Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 3)

I think I’ve captured the last of the initial set of questions you asked as part of the 10 year anniversary of the blog. Thanks again for the insightful, quirky, and (often) earnest questions you submitted. If you have more, please send them in (through the comments) and I’ll collect them for future posts.

Here is the latest batch –

cherylllr asks:

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?

I’m glad you enjoyed the parody wildflower guide.  I’ve thought about making actual field guides, but there are already some great ones out there.  For Nebraska, specifically, I love Jon Farrar’s Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains.  Another of my favorites is Dan Fogell’s book, A Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Nebraska.  There are lots of other field guides, of course, both for Nebraska and elsewhere.  Insect field guides are more difficult because there are SO MANY species.  There are a few general ones, but insects and other invertebrates are better suited for online resources like Bugguide.net.

By submitting this image to Bugguide.net, I was able to confirm that it was a planthopper and found out that it is in the genus Scolops. All I had to do was upload a photo with a little information about where I found it. Easy peasy.

Roger Harms asks:

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.

Thanks Roger.  First, you can actually have a lot of say in what you plant – be vocal if you have opinions.  The ‘feds’ have templates they can follow, but there’s a lot of flexibility within those programs if you and the person you’re working with are willing to push a little. 

There are definitely some common mistakes I see.  You can avoid a big one by making sure you do your best to eliminate invasive issues before you start.  Working from actively farmed land will help with weed seeds in the ground, but take a look around the edges too.  Are there trees like Siberian elms near the boundaries that are going to be dumping lots of seeds into the area during the first couple years?  If you can eliminate those now (ideally, a few years before planting, actually, but now is better than later) that can be really important.  The same goes for other weeds like smooth brome, Canada thistle, etc.  Do what you can to slow their invasion by removing them from boundaries (and/or any ditches or waterways that go through the field) well before you plant.  Again, it’s usually best to do that several years before planting so the farming can eliminate any remaining seeds, but federal programs don’t usually let you have that kind of time after you sign a contract.

There are lots of potential issues that can arise from plant species selection, but hopefully you’ll have someone who is aware of those.  I’d push for the highest possible species diversity you can, sticking with natives, of course.  Even though high diversity mixes are more expensive, there are often other organizations (Game and Parks Commission, Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, etc.) who might be willing to chip in for a better mix, especially if you can convince them that the planting is going to last longer than the 10 year contract you sign.  Push for a seed mix that isn’t overpowered on grass seeds to the point where the grasses swamp out the wildflowers within the first couple years. 

In terms of management, you’ll want to focus on at least three things – reducing competition from dominant grasses so that wildflowers can thrive; providing a variety of patches, representing a range of habitat structure (including short, medium, and tall heights), across the site each year; and preventing too much thatch/litter from building up and smothering everything.  I’m not up to speed on the latest management options for CRP, but it sounds like it’s getting easier to incorporate grazing as an option.  If you can do that, it’ll be the most flexible way to manipulate habitat, as well as to keep grasses from becoming dominant.  Prescribed fire, of course, can also be helpful, especially if you’re using it every few years, not just once in 10 years.  If you can work out something with grazing, let me know and we can talk more about specifics, but the ideal scenario would be to provide some kind of ‘shifting mosaic’ approach – something you can read more about in old blog posts of mine.

Good luck, and enjoy it!  You’re doing a good thing.

Assuming they are planted to a good diversity of plant species, most Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) prairies look something like this in their early years. Often, however, grasses become increasingly dominant and reduce wildflower diversity over time. Also, this kind of tall/dense habitat structure is good for a few wildlife species, but providing a variety of habitat structure types across the site is much better.

James McGee asks:

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Oh boy, so many potential answers here…  For one thing, I would have liked to have focused more on invertebrates and other animals in my prairie management book.  I did try to get more insect info in the ecology portion and got turned down by my editor, but I should have pushed harder and definitely should have talked more about the impacts of habitat management on invertebrates.  I’ve tried to remedy that via the blog. 

If I was starting the blog again, I think I would approach the topic of grazing a little differently too.  Coming from a part of the world where grazing is widely recognized as a positive disturbance in prairies (that can be damaging if abused, of course) I think I was not as sensitive as I could have been to concerns by people where grazing is not common and often seen as automatically bad for prairies.  I made some people defensive by not being as clear as I could have been that I don’t advocate for grazing on every prairie, and that there are many reasons people might choose not to use grazing. 

At the same time, I also know there are many misperceptions about grazing and about how resilient prairie species (and prairies in general) are to the impacts of grazing, as long as the grazing is applied correctly.  And I still think larger prairies (50 -100 acres and bigger) that aren’t grazed fail to provide the variety of habitat structure types needed to really optimize their potential as habitat for animals.  In landscapes where those larger prairies are really rare, having one that doesn’t provide for the entire range of habitat needs for prairie species seems like a big missed opportunity.  Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons for not grazing.  Other times, though, people just dismiss the idea out of hand without really exploring the possibilities.

Has any task from your job ever made you cry. Besides being allergic to grass pollen. You mentioned that one already.

Yeah, the grass allergies are unfortunate, huh?  I’ve been able to mitigate that pretty well in recent years with allergy shots, in addition to Loratadine.  Apart from that, there have been plenty of emotional moments – good and bad – but I’m not sure I’ve cried in response to any of them.  Most of my crying has come from family moments, rather than work.

Cattle grazing doesn’t automatically destroy prairies or the plants that grow in them. It can certainly degrade prairies if it is misapplied, but it can also provide a much better range of habitat structure for animals while sustaining high plant diversity. It’s not for every prairie, but can be a flexible and valuable tool in many.

Robert Narem asks:

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

We’ve had pretty good luck.  At The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, we’ve had good success broadcasting seeds after a fire in our patch-burn grazed sites, and we get strong responses.  It takes more seed than we use for cropland conversions, though.  We’ve used up to 8 times as much seed and still haven’t felt like we’re using too much.  I think what’s happening is that there are only so many places a seed can land and germinate, even with fire to provide soil contact and grazing to reduce competition from other plants.  The more seeds we toss out, the more of those ideal spots we can hit.

On our family prairie, we’ve had good luck too, but there, we don’t use fire.  Instead, I broadcast seeds in the winter after a full season of intense grazing (within the open gate system we use).  The next spring, we’ll graze that site very briefly for brome control, but otherwise it gets nearly two full seasons of rest.  Getting seeds in the ground after the grazing means the vigor of the surrounding grasses is greatly suppressed and there is enough soil exposed for the seeds to get that seed-soil contact.  As with the work on the Platte, the more seeds we plant, the more plants we get.  Shocking, right?

Species like Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) are among the species that establish most easily in our overseeding efforts. This prairie had a long history of overgrazing before we acquired it and is in progress – it’s much more floristically diverse – especially in summer – than it was, but isn’t yet what we want it to be.

Jessica Larson asks:

I think I’ve been following for the last half of the decade, thanks to 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!

Wow, Jessica, that’s really great to hear.  I’m very gratified that you’re finding the blog to be so helpful.  You’re right that there are some significant differences between the prairies I work most with and those in northern Montana, but there are lots of similarities too, of course.  Hopefully, you and others can translate accordingly. 

What entrances me about Nebraska prairie? Just about everything.  The variety, for one.  We have rich tallgrass prairie in the east with deep productive soils and lush vegetation.  We’ve got several counties with tens of thousands of acres of remnant tallgrass prairie in good to excellent condition – almost all of it on private land, managed either by haying or grazing.  While fragmented, those prairies seem to be holding on to most of their diversity, which is inspiring.

In the central part of the state, we have mixed-grass prairie on both loess and sandy soils.  Many of our loess hills and bluffs prairies are fragmented because they’re in a landscape with lots of rowcrop potential, but there’s still a lot of prairie in some places.  Much of what remains has had a tough history of chronic overgrazing and herbicide use, but there are some gems out there, especially on steep slopes or where management has been more friendly to diversity.  Eastern red cedar trees are a huge threat now. 

Prairies on sandy soils can be found along rivers (including at our Platte River Prairies).  Even more significant is the 12 million acre Nebraska Sandhills, which is a true prairie landscape where most species are doing very well and ranching has sustained the grassland in excellent shape. Cedar trees are a threat there too, but the bigger threat is the invasion of reed canarygrass and hybrid cattails in wetlands and meadows.

Out west, our prairies are much more similar to what you’ve got in northern Montana.  We’ve got lots of dry grassland, often with rock outcrops.  Some of that is sandy, some not, but there are some significant landscape-scale prairies left with really nice diversity and resilience. Being able to experience that diversity of prairie type across the state makes me feel very fortunate.

Apart from the variety, I’m most entranced by the resilience of species and communities are within grasslands.  I never tire of seeing the responses of prairie species and communities to droughts, fire, and grazing.  No matter what gets thrown at a site, it responds with beauty and vigor.  When we had the big 2012 drought, the entire Sandhills turned yellow the next year with annual sunflowers, which filled in for other weakened plants and provided food for pollinators and loads of other animals.  Watching plants get grubbed down by cattle one year and then bounce back over the next couple years is also inspiring.  Similarly, it blows me away how well insects and other animals can find the resources they need each year, even though our management and other factors keep shifting the abundance and location of those resources – sometimes dramatically. 

So, there you go.  Hopefully, the blog as a whole provides an even better answer to your question.  I try hard to share what inspires me every time I post.  Thanks very much for tagging along with me.

The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch in the northwest Nebraska Panhandle gets an average of 16-18 inches of rain per year. In contrast, the tallgrass prairies in the southeast corner of the state average about twice that per year.
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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.

11 thoughts on “Ask The Prairie Ecologist (Part 3)

  1. In one of the inquiries, you suggested that it would be good to avoid letting the grasses become to dominant. What would you think of holding off on seeding the tall grasses until the forms are more established?

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful response, Chris.
    You are right that we don’t have any time to delay planting as the CRP contract requires doing so this fall or next spring. I admit to being a novice regarding best species but I’m hopeful that having entered the SAFE program for CRP and having Bruce Sprague from PF prescribe the recipe for our conversion, it should be a pretty good start.
    I know the specifics can’t be addressed without your having a lot more information, but thank you for your insights. The waterways are the principal source of invasive that I can do anything about, so will address that.
    I assume grazing requires nearby cattlemen who are willing to cooperate. We don’t have any fences at the moment. If you have a few words on grazing 101 for the non-rancher, I’d like to hear it.
    One last thing. Where are the good prairies in SE Nebraska?
    Rog

  3. The one task that made me really cry later was when I pulled up a garden bed infested with Cirsium arvense wearing leather gloves for protection. The spines go right through leather. I now use new latex coated garden gloves when doing this chore. The spines don’t seem to penetrate the latex rubber until it has become worn.

    I too have an allergy to something on the prairie. I’ve only ever experienced it at one spot on one prairie in mid to late June. It was strangely one eye, and one nostril, then later after the first ones cleared up the other eye and other nostril. My eyes were watering so bad I could not see. It was quite painful. The same thing happened when I visited two weeks later. I will leave work in that area of that prairie to others in the future.

    • This weekend I cried more than I ever have before. While doing invasive species control, I decided to take a break and walk around the site. My eyes were bothering me. I rubbed them. That was a bad idea. Sunscreen got in my eyes. The more I rubbed them the more sunscreen got in my eyes. It was not until I got back to where I had left my backpack and wiped each of my eyes with a clean piece of paper towel that the pain and watering stopped. The moral of the story is, don’t rub your eyes if you’ve put on sunscreen, bring clean paper towels with you, and don’t leave your backpack.

  4. I have multiple questions:
    What are ways grazing could be managed in parks, where people will be hiking about?
    I wonder if staking out a cow or two for a few days would have some of the same impact.

    Goat grazing is being used more in our part of the upper midwest, but they seem to prefer to go after leaves of woody plants. Which is fine, as suppressing woody plants is important in our area. I have heard that different grazers have different impacts.

    And does season of grazing make much difference?

    • I’m responding to your question about grazing in parks with people. While I don’t know the specifics of your park, I will say that when we graze on our Refuge’s, it doesn’t stop me from walking in those units. I also walk a lot of BLM land that has grazing occurring. Now, neither of these locations are a ‘park’, but they are public land to walk about on. The response by the cattle are all dependent on the cattle (and if my dogs are with). Some watch as I walk, others gather to a herd and try to get out of the area I’m walking. My biggest concern would be pushing the animals to break any fencing if it was in a park setting. Here in Montana, the pastures are big enough, and the people are few enough, that I never worry about pushing them to want to break out.

  5. I must admit to feeling very conflicted about the use of grazing in prairies. Especially in regard to the highest quality prairies. Dwayne Estes has been calling grasslands in the southeastern United States “old growth grasslands.” I worry grazing would reset succession in “old growth grasslands.” In contrast, by reducing the amount of vegetation, grazing reduces the ability of the entire ecosystem to store water. This shifts the ecosystem toward more heat and drought tolerant plants. This is something that would appear to be beneficial to grasslands where mesophication is shifting dry prairies into brush and low-quality woodlands. Prairie ecology is an enigma.

    • My thought back would be – prairies are not static, rather dynamic in nature. When I explain about the use of disturbances in a system, my go-to is that nothing lasts forever in ‘perfect’ conditions, everything shifts at some time (forward and backwards). Forests didn’t start out as old growth, they went through succession to get there. Prairies are no different, they evolved with disturbance, otherwise we would have shrub lands and not grasslands. Even wetlands cannot be the ‘perfect’ water level, and need to go through drought and floods to be productive to a variety of species. There is stagnation without disturbance. With that all said, it is the frequency of disturbance that is the real question. Fire and grazing in the tall grass does not match the needs of prairie in the south west or even in the western part of the prairie pothole region. The point you made about how the grasses play into water storage is valid, old growth grasslands is valid, but to think they can stay pristine without disturbance is where I see the problem. Finally, the human timeline is not natures timeline. If a disturbance were to go into the prairies you are talking about, I doubt the prairie would ever not be able to get back to the ‘old growth’ stage, it’s just whether or not we have the time to wait.

      • I have been helping to do restoration work on prairies in Illinois that have been degraded by various degrees of abusive grazing. I agree that disturbance in the system is necessary. Especially, fire as a disturbance. I am less convinced of the needs for grazing since the best examples of prairies I have visited have not had a history of grazing in recent history. Insects would be the animal caused disturbance that would be most important in these best of class prairies. A similar example has occurred in areas where deer have been allowed to overpopulate. When deer are allowed to overpopulate the ecosystem has received measurable damage, often not returning to its former state after deer control is again implemented.

        When I have seen grazing done on conservation properties, the ranchers have put more cattle on the land at a higher stocking rate than was spelled out in the lease. The agreement does not change these rancher’s practices. Conservation landowners seem to not have the will to force a rancher to remove cattle from conservation land.

        With the exception of patches of very xeric prairie, the prairies I have been helping to restore that have been subjected to abusive grazing are full of thorny shrubs and trees. I actually can’t think of a worse ecosystem to try to traverse. They are infested with multiflora rose, autumn olive, common buckthorn, honey locust, Osage orange, and other nasty things we are working on controlling. On top of this, the burrs are truly horrendous. Trying to get through these thorny brambles and thickets makes the even more abundant Asian bush honeysuckles seem benign.

        Dwayne Estes has given the figure for the development of old growth grasslands in the southeastern United States at 3000 or more years. Prairies in northeastern Illinois are likely of a similar age. Yet, every year prairies in Illinois disappear a little more. The problems are mostly due to lack of fire and expansion of invasive species. Like cutting down a forest of giant redwoods, tall grass prairie will not develop even after many human generations. There are some really good older prairie reconstructions. All but a select lucky few are qualitatively and quantitatively different than adjacent unplowed tallgrass prairie.

  6. I 100% agree Bugguide is an amazing resource for insect ID, BUT I would humbly suggest that “The Scarabaeoid Beetles of Nebraska” by Brett Ratcliffe & M.J. Paulson get a mention in the field-guide response… It’s a beautiful book that is the envy of many non-Nebraskans! The pictures and approachable format to identification really make it a fun way to geek out to some pretty charismatic critters.

  7. Thanks Chris for taking the time to state why you love the Nebraska prairies as much as you do. I think we as a society could learn a lot if we listen to such things, grow the appreciate other places, and hopefully one day get to experience it first hand.

    I appreciated your tipping of knowledge that the sandhills could have valued points that can be applied all the way up here. I have a sandhills unit at one of my Refuges, and so I enjoy reading the blogs on the sandhills information. I’m still getting my fingers wrapped around it for habitat management.

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