Photo of the Week – November 3, 2016

To this prairie photographer, milkweed seeds are like candy – I just can’t get enough.  As I’ve walked around this fall, I’ve had a very difficult time walking past any milkweed plant without stopping to photograph the silky seeds shimmering in the light.  They’re just so FLUFFY!

(And yes, botanist friends, I know the fluffy part isn’t actually the seed, but is an ‘appendage’ called the coma – or less accurately, the pappus – that aids in wind transport of the seed.  And the brown parts are actually the follicles that CONTAIN the seed.  Yes, yes, and yes. Allow me this vulgarization for the sake of simplicity, ok?)

FLUFFY!!

Whorled milkweed

Common milkweed

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It’s getting a little harder to find milkweed seeds that haven’t yet blown away, but they’re out there.  I keep seeing them as I walk through prairie and drive down the highway.  I can hide the Halloween candy so I don’t snack on it all day, but who’s going to hide all those milkweed seeds?

Posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Family Roundup

During the 20 years of my employment with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, I’ve been involved in at least 20 bison roundups (we usually do two a year – one for each herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve).  Last week’s was my favorite, hands down.  It wasn’t because the roundup went well – though it went as smoothly as any we’ve done.  It wasn’t even because the weather was perfect – though it was.  Nope, it was my favorite because it was the first time it’s ever worked out to bring my kids along.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year's roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year’s roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I didn’t get to bring all of them, but everything lined up just right for John and Daniel, who were on fall break from school and were old enough to be helpful and safe.  They had a great time, and the experience was far richer for me as well.

Now, to be perfectly clear, we don’t typically involve kids in our roundups, but I was able to supervise the boys personally and make sure they were safely doing work appropriate to their age and ability.  To begin with, both of them just watched the process to learn how the animals are moved quickly through a series of alleys and gates with as little noise and stress as possible.  Later in the day, they were both able to join in the work.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing "quality control" - helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing “quality control” – helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn't effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn’t effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.  Before long, however, he took over a sliding gate.

John seemed to enjoy the experience...

He seemed to enjoy the experience…

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Eric hides behind a gate while bison move past.

Here, Eric is hiding behind a gate while bison move past.

Then he gets to show off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

Then he shows off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town, where they (fruitlessly) waited for the prairie dogs to come back out of their holes.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town.  They learned that no matter how long you wait, prairie dogs don’t re-emerge from holes while you’re sitting there.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Management, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Inspiration is at Our Feet

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our two current Hubbard Fellows.  The photo is hers as well.  Katharine has shown to be an introspective thinker and writer, in addition to a curious and hard-working member of our conservation team.  I think you will enjoy this and other posts she writes.

After a rigorous morning spent chain sawing trees on the Platte River Prairies, I headed inside to finish a half-completed blog post. It would be nice to get off my feet; I was breaking in my new fire boots acquired for performing prescribed burns, and my feet were a bit sore from the new stiff leather and soles. It would also be great to finish this blog post that had been persistently hanging around in my head. However, to my dismay after working at it for some time, it simply kept falling apart the harder I tried to make it fit together. Finally, I conceded defeat, but was also frustrated in my attempts to settle on an alternative topic. As my frustration grew, I decided to go for a walk in hopes of the remnants of a crisp autumn day yielding some inspiration.

Annoyed for having spent such a chunk of time on nothing that turned into more nothing, I put on my well-worn, much loved hiking boots that have seen me through countless work and pleasure hours across the country. They were more comfortable than the tall, black boots I had taken off earlier, for sure! I decided to walk up into the sand hills south of the house, get a higher perspective on the land, and enjoy another stellar Nebraska sunset against the golds and reds of prairies grasses falling asleep before the advance of winter.

Even if I didn’t come up with any ideas, going for a walk outside is always good, I thought, as I headed out. Never waste time doing something important when there’s a sunset to watch, right? (I got that one from the dusty, back corner shelves of the Internet…). Yet I had barely even gotten into the pasture when I realized something felt different. My old boots suddenly felt different from all the unspoken familiarity with which I had apparently subconsciously come to associate them. Had they always been that sensitive to the terrain on which I was walking? What a distinct texture the inside of the boots had, and how perfectly fitted they were to the shapes of my feet! But no big deal, I said to myself, just keep walking and your feet will adjust and feel normal.

But they didn’t. I was hyper-aware of myriad sensations in my feet with every step through the crispy vegetation. I couldn’t stop being distracted by it. My normal had changed that week to those fire boots, which in my mind are in some strange way the pedestrian version of being inside a tank, fitted with impressive protection and defense features. Changing from that back to something previously familiar had made that familiar new again, and had made me aware of aspects of those old boots that I otherwise would never have noticed.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotable to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotal to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

Is this a large part of how humans learn, constantly yet perhaps subconsciously? Do we make retroactive observations and connections about familiar places, people, and concepts best upon exposure to the new and different? This experience reminded me of other observations that I had previously regarded as unconnected, small events. Upon travelling to Missouri I realized the swathes of cottonwood along the Platte River in Nebraska don’t create the same familiar comfort as the hardwood forests of more eastern regions because they are more monocultural woody systems. Comparatively, forests from hardwood regions are symposiums of many tree species with rich myriad canopy hues throughout the growing season.

Conversely, during a recent trip back to Vermont, I had never realized how imbalanced the scattered old fields and open green spaces of the northeast felt; they are scars that the advance of trees (so undesirable here on the prairies) inexorably tries to heal. The resilient grasslands of the Platte and the Niobrara, practically exploding with a diversity of species and habitats to which I was hitherto unaware, allowed me to see ecological challenges of my old home. Prior to my experiences elsewhere in the country, I arguably was assessing these childhood surroundings with rose-tinted glasses (or maybe glasses tinted with the fiery colors of New England autumns). Even after finishing college in Indiana, I had no real comparison as a backdrop.

There are other observations I could list, but suffice it to say I learned a lesson that day, as I found myself simply standing in the middle of the prairie under an orange tinted sky, staring at my feet. Yes, I’ve always been a proponent of learning through new experiences, but it hadn’t occurred to me with such force how much we stand to learn from new experiences about the places we have already been. We become so readily comfortable in our routines that we lose sight of the immediately surrounding world. This is simply how our brains function to avoid constant stimuli overload. But what exciting potential there is for us if we see our new experiences as a sounding board for our old experiences, and not only the other way around!

I never did end up going for the rest of that walk, nor did I see the sun set. Instead, I found myself heading straight back for the house, laughing aloud at myself at my eagerness to write about the unexpected results of simply wearing a new pair of boots for a few days. This wasn’t the type of post I was originally planning to share with you all, but I hope it may give some of you a little excitement about the hidden world of inspiration and discovery that may be right under your feet.

Or on your feet. Who knows? I sure didn’t.

Posted in General, Hubbard Fellowship | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 27, 2016

I’m up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We spent the whole day herding bison today, so obviously I’m posting several photos of some autumn leaves I photographed along a creek after we finished.

Cottonwood leaf in a stream. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Cottonwood leaf in a creek. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The same leaf. Different angle.

Same leaf, different angle.

Different leaf, same creek.

Different leaf, same creek.

Once I get time to sort through them, I’ll probably have some bison roundup photos to post too…

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Risks of Managing Prairies Exclusively for Plants

Prairies are often defined as plant communities dominated by grasses, sedges, and wildflowers.  However, prairies are also home to thousands of animal species, not to mention countless varieties of fungi, bacteria, and other microbes.  Animals are just as much part of the prairie as plants, and they can have immense impacts on the plant community and overall prairie function.

Mixed-grass prairie managed with periodic fire and intensive grazing. Gjerloff Prairie - Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

For most of us, prairies are characterized by the plants we see when we walk through them. Gjerloff Prairie – Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Nebraska mixed-grass prairie managed with periodic fire and intensive grazing.

Despite the importance of animals, many prairie managers and biologists focus largely on plants when evaluating the quality of a prairie or when making management decisions.  Interestingly, many ranchers do the same thing, though they tend to focus mostly on dominant grasses while biologists often look more at plant species diversity and/or rare plant species. Regardless, it is rare that the needs of harvest mice, leafhoppers, or smooth green snakes are incorporated into management plans or evaluations of prairie quality.  (A major caveat is that some prairies are managed primarily for bird habitat – either song birds or game birds – a practice that has its own set of ramifications.)

Deer mice and other small mammals are rarely considered during management planning. Small mammals and other animals have specific needs for habitat structure, however, and are also vulnerable

Deer mice and other small mammals are rarely considered during management planning. Small mammals and other animals have specific needs for habitat structure, however, and their populations can decline or disappear after several years of unfavorable habitat conditions.

To be fair, there are good reasons to give plants primary consideration in management planning.  Cattle ranchers correctly recognize that cattle feed mostly on grass, so maintaining robust stands of grasses is critical for a successful ranching operation.  For biologists and conservation land managers, plants are often good indicators of prairie health.  Plant communities are easier to assess than insect or small mammal communities, and they provide the foundation for many ecological processes.  Pollinators, for example, rely on plant diversity and abundance of flowering plants.  Many other insect species need particular plant species or groups of plant species for food and/or living quarters.  A diverse plant community also provides a consistent supply of vegetative growth and seed production for plant-eating animals.

Bees and other pollinators rely upon plant diversity to provide a consistent supply of flowers throughout the growing season. This bee (Svastra sp) is on a native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in September.

Bees and other pollinators rely upon plant diversity to provide a consistent supply of flowers throughout the growing season. This bee (Svastra sp) is on a native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in September.

Not only are plants helpful in assessing prairies, every plant species is also significant and worthy of conservation for its own sake. However, the same is also true for animal species.  A prairie without birds, ants, butterflies, or grasshoppers just wouldn’t be the same, and not just from an aesthetic standpoint.  The complex interactions between all the various organisms in prairies are difficult to study, but absolutely critical to ecological function.  Studies that have excluded or suppressed populations of small mammals or insects have documented tremendous changes to the plant community – usually resulting in lower plant diversity and dominance by a few species at the expense of others.

Animal communities are vital to prairie communities and ecological function, and conserving healthy animal communities relies on at least two broad factors: plant diversity and a variety of habitat structure. As mentioned earlier, most pollinators and herbivores rely upon a wide range of plant species in order to be able to find food at all times of the season, and many insects depend upon particular plant species for survival.  However, habitat structure is also critically important for animal communities, and because every animal has its own unique habitat requirements, prairies need to provide a wide variety of habitat conditions.

Habitat structure for animals is driven by factors such as the amount of plant litter covering the ground and the height and density of the vegetation.  Some animals depend upon short vegetation with lots of exposed bare ground, some need tall dense vegetation, and still others prefer something in-between – or combinations of several habitat types.  The size and distribution of habitat patches is also important.  For example, some animal species need fairly large areas of a particular habitat structure, while others thrive best in situations where small patches of short and tall vegetation are intermixed.

A variety of habitat structure types across a prairie helps ensure a diversity of animal species, including invertebrates, will thrive.

A variety of habitat structure types across a prairie helps ensure that a diversity of animal species, including invertebrates, will thrive.  This area of intensive grazing is adjacent to other patches of taller and thicker vegetation.  Restored prairie in The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This is the same restored prairie as shown above, but in a diffrent yet

This is the same restored prairie as shown in the previous photo, but in a year when management provided different habitat structure.  Cattle have grazed much of the grass, but have left behind a diversity of blooming plants, including Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and many others.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Prairie management regimes that don’t consider animals’ needs can lead to problems.  For example, prairies with relatively uniform vegetation structure provide limited options for animals, regardless of whether that structure is uniformly short, tall, or somewhere in the middle.  A subset of animal species will thrive in those prairies, but other species can experience significant population declines.  If those same conditions persist for too long, some animal species can disappear completely.  Whether or not those species return depends upon the mobility of the animals and the degree of habitat fragmentation around the prairie.

Some management tactics can also cause animal populations to disappear or decline dramatically.  While it is an important part of prairie management, prescribed burning can be particularly dangerous to animals, especially if an entire prairie is burned at once. Fire can directly kill animals, including insects overwintering or living inside plants, but animals can also suffer from the sudden loss of habitat.  These impacts are especially severe in fragmented landscapes where there is nowhere for animals with limited mobility to go for better habitat, and no way for recolonization by species wiped out by fire.  Uniform haying and intensive grazing can have some similar impacts to fire, although both tend to leave a little more habitat for at least some species.

Snakes like this red-sided garter can be vulnerable to fires that occur during the growing season. However, dormant season fires can also be very damaging for insects and other species that overwinter in grass litter or in aboveground stems of plants.

Snakes like this red-sided garter can be vulnerable to fires that occur during the growing season. However, dormant season fires can also be very damaging for insects and other species that overwinter in grass litter or in aboveground stems of plants.

Plant diversity and the survival of rare plant species are important objectives for prairie management.  However, the same can be said for animal diversity and rare animal species.  In some cases, well-planned management can largely account for the needs of both.  Providing a shifting mosaic of habitat patches across big prairies can usually facilitate plant and animal diversity, and accommodations can be made for rare species or species sensitive to particular management tactics such as fire or grazing.  Understanding the needs and evaluating responses of various groups of plants and animals, however, is crucial to successfully adapting management strategies over time.

Conserving all species is much more difficult in small and/or isolated prairies.  A single prescribed fire can potentially wipe out animal species, and repetitive use of any management tactic, including fire, grazing, haying or rest risks eliminating species as well.  Read more about the challenges of managing small prairies here.

In both large and small prairies, setting clear objectives for management is very important.  Ideally, those objectives will accommodate the needs of most or all animal and plant species and sustain ecological resilience.  In reality, it’s more likely that the needs of some species will have to be sacrificed or given less priority than others.  As an example, frequent burns might sustain high populations of many plants (including some rare species) and help suppress invasive trees or grasses, but are likely to eliminate some species of butterflies and other invertebrates, and potentially some snakes and other vertebrates as well.  Alternatively, applying periodic patchy grazing and rest treatments in the same prairie could increase habitat heterogeneity to the benefit of many animals, but could reduce the relative abundance of some sensitive plant species while stimulating higher populations of more grazing tolerant plants.

These kinds of management decisions can be extremely difficult, and there are no easy answers.  The disappearance of any species from a prairie is a big loss, particularly at isolated sites, and we don’t yet know how to predict the ripple effects of losing most species.  Even when management decisions don’t directly eliminate species, reducing population sizes can make species more vulnerable to diseases or other factors that could eventually wipe them out.

Regal fritillaries are

The regal fritillary butterfly is one of many prairie animals that has been shown to be vulnerable to disappearing from prairies because of incompatible management.  Even for fairly mobile species like butterflies, recolonization after local extinction is far from assured, especially in fragmented landscapes.

No matter what management decisions are made, it’s crucial that land managers consider the needs of as many species as possible – including both plants and animals.  It’s not necessarily wrong to manage a prairie primarily for plant diversity or to sustain populations of rare plants.  It’s also understandable that a cattle rancher would want to sustain consistent vigorous stands of grass.  However, in both cases, managers need to acknowledge and accept that optimizing conditions for a particular suite of plant species will lead to negative consequences for other species, including both animals and plants.

Hopefully, continuing research and experience will help us better understand the inescapable tradeoffs that come with these kinds of difficult decisions.  For now, the impacts of losing plant or animal species and the potential for those losses to affect ecological resilience are still very unpredictable.  The best we can do is to be clear and honest with ourselves and others about why we’re making decisions, and do our best to evaluate the results and learn as we go.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about how excluding or suppressing animal populations can lead to unexpected and complex reactions in grassland communities, here are a couple example research papers.

Herbivory and Plant Species Coexistence: Community Regulation by an Outbreaking Phyotophagous Insect.  Walter P. Carson and Richard B. Root.  2000.  Ecological Monographs 70(1):73-99.

 Secondary plant succession: how is it modified by insect herbivory?  V.K. Brown and A.C. Gange. 1992. Vegetatio 101:3-13

Massive and Distinctive Effects of Meadow Voles on Grassland Vegetation.  2006.  Henry F. Howe, Barbara Zorn-Arnold, Amy Sullivan and Joel S. Brown, Ecology 87(12):3007-3013

Effects of Coyote Removal on the Faunal Community in Western Texas.  1999.  Scott E. Henke and Fred C. Bryant.  Journal of Wildlife Management 63(4):1066-1081

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 20, 2016

Rosinweed

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) seeds hang tenuously to the flower head.  Lincoln Creek Prairie (Prairie Plains Resource Institute) in Aurora, Nebraska.

I stole an hour of photography time this week as a foggy morning worked its way toward a sunny afternoon.  The small restored prairie on the edge of town was a great place to explore. A few surprises awaited.  Though most flowers were well done with flowering, a few late ones were still in bloom – possibly plants that were injured earlier in the season and were trying to squeeze out a flower on hastily regrown stems.  Insects were surprisingly abundant – taking advantage of a day with temperatures in the high 60’s and rising.  Here is a selection of images from my prairie walk.

Late

Late goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)

More goldenrod

More goldenrod

Beetle

A tiny beetle takes advantage of a rare pollen dinner on a stiff goldenrod plant (Solidago rigida) that was flowering extraordinarily late.

Stink bug

This stink bug blends in wonderfully with the drying head of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) it was exploring.

Giant milkweed bug

Giant milkweed bug on a common milkweed pod.

damselfly

There were quite a few damselflies feeding on tiny flying insects as I walked around.  They were difficult to get close to, though…

damselfly

After many failed attempts, I did finally manage to get close enough to a couple damselflies to get reasonable photos.  Here is one of them.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trusting the Resilience of Prairies

Note to my son (and others who mainly follow this blog to see if there are cool pictures or pictures of them):  This is a pretty long and involved post – sorry.  The first picture is probably the best one, though there are a couple other decent prairie photos further down (though none with you in them).  The other pictures are more instructional than aesthetically pleasing.  Don’t worry, I’ll put up some better photos later this week.

Restored sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. This prairie

Restored sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. This prairie was seeded in 2002 and has been managed with sporadic intensive grazing and fire.

Great Plains grasslands are more resilient than most of us give them credit for.  Just recently, for example, they survived the drought of 2012, the worst single year drought on record in many places (including at our Platte River Prairies).  In a post I wrote during 2012, I compared that drought to similar conditions described by famous prairie ecologist J.E. Weaver back in the 1934.  In both cases, prairies recovered nicely.  In fact, in a 1944 paper, Weaver and collaborator Frederick Alberts provided a detailed summary of how prairies in Iowa, Nebraska, and east-central Kansas persevered and recovered from repeated drought conditions between 1933 and 1943.

This is a brief summary

This brief summary was part of the 1944 paper referenced above that documented how prairies reacted to the drought years of the 1930’s.  The paper is worth reading if you’re interested in how prairies might respond to droughts in the future.  You can click on the image to make the print larger.

Nebraska prairies have also shown resilience to intensive fire and grazing – historically by bison and currently by cattle.  Chronic overgrazing, of course, can decrease plant diversity and cause cascading negative impacts on prairie animals and critical ecological processes.  However, most prairies can easily withstand periodic bouts of intensive grazing followed by comparable rest periods.  We’ve been tracking plant community responses to this kind of fire/cattle grazing management in our Platte River Prairies since 2002 and have seen plant diversity remain stable.  Even grazing-sensitive plants such as rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), prairie clovers (Dalea sp.) and others have maintained their populations.  Likewise, at our Niobrara Valley Preserve in the Nebraska Sandhills, prairies managed with more than 25 years of periodic fire and intensive bison grazing are still healthy, diverse, and full of wildlife.

Since coming to dominance in the Great Plains after the last ice age, prairies have survived and thrived through long droughts (some lasting multiple decades), severe fires, and intensive grazing episodes.  Yes, we’ve managed to destroy and degrade many prairies through tillage, herbicide use, and chronic overgrazing, but those are departures from the kinds of stresses prairies have evolved with over time.  The more time I spend in Nebraska prairies, the more important I think it is to run prairies through their paces now and then.  That includes beating them up with periodic intensive grazing.

Ragweed

Western ragweed is visually dominant this summer in this part of my family prairie which is recovering from being grazed hard most of last year.  Big bluestem and other grasses are still present, but are weakened from last year’s grazing.  Stiff sunflower and other perennial forb populations are expanding.

Not only can prairies rebound from droughts and intensive grazing, some aspects of prairies seem to depend upon those patterns of disturbance and recovery.  As we’ve experimented with variations of patch-burn grazing over the years, I’ve observed a consistent response pattern from plant communities.   We burn a patch of prairie, let cattle or bison graze it hard all season and then provide a different burn patch for the grazers the following year.  In the year following fire and grazing, prairie patches get a weedy look to them because dominant grasses are weakened by the previous year’s grazing and there is open space for new plants to establish.  Often, I see an increase of roughly 25-30% in the number of plant species found at the 1 m2 scale in the year after grazing.

Many of the plants that fill spaces left by weakened grasses are opportunistic (‘weedy’) species that grow, bloom, and produce copious amounts of seed within a year or two – and most of those plants disappear within a year or two as grasses reassert their dominance.  In addition to those short-lived plants, however, I also see expansion of long-lived perennial plant populations that are taking advantage of weakened competition.  Prairie clovers, leadplant, perennial sunflowers, and many others spread via both rhizome and seed during those periods when grasses are weakened.  What I don’t see is the death or disappearance of plants following intensive grazing bouts that last a year or two.  Even plants – both grasses and forbs – that are cropped close to the ground and kept that way by repeated grazing regain their vigor within a few years of rest.

Prairie animals also seem to benefit when prairies go through periods of severe stress and recovery.  For example, many of the plant species that flourish following intensive grazing (and/or severe drought) are very attractive plants for pollinators.  Annual sunflowers, hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), and biennial primroses (Oenothera sp.) are just a few examples.  The prolific seed production by those opportunistic plants also provides a bonanza of food for insects and wildlife species.

Annual plains sunflowers (Helianthus petiolaris) were super abundant throughout the Nebraska Sandhills in 2013, following the severe 2012 drought. I would love to see this kind of prolific blooming of short-lived plants on portions of our Niobrara Valley Preserve each year.

Plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), an annual, was super abundant throughout the Nebraska Sandhills in 2013, following the severe 2012 drought. I would love to see this kind of prolific blooming of short-lived plants on scattered areas of our Niobrara Valley Preserve each year.  We are trying to create that scenario by intensively grazing selected pastures/patches of prairie each season and then letting them recover while others are hit hard.

Animals also benefit from habitat structure created by patterns of intensive grazing and recovery.  Because every animal has its own individual habitat preferences, the highest diversity of animals are found in prairies with patches of intensively grazed vegetation, patches of recovering vegetation, and patches of tall/thatchy vegetation.  Mobile animals can move to their favorite habitat structure and less mobile animals need only wait a few years for conditions that allow them to prosper.

Vegetation recovering from intensive grazing can provide particularly unique and valuable habitat.  Habitat structure consisting of short, weakened grasses and tall ‘weedy’ forbs provides wonderful brood-rearing habitat for birds such as grouse, quail, and pheasants, for example.  The low density of grass leaves and litter at ground level makes it easy for young birds (and other wildlife) to move around and feed beneath a canopy of protective cover.  Coincidentally, insect abundance also skyrockets under those same conditions, which is good for insects and also for the wildlife that eats them.

This 2013 photo shows a restored Platte River Prairie recovering from severe drought, fire, and intensive grazing from the previous year. Grasses are weak, but opportunistic forbs are prolific, including many that provide excellent resources for pollinators and lots of seeds for insects and wildlife.

This 2013 photo shows a restored Platte River Prairie recovering from severe drought, fire, and intensive grazing from the previous year. Grasses are weak, but opportunistic forbs are prolific, including many that provide excellent resources for pollinators and lots of seeds for insects and wildlife.

What are we afraid of?

I’m more and more convinced of the importance of putting prairies through periods of stress and recovery, especially when those stresses are applied in a way that provides a shifting mosaic of stressed, recovering, and full strength vegetation patches across a prairie.  No matter how hard we have grazed prairies, even during severe and extended drought periods, the plant communities have always bounced back during the recovery periods that follow.  In addition, my own observations and data collected by many researchers have documented benefits to wildlife and invertebrates that come from the variety of habitats provided by this kind of management.  (You can read more about patch-burn grazing here and the way I manage my family prairie here.)

While I’m confident that it’s valuable to beat prairies up now and then, I’m having a hard time convincing others to try it.  Both ranchers and public land managers tend to have strong visceral reactions when I walk them through patches of really intensively grazed prairie.  Ranchers are often convinced that I’ve killed the grasses and created weed and erosion problems that will never go away.  Conservation area managers worry about potential weed invasions too, and some also wonder if sensitive wildflowers will survive the stress.  Many of those land managers also flinch at the lack of habitat structure for wildlife species they care about.

Walking tour participants from an intensively grazed patch into a nearby area of recovering vegetation doesn’t usually help things.  Ranchers tend to see the flush of opportunistic plants as validation of their fears about dead grass and weed problems, even when I next show them patches where the grasses have regained dominance after a few years of rest.  Some wildlife managers recognize the value of the weedy vegetation as habitat, but worry about the perceptions of neighbors and the public who just see weeds, not habitat.  Others see the weedy vegetation as a sign that the plant community has been degraded, despite the fact that the plant species they like better haven’t gone away.

This fenceline photo from our family prairie was taken in September 2014. The pasture on the left had been grazed hard all season, while the one on the right had been largely rested for more than a year.

This fenceline photo from our family prairie was taken in September 2014. The pasture on the left had been grazed hard all season (the grass is about 2-3 inches tall), while the one on the right had been mostly rested for more than a year.  Besides helping to increase plant diversity, this kind of grazing also creates a variety of habitat conditions across the prairie.

This is the same fenceline as shown above (just slightly uphill). The grasses on the left have recovered from the long intensive grazing in 2014 and are ready to be hit hard again next season. The ragweed on the right is enjoying a good year after that area was grazed intensively for most of 2015.

This is the same fenceline as shown above (just slightly uphill) as it looked in mid-August of 2016. The grasses on the left have recovered from the long intensive grazing in 2014 and are ready to be hit hard again next season. The ragweed on the right is enjoying a good year while the competing grasses are recovering from being grazed intensively for most of 2015

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all prairies would benefit from the kind of periodic intensive grazing I’m talking about here.  Some prairies, for example, are simply too small and isolated.  There are big logistical challenges associated with fencing and providing livestock water in small prairies.  More importantly, there just isn’t space to graze some portions of small prairies while leaving other areas to rest and recover.  (Small prairies have a number of other challenges that make any kind of management difficult.  If you’re interested, I tried to address some of those in a blog post several years ago.)

I also have a number of lingering questions about how best to apply intensive grazing and recovery periods to prairies.  For example, I strongly suspect that the best results come from intensive grazing bouts that last between a couple months and a full growing season.  Grazing for only days or weeks doesn’t seem to stress the grasses as much as longer periods of repeated grazing on those plants.  In addition, different grass species grow strongly at different times of year.  Because of that, grazing for a short time can just shift dominance from the grasses growing strongly during the grazing bout to species that peak in their growth after grazers leave.  Since my objective is to really weaken the entire grass community, I don’t think short grazing periods will do the job – but I’d like to test that more.

This is one of our restored prairies at the end of August of this year. The grasses were grazed hard all season, and eventually went dormant during a hot dry spell. Many of the forbs were also grazed, but not all of them. This site will likely be very weedy looking next year.

This is one of our restored Platte River Prairies at the end of August of this year. The grasses were grazed hard all season, and eventually went dormant during a hot dry spell. Many of the forbs were also grazed, but not all of them. This part of the site will likely be very weedy looking next year.

This is the same restored prairie as shown above, but the photo was taken several years ago during a year it wasn't being grazed. It will look like this again in a few years.

This is the same restored prairie as shown above, but the photo was taken several years ago during a year it wasn’t being grazed. It will look like this again in a few years.

I’d also love to see more data on the responses of various vertebrate and invertebrate populations to intensive grazing, recovery periods, and the overall mix of habitat provided by the kind of management I think is important.  There is strong research showing benefits to small mammal and bird communities, and some information on invertebrates, but only some of them.  Learning more about the response of reptiles and a wider selection of invertebrates to this kind of grazing management would be really helpful.

In the meantime, however, I’m going to keep beating up my prairies.  Not only do I think they can take it, I think the prairie communities I work with thrive best under that kind of management.  (I will keep an eye on what happens, however, constantly vigilant for signs that I’ve gone a little too far.)  I’ll also keep trying to convince others to stop babying their prairies so much.  I’m hoping I can find a few ranchers willing to push pastures a little harder than they usually do – allowing longer rest periods to compensate, of course.  That shouldn’t require changing stocking rates, but might provide some really nice benefits for pollinators and wildlife species.  I know I’m going to continue to face skepticism from many corners, but I really think this concept needs to be explored further.  Prairies have shown their resilience over thousands of years.  I think we can trust that kind of track record.

So…who’s with me?

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 14, 2016

It feels like autumn has arrived.  We had frost on the ground yesterday, most wildflowers are done blooming, fluffy seeds are erupting across the prairie, and leaves and stems are turning from green to yellow.  Leaves of shrubs and trees in and around prairies are turning red and gold.  It’s also quiet.  Yesterday, as I walked through a small prairie here in town, the only noises I heard were plants rasping against each other as I walked through them.  Insects and birds were largely absent, or at least silent.

Here are some fall prairie photos from this week.

Smooth sumac

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) leaves, those still hanging on, are a gorgeous red right now.

Milkweed

It’s a good time of year to see milkweed seeds floating about.

Wild cucumber

Wild cucumber (Echinocyst9s lobata) growing between prairie and the Platte River.

Virginia creeper

Virginia creeper, (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) just a few feet away from the wild cucumber.

Aphids

I’m not sure what kind of sustenance this milkweed bug larva and its three friends (which feed by sucking plant juices) were getting from this dry milkweed pod.

Stiff goldenrod

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) maintains great red and yellow coloring, well after it is done blooming.

Canada milkvetch

Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) pods show the exit holes from the insect that ate the majority of its seeds this year (and most years).

It’s going to be a long time before I can photograph wildflowers again.  The winter is always hard in that regard.  Prairie life during the winter largely goes underground, which is sensible, but difficult to photograph.  I enjoy the challenge finding color, texture, and light to photograph during the long winter months, but I sure will be glad to see the first wildflowers again next spring.  For now, however, I’m going to get as much enjoyment as I can from the fall colors of the prairie.

Smooth sumac

Smooth sumac again.  It’s hard to walk past something with this kind of color.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Sky is My Mountain

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.

The sky is my mountain. I recently heard Jeff Walk from Illinois Nature Conservancy articulate this notion of prairie geography. If westerners are defined by their mountains, those of us from the Midwest and Great Plains are defined by our skies. Prairies are open horizons. Even on the most heavily plowed landscapes, the ghosts of prairies loom as long as the land stretches toward an expansive sky.

Sky

Flat land compensates the viewer with tremendous skies.

All landscapes affect the prejudices about comfort and beauty of those born to them. I know someone who moved to Minnesota from the West for a job and was gone within the week, overcome by the flatness of the land. That might be a little dramatic, but I can understand the uneasiness. For me claustrophobia and paranoia rises in deeply wooded landscapes that lack the promise of a lake or field offering a glimpse beyond the trees. I think we all have that affinity for particular aesthetics to some degree, and because of that I think we can all empathize with the plight of prairie wildlife.

Unlike humans, most prairie wildlife lacks the flexibility to adapt to the uneasiness brought on by changes in their natal landscapes. Prairie chickens may be the most well known of the prairie wildlife terrorized when the land loses the sky, but they are almost certainly not the only ones. One needs only to watch the predatory efficacy of hawks and owls from their perches high atop the crowns of trees to understand why the development of tall vertical structure results in the extirpation of prairie species. There are more trees than ever closing off the sky, threatening to fundamentally alter the ecology, composition, and aesthetics of our prairies.

Historical records from the mid-late 1800’s in Nebraska’s Lower Platte River Valley (to the east of our Platte River Prairies) suggest trees occurred as widely scattered individuals and small clusters; a far cry from the ubiquitous shelterbelts and heavily wooded groves that cloak what almost certainly was formerly prairie. Trees and the changes they have already wrought and continue to promise are why most of our field season at the Platte River Prairies has played out to the whine of chainsaws.

The small row of trees on the horizon may seem insignificant, but the removal of those trees would visually reconnect three chunks of prairie; potentially having pronounced effects on grassland bird nesting occurrences and brood rearing success. Photo by Eric Chien.

The small row of trees on the horizon may seem insignificant, but the removal of those trees would visually reconnect three chunks of prairie; potentially having pronounced effects on grassland bird nesting occurrences and brood rearing success. Photo by Eric Chien.

 

I am haunted by trees. Back on June 8th, Katherine and I picked up chainsaws and walked into a grove of cottonwoods along a creek bottom. On September 23rd, another 10ft tall Siberian elm twirled to the ground. In between, we spent hundreds of more hours felling, bucking, and stacking trees. Always to the backdrop of more deep green tree lines on the near horizon; a reminder of how far trees have come, and how far prairie stewards have to go.

Katharine Hogan (Hubbard Fellow) wields a chainsaw

Katharine Hogan (Hubbard Fellow), technician Calla Olson, and I spent several days extracting a row of large twisting mulberry trees from between two stretches of fence. Photo by Eric Chien

Looking down the fence line of this tree removal project illustrates the process. Sawyers fell, limb, and buck trees, while a tractor follows behind and piles material into burn piles within the interior of the prairie. Photo by Eric Chien

Looking down the fence line of this tree removal project illustrates the process. Sawyers fell, limb, and buck trees, while a tractor follows behind and piles material into burn piles within the interior of the prairie. Photo by Eric Chien

The most time intensive portion of tree removal, and thus limiting factor, is the organization and removal of downed tree material. Left on the ground, mature trees rarely burn up well in prescribed fires, and the skeletons impede maneuvering within the area during future management actions. Photo by Eric Chien

The most time intensive portion of tree removal, and thus limiting factor, is the organization and removal of downed tree material. Left on the ground, mature trees rarely burn up well in prescribed fires, and the skeletons impede maneuvering within the area during future management actions. Photo by Eric Chien

Despite the specter of an advancing forest, I love tree cutting. I like to think of tree control on the prairie as the big game hunting version of plant management. Removing mature trees demands thorough planning, and constant attention to one’s surroundings.  To date, I am not aware of an incidence of death by reed canary grass. Put that focus factor together with the fact that there are few prairie management activities with as immediately noticeable impact as the removal of dramatic woody encroachment, and it is a task ready made for those of us brain dead from spraying, and still cultivating patience for observing the effects of our work. Walking through a completed tree removal, or thinning, noting the full sunlight, and the unrestrained wind, gives me the same feeling as looking at a maturing prairie restoration. I think in many ways it is an equally profound change in the land; a taking back of the sky, and a return of a prairie.

Posted in Prairie Management | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Ok. I’m on Instagram. Now What?

One of my co-workers finally convinced me to join Instagram.

So now I’m on Instagram.

Yep, sitting here on Instagram.

 

…Now what?

I have some pretty strong objectives for the Prairie Ecologist blog. (I’m not doing this for my health, people!)  I want to raise awareness about the beauty, complexity, and importance of prairies, and I try to provide resources and ideas to help ensure prairies are restored and managed well.

I don’t really have objectives yet for Instagram because I’m not really sure what the potential is.  I’m in the pool, but I’m over in the corner treading water, trying to figure out what the excitement is all about.

screenshot_2016-10-10-09-18-02

Help!  If you are an Instagram user, what draws you in?  How can I use Instagram to increase prairie awareness and conservation?

Oh, and feel free to follow me.  My username is prairieecologist.

I’ll try to make it worth your while.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 6 Comments