Measuring Our Influence as Conservation Scientists

I am a conservation scientist.  Like any other scientist, I develop and test hypotheses, trying to figure out how the world works.  Once I learn something, I publish my results in academic journals where other scientists can evaluate and build upon what I’ve learned.  Because I’m a conservation scientist, however, I also need make sure the people who directly impact prairie conservation (ranchers, land managers, policy makers, etc.) get my information and use it to improve the way grasslands are managed and restored.  If I fail to influence the actions of others in positive ways, I fail as a conservation scientist.

It doesn’t matter how much we learn about employing prescribed fire effectively if we’re not able to help others use the lessons we learn.

In science, keen observational skills and creativity often spark innovations, but rigorous collection of data is required to see whether a great idea actually makes sense or not.  While I’ve had some good ideas, I’ve also come up with plenty of grassland management and restoration strategies that turned out to be duds.  In each case, I learned a little more about prairie ecology and our land stewardship improved as a result.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done over the years to develop new and better ways of restoring and managing prairies.  I know those strategies are effective because I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time testing them, through both observation and rigorous data collection.  My computer is full of spreadsheets and graphs showing how prairie species and communities respond to various treatments.

I’m also proud of the work I’ve done to share what we’ve learned with others, but until recently, I’ve done very little to evaluate the effectiveness of that work.  I’m not alone – most of my colleagues in the world of conservation science do a great job of measuring the natural world and its responses to human activities, but do very little to evaluate whether their work is actually influencing conservation.  It’s fairly ridiculous when you think about it.  We would never think of devoting ourselves to a new invasive species control technique without testing its effectiveness, but for some reason we’re satisfied to rely on blind optimism that our outreach strategies are changing the world.

Come on, folks!  We’re scientists!  We love data, and we’re good at developing and testing ideas.  Why do we apply that passion and aptitude to only part of our work?  Why aren’t we testing whether our ideas are reaching the intended audience and influencing on-the-ground conservation work?  How can we adjust and improve our outreach strategies if we don’t have any data to work from?

To be fair, measuring outreach impacts requires a very different kind of scientific approach than most of us are comfortable with.  Instead of counting plants or observing behavior of birds, bees or bison, we have to assess the attitudes, motivations, and actions of people. Many of us took our career paths because we prefer the company of birds, bees and bison to people, but that doesn’t give us leave to just ignore people altogether – especially when the success or failure of our work hinges upon their actions.

Fortunately, we don’t have to work alone.  There are lots of scientists who are already good at studying people, and many of them are happy to work with us.  I’ve had very enthusiastic responses from those I’ve asked advice from, and their input has been very helpful.

We should probably take some of the energy we spend studying animals and put it towards studying the way people respond to our outreach efforts.

Whether you’re a scientist who actively shares your results with your target audience, or someone who relies on others to translate and transmit that information, there are some basic questions we should all be trying to address.  This is far from a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

Defining Audience and Message

What lessons and messages from my work are most important?

Who is the audience for those?

What messengers/media will best reach the audiences?

What are the current attitudes/actions of my audience?  What are the main drivers of those those attitudes and actions?

Who are the credible voices my audience looks to for guidance?

How can I reach those credible voices?

Evaluating Success

Are my messages reaching my target audience?

How many people in that audience am I reaching?

Are my messages changing attitudes and/or actions?

At what scale, and to what degree am I making a difference?

Which messages, messengers, and media are most effective for reaching each of my audiences?

Many of us host field days, at which we can share what we’re learning with others.  How many of us are assessing the effectiveness of those field days and other outreach strategies?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about audiences and messages, and it’s really helped me focus both my research and outreach more effectively.  Recently, I’ve also started trying to answer some of the questions in the above “Evaluating Success” category.  I’m making some progress, but I need to do much more.

I can tell you how many presentations I’ve given over the last two years (40) and how many people were in those audiences (3,447).  I’ve also been keeping track of calls and emails asking for advice on prairie restoration and management.  Unfortunately, while I have a lot of numbers, I can’t easily translate them into acres of improved management or enhanced habitat quality.

I have, however, made at least some progress toward measuring conservation impact on the ground.  Much of that success came from survey work by one of our first Hubbard Fellows, Eliza Perry.  Eliza conducted interviews with some land managers and private lands biologists who had attended field days at our Platte River Prairies.  Among her many findings were that almost all respondents said what they learned from us had influenced their work, and they conservatively estimated that over 330,000 acres of land had been restored or managed differently because of that influence.  Beyond that, Eliza was able to identify key factors that led to our success and suggest ways to improve our effectiveness.

In addition, Eliza surveyed readers of The Prairie Ecologist Blog and I conducted a follow-up survey three years later.  Those surveys helped quantify the demographics of readers (e.g., about 2/3 of respondents have direct influence on prairie management).  The surveys also measured the degree of influence the blog has on readers’ understanding of prairies and approach to managing or restoring prairies (when applicable).  We even got a rough estimate of the number of acres on which management had been influenced by the blog (over 300,000).

Being able to quantify outreach impact, even when the numbers are fuzzy and incomplete, has been really helpful.  It helps me justify my job, for one thing, and assures both me and my supervisor that the time I spend writing, giving presentations, and consulting with others has value.  Most importantly, it helps me assess what is and isn’t working and adjust accordingly.

While it’s still not fully within my comfort zone, I’m trying hard to make sure I’m measuring the effectiveness of our outreach efforts, just as I do our prairie management and restoration work.  I would love to hear from people who are trying to do the same thing, especially if you’ve found effective evaluation strategies.  As more of us focus on measuring the success of our outreach work, we’ll be able to learn from each other and establish some common metrics.  Hopefully, we’ll also become more effective at translating what we’re learning into large scale and meaningful conservation impact!

Seeds of Promise

It’s hard to describe the varied emotions involved in cleaning and mixing big piles of prairie seed.  There is incredible optimism embedded in those tiny packages.  After all, each seed has the potential to become a plant; maybe even the first of an entire colony of plants.  On the other hand, most of them will fail to produce anything other than a little food for some animal or microbe.

Alex mixes up a big pile of seed with a grain scoop.  Amber is helping too, but hidden behind a cloud of dust.

Yesterday was seed mixing day at our Platte River Prairies.  We dumped bags and buckets of harvested seed into piles to be mixed and taken out to planting sites.  In recent years, we’ve shifted our seed harvest focus; instead of aiming for the highest possible diversity of prairie species (150-200) to convert crop fields into prairie habitat, we’re now focusing on 30-40 wildflower species that are largely missing from some of our more degraded native prairies.  Those degraded prairies had years of of chronic overgrazing and/or broadcast herbicide use before we obtained them, and haven’t really increased much in plant diversity, despite over 20 years of the best management we could give them.  By increasing the number of plant species in those prairies via overseeding, we hope to increase the quality of pollinator and wildlife habitat, as well as the overall ecological resilience of the prairie community.

We process many of our seeds by running them through a heavy steel fan blade that used to be part of a riding lawn mower.  It’s a quick and effective way of breaking seeds out of pods and off of stems.

To be clear, when I say “we”, I’m mostly talking about the Platte River Prairies staff and volunteers who are actually doing the work these days.  For many happy years harvesting seed, but that torch has now been largely passed to others.  I still harvest a modest amount of seed on my own time, mostly during evenings and weekends, for use at our family prairie, but I’m just an advisor for the bulk of the restoration work going on at the Platte River Prairies.  Regardless, it was immensely gratifying to help out yesterday.  It felt great to run those seeds through my fingers and inhale a little seed dust into my lungs (though we wear masks to minimize the dust inhalation).

Alex dumps a bag of seed onto the pile.

While I like thinking about each seed as a potential plant, I also recognize how few of them will actually make it that far.  Even in cropfield restoration work, when we’re broadcasting seeds onto bare soil with no preestablished competition from other plants, only a small percentage of seeds really end up as plants.  Some are eaten by animals before they get a chance to germinate.  Others don’t land in a place where they get the light and moisture they need.  Still others germinate, but are then outcompeted by neighboring plants, eaten by something, or don’t get rain at the right time to sustain them.

When we’re overseeding an existing prairie, the number of planted seeds that turn into plants is far lower still.  We burn ahead of time to create bare soil, and graze to reduce competition, but there are still very few spots where a seed can land and have a good chance to thrive.  That means that the vast majority of those wonderful little seeds of promise just die.  Though, as we discussed yesterday while we worked, even the ones that die are feeding something – birds, mammals, insects, fungi, etc. – so it’s not that they’re really wasted.  It’s just that we didn’t really spend all that time harvesting seeds just to feed fungi.

Instead of focusing on how many of those seeds will become fungus fodder, though, I’d prefer to think about the good that will come from those that survive.  By harvesting and broadcasting those seeds, we’re transforming prairies with very few summer wildflowers into prairies with enough floristic diversity that they will support a more robust pollinator population and provide better habitat structure to a number of wildlife species.  Even if one tenth of one percent of the seeds we plant germinate, we’ll be making a big difference.

This overseeded prairie is not yet where we’d like it to be in terms of plant diversity, but it’s far better off than before it had even the number of flowers shown here.  Hopefully, now that some of these wildflowers are established, they’ll be able to spread on their own as we provide helpful management.

Soon, we’ll be releasing those seeds into the wild to take their chances in the world.  Most of our planting these days is done by machine, which helps us cover a lot of ground quickly, with fairly even distribution of seeds.  That’s all well and good, but I sure get a lot of joy from hand-tossing seeds at our family prairie.  Not only can I aim the seeds for areas I think (though I’m totally guessing) they might survive best, I can also give them a little good luck wish as they leave my hand.  Later in the season, when I return to look for seedlings, I can congratulate both the seed and myself on our success whenever I find a new plant.  With enough of those successes, we’ll slowly rebuild the diversity and resilience that will carry these prairies well into the future.

Alex, Amber, and a big ol’ pile of potential prairie plants.

A Seedy Survey

Are you involved in grassland restoration work in North America?  If so, I hope you’ll consider taking a survey from my friend and colleague Marissa Ahlering of The Nature Conservancy.  Marissa is trying to better understand the use of locally sourced seed in restoration work.  It’s a short survey (10-15 minutes) and your help would really help move the science of restoration forward.

Nelson Winkel, Platte River Prairies land steward, stands behind a pile of prairie seed. Most of our seed these days is harvested from our own prairies, but not everyone has the ability to harvest their own. Figuring out how to obtain seed that matches restoration objectives can be tricky.  (Ok, full disclosure, Nelson is actually KNEELING behind this pile to make it look bigger…)

Participation from anyone involved in grassland restoration, from policy makers to on-the-ground practitioners, would be helpful. You can read more about the survey and enter your responses by following THIS LINK.

Please forward this to any colleagues it might apply to.  Thanks for your help!

Photo of the Week – September 7, 2017

The numerous wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada have been sending smoke out our way, especially earlier this week.  I got up early Monday morning to catch the sunrise, hoping a smoky haze would soften the light well into the morning and give me a good long opportunity for photography.  My plan only sort of worked…  The smoky haze was so thick, the sun was up for about 20 minutes before it finally got high and bright enough that I could even see it through the haze.

The sun finally showed up through the smoky haze about 20 minutes after sunrise.

Once I could see the sun, I still had to wait another hour or two before there was enough light to do much photography.  Not that it was painful to have to wander around our Platte River Prairies for a few hours, of course, but it was hard to see all kinds of interesting things and not have enough light to photograph them!  Now and then, the haze would clear enough that I could barely see my shadow – and I’d quickly grab my camera out of the bag and look for something to photograph before it darkened up again.

A grasshopper staring at me from its perch on stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

The grasshopper above and the bumblebee below were both photographed during those brief periods of brighter light.  Apart from those brief periods, the smoky haze kept things pretty dim until about 9:30 or 10am, when the light got really nice (still diffused, but by thinner haze, which created beautiful even light).

This bumblebee apparently spent the night on this dotted gayfeather flower (Liatris punctata).

When that gorgeous photography light finally arrived, I was walking around some restored wetlands and prairies we’d seeded in 2013.  There were quite a few flowers in the wetland sloughs we’d excavated and seeded in former cropland, and I enjoyed searching for some particularly photogenic examples.

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) in restored wetland.
Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in the same restored wetland slough.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) was even more abundant than its blue cousin.

Alongside the restored wetlands, Maximilian sunflower was very abundant, and popular with pollinators – especially a horde of painted lady butterflies.

This was just one of hundreds (thousands?) of painted lady butterflies in the prairie.

I finally peeled myself away from the prairie and headed home, but the smoky light would have allowed me to keep photographing for most of the day (though the breeze was challenging).  By Tuesday, the wind had shifted directions, and we’ve had bright sunny days since, which limits photography to early mornings and late evenings.

This is the time of year when I start to feel an urgency to photograph as many flowers and insects as I can because I know they’re not going to be around much longer.  We had temperatures in the low 40’s (F) last night, and parts of Nebraska were forecast to have frost.  Hopefully, we’ll get at least a few more weeks of flowers before the first big freeze knocks most of them out for the year.

The Joy, Angst, Excitement and Dread of Walking Through a Young Restored Prairie

Anyone who has watched a prairie seeding go through its first several years of establishment will appreciate and identify with this post.  For those of you who haven’t, the best analogy I can come up with is that the experience is a little like watching your son or daughter go off into the world on their own.  You can spend tremendous energy planning ahead, preparing a site, and harvesting and planting seed, but at some point, you have to just stand back and let the new prairie stand or fall on its own.  Sure, you can jump in and knock back the weeds a little now and then, but eventual success or failure depends upon many factors beyond your control, and it can be hard to predict the result during the first few years.

In February and March of 2016, we planted about 60 acres of land with a seed mixture of around 140 prairie and wetland plant species.  The site had been cropland for many years, and then was converted to a mixture of native grasses and used as pasture.  Eventually, the site became heavily invaded with tall fescue, smooth brome, and Kentucky bluegrass.  A few years ago, we decided to kill off the existing vegetation and try to establish a much more diverse plant community.  Although it had been farmed, the site still had some remnant wetland swales that had been farmed through and partially filled, but still had some wetland hydrology.  Restoring this 60 acres feeds into our larger restoration objectives of enlarging and reconnecting remnant (unplowed) prairies in the area.

Volunteers hand broadcast wetland seed on frozen wetlands during February 2016.
This “drop spreader” was used to plant the majority of the site.

We used a combination of herbicide application and tillage to get rid of the grasses and prepare a seed bed.  In addition, (under the appropriate permits) we had a contractor with a big scraper come in and deepen/widen the degraded wetland swales.  Using seed we harvested from nearby prairies and wetlands, a couple different groups of volunteers hand-planted the wetland swales and low sandy ridges created by excavation spoil, and we used a broadcast seeder behind a UTV to plant the remainder of the site.  (Thank you to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, and Nebraska Environmental Trust for funding this project.)

During the 2016 growing season, I visited the site very rarely, and didn’t spend much time there when I did.  Early in the season, there wasn’t much germinating and growing except the kinds of “weeds” you’d see in an abandoned crop field (foxtails, pigweeds, ragweeds, annual sunflowers, etc.).  Later in the season, those weedy plants had grown so tall and thick, it was physically difficult to walk through them.

This photo shows the kind of weed cover that grew during the first growing season. Lots of tall ragweed and annual sunflowers were joined by some perennial sunflowers and other plant species we had seeded.  This is pretty typical of what we see during the first year of our restored prairies.

I walked around this site on Monday of this week and tried to capture what I saw with my camera.  As I explored, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions.  Some areas are looking way ahead of schedule, with a nice diversity of prairie and wetland plants coming in, while others don’t look like they’ve even started, or have problematic plants that we might eventually have to deal with.  On the whole, I feel good about the progress of the restoration, though we do have some trees to control, but my overall confidence comes mainly because I’ve been through this process many times.  We’ve had restored prairies look like junk for 4 or 5 years before finally kicking into gear, and others that look like a prairie after two years.  Very rarely have we seen plantings fail.  Regardless, it’s way too early to guess how this planting will turn out.

For what it’s worth, here is what I saw and thought about during my walk around this prairie at the beginning of its second field season.

The first thing I saw as I walked into the new prairie was a pretty good sized patch of 3-4 foot tall cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides).  The parent trees can be seen in the background.  We’ve been getting smarter about removing those kinds of seed  sources before starting projects, but these trees are growing along a public road and we didn’t have the authority to remove them.  We’ll have to evaluate our options for controlling the young cottonwoods in our new prairie.
A skeleton of an annual sunflower from the initial season shows how big some of those pioneering species were last year. Many of the sunflowers were over 12 feet tall.
Biennial wildflowers, like this prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) germinated last year and are blooming this year. Hopefully, this one will start a colony that will help support spring-flying bees and other pollinators in future years.  A pair of crane flies are mating on top of this one.
I was excited to see quite a few sedges blooming in only their second year. We don’t always get quick establishment of sedges from seeds. This one (Carex craweii) was in a patch of maybe 10 plants along the edge of a wetland, and I found at least three other species growing elsewhere in the site.
To balance out the excitement of seeing lots of sedges, I also found quite a few areas where there wasn’t much yet growing from our seed. This big patch of marestail (Conyza canadensis) was representative of maybe 30% of the planting. I think this is a soil issue – in our alluvial soils, prairie plant communities can vary dramatically from place to place, based on the soil deposits beneath them. Restored prairies establish with great variation for the same reasons.
Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), and Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) make up a very nice patch of new prairie plants.
The wetland swales are filling in quickly with wetland plants, including lots of spikerushes, grasses, rushes, and a few forbs and sedges. Much of that vegetation came from our seed, but I think some also came from the seedbank.
We purposefully designed the wetlands to vary in their depth to groundwater so that we’d have some areas of standing water most of the time, but also many other areas that go dry each summer.
Some of the wetland pools had tadpoles in them, likely from the Woodhouse’s toads that have already colonized the area. I also saw leopard frogs hopping around.  In addition, numerous snails, and aquatic insects were moving around in the water, and dragonflies and damselflies were buzzing around above it.
This section of wetland had standing water a few weeks ago, but has now gone dry, leaving great habitat for shorebirds (but also for young cottonwoods).  The vegetation along the margin of this wetland is mostly native colonizing plant species such as fleabane (Erigeron annuus), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Canada wildrye.
Sweetclover (Melilotus sp) is abundant across much of the new site. Experience shows that sweet clover (though I don’t like it) doesn’t seem to actually affect plant diversity much in our restored prairies, so we’ll just let it go until the site is established well enough to support fire and cattle grazing. At that point, the cattle will keep the sweet clover suppressed because it’s one of their favorite plants to eat.
In addition to areas of strong native plant growth and others dominated still by non-native or “weedy” plants, there were also areas where bare ground was still plentiful. Again, alluvial soils make all of this really interesting because the soils vary greatly from place to place and strongly regulate plant growth.
Last year’s seed pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) show that this native perennial legume established and bloomed in its first year at the site.
Duck and raccoon tracks joined the tracks of many shorebirds along the edges of the restored wetlands. It’s really encouraging to see how quickly wildlife and insect species colonize these sites, even while the plant community is still young.

I’ll probably return to walk through this site numerous times this season because I can’t help myself.  Apart from working on cottonwood trees and a few musk thistles, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll actually do anything else here, so my visits will be mostly out of curiosity rather than to stimulate management.  As with this trip, I’ll see things on future walks that will encourage me and others that will make me wonder if the planting will end up as a disaster, even though I know it’s too soon to know anything.

Within the next few years, we’ll try to burn the new prairie whenever we can, and when the major grasses start to assert their dominance, we’ll begin grazing the site in ways that support a diversity of plants and animals.  Typically, that grazing begins when the site is between 5 and 8 years old.  In the meantime, there’s really nothing to do but wait.  (But I’ll still peek in now and then anyway.)

I was really glad to see coyote tracks along the edge of the site. The presence of these (relatively) large predators will be key to the long-term success of the ecological community in this restored prairie.

For those of you with technical questions about our restoration methods, we didn’t test our seed for viability, but based on previous experience, our seeding rate for this planting was probably about 2-4 lbs PLS/acre, about 2/3 of which was grasses and 1/3 was forbs, sedges, etc.  We typically broadcast our seed into recently harvested soybean fields, so this planting was a little different, but not that different.  We don’t mow weeds during the first season based on trials that have shown no difference in long-term establishment (sandy soils help keep weed densities low enough to still allow sufficient light to hit the ground, despite what it looks like in the 2016 photo in this post).  We don’t cultipack or harrow seeds in either.  We’re fortunate not to have much trouble with aggressive perennial invasive plants in our early plantings, which makes our weed control pretty easy.  Deciduous trees are the main exception to that, especially cottonwoods (as shown above) and Siberian elms (not too bad at this site).  Later, we see invasion by perennial cool-season invasive grasses, but we suppress those with fire and grazing.

How Small Is Too Small?

What’s the minimum effective size of a prairie?

For example, can a prairie be the size of a kitchen table?  Let’s say someone converted a landscape full of prairie to an immense gravel parking lot, leaving only a round kitchen table-sized parcel of vegetation in the middle.  Is that tiny isolated parcel a prairie?

The question might seem silly, but the question became a useful little thought experiment for me.

That little parcel certainly wouldn’t be big enough to meet the needs of most prairie animals.  Birds, small mammals, snakes, and even smaller creatures like grasshoppers and bees would be unable to find enough food to survive within that small area.  The loss of those animals would affect many of the ecological services and functions that make prairies work.  Those services include pollination, nutrient cycling, herbivory and more.

Even small creatures like grasshoppers would have a hard time surviving in a patch of plants the size of a kitchen table.

Some tiny herbivorous invertebrates might be able to survive in that little parcel of vegetation, but probably not enough of them to support most predators that feed on them.  The lack of predation would allow those invertebrate populations to grow much larger than they otherwise would, leading to significant damage, or even mortality, to the plants they feed on.  Once their food is gone, the invertebrates would starve and die as well.

Plants that manage to survive invertebrate attacks and an absence of pollinators in our little parcel would still face major challenges.  In the long-term, they would probably suffer from a huge genetic bottleneck because they don’t have other individuals of their species to cross breed with.  In the meantime, it would take a lot of intensive and thoughtful management to keep them alive.

Smooth brome and other invaders can quickly dominate small prairie patches without constant vigilance and suppression.

Invasive species management would be a huge problem because it wouldn’t take long for an aggressive invader to quickly dominate that small area.  Quick action would be needed to remove invasive plants as they arrive.  Fire or mowing would also be needed to prevent a smothering thatch from accumulating as plants grow and die back each year.  Unfortunately, every fire would kill most invertebrates aboveground at the time and destroy their food sources.  We could try to burn only a portion of the parcel and save some of the insects, but with such small populations, we’d still probably lose most species eventually.  Mowing and raking might be an alternative, but we’d still end up removing either the invertebrates or their food sources.

Ok, so we’d just have to live without most prairie animals, but we’d still have plants.  Or at least a few of them.  Some of those plants would be more competitive than others, especially in an animal-less environment, so it would take a lot of effort to keep them from pushing the less competitive plants out.  And, of course, we’re assuming the mysterious belowground processes that allow plants to survive would still function in our tiny parcel – microbial relationships that allow plants to access and process water and nutrients, for example.  If those are sufficiently intact, we’d have some plants.

Would that be a prairie?

I’m pretty sure no one would argue that a kitchen table-sized area containing few plants is a prairie.  Even in the first moments after the parking lot was created, I would argue the remaining patch of vegetation had ceased to be a prairie, even though it still contained a reasonable diversity of plants and animals. It wasn’t really a prairie anymore, just a doomed fragment of its former self.

If we can agree that a kitchen tabled-size patch of land is too small, how big would we have to make that patch before we’d be willing to call it a prairie?  What species and/or ecological processes should we use as criteria?

Can we agree a prairie needs to be big enough to support a healthy pollinator community?  Does it need to be able to sustain viable populations of small mammals, snakes, leafhoppers, spiders, and other little creatures?  Is it a prairie if it doesn’t have a full complement of grassland bird species?  Does that requisite bird community include larger birds such prairie chickens or other grouse species?  What about at least moderately-sized predators such as badgers and coyotes (or even bigger ones) or large ruminants like bison or elk?  Which of those components are we willing to live without, and more importantly, which can a prairie live without and still sustain itself as an ecological system?  A prairie without badgers, coyotes or bison is functionally different than one with those animals, but is it a non-prairie or just a different kind of prairie?

Bison herds need very large prairies, but we don’t know as much about the amount of land needed to sustain populations of bees, leafhoppers, jumping mice, or even genetically viable plant populations.

Even if we reach consensus on the key components of a prairie, we’re still hamstrung by our lack of information about how big a prairie needs to be to support each of them.  We have decent data on the prairie size requirements for many grassland bird species, but beyond birds, we’re mostly just guessing.  If we want the full complement of species, including bison and other large ruminants, we’re going to need thousands of acres, but how many thousands?

More importantly, what does this mean for the many remaining patches of prairie vegetation too small to support whatever we decide are the key components of a prairie?  It certainly doesn’t make them worthless, but it might be important to make sure we’re viewing them realistically.  What are the likely ramifications of the missing components?  The absence of prairie chickens or upland sandpipers might be disappointing, but might not have the ripple effect that the absence of pollinators or coyotes might have.  Can we identify and compensate for the absence of key prairie components by managing differently or more intensively?  If not, how do we adjust our vision of the future for that prairie parcel, and how does that adjusted vision affect how much management effort we invest?  (You can read more about the challenges of managing small prairies here.)

For many of today’s small prairie patches, the only chance of preserving their species and ecological functions is to make those small patches larger and/or more connected to others.  Restoring adjacent land back to high-diversity prairie vegetation allows formerly landlocked populations to expand and interact with others, and creates enough habitat for larger animals to survive.  Identifying potential restoration opportunities might be the highest priority conservation strategy for those of us working with small prairies.

Reasonable plant diversity and the presence of larval host plants like this prairie violet have so far allowed our family prairie to support a population of regal fritillary butterflies, but the small size and isolated nature of our prairie means if the butterflies have a bad year, they could easily disappear and never return.

Our family prairie is a little over 100 acres in size, is managed with large ruminants (cattle), and has regal fritillary butterflies, coyotes, badgers, upland sandpipers, and even an occasional prairie chicken.  However, I’m certainly not comfortable that our 100 acre island within a sea of cropland will to sustain a prairie ecosystem indefinitely.  This thought experiment has forced me to think more seriously about prospects for increasing the size of our prairie and building connectivity to other grasslands.  I hope it’s useful to others as well.

A Milestone for Prairie Restoration

Because conservation work can sometimes seem like blowing into the wind, it’s important to pause periodically to celebrate progress.  For example, I am really excited about what has been accomplished in the field of prairie restoration.  We’ve known for a while that we can convert cropland to prairie vegetation with a high diversity of plant species (150 or more species per planting), and that we can do that on a scale of thousands of acres.  The Nature Conservancy has large projects in states like Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota where restored prairie landscapes now range from about 5,000 to 20,000 acres in size.  The U.S. Forest Service is transforming an old U.S. Army Arsenal into 20,000 acres of prairie in Illinois.  Prairie Plains Resource Institute, the organization that pioneered restoration techniques in Nebraska, is planting up to 1000 acres a year now and has established well over 10,000 acres total across the state.

Our staff celebrates a successful year of seed harvest back in 2015.
Our staff celebrates a successful year of seed harvest back in 2015.

Here in our Platte River Prairies, we’ve restored more than 1,500 acres of cropland to prairie.  That’s not insignificant, but more importantly, we’ve been testing the idea that those restored prairies can help defragment the ecological landscape around them.  Habitat fragmentation is one of the largest threats to today’s prairies because it shrinks and isolates populations of species, making them vulnerable to becoming locally extinct without the chance of recolonization from nearby sites.  The real promise of prairie restoration is that it can enlarge and reconnect scattered remnants of native prairie, providing populations of animals and plants a much better opportunity to survive and thrive.  It’s not feasible or desirable to convert the majority of cropland in the central North America back to prairie, but there are particular sites where strategic restoration work could make a huge difference in the potential survival of prairie species and ecological services.

In order for prairie restoration to help defragment landscapes, restored prairies have to provide suitable habitat for the species living in small isolated prairies.  Many bees and other insects specialize on certain plant species, for example, and other animals rely upon an abundance of prey, a diversity of seeds, or other particular food or habitat conditions.  Satisfying the individual needs of all those prairie animals is a critical measure of success if prairie restoration is going to successfully stitch isolated prairies back together.

Over the last several years, we’ve been collecting data to see whether the species of bees, small mammals, grasshoppers, and ants in our unplowed prairie remnants have moved into adjacent restored habitat.  The results have been very positive.  While not every species of animal living in our remnant prairies has been found in nearby restored habitat, we’ve found the vast majority of those we’ve looked for.  We suspect that most of the remaining species are also present but that our limited sampling effort just hasn’t yet picked them up.  We’ll keep trying.

Dillon Blankenship, a Hubbard Fellow, compared grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket communities on three pairs of remnant/restored prairies back in 2014. Almost all species were present in both restored and remnant habitats. In the three species that weren't, only one or a very few individuals were found, so it's likely just a sample size issue.
Dillon Blankenship, a Hubbard Fellow, sampled grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket communities on three pairs of remnant/restored prairies back in 2014. Almost all species were present in both restored and remnant habitats. In the three species that weren’t, only one or a very few individuals were found, so it’s likely just a sample size issue.
Data from James Trager and Kristine Nemec has helped us compare ant species composition in restored versus restored prairies along the Platte River. So far, we've documented 30 species and only one has been found exclusively in remnant prairie (and, again, it's likely to be a sample size issue).
Data from James Trager and Kristine Nemec has helped us compare ant species composition in restored versus restored prairies along the Platte River. So far, we’ve documented 30 species and only one has been found exclusively in remnant prairie (and, again, it’s likely to be a sample size issue).
Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter have both helped us compare small mammal populations between restored and remnant prairies. This table shows some of Jasmine's data from one site. In general, we're finding that the same species are in both restored and remnant prairies, but the relative abundance of those species is often different - with some apparently favoring remnant habitat and others favoring restored areas.
Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter have both helped us compare small mammal populations between restored and remnant prairies. This table is from Jasmine’s data from one site, showing the number of trapsites in which each mammal species was caught back in 2014. In general, we’re finding that the same species are in both restored and remnant prairies, but the relative abundance of those species is often different – with some apparently favoring remnant habitat and others favoring restored areas.  We’re now looking at how our management affects presence and abundance of each species through time.
We've had several research projects look at native bees in our prairies. Mike Arduser, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow), Bethany Teeter, and Shelly Wiggam Rickets have all helped us compare restored and remnant prairies. So far, we've found over 72 species and the vast majority have been in both remnant and restored prairie.
We’ve had several research projects look at native bees in our prairies. Mike Arduser, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow), Bethany Teeters, and Shelly Wiggam Rickets have all helped us compare restored and remnant prairies. So far, we’ve found over 72 species and the vast majority have been in both remnant and restored prairie.
I've collected more than 15 years of data showing that plant diversity and the frequency of occurrence of prairie plant species has remained stable through time. These four graphs show four species in one restored prairie where we're comparing fire/grazing management to fire only management.
I’ve collected more than 15 years of data showing that plant diversity and the frequency of occurrence of prairie plant species has remained stable through time. These four graphs show four species in one restored prairie where we’re comparing fire/grazing management to fire only management.  The long-term persistence of prairie plants and diverse plant communities is critically important for plant communities, but also for the success of efforts to defragment habitat for animals.

These results mean that where prairie landscapes have been largely converted to row crops, we don’t have to just watch while insect or small mammal populations careen toward local extinction in tiny isolated prairies.  We’ve shown that we can make those prairies larger and more connected, and that animal populations can grow and use new restored habitat and diverse plant communities.  We’ve also shown that restored prairies can sustain their biological diversity for decades, even through periods of intensive grazing and drought.  While there are still plenty of questions and potential improvements we can make, we’re now at the point where society needs to decide whether and where to do this kind of restoration.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty exciting!

Nebraska and other states in central North America have large swaths of productive and important cropland.  As I said earlier, I’m not advocating that we convert most of that back to prairie.  However, there are specific sites where row crop agriculture is marginally productive/profitable and the long-term interests of both society and local landowners might be best served by putting land back into diverse and productive grassland.  Agricultural policies and subsidy programs will obviously play a huge role in this kind of strategic large-scale restoration, and getting the policies in place to facilitate this kind of common sense restoration will be plenty difficult.  That’s nothing new, however.  What’s new is our confidence that if we can implement targeted restoration work, it can make a real difference to prairie conservation.

Restoring the viability of prairies in fragmented landscapes is critically important to prairie conservation success.  The challenges of conserving species in small isolated prairies are immense, and many of those prairies will continue to see declines in biological diversity and ecological function over time unless we can make them bigger and more connected with other prairies.  Helping to document our ability to do that – at least for many prairie species – has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done during my career.

 

Important footnote:  Restored prairies are not the same as remnant unplowed prairies.  Soil organic matter levels, for example, can take many decades to recover from tillage, and relationships between plant and microbial communities may take just as long to become reestablished.  Our success in prairie restoration should definitely not be used as justification for plowing up remnant prairie!  However, it’s equally true that prairie restoration efforts aren’t failures just because they can’t create an exact replica of prairie as it existed before it was converted to farmland.  If defragmenting prairie landscapes is the primary goal of restoration, we just need to create restored prairies that complement – not copy – remnant prairies. 

 

Photo of the Week – August 18, 2016

There is an unmistakable look to late summer prairies, and that look is YELLOW.  Sunflowers, goldenrods, and Silphiums (compass plant, cup plant, rosinweed) are all front and center this time of year.  The visual dominance of yellow flowers is obvious as I look back through some of my favorite prairie photos from this week.

Cup plant in restored tallgrass prairie at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area west of Aurora, Nebraska.
Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in restored tallgrass prairie at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area west of Aurora, Nebraska.
A black blister beetle and another small beetle feed on the same Missouri goldenrod flower head.
A black blister beetle and another small beetle feed on the same Missouri goldenrod flower head.
Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).
Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).
Compass plant.
Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).
Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium).
Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium).
During yellow season, anything that's not yellow really stands out - especially when it's tall and BLUE. Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea).
During yellow season, anything that’s not yellow really stands out – especially when it’s tall and BLUE. Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea).

I wonder if anyone has gone through all the prairie flower species to see which color is most common (I’ll be someone has).  It has to be yellow, doesn’t it?  Purple, pink, and white are in the running, but I bet yellow wins pretty easily.

No complaints here.

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Community-Based Stewardship and Long-Term Management

This post is by Eric Chien, one of our 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows.  Eric hails from Minnesota, with an undergraduate education from Bowdoin College in Maine.  He has a strong background in prairie management, and hopefully a bright future in that field as well. 

The most compelling experience of the North American Prairie Conference was on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon on a winding path through the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. While I was beaded with sweat from just walking in the Eastern Tallgrass humidity, I saw three people, laden down with seed bags, hand harvesting seed and ripping problem plants from the ground. Jeff Walk, Illinois TNC Science Director and our guide for the walk assured us that these volunteers were not planted. Furthermore, he noted that this was a fairly regular sight at Nachusa.

Three people. Tuesday morning. Maybe I come from a different community context, but for me, seeing three, independently working, non-professional, unpaid, human beings engaged in land management is akin to seeing a prairie chicken drum on a buffalo’s back under a wildfire sunset. Okay, maybe not quite that, but my point is that intensive, regular community engagement and participation in land management is a rare phenomenon. It was a sight that made me wonder how we plan to achieve our restoration goals for individual sites beyond the immediate future. My predecessor, Evan Barrientos, had begun the work of pulling on this loose thread, and I encourage you to read his post on volunteer stewardship if you have not, but I think it begs further unpacking.

These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies.  It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.
These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies. It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.

It is a great feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie knowing that it was once cropland. It is a crushing feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie overrun and choked by invasive plants. And it is unfortunately not an uncommon feeling to have both experiences on the same prairie, just a couple years apart. Many prairie restoration sites have found out what happens when management capacity does not match the scope of their restorations: a seemingly endless game of catch-up with invasive plants ever threatening to swallow a new prairie. Addressing the pitfalls of that disjunct approach was one of the Grassland Restoration Network’s primary prescriptions for restoration success (here is the link to that report). However, I want to think beyond even the 5-15 year timeline to the idea of management in perpetuity. In the reality of a fragmented landscape, it appears likely that even the best restorations (well planned and executed) will require regular management for those lands to continue to achieve our respective management goals for them.

It leads us to important questions: As the acreage of restored prairie grows, have we invested in the organizational groundwork to ensure the continuity of our achievements? Is there a need for innovation in stewardship structures as we seek to move to an increased scale of work? Or should we aim to increase funding for professional management staff augmented with whatever traditional volunteer programs that we have?

Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.
Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.

As someone who is seeking a professional stewardship career, more money aimed at increasing the capacity of professional resource management sounds awesome. As someone who has seen the scope of need for stewardship, I have a hard time envisioning that approach rising to the challenge on its own. So then the big question- what does effective community-based stewardship look like?

I think it sort of looks like Nachusa Grasslands. In a talk at the conference, Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grasslands land manager, said, “we don’t just produce grasses, flowers, and wildlife, we also produce people.” I don’t know if steward production is part of their long-term management plan, but they seem to approach it with an intentionality that suggests it is. From the little glimpse I saw of it, Nachusa Grasslands has produced a stewardship structure that draws heavily on a capacity that is less tied to The Nature Conservancy, and more attached to the place. The stewards there love the land they work on. That trait gives it a unique resiliency. Organizations come and go over the short and long-term. If we want the successes we have in places to be maintained then we need to make sure we are building stewardship structures that have some independence from the organizations that own the land on which they work. Private lands conservation has focused on empowering non-professionals by necessity. Yet, I think if we take stock of our public and NGO-owned stewardship needs, there is a similar necessity for involving community stewards in a significant way looming on the horizon. I think for many of us it is already here.

 

 

 

Register Now – 2016 Grassland Restoration Network Workshop

It is time to register for the Grassland Restoration Network’s 2016 workshop.  The Grassland Restoration Network has helped people working on prairie restoration share techniques and conservation strategies since 2003.  You can read my blog post from last year’s workshop in Minnesota here and from the 2014 workshop at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois here.

One of the best ways to learn from each other is to visit each others' projects and evaluate them together. 2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop - Minnesota.
One of the best ways to learn from each other is to visit each others’ projects and evaluate them together. 2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop – Minnesota.

The 2016 workshop will be September 13-14 right here in Nebraska.  It is co-hosted by The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies and Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  You can see the agenda and other information for the workshop here.

Registration for the workshop is open now through August 19.  There is no registration fee for the first 75 people to register, but you’ll be responsible for your own transportation and lodging, and some meals.  To register, send an email to Mardell Jasnowski at mjasnowski(at)tnc.org.  Include answers to the following questions:

Name

Organization/Affiliation

Address

Phone Number

Email Address

Will you take part in the optional Tuesday morning tour in Aurora?

Will you be eating Tuesday evening supper?

Will you be eating Wednesday lunch?

Do you have any dietary restrictions?  If so, list them here:

Thank you to Pheasants Forever and the Nebraska Environmental Trust for helping to cover the costs of registration for this conference.