Let’s talk about (shudder) monitoring

In land management, as in most of life, it’s important to know your objectives and periodically check in to see if you’re meeting them. Otherwise, it’s easy to get buried in work and forget what it is you’re actually trying to accomplish. The primary objective of most prairie managers, for example, isn’t to kill all the trees on their prairie or to burn a particular management unit every two or three years. If you stop and think about it, your objective is probably linked to the something like the wellbeing of a particular rare species, the breeding success of certain birds, and/or the continued diversity of plant and animal communities. Regardless of what you’re aiming for, it’s critically important to have a clear idea of what that is.

I spend a lot of time and energy managing our family prairie. Having clear objectives makes it a lot easier see if I’m making progress.

Now, once you know what it is you’re trying to accomplish, you just have to go out and measure your success, right? Should be as easy as anything. Sure. That’s why we’re all so good at ecological monitoring.

In some cases, simple objectives lead to simple monitoring needs. If your primary goal is the wellbeing of a particular rare plant, monitoring is pretty straightforward. You can just go out and count stems, flowers, seed heads, new seedlings, or whatever metric you think is most important. You can then look at how those metrics are responding to your management, weather patterns, and other factors. If the plant species is doing well, keep doing what you’re doing. If it’s not, try something different.

Few of us, though, have such a simple objective. In fact, I’d argue that most of us should have much broader and more ambitious objectives that include the overall diversity and resilience of the various plant and animal communities in our prairies. We might have a few groups of those plants or animals we’re paying special attention to, either because our organization mandates it or because we particularly like them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but since prairies rely on complex networks and processes to remain healthy, focusing only on a few species can mean ignoring the larger communities our favorite species rely on.

Great. So we’re going to keep our prairies nice and diverse. So to monitor our progress, we just have to…. count… every…. species??

This is the point at which a lot of prairie managers throw up their hands and turn back toward the invasive plants they’re fighting. Monitoring is too much work. I know I have to kill these trees. I know I have to burn this prairie. I’ll just focus on that and hope for the best.

Before you join those frustrated land stewards, give me a quick chance to throw out an idea. If you’re managing for diverse plant and animal communities, you’ve probably thought about what kind of habitats and growing conditions will be required right? Many of us strive to create a shifting mosaic of habitat types across our prairies to accommodate as much diversity as possible. If so, setting objectives for the habitat conditions you want to provide each year gives you something clear and measurable to track.

Using the shifting habitat mosaic approach as an example, the first objective is to provide patches of habitat across the prairie that represent the widest range of possibilities – short/sparse habitat, tall/dense habitat, thin/weedy habitat, etc. The second objective is to vary the location of those habitat patches year to year. We can measure that! If you have the time, you could do formal monitoring by sampling the height, density, and other features of the prairie vegetation in each habitat patch, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to. For most of us, simply making an annual map showing the location and general description of each habitat patch might be sufficient. Do those maps show that you’re creating the kind of habitat mosaic you want?

Here’s a simplified example of what an annual map of habitat conditions could look like. Something like this could be superimposed on an aerial photo of a site or just a rough drawing of a prairie. Each of the squares above represents a management unit that is being treated differently than the others. In this case, those boundaries stay the same, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in real life. Click to see an enlarged version.

To be clear, that map is different from a map that simply documents your management. That can be useful too, but I’m talking about a map of the actual habitat conditions on the site. The two are hopefully linked, but one of the benefits of monitoring is to see if your management is actually doing what you need it to do, right? Your map should have lines roughly drawn around patches of habitat that are different from each other and written descriptions of each patch. You can then compare maps over several years to see if you’re providing the range of habitat types you want and if they’re shifting around the prairie as desired. This kind of map is also really helpful as you are planning your next management because you can see where you’ve been and think about where you want to go next.

Providing habitat patches that span the entire spectrum of vegetation structure types is important for maintaining prairie diversity. Here’s an example of habitat structure that is often lacking – short grass and tall forbs.

Mapping habitat is pretty easy, but if that’s the only monitoring we’re doing, we’re making some pretty big assumptions. Primarily, we’re assuming the habitats we’re creating are supporting the kind of broad diversity of organisms we want. We need to test those assumptions when we can.

Fortunately, testing assumptions can be a lot easier than monitoring. For one thing, you don’t have to test every assumption over and over. Instead, assumption testing is about answering a distinct question. It’s really research, rather than monitoring. Example questions might include:

  • Do we have all the grassland bird species we’d expect in this region nesting in our prairie each year?
  • Are there several species of blooming flowers available for pollinators at all times during the season?
  • Are there any plant species that never get a chance to bloom and reproduce over the cycle of management being applied?

Some of these questions can be addressed by simply recording what you see (what species of birds do I see in each management unit each year?). Others might take a concerted effort for a few years (walking a bi-weekly or monthly transect through each habitat patch and listing the flowers you see blooming). As you investigate each assumption, you’ll probably learn things that will help you adjust your management approach. That will lead to new questions.

You might not have the time or resources to answer all your questions by yourself. In that case, you might be able to talk to other prairie managers in your area to see what they’ve learned, or turn to scientists who have studied the topic. If you work for an organization with resources and/or relationships with academic institutions, you might be able to collaborate with them on a graduate research project.

At our Platte River Prairies, we are trying to track populations of regal fritillary butterflies because it is a species that seems to have dropped in numbers across the whole valley and we want to see if we can figure out what’s going on and what we might be able to do about it.

There is, of course, value in long-term monitoring too. If you have the time or capacity to track the diversity/composition of your plant community – even in a few portions of your site – that can be really helpful. I’ve learned a lot by doing that in selected management units over time (collecting data annually in some and less frequently in others), but I don’t just collect the data and store it away. I dive into it to help me test assumptions. I’ve been able to see how individual species and overall species diversity respond to various management and weather patterns and feel confident that we’ve not lost any plant species from our prairies.

It’s tempting to look for an indicator species or two that you can track as a way to measure the overall health of the ecosystem. Prairie chickens, for example are often held up as a potential indicator species because they require a wide range of habitat types. I think that’s a trap. If you care about prairie chickens or other birds, by all means, pay attention to how they’re doing. But an abundance of prairie chickens or grasshopper sparrows doesn’t tell you anything about how sunflowers or leafhoppers are doing. If you want to measure habitat, measure habitat – and do some periodic checks to see if the species you’re expecting are responding appropriately. I’m not aware of any single species or group of species that is so tied to the rest of an ecological community that their abundance or breeding success will tell you how the rest of the community is doing.

Grassland birds are often proposed as indicators of prairie condition because each species has its own habitat requirement. However, while bird diversity is good to have, it doesn’t necessarily reflect how plant or invertebrate diversity is doing.

Don’t beat yourself up for not counting every flower, bird, or bee in your prairie each year, but don’t throw up your hands and give up either. Your top priority should be to have clear management objectives. Once you have those, make a list of ways you could measure success and see what seems feasible. It’s important to track your results in some way, but it doesn’t have to be overly time consuming to be helpful. Do what you can, learn from what others are doing, and keep looking for ways to improve your management.

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.

23 thoughts on “Let’s talk about (shudder) monitoring

  1. Why is monitoring important? Simply because people get really mad when they realize you have just wasted their time, hard work, and money. As a person who has volunteered for multiple public and private landowners for 15 years, I have seen my hard work come to nothing many times. I especially hate when groups have volunteers come out and cut buckthorn with hand tools then don’t come back and apply herbicide. In quality woodlands, when buckthorn is controlled, you often don’t need to monitor to see the difference. It is obvious. However, once buckthorn has dominated to a certain point recovery does not occur and you are effectively starting over from an ecosystem standpoint. This is particularly apparent where buckthorn has invaded into much more shade intolerant prairie. In the case where buckthorn has completely dominated, seeding becomes very important.

    I have seen people who “throw up their hands and turn back toward the invasive species they are fighting.” My city had contractors control buckthorn in a local woodland. They cut the buckthorn then came back and foliar sprayed during the growing season the following year. I went out and counted all the stems of wildflowers they damaged/killed with herbicide. It was a lot of stems. The director said the wildflowers would fill back into the locations that were sprayed. Two year later and the wildflowers are much thinner in the areas impacted by spraying than they were before it occurred.

    In a ruderal area adjacent to a prairie, I have been testing applying glyphosate to crown vetch to determine the minimum concentration I would need for effective control when hand wicking crown vetch in an actual prairie remnant. In the plot at the minimum concentration that proved effective, common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) grew the next year. In the adjacent plots where one or two percent more concentrated glyphosate was hand wicked, no Oenothera biennis appeared. The test plots were only a few square meters. The crown vetch has since creeped back into all the test plots. However, in the test plots where progressively higher concentrations of glyphosate had been hand wicked onto all the above ground parts of the crown vetch, the crown vetch that has reinvaded is progressively much thinner. Considering the impact that hand wicking glyphosate to crown vetch would have on existing high-quality prairie plants, I am starting to think the best thing I can do is not treat the crown vetch with herbicide at all.

    There is more to all this than whether you killed an invasive species or how many pounds of seed you have sown. If we don’t monitor, we won’t know whether all the work we are doing is making any positive difference.

    • How about instead cutting through the crown vetch root system with a spade?
      Obviously that’s hard work and is going to take years of repetition, but at least it won’t kill anything else.

      • I want to limit impacts to existing plants and soil disturbance in this prairie. My best remaining option is to repeatedly cut the crown vetch at ground level to exhaust it until it disappears. However, I would have to do this several times a year for many years to have a hope of eliminating crown vetch. I simply do not have the time to do it.

        • A good example of why limiting disturbance to existing native plants and soil is important are ant mounds. The ant mounds in this prairie are covered in pure stands of only crown vetch.

          • Have you tried a fall application of Milestone on crown vetch? We’ve had really great results.

          • No, I have not tried Milestone. I have seen the results of various people spraying Transline. It heavily impacts all the prairie forbs and then the crown vetch just comes back the following year.

            When you say you’ve had really great results, what impacts are you seeing on adjacent native plants? If you’ve applied enough herbicide to eliminate the crown vetch are existing prairie plants fewer and less vigorous then they were before treatment? Has the FQI in areas that were treated decreased? A test plot I did hand wicking glyphosate onto crown vetch became full of tall goldenrod which was not present previously. I can kill the crown vetch. However, that is not my goal. My goal is to preserve the native prairie plants. If getting rid of the crown vetch means I have to sacrifice prairie high quality forbs and turn the remnant into a grass pasture, then I’d rather just leave the crown vetch.

          • Milestone seems to be a lot less harsh than Transline on forbs. With careful backpack spraying in the fall over two seasons, we’ve seen solid control of crown vetch with a bit of thinning in restorations. I generally wouldn’t use it in a high quality remnant for fear of damage legumes. My long term monitoring program just started last year.

        • I agree that the best way to eliminate a problematic species is to just manually remove all of it at least once a year. But then it’s going to take years, yes. Even so, that’s what I would do.

          • If you manually remove the above ground portion of invasive perennial weeds only once a year you will never get rid of them. You have to completely remove the above ground portion of established invasive plants about four times during the course of the growing season for at least three to four years before you will have eliminated them. I have done this before. It is very time consuming and progress is made very slowly. I am currently doing this to a patch of Aegopodium podagraria in my garden. It was present when I bought my house. I want to get rid of it because it gives one of my kids blisters every time he brushes up against it. I tried hand wicking triclopyr on the A. podagraria before other things in the garden emerged in spring, but this did not work. Now I pull stems up whenever I see new ones have emerged. I am on the second year. After next year I should have eliminated it from my side of the fence. Although I will have to keep pulling it up as it creeps back in from my neighbor’s property.

          • As I understand it Aegopodium podagraria is one of the worst to get rid of.
            But at least you’re doing it the right way. There’s never any quick fixes.
            I really hate herbicides and pesticides. And artificial fertilizers should never be used, not even in a garden and of course never ever in a natural grassland or forest.

          • It is a rare week that goes by that I don’t apply herbicide. I don’t “like” using herbicide. When I paint glyphosate into cuts into bark, I end up salivating and spitting for a few hours. When I paint triclopyr ester on bark the smell of it gets in my nose and this is all I can smell for a few days. I started wearing a mask used for painting (P95) that absorbs nuisance organic vapors and this has helped. Despite all of this, the reason I use herbicide is I can kill a buckthorn in twenty seconds that would otherwise need sprouts removed four times a year for at least three years before it would finally die. If applied intelligently and with care, no observable damage will occur to adjacent vegetation.

            The problem occurs when people who are inexperience use techniques developed for maintaining road right of ways to do control work in natural areas. A lot of damage can be done very quickly with herbicide if people don’t know the consequences of using inappropriate techniques. There are a lot of really smart people who have read the literature that think they know what they are doing. If you tell them what the result will be, they won’t listen. They then go and do what they think is best and cause a lot of damage.

          • I understand that people want quick and easy fixes. But I believe that we need to stop killing everything with poisons. It just isn’t sustainable. Never was and never will.

          • What I do is neither quick nor easy. At this point it is not about sustainability, once invasive species have gotten to the point that they cannot be eliminated then it is more about stopping the bleed. Maybe even reversing the situation slowly. By using herbicide, we can save many times the amount of prairie/woodland etc. that would otherwise be lost without using herbicide. There are tradeoffs. If there was one invasive species in a large prairie you could spray it and not cause much damage overall. However, when a prairie is completely overrun with an invasive species what do you do at that point? If there are lots of seedling buckthorn in a prairie, and you know that if nothing is done within a few years the prairie will be gone, do you make a cut in the bark and paint the least impactful herbicide into this cut to kill these small buckthorn thereby prolonging the life of this prairie? After getting the small buckthorn out of this prairie, do you then control the larger buckthorn around the edges so the prairie can expand back into some of its former territory? The faster things can get done, the more that can be saved. However, if you are killing what you are trying to save then you have defeated the whole purpose.

          • Of course I see your points and that it’s not easy. And if it is possible to limit the application to just the invasive species, then that might be the most effective solution.
            Another way could be to concentrate on cutting down all of the bigger buckthorns so that they can’t set seed and spread.

    • The real kick in the groin was that when the contractor mentioned above foliar sprayed buckthorn damaging/killing thousands of woodland wildflower stems the buckthorn was not even killed. Not to mention the long-time volunteer who donated the money so this natural area could receive this work did it on his death bed so by the time the work had started it was not possible to have the terms for the work being done changed.

  2. Censusing doesn’t have to be that hard, especially for a prairie.

    If you don’t have one, get a moderately decent digital slr. $400 used is fine. Kit lens is fine.

    Now: take your land, and strike some number of lines across it. A “set” is a collection of lines that crosses each type of habitat you have. Could be as little as 1 line, if it crosses the hill and the bog and the flat on the other side. Probably about 3 lines per set. I have several kinds o woods, and it would take 5 lines to make a set.

    Whether you make multiple sets is up to you. This is more comprehensive, but will also take some more time.

    Now sometime in late April (for us) when the snow is all gone, you do a photo reconnaissance o your set. Take your gps, or your phone with a mapping program, and set up your survey set as a route.

    Go to the start point. Take a picture of the ground near your feet. Take one north, one east, one south, one west. Mark a way point on your navigator.

    Go 100 yards, or meters or Flemish els. (What’s an el? About 9 nails. ) Do another set. Mark a way point.

    While you are doing this, you are allowed to take interesting pictures if you see something special. A track, a new flower, a pretty bug. (Or ugly one too.)

    The 100m is a maximum. You should also add survey points at boundaries.

    In my case, with 80 acres, 5 survey lines is about 2.5 miles or about 4 km. The bushwhacking part is about 3 hours. The photography part about another 3. So a short day.

    There are scripts that will take your gps log and insert gps in to the correct metadata field of your images.

    Take a survey at major events. For me major events are :

    * Snow gone. This mostly gives you the skeleton of your land. Trees vs grass. Stream erosion. Pond levels. Animal skeletons.

    * Bud week. Catch the buds of your major trees just as they open, but beore they are full leaves. This one is good or tracking dead tree tops. You may want to add an extra round of pix at a 45 degree elevation.

    * Peak Dandelion. For us Dandelion and Marsh maribolds are usually at the same time. Most o the forest understory is sprouting (Here it’s very variable from year to year. Right now the wild raspberry and wild currants are having a turf war under the spruce/poplar transition forest.

    * Lungwort/False Soloman’s Seal.

    * Baneberry/Thistle.

    * First hard frost.

    * Fall — try to maximize the number of colours.

    * Late Fall: After hte leaves have fallen. This is another skeleton set of shots, but it also allows evaluation of the seed success of many grasses.

    * Winter. Mostly for completeness.

    During the winter, you have the fun of comparing views of different years at the same stage in the cycle. THIS is how you really learn to see oddities.

    Try it.

    * Snow is gone.

  3. Because plants and flowers are the basis for everything else in a prairie or grassland ecosystem, the question I would ask is if there are any species missing that historically should or could be there?

  4. I like your point about focusing on the ecosystem, not the individual species. If the ecosystem is doing well, chances are good that the individual species will be doing fine. I have mulled this concept over for awhile and think this can be generalized further into a concept I am calling “species favoritism”. Any time the needs of a given species are prioritized over the needs of other life that does (or can) coinhabit the area defines the practice of species favoritism. One can see this play out in agriculture (favoring the livestock or crop over everything else), in recreation (favoring the needs of the game species over everything else), and even the back yard (favoring the lawn over everything else). Some would argue that we have always done this, but that doesn’t make it right or sustainable, and I think we have progressed in our knowledge to understand that extreme species favoritism is unnecessary to support the our food products needs (think here about your work Chris in showing grazing and diverse prairie can coexist) and is detrimental to the ecosystem services our landscape provides.

  5. Besides, monitoring is the fun part of doing all this work. It is like getting a check after a long hard pay period.

  6. Pingback: What makes a good land manager? | The Prairie Ecologist

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