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.

What Does Habitat Look Like on a Ranch?

I’ve had several recent conversations with people who were surprised to learn that rangelands (native grasslands grazed by livestock) are prairies. I guess they just assumed that only grasslands that sit idle count as natural areas. In reality, of course, the vast majority of North American prairies are grazed by livestock. It’s the biggest reason those prairies still exist – they produce enough income to justify their existence.

Konza Prairie, in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where livestock grazing is helping to create patchy wildlife habitat while sustaining plant diversity. In this photo, ungrazed leadplant and purple prairie clover are surrounded by short-cropped grasses.

While some are overgrazed, most rangelands support a strong diversity of plants and wildlife. As a group, ranchers tend to be conservative in their grazing of prairies – after all, their livelihood depend upon healthy grasslands. Most ranchers also have families they hope to pass the ranch on to. Above all, the ranchers I know take their responsibilities as stewards of the land very seriously. To most, it is a kind of calling.

In my experience, however, while ranchers care deeply about providing habitat on their ranches, many have an incomplete knowledge of what that really means. That’s hardly surprising, since the advice they get on the subject is often varied, conflicting, and continually evolving. (“Plant trees! Wait, no…Kill Trees!”)

Briefly, just to clear up the plant/kill tree topic… In almost all cases, wildlife that lives on ranches is not being limited by a lack of trees. Patches of shrubs can be helpful in places, but don’t usually need to be planted – just allowed to exist. Most wildlife on ranches depend most upon large expanses of open grassland. Trees in prairies tend to cause more problems than they solve (increased predation rates, avoidance by ground nesting birds, and a place where invasive plants get a foothold, etc.) But I digress…

On the subject of wildlife habitat, the most common perspective I hear from ranchers goes something like this: “I moved the cows out of that pasture a little early to leave some habitat out there.” Leaving extra grass out there certainly does create good habitat for some wildlife species, but sustaining a diverse community of animals means providing a wide variety of habitat types. Maintaining plant diversity, which builds resilience and productivity, also requires thoughtful management treatments.

Northern bobwhite, along with ring-necked pheasants and various grouse species, are examples of wildlife that need multiple habitat types, including short vegetation, tall vegetation, and a mixture of short grass and tall forbs (broadleaf plants). Many ranches tend to provide a limited range of those habitat patch types.

There is no particular grazing strategy or approach that best balances habitat and livestock productivity on all ranches. Every ranch has its own unique mixture of soils, topography, rainfall, infrastructure, labor availability, and other factors. Ranchers tend to do a great job of shaping a ranch management plan that meets their individual situation. Because of that, what I think ecologists like me can do to be useful is to simply help build ranchers’ understanding of what habitat can look like. Then those ranchers can figure out ways to tweak what they’re doing to improve habitat – in ways that fit their unique situation.

Accordingly, I’ve put together some guidance I hope will be helpful to ranchers (and other land managers). It is in two forms, a downloadable PDF and a web page attached to this blog (tab at the top of the page). I tried to keep the information pretty general and applicable to most ranches across the Great Plains of North America, but the principles should really work just about anywhere. I also included lots of photos to help illustrate all the varied types of wildlife habitat found in prairies.

The selectivity of cattle as they graze gives ranchers and land managers tremendous flexibility in how they can create habitat structure by varying stocking rate, timing, and duration of grazing .

I’d very much welcome feedback from ranchers, as well as from other ecologists and anyone else, on how to improve this information and make it as useful as possible.

Link to the PDF: https://theprairieecologist.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/ranchingforwildlife-1.pdf

Link to the Website: https://prairieecologist.com/ranch-management-for-wildlife/

Photos of the Week – November 8, 2019

Back in September of this year, I had a magical morning in the prairie across town, along Lincoln Creek. I posted some photos from that morning in a post on September 20, but those represented just a small fraction of that morning’s crop of images. Here are a few more – various photographs of two dragonflies that were trapped in the morning dew as the sun rose. Insects stuck in dew are great because I can take as much time as I need to explore compositions without worrying about them flying away (most of the time).

The first dragonfly I spotted that morning was this gorgeous red one – its color matched the stiff sunflower it was perched on!. Here is the typical ‘bejeweled dragonfly’ shot of that individual. It’s a nice square view of the insect, with the camera perpendicular to the wings to make sure everything is in focus. Very nice. (Ho hum)
Since the dragonfly wasn’t going anywhere, I took the time to try some different angles. Here’s my favorite of those.
Here is a meadowhawk that was perched about 10 yards away from the first dragonfly. This side view close-up is one of the most frequent compositions I use with dragonflies. It’s just fine, but I’ve done it SOOO many times before…
Here is the same dragonfly from the front. I like this a little better because it’s a more personal shot. If it looks familiar, that be because it’s only slightly different in composition from an image of the same dragonfly I included in the ‘Dragonfly Game’ post earlier this week.
For this photo, I swung around so the light from the rising sun was passing through the dragonfly’s wings. I don’t mind the glare spots in the background – I think it just adds interest to the image.
I think this is my favorite dragonfly shot from the day. I took quite a few photos from this angle to make sure I got one I liked. I ended up with way too many that I liked, each with the sun in a very slightly different position. That made for a lot of difficult decisions about which to keep, but as of today, this is my favorite.