If you’re a fan of prairies, you were probably first drawn to them by either plants or birds. There are exceptions, of course, but those seem to be the two most common paths. For me, it was both. I discovered prairies first as an underappreciated community of plants and then dove into research on grassland birds during graduate school. Regardless of our initial paths, each of us looks at prairies from our own perspective, influenced by the species and groups of organisms we know and like best.
Whichever organisms happen to be your favorites, your appreciation of them creates the lens through which you view prairies. When you meander through a prairie, you note the species of plants, birds, butterflies, or other organisms you like best, admiring both their beauty and their life strategies. You pay attention to how many there are, how that number changes over time, and whether the available habitat/growing conditions are favorable for them. Most importantly, you evaluate the quality of a prairie and its management based on those observations. You’re not unique – we all do this.
Unfortunately, looking at a prairie from the perspective of any particular group of plants or animals gives us a limited and incomplete view. A prairie might be admired by a birder for its diversity of grassland bird species but scorned by a botanist because it is missing some rare or emblematic plant species. Alternatively, that botanist’s favorite prairie might have little attraction for a birder because their favorite birds are absent. If you ask the botanist and birder for their advice on how to manage those prairies, you’ll likely get different answers.
The point here isn’t that either the birder or botanist is right or wrong. It’s that each of us sees prairies from a biased perspective that’s built upon what we know and appreciate about prairie organisms. That biased perspective doesn’t make any of us bad people, just inevitably limited in our understanding and ability to see the whole picture.
When we come together to assess or discuss prairies and prairie management, our personal lenses become quickly apparent. Some of us evaluate prairies based on their plant communities, while others focus on habitat structure. Butterfly enthusiasts are often apprehensive about the use of fire because of its impact on caterpillars. Fans of bees point out that summer haying creates a barren wasteland for pollinators. Herpetologists grumble about the scarcity of open sunny places for snakes and other animals to bask. And so on.
I bring all of this up to make two main points. The first is that because none of us understand the full spectrum of prairie organisms and interactions, we need to interact with and listen to people who have expertise we don’t. Taking the habitat needs of many species into consideration will make our prairie management and conservation work better informed and more effective. On one hand, attempting to manage a prairie committee can be disastrous because any action will have a negative impact on someone’s favorite species. On the other, we need to understand as many of those conflicts and impacts as we can so our management decisions are well-informed. We don’t need to make sure every action benefits all species and harms none. We just need to consider all the impacts we can and do our best to balance them across time and space.
If botanists only talk to botanists, and birders only talk to birders, neither will learn much. Wouldn’t it be great if every discussion about prairie conservation and management included voices that represented a wide range of taxonomic knowledge? It might mean that some planning sessions would become long, challenging, and even frustrating. Fine. Prairies are complex – decision making should be too. If we do it well, we’ll all learn from each other and make better choices as a result. Ideally, if there are disagreements about how to proceed, the parties would agree to try one approach but work together to evaluate the results and adapt as necessary.
Second, I encourage every prairie ecologist, naturalist, or manager to continually broaden your range of expertise. Be intentional in your efforts to learn about species you don’t know much about. When you see an organism you’re not familiar with, do your best to identify it, but then also investigate its life strategies. If you attend a conference (virtually or otherwise) don’t attend only those sessions that deepen your knowledge about taxa you’re already familiar with. Dip into a presentation on planthoppers, fungi, or lizards – or whatever would add to your perspective. Even a brief and shallow exposure can help you understand more about what a group of organisms might need from a prairie and how those requirements might overlap or conflict with those of other species.
I can guarantee that you’ll find fascinating life history stories in any group of species you investigate. That’s certainly been my experience, and I can also testify that prairies get more fascinating every time I learn something about a new species or group. I’m far from having a comprehensive understanding of prairie ecology, but I definitely have a much broader grasp of prairie communities than I did five or ten years ago. Because of that, when I look at a prairie, I’m seeing it through the ‘eyes’ of many more species than I used to. That makes me a better ecologist and land manager, but it also makes prairies more fun to explore and contemplate.
If you don’t already do this, the next time you visit your favorite prairie, try assessing it from the perspective of a species you don’t normally think about. Consider how a bumble bee, pocket mouse, or prairie clover would view the habitat, competitive environment, and/or growing conditions. Then repeat that process with organisms from other taxonomic groups. If you’re like me, you’ll get sucked into a captivating and thought-provoking journey that will leave you both inspired and overwhelmed. Could there be a more fitting emotional reaction to prairies than that?