Olivia and the Whistle-Pig

This post was written and illustrated by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia is an excellent scientist and land manager, as well as a great writer.  In this post, she shares a recent experience with, and some interesting trivia about, a cute furry animal.

We had a visitor in the front yard the other day, which gave me a great opportunity to take some pictures of a mammal I don’t often get to see. This woodchuck (Marmota monax) has been spotted around our crew quarters here on the Platte River Prairies for a few weeks now, and appears to have taken up residence in our wood pile. I finally managed to spend some time watching it from the safety of the living room while it foraged in the yard for dandelion leaves.

I was so excited to see this woodchuck come so close, so I could see the details, from its little ears to the frosted tips of its fur. But while they may look cuddly, woodchucks are known for being pretty feisty and aggressive.

I haven’t had many experiences with woodchucks, also called groundhogs and whistle-pigs. (As an aside, I didn’t realize they were one in the same until I was in college. I have a friend Jessica, who’s probably reading this, who was there when I made the connection and exclaimed “Wait? You’re saying how much wood would a woodchuck chuck and Groundhog Day are the same thing?!”, and likes to bring it up whenever she can.) In fact, I’ve probably seen more yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), a close cousin to woodchucks, while travelling in the Rocky Mountains than our local woodchucks. I remember hearing a few whistling while walking in the woods around my hometown in Iowa, but other than that, this may be the first one I’ve ever seen, especially this close!

One of the yellow- bellied marmots I saw and photographed while in Colorado in August. They look superficially similar to woodchucks, but their ranges don’t overlap, so there’s little risk of mistaking one for the other.

Unfortunately, the other experience I have with these mammals, and one that I’m sure many readers also share, is of their digging habits. My parents recently had one removed from their backyard because it was busy burrowing under their garage. Apparently they are also pests in gardens, which doesn’t surprise me since I watched the one in our yard munching happily away on dandelions for several minutes. I’m inclined to find ways to cohabitate peacefully with native animals that sometimes cause problems or destruction to human structures, and a quick Google search turned up a lot of advice on how to discourage woodchucks from taking up residence around your home or eating your gardens. But I’m not going to talk any more about that (though like many perceived “pest” species, the destruction they cause is likely inflated), because I think this woodchuck is adorable, and I was inspired to look up more information about them!

So here’s an informal list of some fun facts I dug up:

  1. The name does not actually refer to woodchucks chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
  2. Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
  3. They are really big squirrels! (Family Sciuridae)
  4. Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
  5. They can climb trees and swim
  6. They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving on stored fat instead of making food caches
  7. Their dens often provide homes for other animals like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
  8. Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
  9. The origins of Groundhog Day began in 1886, when an editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper wrote that the local groundhogs hadn’t seen their shadows, and therefore spring would be early
  10. Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during hibernation!
  11. And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
  12. They have a top speed of 8 mph
  13. They are for the most part solitary, with males only hanging out with females during the breeding season and females taking care of their young
  14. They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
I love the black paws and legs of this woodchuck. It looks like she’s wearing gloves!
I could have watched this adorable creature waddling around the yard eating dandelions all day.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Work Pants

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Alex has a great aptitude and personality for environmental law and policy work, but not to the detriment of his outdoor work ethic – as you’ll see here.  Also – Stay tuned for an announcement very soon about the application period for the next round of our Fellowship.

After graduating college with a degree in political science, I was convinced I was going to dive headfirst into a cubicle. There was something very exciting about it. I would have my own desk, the ability to throw on a sweater because the A/C is just a bit too chilly, and maybe, if I’m lucky, two monitors on my computer. This image was so idyllic because most of my work experience includes me being knee-high in mud (and probably not mud, if we are being honest), saturated in sweat, and consistently covered in perma-dirt, no matter how fancy I get with my laundry.

I was convinced I would have that dream cubicle. I wanted to, and still want to, pursue environmental law in some capacity: paralegal, administrative assistant, research, etc. Despite having plenty of outdoors jobs, I’ve had my fair share of indoor positions, slowly building a collection of slacks, khakis, corduroys, and dress pants for the day that I finally get my name on a desk. However, that collection will have to keep gathering dust, because my favorite pants are my workpants.

They are khaki canvas Dickies, with the classic red patch on the right butt cheek. They are size 32×32, but depending on the day, they would ideally be about two inches snugger and two inches longer. I’ve had them for four years. They were originally intended for my dad, but I intercepted them as they were my size.

Are these pants freshly laundered or have I worked in them for three weeks? You can never really tell by just looking at them.

Workpants are the physical manifestation of how much it takes to keep ecosystems in their desired condition. Without a little elbow grease, most of our prairies would be thickets of Siberian elm, a sea of musk thistles, or thatch dense enough you’d have to Bear Grylls your way out. Growing up, I marveled at how beautiful landscapes could regulate themselves without any intervention. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It takes folks out in the field every day of the week, not just when it is convenient, but when it’s raining, windy, hot, cold, summer, or winter. It is by no means glamorous work, but it’s rewarding, beautifully messy work. My pants have borne the brunt of that labor, from mud to paint. Every spot, snag, hole, wrinkle, or stain has a story.

In the last seven months, I have conducted a very scientific study regarding the reasons I have washed my workpants. Although the research is ongoing, I have some results that I think are notable for this audience. One might ask, “are most scientific studies done in colored pencil and marker?” The answer is that although it may seem archaic, I assure you it is still very scientific.

Life-long scientific research. Still trying to get it published in Workpants Quarterly.

Some of the preliminary findings are that there has been a lot of poison ivy this year and that I’ve done a lot of chainsaw work, as shown by the lingering smell of two-stroke exhaust. After looking at the raw data and punching some numbers, I found that there is a clear correlation between my pants not fitting and how long I have been chainsawing. On occasion, after I take off my chaps, one may think that I’m wearing a second pair of chaps underneath my chaps, however, that is merely the outline of my sweat from where the chaps were once occupying.

This is the Achilles’ heel of any good pair of pants, the classic backpocket wallet hole. I prefer the hole in my backpocket to be somewhere in between “that’ll be fine” and “I think I lost my wallet in the prairie.
Once upon a time, these pants used to be more of an orange-khaki color, as shown by the color under the cuff. Over the years they’ve been sunbleached and built up a good patina. They get better with time, like a fine wine.
Permadirt and blue stains. Really it’s a match made in heaven.

Although it made a small appearance in the above data, breaking through the ice was one of my favorite experiences. In February, I and the other field staff were preparing for crane season, and one of the objectives was to remove cattails to make a clear view of the roosting cranes on the river. The river was still frozen at this time, but I was still wary of the thickness of ice. From the bank of the river, I removed all the cattails that I could reach. However, there were still cattails out further that were blocking the view of the river from the blind. Thinking of the cranes, I braved the ice. As I reached the outer edge of the cattails, I knew my goose was cooked. I plunged two feet down into the brisk water and got stuck in the muck, the murky water flowing into my boots. Within an instant, the stale winter air became rank with pungent, marinating muck that had not been disturbed for months. The damage was done, my Muck Boots were filled with literal muck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. To my demise, I finished the job, removing the cattails. To exit the icy water, I laid the weedwhacker on ice near the bank and beached-whaled myself out of the mucky water. Like I said, it’s not glamorous work, but it’s rewarding. The science is still ongoing, but if you’d like to contribute to my (very scientific) research, I’d be curious if you have any good stories about your trusty workpants!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Bittersweet Relationship With Trees

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Conservation Fellows.  Alex hails from right here in Aurora, Nebraska.  He has worked both in the policy arena and deep in the wilderness, and so brings a broad perspective to his thinking about conservation.  You’ll hear much more from him during the coming year.

I must come clean before diving into this article: I love trees. Trees are one of my favorite things in the world. From the towering conifers of the Pacific Northwest to the vast overwhelming deciduous canopy in the Shenandoah Valley. So long as I have two boots on my feet and passion in my heart, I will always love trees. Out of all trees, I especially love (brace yourself, fellow prairie-folk) the eastern redcedar.

Rough profile of my new Siberian elm canoe paddle, adjacent to the retired Western redcedar paddle. Photo by Alex Brechbill

I love cedars, largely because of the time I spent up North, in Minnesota, on the water. The first canoeing paddle I carved was from a slab of western redcedar. I cut the profile with a bandsaw and spoke-shaved the shaft, throat, and blade, leaving the finesse of the handle to fine grit sandpaper. Walking into the woodshop, the pungent aroma of cedar fills the air. As someone who enjoys woodworking, there are few things as visually appealing as the aesthetic of a golden, polished cedar-strip canoe. At times I’m a little embarrassed at how much time I spend ogling canoes on the Internet. From the bow to the stern, they are charming and iconic. While camping, I spent hours sitting by the warmth of glowing hot firepit, from freshly split cedar. Even on a soaking wet, bitter-cold day, cedar will burn well. There is a reason that the cedar was known as the tree of life.

Redcedar invokes all five senses; from smelling it to feeling the warmth of a fire. However, seeing thickets of trees, cedar or otherwise, on the prairie is jarring. A majority of the land stewardship time I have spent so far in the fellowship has been dedicated to removing woody invasive plants: Eastern redcedar, Siberian elm, mulberry, and several others. Cutting down trees is bittersweet. I have an immense respect for trees as organisms, and each time I cut one down I have to remember why I am cutting it down: we will lose our prairies if we don’t do anything about encroaching woodlands.

Encroaching trees limit the ability of some plants to establish themselves, and they will choke other plants out. Trees decrease the amount of forage that can be produced on a prairie for grazing. I could go on, but the bottom line is that trees can be harmful to prairies. On the other hand, there are certainly places for them. Along stream banks, as shade trees, and in shelterbelts, trees can be very helpful for people and livestock. I love both trees and prairies, but not when they form a Venn-diagram.

Black walnut spatula and serving spoon next to a pile of woodchips and a hooked knife. Photo by Alex Brechbill

Not only do we improve the quality of our prairies by removing invasive trees, we can also glean valuable products from their wood. Firewood is the first product that comes to mind. Sitting next to my fireplace on a cool night is one of my favorite ways to end the day, relaxing in the dry heat of the seasoned firewood. Milling logs into dimensional lumber is another great way to utilize problem trees. Sawing dimensional lumber is like breaking open a geode, the rugged exterior concealing a center of splendor. The freshly exposed grain of the wood is captivating, and it’s easy to get lost in the curvilinear waves flowing through the heartwood and sapwood. Currently, I am carving a flatwater canoeing paddle out of a milled slab of Siberian elm, another problem tree that we spend hours removing. I spend my evenings whittling black walnut, with its gorgeous dark heartwood, and cottonwood, which cuts like butter under the bevel of freshly honed edge.

A redcedar slab that is destined to be an end table. Photo by Alex Brechbill

For utility and beauty, trees give us a lot, whether they are the subject of a photo or some shade for a picnic. Unfortunately, as much as they give us, they can take a lot away from us, and if that means taking away our prairies, I better sharpen my saw and get back to work.

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Mixed-Up Flickers

This post is written by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Conservation Fellows.  Olivia hails from Pella, Iowa, and has strong experience in prairie ecology.  Look for more posts from her, as well as our other Fellow, Alex Brechbill, in coming months.

One of my favorite things about the change from winter to spring is the return of migratory birds. While the rest of spring has been reluctant to arrive, I am still reminded of the inevitable change in season as more and more birds arrive in the area. What started with sandhill cranes back in February just continues as killdeer, turkey vultures, and swallows, among others, seem to appear overnight when a favorable wind blows from the south.

Among the new arrivals are northern flickers, a woodpecker that despite its name, tends to feed on the ground. This migratory bird arrived here on the Platte River quite suddenly over Easter weekend, and they’ve been everywhere ever since! While common across North America, if you’ve spent any time travelling and recognize this bird, you may have noticed something interesting: birds in the eastern half of the continent are not the same color as those in the west.

In fact, there are two color variants of northern flickers. Eastern birds are called yellow-shafted flickers, and those in the west are red-shafted. The ‘yellow/red-shafted’ designation refers to the unusual coloration on the shafts of the wing and tail feathers of this bird. Where most birds’ feathers either have white, brown, or black shafts, northern flickers’ are bright yellow or salmon-red, depending on the variant. The undersides of these feathers also display the same color, resulting in bright flashes of color when the birds fly, turning a somewhat drab bird into something spectacular.

There are some other differences between the eastern and western variants. Yellow-shafted birds have a red crescent on the nape of their neck, and while all males have a ‘mustache’ patch of feathers extending down their cheek, it is black in yellow-shafted males, and red in red-shafted males. These differences are so clear, that for many years the two variants were considered different species.

This red-shafted flicker displays the red mustache sported by the males of this species.  Photo by Chris Helzer
In contrast, yellow-shafted northern flickers have a red crescent at the nape of their neck, and the male’s mustache is black. All flickers have a bold black crescent across their chest. Photo by Olivia Schouten
Though overall drab in appearance, northern flickers flash bright yellow or red when in flight. This yellow-shafted male followed around the female at the left of the photo for several minutes. Notice the female is missing the mustache of the males. Photo by Olivia Schouten

However, what complicated that classification was the presence of hybrids of the two variants in a large zone stretching from Texas to Alaska, cutting right through the heart of the Great Plains, including central Nebraska. These hybrids, called intergrades, display combinations of facial traits found in the red- and yellow-shafted variants. In my home state of Iowa all you will see are yellow-shafted flickers. However, here in Nebraska I see flickers with their wings flashing everything from yellow to dark salmon red, and all colors in between.

Though I couldn’t get a clear picture of this bird in flight, it is still clear that the wings of this bird grade from yellow to orange. While the facial markings of this flicker suggest it is a yellow-shafted variant, the coloration of the wings point to it being an intergrade, the result of the hybridization of a yellow-shafted and red-shafted variant. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Now considered one species, northern flickers are just one example of a common trend seen among North American birds. If you flip through a bird field guide and study the range maps, you will often find pairs of similar species where one occurs in the east, and one in the west, with the transition between the two occurring right down the middle of the continent. Eastern screech-owls and western screech-owls, ruby-throated hummingbirds and black-chinned hummingbirds, eastern and western wood-pewees, eastern and western meadowlarks, vireos, bluebirds, warblers, and on and on and on, you can’t escape the pattern. For many, it’s as if there was an invisible wall through Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, and upward keeping these species from spreading any further.

Clearly, something is going on in the middle of the continent when it comes to birds, and this hybridization sometimes makes it difficult for ornithologists to determine where species begin and end, or whether they should even be considered different species at all. One of the leading hypotheses is that climactic changes during past ice ages created unsuitable habitat in the center of the continent that separated previously connected populations. Time allowed for the divergence of these now separate populations, and when they reconnected as the ice retreated, enough differences had accumulated that they were no longer the same species.

Of course, this divergence was carried to varying degrees of completion depending on the bird. While some of these species pairs, like flickers, hybridize quite readily, and in fact never quite diverged enough to be different species at all, others, such as meadowlarks, while nearly identical in appearance, developed different enough songs that their separation was maintained.

So pay attention to the flickers around you here in Nebraska and elsewhere along the hybrid zone, and see if you have can spot the different variants!

Though I’m not entirely sure what is happening in this photo, I believe the male flicker here was displaying its tail to the female in some sort of courtship behavior. Whatever it was doing, it made for a nice demonstration of the brightly colored feathers tucked away by this otherwise unassuming bird. Photo by Olivia Schouten

2018 Hubbard Fellows

It’s well past time for me to provide an introduction to our latest class of Hubbard Fellows.  Alex Brechbill and Olivia Schouten are spending a year of their lives working with us here in Nebraska, helping us with all aspects of our conservation work.  At the same time, we are trying to give them the most well-rounded experience possible and prepare them for their future conservation careers.  This is the 5th class of Hubbard Fellows we’ve had now, and definitely the most local.  Olivia hails from Pella, Iowa and Alex is from right here in Aurora, Nebraska.  I could tell you lots more about them, but I’ll let them do it in their own words below.  Stay tuned for future blog posts by both Fellows throughout this year.

Olivia Schouten, Chris Helzer, Alex Brechbill.

Olivia –

I am a Midwesterner born and raised, growing up in Iowa among seemingly endless cornfields. Though there isn’t a lot of public land in the state, I was lucky enough to not only grow up near Lake Red Rock, one of the larger public recreation areas in the state, but to have parents that took their children on week-long camping vacations every year to our country’s amazing state and national parks. These trips gave me a love of the outdoors and our wilderness areas, those places where human’s touch was minimal and the plants and animals living in these places could do so in relative peace.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t think that Iowa could offer the same sense of wildness as our parks out west. There were just too many humans, and our impact was too great. That perception changed in high school, however, when I realized that just down the road from my hometown was one of the most ambitious conservation projects in Iowa; Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a massive prairie restoration just 20 minutes from downtown Des Moines. I walked into this refuge as a high school student and left with my eyes opened to what wild places could look like in the Midwest, with dreams of vast grasslands once covering the entirety of the American heartland. My love of prairies and conservation began then, and never left. Though I have broad interests, ranging from art to astronomy, ultimately I decided that I wanted a chance to work on the landscape that I love, and do what I could to make sure our Midwestern ecosystems persist in the future.

My experience is rooted firmly in research, starting with my time at Central College working for my B.A. degrees in biology and anthropology. I had the opportunity to work with a professor researching the ecosystem services provided by diverse plantings of prairie species, where I learned about the potential there is in the prairie states to incorporate our native habitats into out altered landscape. After leaving Central, I worked in South Dakota and Iowa collecting data on plant and animal communities, and in January of 2015 I started attending Wichita State University in Kansas as a master’s student, studying the processes influencing the development of prairie plant communities.

Now I find myself in Nebraska, the fourth state I’ve had the opportunity to work on prairies in. I love prairies in all of their forms, and I’m excited to see what aspects of prairie ecology can be transferred from Kansas or South Dakota, and what unique challenges the prairies along the Platte River face here in Nebraska. I’ve already been inspired more than once in my short time here, from seeing the majesty of the sandhill crane migration firsthand, to enjoying the subtle beauty of the winter prairie dusted with snow.

I am excited to have the opportunity over the coming year to develop my hands-on skills in prairie stewardship and management, and I believe I’m off to a good start! I’ve already managed to put five prescribed burns under my belt, gotten a chainsaw in my hands to fight back woody encroachment, and had many insightful conversations about the use of grazing in managing diverse prairies. The year ahead looks exciting, and I’m eager to see the prairie through all its seasons, learning about management and conservation along the way. When I’m done, I’m sure I will leave a more effective advocate and lover of prairies!

Olivia (left) and Alex (right) last month at our first burn of the year.

Alex –

In February, I was ice fishing with my dad near my parents’ house in Doniphan, Nebraska. As I dropped my line into the icy waters of the freshly drilled hole, I heard the trills of Sandhill cranes from the North. My heart raced at the excitement of seeing the first cranes of the Spring migration circling above the Platte River. Soon, dozens of Sandhill cranes were circling in the skies.

Seeing them made me think about my own return to central Nebraska. I was raised in Aurora, Nebraska, just down Interstate 80 from TNC’s Platte River Prairies. I graduated from Aurora High School in 2013 and went to Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I studied Political Science, with a focus in environmental policy. While a student, I worked at the Nebraska State Unicameral for two sessions as a legislative page. I saw, firsthand, how crucial policymaking is in Nebraska. Inspired by state politics, I pursued national law by accepting an internship at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Working alongside federal trial attorneys, I researched various environmental policies, helping me shape my professional aspirations to pursue environmental law. Although I enjoy research, I am always looking for a way to get outdoors.

I spent my collegiate summers seeking new outdoor experiences, which allowed me to travel around the United States, and even Central and South America. My love for wild, untrammeled landscapes brought me to the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota as a canoe guide for two summers. Guiding was an unforgettable experience, surrounded by dedicated staff and seemingly endless lakes. After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, I went to the Siuslaw National Forest on the coast of Oregon in the temperate rainforests for a summer of interpretation as a Field Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, sponsored by The Student Conservation Association. Whether it’s canoeing, hiking, or climbing, I am always looking for new places to go and different ways to experience them.

The Hubbard Conservation Fellowship is a phenomenal opportunity for me to be able to work both as a land steward, working hands-on with chainsaws, tractors, and prescribed burns, and as a researcher. The fellowship offers a holistic conservation experience working all over: the Niobrara Valley Preserve, the Omaha field office, the Platte River, and a peek into other states. I am continually impressed with The Nature Conservancy as a worldwide organization; the largest environmental organization in the world, but also one that affects local communities.

It’s been wonderful reconnecting with central Nebraska. To see the great outdoors, I always thought I needed to go west, but it turns out I just needed to go to my backyard. I can’t wait for the brisk mornings, the blistering hot afternoons, and the crisp evenings that I grew so acquainted with growing up. The next year has so much opportunity, and I can’t wait to explore the prairies of the Heartland.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Nature of Human Intervention

This post is written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric has a solid background in land management and apparently thinks quite a bit while he’s doing stewardship work.  Here are some of his latest thoughts – I think you’ll find them thought-provoking.

What if I told you our most resilient prairies will likely experience burning, mowing, cutting, shredding, chemical spraying, and fencing for decades to come? Among splendidly diverse native wildflowers and grasses, and a rich assemblage of insects, birds, herps, and mammals, there will be the consistent imprints of boot tread in the soil. The sounds of wind-blown grass, and meadowlarks will be occasionally interrupted by the clamor of metal and engines. We will know resilience not only by the existence of a vibrant prairie pulsing with life, but also by the presence of a sturdy 4-strand barb wire fence, and a two-track road worn to mineral soil.

Managers know that maintaining the function and diversity of prairies is highly involved work. I think the image of that monumental work is viewed somewhat quizzically by much of the public that has not had an opportunity or guide to understand prairies. The notion of conservation as the process of removing human presence and intervention is still widely circulated. Once removed from the yoke of human imposition, the natural world is supposed to largely perpetuate itself; growing more abundant, diverse, and resilient in its respite. That is the idea at least. My experience on prairies tells me that conservation landscapes characterized by little human presence is a mold not applicable to prairies. It probably has not been for 150 years. Considering the long history of Native American land management, it may never have been. What’s more, the intensive management in prairie conservation is representative of what many of the world’s ecosystems will require to maintain their functions into the future. Decades of prairie management suggest that we consider ourselves and our presence not as obstacles or crutches to the diversity of life, but as integral drivers of the processes and forces that maintain integrity and functioning of ecosystems.

The author cuts down a cottonwood tree on the edge of one of our Platte River Prairies. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

On the prairie, we light the fires, control the grazers, and suppress the invasive plants. In doing so we drive species composition and distribution, habitat heterogeneity, and the presence or absence of ecosystem functions; the most fundamental ecological attributes. Our involvement is not out of hubris, nor does it make prairies an artifice. Science and experience tells us that without our involvement prairies nearly always slip into measurably degraded states, or entirely disappear. Chris has written thoroughly on the science and implications around the myth of the self-sustaining prairie and the reasons why management is necessary. Seeing our new role with clear eyes has important implications for our approach to conservation.

Rather than thinking of ourselves as prairie doctors, we should see ourselves as prairie organs. Organs are not optional, and cannot be removed from the whole when the budget it tight. When we set up prairie conservation complexes we need to consider humans with the same gravity we consider plant diversity. Whether it is land management professionals, volunteer cohorts, or farming and ranching families, thoughtful and capable human managers are as important as the native grass community.

People have been lighting North American prairies on fire since the last glaciers retreated and grasslands emerged as the dominant ecosystem in the Great Plains.

What does recognition of that human importance look like at The Nature Conservancy? Since 1994, standard operating procedure in TNC has mandated setting aside an endowment for every new land acquisition with the principal set at minimum 20% of the fair market value of the land. It is a small but key step in maintaining essential human capacity in our conservation lands. We also strive to recognize human importance by making our conservation work relevant to ranching families. The ecological and management knowledge we seek out strives to reconcile economic and conservation needs. The gold standard in our work are solutions that allow people and nature to thrive. This is not just because supporting human communities is important, but because prairies with deep human presence are healthy, resilient prairies.

If at this point you’re thinking- “This sounds like an overly involved prairie person issue.” I say this- Prairies are likely a vanguard for where many of our natural systems are headed. Our ability to find success as drivers of ecosystem integrity and resilience through active management have implications for the future integrity of countless ecosystem types. Resilience processes in forests, reefs, tundra, and countless other systems are being broken down by ongoing fragmentation, and novel disturbances. There is already a need for us to step in and play a key role in the ecology that reinforces the biodiversity, functions, and services those systems provide. That need is only growing. North American Prairies are a proving ground for our ability to do that effectively.

I hope you consider sharing your thoughts.

Hubbard Alumni Post – Chicken Wire?!

This post was written (and illustrated) by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows back in 2015-2016.  Evan now works for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon as a monitoring and outreach assistant.

When I worked for The Nature Conservancy near Wood River, NE, I lived close to a restored wetland. In late winter I would gaze longingly out my window at the clouds of migrating waterfowl whirling above the calm water. I wanted to photograph this spectacle but approaching the skittish birds through the open prairie seemed an impossible task. Then I met Michael Forsberg, famed Nebraskan wildlife photographer. I learned how he builds blinds out of garden fence and grass and sleeps in them, sometimes for days, in order to capture the most intimate moments of nature and share them with the rest of us. I wanted to learn this art too, so I decided to try building my own blind on the restored wetland. The result was a successful comic adventure that for some reason I never shared on the Prairie Ecologist, until now.

You could say I messed up from the start. The store was out of garden fence so I bought chicken wire instead, thinking it couldn’t be to different. It could. I spent most of the next afternoon pounding stakes; cutting wire, camo cloth, and grass; and zip tying it all together in the rough shape of a burrito with a hole at one end and a window at the other. The blind was placed right on the water’s edge and would have a spectacular view of ducks waking up in the golden light of sunrise. Or so I thought.

After leaving the blind out for two weeks to let the birds acclimate to it, I set out one March night with my camera gear and sleeping bag, crawled into the blind, and fell asleep to the quite murmurs of roosting mallards. I was so eager for sunrise that I had no less than five dreams of waking up in the blind. In one dream I woke up underwater. In another I woke up to find the wetland dry. When I finally did wake up, I discovered a snafu that I hadn’t even dreamt of: the blind had collapsed on me. The chicken wire couldn’t support the added weight of the morning dew, and in order for me to see out the blind’s window I had to prop the damn thing up with my head. In addition to being extremely uncomfortable, I worried that the floppy and occasionally cursing blob would scare away the birds. Fortunately, it did not. Maybe the birds thought it was too pathetic to be man-made, or maybe it looked like a decomposing tree trunk, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. I knew I was okay when a Red-winged Blackbird strolled across the top of my head.

Viewed head-on, you can see how a Great Blue Heron’s head is adapted for a lifestyle of hunting prey directly below it. It amazes me how this bird’s appearance changes from Jurrasic to cartoonish with a slight adjustment.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to the blind for giving me intimate glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It’s not often you get to see wild animals behave truly naturally, not at all concerned about a human watching them. Watching a goose bathe in the golden light of sunrise, hearing Blue-winged Teal drakes whisper soft calls to an attractive female, watching beads of water drip from a Gadwall’s impermeable feathers; these were new and beautiful experiences for me. Thanks to the blind, I saw familiar birds in an entirely new way.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.
Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.
A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.
A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.
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A Greater Yellowlegs scans the water for invertebrates. This was the closest I’ve ever been to one.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to that blind for giving me glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It taught me a new way to appreciate wildlife, one that requires you to become a part of the landscape. Hunters and photographers know the value of extreme patience, but in today’s fast-paced society, rarely does the average person sit in a spot for hours and watch nature’s secrets reveal themselves. A blind, I learned, teaches you that patience and provides a window to a new view of nature. I hope to build many more blinds in the future, but never, ever again out of chicken wire.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – No “Earth” without “Art”

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine is multifaceted and very talented – exactly the kind of person we like having in our Fellowship program.  

I used to be a fairly prolific artist. As soon as I could hold a pencil I began drawing and copying whatever pictures of horses I could find. As a teenager, I explored multiple media and subjects, including colored pencil landscapes, watercolor and acrylic paintings, ceramic dishware, and illuminated Celtic calligraphy in inks and metallic finishes. My hands would wander over the paper, canvas, and clay for hours, creating from whatever came into my head or caught my eye. I would get frustrated, I would get inspired, and almost always something would find its way out of my head.

Around when I finished graduate school, this drive began to fade. It hasn’t disappeared – there have been occasional spurts of creation, but overall the last two and a half years have seen a huge drop in my artistic inspiration. When I did create, it was painstakingly slow and the hours no longer slipped away from me. This stressed me out. Art had been so huge in my life for so long, what was happening? Would I ever be able to access that drive again, or was it gone? Over time I became resigned, and figured all I could do was keep my mind open to any inspiration that might reemerge.

One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan
One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan

This past week, while I was cutting out the windows on the metal shipping containers that will eventually be The Nature Conservancy’s new sand hill crane viewing blinds, I was thinking about how even land management tasks that seem repetitive and straightforward have varying degrees of hidden skill behind their successful implementation.

The plasma cutter I was using to create the crane blind windows has a tiny spatial range where its electric arc most effectively cuts steel, and the evenness of the cut depends on holding the tip at a very consistent angle while simultaneously moving the cutter at a precise rate.

Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.
Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.

Safely and effectively spraying invasive plants depends on literally moment by moment interpretation of air movement, requires an understanding of how the leaves of different species shed or hold herbicide, and, of course, knowledge of sometimes subtle botanical differences between native and non-native species in various life stages.

Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan
Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan

And don’t even get me started on working with the tractor grapple. It takes less than five minutes to learn the basics of grapple operation, but it took me hours of operating those two levers until I truly began to grasp (pun intended) the subtleties of picking up and piling tree branches.

These tasks of subtle familiarity and mastery are not unlike the learning curves of artistic mediums. So, I wondered, have shop skills and land management techniques become my new artistic pursuits? Have I traded one skill for another that is often not recognized as art because it is narrowly defined with a specific, practical objective? Perhaps, but I believe it goes deeper than that.

I believe there is art hidden all around us. There is art in every efficient system of organization. An herbarium of native prairie plants is artistic in creation and appearance. Communicating with diverse audiences about the importance of prairies is an art both subtle in execution and many layered in its implications.

Our daily lives hold art as well. Aside from the more obvious sources such as cooking or interior design, there is also art in the words we give to the people in our lives, and in how we choose to spend our time so as to be more responsible with the resources in our possession. Every life can be treated like a work of art.

Art is many things. Among others, art is simultaneously the most intellectual and most visceral form of communication in its dual capacity to make us both think and feel. This communication can be purely aesthetic, or it can be pragmatic. We are all artists, whenever we take a concept to its completion in the way that best brings our talents to the rest of the world.

I still hope to rediscover my inspiration in the “traditional” studio art forms. Until then, I will simply have to do the best I can to recognize the hidden art before me every single day.

I would love to know your thoughts and responses to these ideas. Please let me know in the comments, or email me at katharine.hogan@tnc.org. Thanks! I hope you go forth and create.

Hubbard Alumni Blog: Platte Meditations

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, a Hubbard fellow during 2015 and 2016.  Evan is currently working for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.

(This is a post that I wrote in January 2016 while during my Fellowship but didn’t get around to publishing before winter passed.) On a sub-zero Saturday morning I got up early to catch some photos of the sunrise. I had planned to go to a prairie, but as I was driving I noticed a line of steam rising on the horizon like the trail of dust a pickup makes as it races down a dry gravel road. Curious, I headed towards the steam and realized that it was coming off of the Platte River. When I arrived at the bridge I was stunned; all along the river, vapor was rising from the surface and glowing in the sunrise. An endless procession of ice chunks slowly floated by, quietly scraping against the snow on the bank. I spent almost two hours photographing, filming, and recording audio, and I never even felt cold (which is saying a lot for me). There was something special about that morning, something about the stillness that made me feel content and peaceful. I wanted to share that feeling with other people, so I created a short video of how I saw the Platte that morning:

There’s really something special about the Platte and I don’t know if I can explain it. Maybe it’s my instinctive attraction to water. Maybe it’s the languid pace of the Platte that relaxes me. Maybe it’s simply the change in scenery and stark contrast between river and prairie. Or maybe I’m surprised by how beautiful it is each time I make a visit because no one ever seems to talk about it. It’s hard to take a trip in Nebraska without driving over the Platte, yet how often do we stop and explore what’s below those bridges?

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Part of the problem is that there’s so little public access to the Platte. I know of a few observation decks and one tiny trail along it, but the vast majority is private property. Even if you set foot on the middle of the riverbed you’re trespassing! This is such a shame because in my opinion the Platte is one of the greatest recreation opportunities in southern Nebraska. On a sunny weekend it is my favorite place to sit and read, and every time a friend visits I make sure to bring him or her to a sandbar for a picnic. As an employee of The Nature Conservancy, I have the luxury of being able to access a couple sections that we manage.

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Fortunately, even if you don’t have access to a section of the Platte the best option is still available to you: kayaking. I did this with a friend twice during the summer and it remains one of my favorite Nebraskan memories. When there’s enough water for a decent flow you can cover 20 miles in an afternoon while hardly paddling. And boy was I surprised how beautiful the scenery was! I expected the river to be bordered on both sides by corn fields, but the section between Minden and Wood River is actually surrounded by trees, creating the feeling that you are far, far away from it all. No place other than the Sandhills has given me that feeling of isolation in Nebraska. Kayaking the Platte requires two cars to shuttle and renting kayaks if you don’t own them, but it is well worth the trouble.

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The Platte River has a long history of abuse, and now it is often taken for granted, in my opinion. But if more people had a meaningful connection to it maybe we would treat it better. I challenge you to find your own special place or activity on the river, if you haven’t yet; get to know this wonderful feature if you haven’t yet. The Platte deserves it.

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Public Access to the Platte:

  • Platte River State Park, Louisville
  • Louisville State Recreation Area, Louisville
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area, Waterloo
  • The Crane Trust Visitor Center, Alda
  • Alda Rd. and Shoemaker Island Rd. (observation deck), Alda
  • Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, Gibbon
  • Lowell Road and Elm Island road (observation deck), Gibbo
  • Riverside Park, Sottsbluff
  • Platte River Landing, Valley

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Scaling Up the Emotional Impact of Prairies

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric comes from Minnesota and brings great energy to our prairie stewardship work.  He’s also very bright, and an engaging writer, as you’ll see in this and other posts.

I recall vividly the moment I was swept up by prairies; when what had only been a textbook description of geography was sparked into a fidelity to place. The view of sandhill cranes swirling over a starkly beautiful late-spring prairie had an immediate impact on me. It was the first time I felt what I was seeing.

Sandhill cranes.
Sandhill cranes.

I have been recalling this moment lately because I have been thinking a lot about impactful experiences. I was there that blustery Spring morning for work. There was no one there to interpret or inspire. No learning objective or deliberate takeaway. Yet, that experience sits amongst the foundation of where I am now and the path I continue to take.  Impactful, emotionally rich experiences are the touchstone for action and commitment, and in prairies, in relation to other landscapes, they seem a little harder to come by. Prairies just don’t give themselves up easily. Identifying those places, characters, and moments that bridge the gap between knowing and caring could be a powerful tool for the achievement of conservation goals, and enriched human lives.

I have often struggled to facilitate powerful prairie experiences for others. Deep appreciation always seems to end up relying on the context of my own knowledge and memories, and thus unapproachable to my companions. One of the few places where prairies do not play hard to get is the Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP). It has long been a place that confers experiences capable of tying together people and prairies. Its reference list is long and diverse. Somewhere within the consistent transfer of emotional weight that NVP delivers is an important guide and mold for reaching others.

Sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska.
Sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska.

On a recent evening, I found myself sitting quietly beneath a cedar in Niobrara River valley prairie at dusk. Within minutes of my settling in, a small group of bison had quietly foraged their way down from the hills, and into this football field prairie flanked by oak-cedar woodland and the river. They were unhurried, only the occasional soft grunts accompanied the sound of little bluestem, cured wine red, being clipped off. I felt lucky that from the 12,000 acres of prairie on which they could wander, this small group had happened to choose this minute pasture for the evening. They were soon joined by a large flock of Merriam’s Turkeys. Their white tipped tail fans flashed as they scratched at the ground, flipped bison paddies, and bantered with purrs and clucks. A young whitetail buck also joined the evening stage. You can see him inquisitively wander towards me in the video below.

Before it became too dark I walked up and out of the river valley, cresting the hills, and was confronted with the stretching upland prairie of the Sandhills. A spooked pair of young bison bulls thundered off the river ridge and into the hills out of sight. I walked the sandy, two track back to the bunkhouses in the dark. These are not uncommon moments at NVP. The source of gravitas in these experiences may seem obvious, filled with charismatic wildlife, but I think it is more than that. The widely shared appreciation of NVP says a lot about where we are coming from in prairie conservation and where we want to be.

Young bison bulls at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Young bison bulls at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Conservationists will accurately tell you that a 54,000 acre preserve is still far from a whole system. The Nature Conservancy does not control the entire Niobrara River Watershed, our bison herds need to be fenced in, and invasive plants still find their way onto the preserve. However, it is one of an elite few locales that feels whole. I believe it is this sense of wholeness that beckons people to deeply connect with it in a way that is difficult in most other prairie landscapes. When I am showing people prairies, I often find myself asking them to imagine. Imagine if this highly diverse, visually stunning, 80 acres of prairie stretched to the horizon. Imagine if a herd of bison lay hidden behind that low swale. Imagine if you did not know what else might be out there. At NVP, one does not have to imagine, and in that lies its power to move us.

Large, intact, productive grasslands, like the Niobrara Valley Preserve let us transcend the conservation context in which much of our work takes place. We can escape the long road of restoration in the human dominated landscape, characterized by fragmented, degrading, homogenous, biologically depauperate prairies. We can see the prairies and landscapes we are driving at. As prairie professionals and conservationists, we should and do spend most of our time on this long road, but as we seek to bring others into the fold we should strive to impart them with a vision. Head off the question about why prairies are important; the one that often seems to accompany a trip to some isolated remnant in a sea of cropland. Take them to somewhere where the importance of prairies is unspoken and self-evident. Seek to move our potential prairie allies from “is that all?” to “what else is out there?”. I know that is harder for us here in the prairie than for those sharing other ecosystems. It is especially hard in the eastern tallgrass prairie where we have been left with nearly no truly large prairies. That said, the hard work of many (Nachusa Grasslands IL, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie IL, Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge MN, Kankakee Sands IL/IN) has made it more of a possibility than ever.

For some, the beauty found in small prairie patches is sufficiently captivating. For others, however, a sweeping landscape of prairie
For some, the beauty found in small prairie patches is sufficiently captivating. For others, it is the sweeping sea of grass that triggers a love of prairie.

There will always be those who will come to prairies more subtly; those who are innately curious about the details of plant communities, who can discern and explore the intricacies of prairie ecology that happen at the smallest of scales. I will happily continue to walk with anyone who shows enthusiasm for finding fritillary caterpillars on rare prairie violets. Prairie conservation and restoration by necessity has been built on the backs and through the sweat of those who can delight in our valuable remnants, and push forward from there. Let’s also begin to work from the other direction. Recognize that there are those who will only come to prairies through experiences of grand space and wildlife. Bring them to the end, let them see what else prairies can be. After that we can walk them back to where we are, and begin the work of the return journey to wholeness with the expanded support of more “prairie people.”