Prairie Referees?

As grassland stewards, our greatest challenge is to maintain the ecological resilience of prairies so they can adapt to and survive a changing world.  That resilience relies heavily upon biological diversity because high numbers of species helps ensure that important roles are filled, no matter what stressors are affecting the prairie.

Unfortunately, managing land for biological diversity is hard.  Of course it is – the natural world is incredibly complex and dynamic.  None of us has the capacity to become familiar with all the species that live at a single site, let alone how they interact with each other.  How can we be expected to make land management decisions that take care of the needs of all those species and their interconnected communities?

Gjerloff Prairie is a diverse loess hills prairie along the Platte River in Hamilton County, Nebraska. Owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute, it thrives under a varied management regime that includes both fire and grazing.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I look at it:  All the species in a prairie are competing with others for space and resources.  Our job is to manage the game such that ensures nobody always wins and nobody always loses.  If we can do that, all those species should be able to persist and keep contributing to the resilience of the prairie.

When my kids were 7 or 8 years old, they started playing soccer in our town’s recreational program and I volunteered to be a coach.  At that age level, coaches also acted as referees during games, chasing clusters of kids around the field and encouraging them – while also teaching and enforcing rules.  By mutual, unspoken consent, the two ‘opposing’ coach/referees also worked to make sure that no team or player was able to dominate the game.  After all, the goal was to make sure all the kids were having fun and were excited to keep playing.

In many ways, that coach/referee role at soccer games was the same role I was playing as a prairie land steward.  At the soccer field, I substituted players on and off the field or shifted them from offense to defense (not that there was much distinction at that age).  I wanted the strong players to score and enjoy themselves, but I didn’t want them to hog the ball so much other players got bored or frustrated.  In the prairie, I was using fire, grazing, mowing, and herbicides to manage plant competition and prevent any species from dominating too much.  I was also trying to create a broad variety of habitat conditions around the prairie so animals could find the resources they needed to compete at their best.

As I’ve learned more about prairie species and ecology, I’ve also improved my ability to recognize and manage competition among ‘players’ in the prairie.  The more plant species I’ve learned to identify, the better I’ve gotten at evaluating their responses to each other and to various management actions.  I’ve also become more familiar with animals beyond birds and other common vertebrates.  As that’s happened, I’ve started to see prairies through the eyes of bees, spiders, grasshoppers, and other creatures.  Improving my understanding of their needs and abilities has made me better at providing what they need to be most successful.

I’m still learning about Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and trying to understand how it plays with others in our local prairies but it doesn’t appear to tolerate being heavy defoliated. While cows don’t ordinarily like it much, they’ll graze it when we manage with patch-burn grazing or similar shifting-mosaic approaches. Over the years, goldenrod seems to become much less dominant under that management.
There are lots of different grasshopper species (well over 100 in Nebraska) and they differ widely in diet and habitat preferences. However, large patches of bare or sparsely vegetated ground can attract abundant grasshoppers, which (in addition to being important and fascinating creatures) are vital food sources for birds and many other animals.

Every land steward manages competition, even if they’re trying to optimize production of one thing (e.g., corn, grass, pheasants, or rare plants).  In that case, though, instead of working to balance competition and keep as many players on the field as they can, they’re playing favorites.  There can be good reasons to do that, but it can also be dangerous if unbalanced competition starts to reduce the diversity and resilience (and thus the consistent productivity and function) of the system supporting that favorite species or group. 

Big bluestem can form dense near-monoculture stands after fire in our local prairies. Grazing after fire can counter that response, however, and encourage strong plant diversity.
Each of the wildflowers and grasses in this prairie respond somewhat differently to fire and grazing management, but an approach that varies management pressure and timing from year to year can help keep all them around (along with a vast network of large and small animals that depend upon each species).

Regardless of management objectives, the more you know about the players in the game, the better manager you’ll be.  If you can’t tell one species from another, you won’t be able to see how the composition of a community changes over time.  If you can’t detect change, you can’t evaluate the impacts of your management decisions.  Once you recognize a species, you can also start to watch what it does, how it interacts with its surroundings, and how its population fares as conditions shift.

Grassland birds like this western meadowlark have fairly well defined habitat needs, but it’s important to think beyond birds, whose presence and abundance is largely determined by prairie size and vegetation structure.
This moth was feeding on – and potentially pollinating – a milkweed flower when this crab spider captured it. Learning about these kinds of complex interactions between species helps managers make better decisions.

None of us will ever become familiar with identities and lives of all the species that live in our sites, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn as much as we can.  Take the time to go to workshops and hang around with people who know what you don’t.  Spend some time wandering the sites you manage instead of just traveling across them to accomplish specific tasks.  Yes, you’re busy; I don’t know any land steward who thinks they have enough time to do everything that’s needed.  Find time anyway.  It matters.

Finally, whether you’re fairly new to land management or an old salt, don’t let incomplete knowledge paralyze you from taking action.  Do your best to balance competition as you understand it and pay close attention to the results.  If you notice any players consistently getting the upper hand, adjust your strategies accordingly.  It’s a long game; we just have to keep as many players in it as we can.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Prairie Referees?

  1. Wise words here…thank you!

    Cindy Lueth Resource Specialist, SR| NW Region Parks and Trails Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 3296 State Park Rd NE Bemidji, MN, 56601 Email: Cindy.A.Lueth@state.mn.us mndnr.gov [Title: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources – Description: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources] [Facebook logo][Twitter logo][Email Subscription Icon]

  2. Well said in the end – “It’s a long game; we just have to keep as many players in it as we can.” I see this in our own small remnant/restoration…it is never ending! Thank you for your insight!

  3. Breathtaking analogy. Sharing this too…I live in a place were sunny “prairies” are not considered to have been a substantial part of the ecology and thus the sunny native plants are seen as “invasive” when they are not…they simply evolved where they had to produce a LOT of offspring of long-lived seeds that are attractive to birds and other animals such as ants to “get lucky” and land in a sunny (disturbed) spot. Humans came along and made LOTS of drained sunny habitat…and forestry pests are making permanent changes allowing more light…but we have introduced plants from parts of the world where the same mechanisms are at play, and as such I cannot find an unaltered prairie/meadow. While I cannot close this Pandora’s Box of hundreds of introduced living plants and animals, managing for balance with the few tools available to us is the best I can do. When you write this way, I don’t feel alone in the effort. Thank you!

  4. Are you aware of a Rocky Mountain ecologist I may follow or engage to learn at this level about our Colorado steppe ecosystems? I am geeking out! As a landscape designer focused on a restoration approach, preparing to launch a native plants nursery specializing in dryland grasses and forbes unavailable, otherwise, driven by my own project needs, recognizing others need them, too. Starting from seed on the land consumes a looooot of water…..

  5. For grasses, Wood Betony and dodder help and it has been reported that Mountain Mint seems to be detrimental to grasses too.

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