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.

Creating ‘Defining Moments’ in Nature

I took my son Daniel on a backpacking trip to Colorado last week. The biggest reason I wanted to do that was to carve out some serious one-on-one time with him, which worked out wonderfully. However, I also hoped to add to the list of ‘defining moments’ he’s had in nature. I’m pretty sure that was also accomplished.

Daniel hiking the Arapaho Glacier Trail in Colorado last week. After a couple days of backpacking in the trees, we both felt the need to get up in the wide open spaces of the alpine tundra.

I’m not sure if ‘defining moments’ is the exact term I’m looking for here, but what I’m talking about are those events that become significant and permanent positive memories for us. The ones brought up at family gatherings or mentioned during a discussion with friends about significant life experiences. Everyone has those memories; winning a big game, our first kiss, or the first day at a new school or job site.

From a conservation standpoint, we need people to have ‘defining moments’ that include positive experiences with nature – visceral memories that will pop up in their minds when the topic of conservation arises. When they see a news story about prairies being plowed up at record rates, we need people to remember finding a nest of adorable meadowlark chicks or seeing the incredible and wonderful diversity of invertebrates emerging from a sweep net as a naturalist pointed out particularly interesting individuals.

I’m confident my kids have had plenty of those defining moments. They’ve had enough days at work with me or family trips in nature to ensure a conservation ethic is embedded within their brains. I feel great about that, and any additional experiences now are purely icing on that cake.

However, not everyone has ecologists for parents. Not everyone takes regular family vacations in national parks or even gets the chance to hike through a prairie or woodland in the county they live in. In fact, some people haven’t ever had a positive experience with anything they would consider ‘nature’. That’s a huge problem.

There are lots of ways to get people to care about conservation, including (I hope!) deluging them with pretty photos of birds, flowers, and butterflies, accompanied by fascinating stories about the lives of those organisms. Sharing facts about the importance of nature to the everyday lives of humans is good too, including the ways in which healthy ecosystems provide clean air and water, as well as food and other vital resources we need. However, there’s no substitute for personal experience. A ‘defining moment’ that evokes joy, wonder, and pleasure when it’s remembered later might be the most powerful way there is to create a conservation advocate.

Back in June, I helped with an outdoor program for high schoolers hosted by Prairie Plains Resource Institute, an organization that has provided defining moments in nature for countless kids. Here, we’re hiking through PPRI’s Gjerloff Prairie.

My conviction about the importance of defining moments in nature is why I almost never say no to opportunities to lead tours or otherwise interact with people – especially kids – in prairies or other natural settings. It can be hard to quantify the return on my time investment, of course, but I firmly believe in the value of helping people have positive and memorable experiences in nature. If I have to do that 3-5 kids at a time, so be it. However, it’s nice to know countless others are working on this same effort.

During college, I worked as a teacher/naturalist at a local nature center, and regularly led groups of kids and adults on discovery hikes along the center’s trails. We did other programming too, but most of my favorite memories come from hikes for which the main objective was to simply explore and discover – and my role was to facilitate that and help interpret what the hikers found.

Sweep nets are powerful tools of exploration in prairies. The abundance of invertebrates captured and revealed through sweep netting never fails to amaze young people.

I’d love to know what memories stuck in the minds of the kids I interacted with back then. Do they still remember watching a spider wrap up a grasshopper in its web? Do they remember seeing the leaves of sensitive briar fold up when they touched them? Can they still hear the sounds of birds, bees, katydids, and countless other creatures that surrounded us while we closed our eyes and tried to just listen deeply?

Since those days at the nature center, my opportunities to help kids and adults create defining moments have been much more sporadic, but I still see them as a key part of my conservation career. When I lead tours or workshops on plant identification or prairie management, I will always stop to admire and rhapsodize about a toad, spider, grasshopper, or anything else we come across that I think might be of interest to my audience. I never know what might lodge in someone’s brain and become one of the ‘defining moments’ that turns them into a conservation advocate.

2021 Butterfly Day

Last week, the Fellows and I helped with an annual butterfly count at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Since 1985, Neil Dankert has been coming up to the Preserve around July 4 each year to conduct a butterfly survey. As a result, we have a great species list for the site, but also some indications of which species are more or less abundant/present nowadays than in the past.

A coral hairstreak rests on a log for a few moments after being released from a ziplock bag.

In addition to these once a year counts, Neil and former University of Nebraska-Kearney professor, Hal Nagel, conducted an intensive two year survey (including multiple visits per year) in the mid 1980’s. The pandemic interrupted an effort to repeat that two year survey effort and learn more about potential changes in the butterfly populations, but we hope to restart that effort. During Neil’s once-a-year counts, some species haven’t been found for quite a few years, but it’s possible they’ve just adjusted their schedule to come out earlier or later than his annual visits. Looking across the entire season and multiple years will help us better understand what’s actually changed.

Hubbard Fellows Kate and Sarah explore a riparian meadow along the Niobrara River.

In the meantime, Neil’s annual counts continue to give us valuable data. Maybe just as importantly, they are also a chance for him to pass on his incredible knowledge to others. This year, those others included our Hubbard Fellows, Kate and Sarah, as well as a few other volunteers. We visited the spots Neil goes to each year and counted everything we found – catching anything we couldn’t identify with certainty. We’d transfer the unknown butterflies from net to ziplock bag and then hand them to Neil for identification before releasing them again.

A two-spotted skipper. This is an at-risk species in Nebraska tied to wet meadows and similar habitats. We found the species in two different locations.
Jonathan Nikkila holds a caught-and-released Gorgone Checkerspot butterfly.
Here’s the same Gorgone Checkerspot Jonathan was holding, with our sampling crew in the background.

Hanging around with an absolute expert in their field is always fascinating and inspiring. I’m an ecologist with a lot of years of experience, but my knowledge is pretty shallow in many areas. I can identify most of the common butterflies, for example, but when it comes to skippers (the shorebirds of butterflies) or other tricky groups, I need Neil to point out why the pattern of spots on one fuzzy brown butterfly is different from the pattern on another one. We found 11 different skipper species and many of them looked awfully similar to each other.

Even more impressive is listening to Neil describe what species are going to be at each of the sites we visit and where we’ll find them. Our group was split into smaller pieces and I got to walk with Neil and his wife Jennifer at our first stop. We hiked the public trail and Neil pointed to a grove of oak trees surrounded by some smooth sumac in bloom. “We’ll find banded hairstreaks in those oaks”, he said. Sure enough, on both the oaks and surrounding sumac plants, we found several of the intricately-patterned little critters. The same thing happened later with other species in other habitats, including Acadian hairstreaks, two-spotted skippers, dun skippers, and others. We didn’t find any ottoe skippers or silver-bordered fritillaries in their respective spots this year, but that might have been timing or just bad luck – he’s found them in recent years.

Regal fritillaries were pretty common, though not nearly as abundant as great spangled fritillaries, which we had to count by the tens in some places.

By the end of the day, we’d found at least 37 different butterfly species. Great spangled fritillaries were the most abundant of the day, followed by little wood satyrs. Also common, but less showy than the great spangled fritillary, was the long dash skipper – a species I would not have identified without Neil’s help. Other species that were new to me, or just highlights because of their usual scarcity, were the Delaware skipper, two-spotted skipper, northern broken-dash, little glassywing, and coral hairstreak.

This kind of annual survey is a really important way to track what’s happening with a group of organisms. Combining these annual counts (to get a broad pattern) with some more intensive season-long surveys should help us better understand how populations might be responding to landscape changes, climate change, and other factors. A place like the Niobrara Valley Preserve is in a landscape that has seen changes, but less dramatically so than many others. If we pick up big shifts in butterfly populations there, it could have particularly important implications. Stay tuned – I’ll let you know what we learn.

I went back to one of the wetland sites in the evening and found this monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.
We saw lots of monarch butterflies during the count. This one was actually photographed the following morning at sunrise.