probably need to figure out a way to deal with the aforementioned issues on private lands. It’ll take some creativity and patience, and probably some significant funding.

    .

    shoreacres asks:

    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!

    Linda, you’ve got a wonderful way with words. First, the spaetzle landscape is the Nebraska Sandhills, 12 million acres of sand dunes covered in prairie and wetlands. It really does have a unique look from above, doesn’t it?

    The Nebraska Sandhills is an amazing prairie landscape. Nebraska has plenty of great sites. There are some pretty nice oak woodland sites with tallgrass prairie ridges in the east. A couple public examples are Indian Cave State Park and Fontenelle Forest (you could also skip across the Missouri River to see the Iowa Loess Hills). Elsewhere, most of the best remaining tallgrass prairie in southeast Nebraska is on private land, but Wachiska Audubon has worked to protect some of those remnants, and some are publicly accessible. During college, I spent a lot of time at Nine-Mile Prairie in Lincoln, and it is still a nice place to wander around. Spring Creek Prairie, just west of Lincoln, is a great site too, with some excellent interpretative displays.

    Further west, check out the prairies owned by Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Don’t skip Gjerloff Prairie, a wonderful loess hills site with interesting topography and habitat, as well as a view of the Platte River. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, of course, are also nice (if I do say so myself) and we’re working to improve our hiking trails and visitor facilities over the next few years. Let me know if you’re coming and I’ll try to meet you out there!

    In the Sandhills, both the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have big public areas to visit and they’re all worthwhile. Crescent Lake and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges are especially nice if you want to see some beautiful groundwater wetlands/lakes. The amazing Niobrara River also has a number of publicly-available sites, including the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Fort Niobrara, and Niobrara State Park, to name a few.

    In the panhandle, Fort Robinson, Chadron State Park, Toadstool Park, and the Wildcat Hills are among my favorites. I’m sure other Nebraskans can help with other recommendations, especially with areas I’m not as familiar with. For example, I love the northeast and southwest portions of Nebraska but don’t spend enough time there to know the best locations to visit.

    ________________________________

  4. You’ve talked about the benefits of bison and cattle grazing on prairies but I was wondering what impact human trampling has on prairie plants? There’s a prairie located at the site of an old quarry at the top of a bluff that I go to frequently to photograph and document the amazing variety of native plant species and this year I’ve noticed it’s become a hot spot for people to gather for campfires and camping. Throughout the summer I’ve noticed many areas of flattened plants from the tents being set up and larger numbers of people walking around. Will these plants recover or will continued human activity at this site eventually kill the plants?

  5. Hey Chris, what about using wild Mustangs to graze on the land? Last I heard they’re still trying to kill them because there are “too many.” This could serve a double purpose if it would work, saving the mustangs and helping you/owners manage your/their lands.

  6. Wow, loved seeing the kindness that still exist for the smallest of God’s creatures. A couple of yrs ago we held our Bible School in the Havelock City Park and we scared a dozen little ducks out of a commercial building next to the park. Kids had a great time trying to catch them. How are you two doing? Keep thinking I will give you a call, but it has been one thing after another, and now we are getting ready for a free clothing give away to the Havelock community. Always more work than available people, but better to be busy. Thxs again for the clip….it made my day!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  7. Thanks for your wonderfully detailed response, Chris. I’ve been doing some research, and already am compiling a list of books and other resources for my little self-designed wintertime course in all things Nebraska. A great discovery has been the work of Solomon Butcher. His photography is another way into the history of the state.

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