Photo of the Week – October 5, 2018

Bison are pretty tough.  At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and at many other sites in the upper Great Plains, bison make it through the winter without any supplementary feed. They just eat cured grasses, grow a thick coat, and plow through snow and ice as needed.  Bison don’t need humans to help with calving, and they protect their babies very effectively from predators.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that animals like that would be completely unfazed by a little rain.

Yesterday, some of our Nebraska staff took a trip up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa.  Land steward James Baker led us on a very scenic hike before a band of cold rainy weather moved in.  We then piled into some trucks with James and Director of Stewardship Scott Moats and went to visit the resident bison herd.  The bison were peacefully grazing as we drove up, despite the pouring rain.  When we stopped, a small group came over to check us out. Here are a few photos of those rugged bison, who didn’t need to huddle in dry and heated pickups to stay comfortable.

P.S. In case you had any doubt about my nerd qualifications, here’s one more piece of evidence.  As I was working up these photos (in the backseat of a truck heading back to Nebraska) yesterday, I was looking closely at the streaks of rain captured by my camera.  Based on the size of a bison calf’s eye and the length of the rain streaks closest to those eyes, I estimated that my camera captured about an inch of raindrop fall during the 1/250 of a second the camera’s shutter was open.  Now, I’d want to do some actual measuring of bison calves’ eyes to check this, but based on that rough estimation, those raindrops were falling about 250 inches per second.  Now, if I convert that number to miles per hour, I get 14.2 mph.  A quick online search found that raindrops are estimated to fall at about 20 mph.  I was pretty close!!  I mean, given that I don’t really know how big a bison eye is or how close those raindrop streaks were to that eye…  (NERD)

Photo of the Week – September 21, 2018

I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down.  I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun.  If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are.  Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie.  It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.

Photo of the Week – August 31, 2018

Earlier this week, we spent a few days collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It was a quick trip up and back, but we still managed to see quite a bit of wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn, grouse, lizards, monarch butterflies, lots of grasshoppers and bees, and much more.  We also found ourselves close to bison a few times, and I managed to get some decent photos of them.  Here is a selection of those bison shots.

The red calves we saw back in May have grown quite a bit, and have changed into a more standard bison color.

A yearling cow stares unflappably back at me…

After driving into a bunch of bison in our west pasture, we watched as one after another of them stopped and took a dust bath in the same spot, rolling around in a frankly ridiculous, but apparently effective manner.

More dust bathing…

I couldn’t quite convince my son that we have a two-headed bison at the Preserve now, but he had to look carefully at the photo before he was sure.

This big ol’ bull was off by himself and lying down in the grass as we drove by in the evening. He stood as we approached, looked us over, and then turned and walked away as if he couldn’t care less – which is probably accurate.

Quality Time

I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve for two different events last week.  The first was a fantastic two day meeting/tour with university scientists that defined the likely focus of our primary research effort over the next several years.  The second was much more impactful – I spent two days with my 17 year old son.  We didn’t have much of an agenda for the two days, other than to kayak the Niobrara River on day two.  Apart from that, we were free to wander the prairie, splash in the river, or just hang out anywhere and anytime we felt like it.  It was pretty glorious.

As we were driving into the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we spotted a small group of bison from the road and drove over to take a look.  They were hanging around a low area that was clearly a well-used dusting area.

We parked close by, sat quietly, and just watched them.  After a while, the bison got pretty comfortable with our presence, with several coming over to lick the mineral deposits (I assume) off the side of the truck.

John is the only one of our kids who hasn’t floated the Niobrara River, so that clearly needed to be remedied.  More importantly, I was really looking forward to spending some quality time with my son before he enters his senior year of high school and prepares to go off to college.  John and I have similar senses of humor, though he’s usually a little quicker off the mark than I am.  He’s also brilliant at math and engineering, knowledgeable and opinionated about current events, passionate about soccer, and has matured over the last few years into an independent and responsible human being.  I’m incredibly proud of him.  (Also, he will probably read this, so I’m saying only nice things about him.)

When we drove up to the small group of bison at the beginning of our visit to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I was worrying about how to keep John engaged and happy during our two days.  He’s a kid who is comfortable in the outdoors, but not necessarily someone who seeks out or finds inner peace when surrounded by nature.  When I first asked him if he wanted to spend a couple days at NVP with me, he said, “sure, as long as we can DO things.”  No pressure, Dad…

After about ten minutes of bison watching, with just a little quiet conversation about what they were doing and why, we lapsed into a long silence.  Concerned that he was bored, I asked John if he wanted to move on to something else.  “No,” he replied, “I like bison.  We can stay for a while longer.”  About twenty minutes later, the bison started wandering off over the next hill, and we drove off in the opposite direction toward a prairie dog town.

After watching the bison, we decided to go check out a small prairie dog town along the south end of the bison pasture.

My typical experience with prairie dog towns is that I get to see lots of prairie dogs from a distance, but they disappear into their holes well before I get into easy visual range.  One of the few exceptions to that came a couple years ago when I visited this same prairie dog town with my daughter.  As we drove into the town last week, I assumed the worst, and my expectations were confirmed by the first twenty or so dogs we saw – each of which squeaked and dove into their burrows as we approached.

The twenty-first prairie dog, however, hesitated, and as we inched a little closer, stayed alert but aboveground, along with one of its pups.  We slide quietly to a stop and watched them for a little bit.  After a few minutes, I moved the truck up even closer so John could get some better photos with his phone, and while the pup got nervous and left, the mother stuck around.  While we sat there, we also spotted a burrowing owl and a fledgling horned lark.

Most prairie dogs dove for cover long before we got close, but this one stayed aboveground long enough for us to get a good look at it.

Usually, when I’m at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I try to maximize every minute of my time.  It’s over four hours away from my home, so it’s an effort to get there, and I always feel pressured to get as much done as I can during each trip.  As a result, I rarely have time to just relax and take whatever comes.  After John and I finished watching bison and prairie dogs, and it was clear that John was enjoying the laid back trip, I began to relax and sink into the bliss of some agenda-less time with my kid.  We decided to go see if we could find a small creek to explore.

We found the spot where this little creek flowed right out of the sand and started on its way through a wooded draw and down to the Niobrara River.

On the way to find the creek, we ran across a bigger group of bison and decided to launch the drone and get some footage for my slowly-growing video library.  John is a fan of the drone, but we only flew it for a little while before we moved on.  After all, this wasn’t a work trip.  We eventually stopped along the edge of the bluffs above the river and walked down into a draw that looked like a good place to find a stream.  Sure enough, we started to hear flowing water as we descended, and we found a cold clear creek and walked upstream until we saw where it was seeping right out of the ground.

Later that evening, we met up with a couple other friends who happened to be at NVP at the same time, and the four of us splashed around in the river for a while before playing cards and going to bed.  It was a good first day, but the main reason John had come was to kayak the river, and we needed to get up (fairly) early the next day to beat the crowd to the water.

Finally – the part of the trip John was really waiting for.

The next morning, we got to Rock Barn Outfitters and got a ride upriver to our drop off point, where we slid the kayaks into the water.  It was a Friday, and I was a little concerned that we might have to weave through early weekend tubers sharing the river with us, but while the scattered campgrounds along the river were full of people, we spent five hours on the water without seeing any tubers, canoers, or other kayakers.  It was perfect.

I made John stop and walk up to see Stairstep Falls, one of many waterfalls on the north side of the river (on land owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy).

We floated about 14 miles in five hours, stopping a few times to hike, swim, or eat lunch.  During the entire trip, the Niobrara Valley Preserve was to our right, helping to give John a feel for the immense size of the 56,000 acre property.  In fact, we only saw about half of the Preserve’s river frontage that day.  As we slipped quietly downriver, we also saw quite a few bald eagles, along with great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, dragonflies, frogs, and other animals.

It wasn’t all quiet and contemplative nature watching, though.  There were also a few kayak races, which included quite a bit of pushing, shoving, and splashing.  In addition, John was really hoping to paddle through some rapids, and while I tried to temper his expectations, the river was running pretty high and we did manage to find a fair number of (mild) whitewater stretches.  We also found a nice, quiet, and relatively deep stretch of river where he hopped into the water and just floated/swam downstream while I held onto his kayak for him.  I think we checked all his boxes for the day.

This was one of many short stretches of mild whitewater.  Most were rough enough to splash a little water into the kayaks, but not really enough to do much else.

Toward the end of the trip, we went through the Egelhoff rapids, where the entire river squeezes tightly into a very narrow run.  We got out and scouted it ahead of time, and then decided it was safe enough to paddle through.  I went first and then got out to watch John come through.

This might have been the best part of the day – we just floated slowly through a deep and gentle stretch of river, with John cooling off and relaxing in the water while I babysat the kayaks and tried not to float too far ahead.

We had a pretty quiet ride home after we got off the river.  John, as usual, slept through most of it.  I was pretty tired too, but also grateful for the opportunity to share one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people. Hopefully, John will remember the trip fondly as he goes off to become an engineer.  And hopefully, he’ll come back and float the river with me again sometime.

If you’re interested in visiting the Niobrara River Valley, here’s a good website that describes the National Scenic River and some of the choices available.  While you’re there, you can stop and hike the public trail at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We don’t (yet) offer public tours of the bison herd or prairie dog town, but the hiking trail (just south of the river bridge on the road between Johnstown and Norden) provides some great overlooks of the river, and a chance to wander through many of the different ecosystems found in the valley.

Photo of the Week – June 29, 2018

We spent a productive week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, collecting a mountain of data.  Five of us spent our days scrambling across the Sandhills, counting flowering plants, quantifying milkweed populations, and estimating habitat cover.  As always, we got to observe far more than what we were focusing on for science.  We saw bald eagles, box turtles, a couple different snakes, pronghorn, mice, bird nests, families of northern bobwhites and sharp-tailed grouse, countless kinds of invertebrates, and much more.  It was an exhausting, but fulfilling week.

The science crew for this week. From left to right: Alex Brechbill and Olivia Schouten (Hubbard Fellows), Amanda Hefner (Conservation Assistant at NVP), and Katharine Hogan (former Hubbard Fellow and current PhD student at the U of Nebraska-Lincoln).

The above photo shows the kind of energy our crew had, though it was also taken just as the week was starting.  Hot sun, wet grass, and lots of massive poison ivy patches eventually knocked their enthusiasm down a notch or two, but we all still had a great time.  The crew certainly made me feel twice their age (which I am, for at least one of them), and not just because I’m still a little hobbled by my recovering ankle.  I appreciated their patience as they waited for me at the end of each sampling grid.

After each day of data collection, I spent the bulk of my evening time trying to build up an inventory of aerial photos and video with our drone.  I flew over the river, across open grasslands and prairie dog towns, and among herds of bison.  My post from earlier this week showed a small slice of just one evening’s imagery.  It’ll probably take me weeks or months to get through all the footage from the last several days, but I do have one tiny video clip to share with you today.

On Tuesday night, I  followed a small portion of our east bison herd around for a while.  I was skirting the edges of the herd with the drone, trying to get a feel for how close I could get before the bison started to react to the vehicle’s presence.  The bison were certainly aware of the drone, but while they edged away when I got too close, they certainly didn’t act frightened or panicked.  A few hundred yards from the main group, a lone bison bull was grazing by himself.  I decided to test its patience a little (in the name of science, of course).  I flew the drone to within 15-20 yards or so of it, and lowered it down to 10 or 12 feet off the ground.  Then I just hovered right there while it was eating.  (Well, the drone hovered there – I was very safely standing a couple hundred yards away, right next to my truck!)

As I watched through the screen on my controller, the bull glanced up a few times while it grazed, and then eventually raised its head to chew and watch the drone.  It chewed and watched for almost a minute.  Just as I was getting tired of the experiment and started to push the button to end the video, the bull’s patience apparently ran out.

Oh boy, do I wish I hadn’t hit the “stop recording” button when I did, but you get a pretty good picture of what came next.  I don’t know if it would have jumped high enough to hit the drone, but I do know that my suddenly sweaty hands pushed the “UP!!!” button on the controller as fast I could when that bull started its charge.  One of the reasons I’m sharing this video is that it’s a great reminder that while bison are incredible and beautiful creatures, they are also unpredictable and dangerous.  People die, or are seriously injured, every year on public lands when they ignore the unpredictable and dangerous part of the equation, and try to get too close to these huge animals.  Bison aren’t going to chase you down and trample you to death for no reason, but if you invade their comfort zone, they are very capable of defending themselves.

This photo was taken just a few minutes after the video.  I was safely in my truck…

As soon as I flew the drone away, the bison returned to calmly grazing, probably congratulating itself on how easily it had scared away that odd-looking, noisy, and pesky bird.  After watching the bull for a while from a distance, I drove slowly closer to it and photographed it as it continued grazing.  It was well aware of my presence, but is used to being around pickup trucks.  Since I wasn’t coming AT him, he calmly grazed and wandered on his way.

I’m fully aware of how fortunate I am to have my job, and to have access to the places we own and conserve. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone who reads this blog, but even more to people whose financial support allows our conservation work to happen.  I wish I could give each of you a personalized tour of our sites, but in lieu of that, I’ll continue trying to do the next best thing – show you the diversity and beauty of those places as best I can through writing and photography.  You can also come visit, of course, and hike the trails to see what you can see.  In the meantime, stay tuned for more photos and videos.

Information on visiting the Niobrara Valley Preserve can be found here and on visiting the Platte River Prairies here.

Compatibility of Cows, Conservation and Climate Change?

I’ve been asked a number of times why I advocate for cattle grazing in prairies when cattle are such strong contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and rapid climate change.  It’s a fair question, but also a complicated one.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can share some of what makes it a thought-provoking subject.  Rather than providing a lot of specific research citations, I’m aiming instead to provide some general information that highlights the complexity of the topic.  Feel free to contribute additional information and perspectives in the comments section below (as long as you keep it constructive and polite).

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Cattle graze among leadplant and prairie clover at Konza Prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills.  What are the ramifications of cattle grazing for greenhouse gas emissions and other contributing factors to climate change?

Cattle: The Downsides

First, here are some reasons people are concerned about the impact of cattle on climate change.  According to the EPA, agriculture is responsible for about 9% of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and beef production makes the largest contribution to that category.  Most of the impact comes not from carbon emissions, but from methane and nitrous oxide, both of which influence climate change more strongly (pound for pound) than does carbon.  “Enteric methane” (cow burps) is a big part of that equation, but so is manure, urine, and application of fertilizers to pastures.  These emissions are bad enough, but there are other negative impacts from beef production as well, including emissions from growing corn and other feed for cattle, emissions from manure in feedlots, water consumption by cattle and feed production, and pollution from sedimentation and nutrient runoff of pastureland.  Reading a list of bad stuff like this, it’s easy to see how people might wonder why I keep talking about grazing like it’s a good thing.

Cattle
Cattle are sometimes their own worst enemy in terms of advocating for their own existence.  I mean, come on, man!  This is just not a good look.

Predecessors to Cattle

As I provide some counterpoints, I’m going to do so from the perspective of the central Great Plains – the area of the world I’m most familiar with.  Outside the Great Plains, the situation varies greatly; there are places in the world where grazing may not be compatible with local ecosystems, for example, and where forest or other land cover types are being converted to pasture.  Here in my part of the country, however, we are in the heart of the historic bison range.  Before Europeans entered the picture in the Great Plains, prairies here were being grazed by bison, elk, pronghorn, and other large animals.  There are many arguments about the size of those historic bison populations, fluctuations in herd size and geographic range over time, and when/where bison impacts were important for prairie ecology.  For the purposes of this discussion, the important point is that cattle (and their emissions) weren’t introduced into a landscape with no history of methane emissions.  Bison were here prior to cattle, and they burped too.

The most cited article I’ve seen on the issue of methane emissions from historic bison populations is by Francis Kelliher and Harry Clark.  They use a fairly standard estimate of 30 million bison across the Great Plains prior to European contact.  Based on their calculations, the methane (CH4) emissions from those bison (2.2 Tg CH4 year-1) are not hugely different from those of today’s 36.5 million cattle across the same geography (2.5 Tg CH4 year-1).  The exact numbers are less important than this basic idea: the prairie ecosystem was contributing large amounts of methane to the atmosphere before humans brought cattle to the Plains.

Of course, feedlots, fertilization, and forage production, along with all the greenhouse gas emissions and other concerns associated with them, were not part of the historic bison landscape.  We definitely have an obligation to examine those aspects of cattle production and do what we can to limit their negative impacts.  In addition, the fact that cattle on native rangeland are producing emissions similar to their bison predecessors doesn’t release us from the responsibility of trying to reduce those emissions where possible.  I’m hopeful that research over the next decade or so will provide us with more guidance on how we might do that.

Bison
Before there were cattle, bison roamed (and burped) across the Plains.

Get Rid of Cattle?

What if we just stopped grazing cattle on the Great Plains?  Well, since the vast majority of the Great Plains is privately owned, grassland still exists primarily because it produces income.  Without cattle production, much of that grassland would likely be converted to row crop agriculture – a scenario that would probably be worse for climate change and would certainly spell disaster for prairie ecosystems.  Some have argued that a majority of the Great Plains should be turned into public land that would support both wildlife and tourism.  There are way too many economic and social issues associated with that for me to deal with here, but from a climate change emissions standpoint, I’m not sure it would solve the problem.  Either cattle would be replaced by bison again (see previous paragraph) or, if bison were not reintroduced, prairies would suffer from the loss of grazing, a major component of ecosystem function (see next paragraphs).

Simply getting rid of cattle altogether is probably not a great strategy for conservation. Plus, how could you get rid of something this cute?
Simply getting rid of cattle altogether is probably not a great strategy for conservation. Besides, how could you get rid of something this cute?

Grazing as a Positive Force

Despite the fact that chronic overgrazing can cause degradation of prairies (loss of plant species and habitat, soil erosion, etc.), grasslands and large grazers evolved together and grazing is still an essential component of grassland ecosystems.  This is especially true in North America’s Great Plains where there are still grasslands large enough to support wide-ranging wildlife species such as grouse and pronghorn.  Grazing, along with fire and drought, is one of the three major forces that affects prairies and prairie species.  For example, large herbivore grazing helps keep grasses from being so competitive that they overwhelm and reduce the diversity of plant communities, something that leads to a cascade of negative and interconnected impacts on pollinators, productivity, wildlife/insect communities, and more.  In addition, grazing alters vegetation structure, creating a wide range of habitat conditions.  Ungrazed prairie provides fairly uniform vegetation structure, even if it is hayed or burned.  Grazed prairie (under the right management) is heterogeneous, with patches of tall/dense vegetation, patches of short/sparse vegetation, and many other habitat types in-between – allowing the widest possible spectrum of prairie wildlife and insect species to thrive.

Maintaining plant and animal diversity, ecosystem function, and ecological resilience within the historic range of American bison would be very difficult without some kind of large ruminant, and in the face of climate change, we need our grasslands to be as resilient as possible.  Resilient grasslands will better adapt and maintain their ecological functions as climate changes, and that means they’ll continue to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it belowground – an incredibly important part of our global climate change strategy.  While the impact of grazing on carbon storage of grasslands is, in itself, a complex topic, the general scientific consensus seems to be that a moderate level of grazing facilitates more carbon storage than no grazing (and more than chronic overgrazing).

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Strategic cattle grazing can create a variety of wildlife habitat structure types and help sustain plant diversity and ecological diversity.  It can also help maximize carbon storage in grasslands.

The Upshot

In the Great Plains of North America, grazing is an essential part of grassland ecosystems – a component that maintains the ecological health and resilience of prairies.  Cattle have mostly replaced bison as the large ruminant on stage at the moment, but they are filling many of the same basic roles – regulating plant competition and creating wildlife habitat, and also pooping, peeing, and burping.  We absolutely need to find ways to minimize the impacts of today’s grazing on climate change.  Livestock confinement operations, pasture fertilization, forage production, and other related practices provide opportunities for continued improvement.  In addition, some rangeland grazing practices, such as chronic overgrazing, are known to be detrimental, and not just from a climate change standpoint, so that’s an obvious place to focus.  Beyond that, we need to figure out how best to limit methane and nitrous oxide emissions and increase carbon storage on rangeland.  That will likely mean changing techniques for managing cattle in pastures, but also dealing with issues related to pasture fertilization, forage production, forage and animal transportation, feeding operations, and more.

The topic of cattle grazing and climate change is incredibly complex.  There is much more involved than I could possibly cover here, and what I did include is plenty complicated.  I don’t pretend to fully understand all the facets of the issue, but for now, I feel comfortable in my stance that cattle (and/or bison) grazing can be compatible with responsible conservation of our prairies here in the Great Plains.

 

More Information and Acknowledgements

Several scientists from The Nature Conservancy wrote a really helpful piece on the beef supply-chain and its impacts on water, wildlife, and climate.  You can see a summary and get access to the full report here.

Special thanks to Jon Fisher and Joe Fargione, who both helped me refine and improve this post.  Any remaining errors are my fault, not theirs.

 

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.

Photo of the Week – August 11, 2016

I made a quick trip up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.  As always, there was a treasure trove of unexpected finds.  Here are some of them.

Bison calves are growing fast. Their coats have darkened to match the adults, and their horns are starting to look like more than just little bumps.
Bison calves are growing fast. Their coats have darkened to match the adults, and their horns are starting to look like more than just little bumps.

Bison tend not to hang around wooded areas for shade, but they also like to rub on trees aggressively enough to keep them stunted or even kill them. This bull was one of several bison that had evidence of recent rubbing on eastern red cedar trees.
Bison tend not to hang around wooded areas for shade, but they also like to rub on trees aggressively enough to keep them stunted or even kill them. This bull was one of several bison I saw this week that had apparently been recently rubbing on eastern red cedar trees.  Good for them.

Robber flies are amazing predators and always fun to photograph, but this might be my favorite of all time. This gorgeous robber fly landed in a sand blowout and was consuming a leaf hopper.
Robber flies are amazing predators and always fun to photograph, but this might be my favorite of all time. This gorgeous robber fly landed in a sand blowout and was consuming a leaf hopper.

Sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) is sometimes lumped with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and sometimes considered a separate species. I'm not entering that argument. However, sand bluestem (shown here) does tend to have much hairier flowers.
Sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) is sometimes lumped with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and sometimes considered a separate species. I’m not entering that argument. However, sand bluestem (shown here) does tend to have much hairier flowers.

How many of you noticed the small larva in the above photo?  I didn’t, until I was going through the photos on the computer the day after taking them.  Look below for a more close-up view of the larva.  You can see it at its original scale just to the left of the bottom left of the inset image.

Fly larva? Whatever it is, it sure is small. Wouldn't you love to know what it's doing there?
Fly larva? Whatever it is, it sure is small. Wouldn’t you love to know what it’s doing there?

This tumbleweed (Russian thistle, aka Salsola iberica) was lodged up against a fence in a big sand blowout.
This tumbleweed (Russian thistle, aka Salsola iberica) was lodged up against a fence in a big sand blowout.

This tiny pale bee (Perdita perpallida) is a specialist in prairie clovers (Dalea species) but I've only seen it on one species - Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa)
This tiny pale bee (Perdita perpallida) is a specialist in prairie clovers but I’ve only seen it on one species – Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa).  Its pale color helps it blend in very well. Thanks to Mike Arduser for ID and information.

What is more evocative of the Great Plains than bison grazing in a prairie dog town as the sun goes down over an expansive grassy landscape?
What is more evocative of the Great Plains than bison grazing in a prairie dog town as the sun goes down over an expansive grassy landscape? 

The Role of History In Today’s Prairie Management

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.

I’m no expert in financial investing, but I’d like to retire someday, so I muddle along the best I can.  As I skim through various financial statements and investment newsletters, I often see some variation of the disclaimer above.  The concise statement emphasizes that while history is important, many factors change over time, and we shouldn’t simply assume that what happened previously should drive what we do now.

I was thinking about this statement and its implications while attending the North American Prairie Conference last month.  During presentations and hallway discussions, the topic of history came up frequently.  How often did prairies burn prior to European settlement?  Were bison only abundant in eastern tallgrass prairies after human populations crashed during the smallpox catastrophe?  What was the role of big native ungulates like elk in suppressing woody plants?

Fire
We have reasonably good data on the historic fire frequency in prairies around the U.S.  How should that information drive today’s prairie management?

Questions like those are fascinating to contemplate, and important to our understanding of how prairies have changed over time.  Which of us wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to step into a time machine and go see North American prairies in the 1400’s or other historic times?  Wouldn’t it be fantastic to somehow find and pore over hundreds of years of data on bison population numbers, plant species composition, elk feeding patterns, and lots of other grassland phenomena?  While, that kind historic data is very limited, mining what we do have is fascinating and instructive.

However, just as with stock market investments, we can’t just look to the past to guide what we should do in the future.  The business world has evolved over time.  Simply investing today in the same corporate stocks that were profitable 30 or 60 years ago wouldn’t make a lot of sense.  Instead, we need investment strategies that fit today’s world.  Many companies disappeared over time because their products became obsolete.  Those that are still around, like General Electric, Nokia, and IBM, reinvented themselves.  Why?  The business landscape changed and they changed with it.

The prairie landscape has changed too.  Row crop agriculture and other human developments have replaced grassland across huge swaths of our country, leaving many prairies relatively small and isolated.  Trees and shrubs have flourished in landscapes where they were once scarce, and woody encroachment into small prairies now comes from all directions.  Many new species of plants and animals have found their way into North America, and some have become very aggressive.  Significant amounts of nitrogen from industrial and agricultural sources now enter grasslands by both air and water, changing soil chemistry to favor some plants over others.  Finally, prairies have endured a century or two of impacts from factors such as fire suppression, livestock grazing, haying, and broadcast herbicide use.  Today’s remaining prairies don’t look or function as they did a century or two ago.

corn
Prairies today exist within landscapes that are dramatically different from what they looked like historically.  Row crop agriculture has replaced grassland across much of the Midwest and Great Plains, and trees, invasive species, and many other factors threaten the remaining patches of prairie.

Big changes to prairies and surrounding landscapes mean that land managers face equally big challenges as we try to sustain biological diversity and ecological function.  For most managers, invasive species suppression is our most time consuming and expensive task.  Because of that, we are always searching for new ideas, strategies, and technologies to help us be more effective and efficient.  The herbicides we use to kill invasive plants were not part of the prairie ecosystem a couple hundred years ago, but I can’t imagine trying to do our job without them.  Similarly, brush mowers and the tractors that pull them are certainly not historically accurate, but they are invaluable when creating firebreaks or mowing down large patches of encroaching brush.

Today, land managers’ decisions about when to burn a prairie should be based on the myriad management objectives we face rather than on what the historic average fire frequency might have been at that site.  In many prairies, managers struggle to weigh the benefits of frequent fire to control brush and other invasive species against the potential impacts of frequent fire on vulnerable insects, reptiles, and other species.  Looking at historic fire patterns can help us understand how prairies developed, but today’s fire patterns need to address current challenges and help us sustain our imperiled grasslands.

Similarly, studying the historical population abundance of bison or elk can teach us about how those species influenced prairie communities long ago, but decisions about grazing as a contemporary management strategy need to be made based on today’s objectives and needs.  I wrote last week about the introduction of bison into the Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois, and attempts to capture the impacts of bison grazing at that site.  I’m sure the staff at Nachusa have been in numerous discussions about what historic bison populations were like in what is now northern Illinois.  The decision to bring bison in, however, was not based on history, but rather on defined needs for habitat structure and plant community management.  Nachusa staff are hoping to see more diverse grassland bird communities, for example, and positive effects on a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates.  They also hope bison will help maintain high plant diversity.  In particular, they hope to increase the long-term survival of relatively short-lived plant species that often disappear over time in restored prairie.

bison
Bison and cattle grazing can be useful in meeting some prairie objectives, but is not appropriate for all sites.

Here in Nebraska, The Nature Conservancy uses both cattle and bison to achieve prairie management objectives.  Grazing strategies are designed with specific objectives in mind, and we collect as much data as we can to evaluate the impacts of grazing on plant and animal communities.  Grazing helps us suppress the vigor of both non-native invasive grasses and aggressive native grasses and foster a more diverse plant community.  Plant species that would otherwise be outcompeted by dominant grasses can usually maintain strong populations under various combinations of intensive grazing and long rest periods.  Both cattle and bison can also help us create a wide variety of habitat conditions, including large areas of both short/sparse and tall/rank vegetation and other areas where patches of short and tall vegetation are intermixed.

Just as with fire, mowing, and herbicide use, the value of grazing as a prairie management tool needs to be evaluated not by its historic role in local grasslands but on its potential utility today.  In many prairies, grazing is not feasible or does not fit with management objectives.  For example, grazing is unlikely to make sense in small isolated prairies where wildlife/insect diversity is limited more by habitat quantity than habitat structure, and where plant composition objectives can be met through other means.  At larger sites, however, grazing may allow managers to provide more habitat variety and/or manipulate plant competition in positive ways.  Regardless, decisions about whether or not to graze should be based upon how grazing might help address current management challenges, not upon historic populations of bison or elk.

Prairie management is complicated and we have a lot left to learn.  We can’t afford to be overly conservative or rely too much on what happened long ago.  Imagination and experimentation are crucial components of adaptation, and we desperately need to keep adapting to new challenges if prairies are going to survive.  Companies like General Electric, Nokia and IBM rightly celebrate their history, but they also have to innovate and evolve to keep up with the changing landscape.  Prairie managers need to innovate and evolve to keep up with changing landscapes too.  Let’s learn what we can from the past but keep looking for new ideas and tactics so we can keep prairies healthy and vibrant well into the future.

After all, prairie conservation is worth the investment, right?

Returning to Nachusa Grasslands

Last week, the Hubbard Fellows and I attended the 24th North American Prairie Conference (NAPC) in Normal, Illinois.  The NAPC is always an enjoyable and thought-provoking conference that brings together scientists, photographers, land managers, poets, and prairie enthusiasts from across the country.  This one was no exception, and it was great to be back in Illinois, where there is very little remnant prairie left but much concern about the remaining pieces.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove, IL. We don't have prairie dock in Nebraska and I love seeing its gigantic basal leaves when I travel east.
Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove, IL. We don’t have prairie dock in Nebraska and I love seeing its gigantic basal leaves when I travel east.

On Tuesday, the Fellows and I joined the field trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands, one of my very favorite places on earth.  Bill Kleiman, Cody Considine, and an impressive array of volunteer stewards do fantastic work to restore and manage prairie on about 3,500 acres of land.  The diversity and beauty of their restored prairies is unmatched at any site I’ve been to.  However, the restorations are not there as flower gardens, but as habitat designed to defragment and enhance the prairie landscape.

Bumblebees and other invertebrates were abundant at Nachusa (including Japanese beetles like the one right above the bumblebee - I've never seen so many in a prairie before).
Bumblebees and other invertebrates were abundant at Nachusa. They contributed to the cacophany of color, movement, and noise at the site.

Former Nachusa staffer Mike Saxton led us through a young prairie planting where the plant diversity was already impressively high.
Former Nachusa staffer Mike Saxton led us through a 3rd year prairie planting where the plant diversity was already impressively high.

The abundance of showy flowers is almost overwhelming in some of the restored prairies, but the plant communities are also full of smaller and less auspicious species that help build the ecological integrity of the site.
The abundance of showy flowers is almost overwhelming in some of the restored prairies, but the plant communities are also full of smaller and less auspicious species that help build ecological function.

Carl Kurtz, a well-known prairie restoration guru in Iowa stands next to a thimbleweed plant we were admiring. Neither of us had ever seen the plant grow so large.
Carl Kurtz, a well-known prairie restoration guru in Iowa, stands next to a thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) plant we were admiring. Neither of us had ever seen the plant grow so large.

I last visited Nachusa a couple years ago as they were preparing to introduce bison to the site.  The bison are settled in now, and it was fascinating to get a brief look at how those animals are interacting with the tallgrass prairie there.  Nachusa Grasslands staff did a great job of engaging scientists to collect baseline data prior to the bison’s arrival and they are now measuring some of the early impacts.  Watching how grazing bison change the plant and animal communities at the site will be a long-term but invaluable addition to our understanding of tallgrass prairie ecology.

I only saw the Nachusa bison from a distance, so didn't get any photographs of them. I did, however, photograph the signs they have posted around the perimeter of the bison-grazed prairie.
I only saw the Nachusa bison from a distance, so didn’t get any photographs of them. I did, however, photograph the signs they have posted around the perimeter of the bison-grazed prairie.  I am a big fan of these signs.

Interestingly, the bison seemed to have been spending most of their time grazing in some of the less diverse restored prairies. However, they were certainly impacting the vegetation structure of those places they grazed.
Interestingly, the bison have been spending much of their time grazing in some of the less diverse restored prairies. However, they were certainly impacting the vegetation structure of those places they grazed – creating many patches of short-cropped plants in and amongst the taller flowers.

For various reasons, about 3/4 of the bison area was burned this spring.  The bison were certainly preferentially grazing the burned area, but because so much was burned this year, they didn’t create large areas of short vegetation.  Instead they created sporadic small grazing lawns throughout much of the burned area.  It will be really interesting to watch how that habitat heterogeneity changes which animals use the prairie and how they use it.  We were already seeing evidence of critters that like short vegetation (e.g., thirteen-lined ground squirrels) in areas where the plants normally grow too thick for them.

The bison were grazing primarily (though not exclusively) grasses, punching holes in the tall vegetation.
The bison were grazing primarily (though not exclusively) grasses – punching holes in the tall vegetation.  Those “grazing lawns” can be really valuable as sunning spots for invertebrates and reptiles, and can also create opportunities for new plants to germinate and establish.

This thirteen-lined ground squirrel burrow was evidence of habitat changes favoring animals that like short vegetation. Researchers will be looking for more of that among bird, mammal, insect and other communities.
This thirteen-lined ground squirrel burrow was evidence of habitat changes already favoring animals that like short vegetation, even in small patches.  Larger areas of concentrated grazing can provide habitat for birds (like upland sandpipers) and other species that need short vegetation on a larger scale.

We saw plenty of spots where new plants were germinating where bison had cropped off competing grasses, including these ragwort (Packera sp) seedlings and the purple coneflower (Echinacea sp.) seedling in the bottom right.
We saw plenty of spots in which new plants had germinating where bison had cropped off competing grasses, including these ragwort (Packera sp.) seedlings and the purple coneflower (Echinacea sp.) seedling in the bottom right.

Interestingly, most of the common milkweed plants we saw in the bison area had been grazed. We see the same thing in cattle pastures in Nebraska. We assumed bison were eating the milkweed, but deer, box turtles, and other animals could also be culprits.
Interestingly, most of the common milkweed plants we saw in the bison area had been grazed. We see the same thing in cattle pastures in Nebraska. We assumed bison were eating the milkweed, but deer, box turtles, and other animals could also be culprits.

Some bison impacts are unrelated to cropped vegetation, including bare ground created by wallowing, and the concentration and redistribution of nutrients through manure - something capitalized on by this mushroom.
Some bison impacts are unrelated to cropped vegetation, including bare ground created by wallowing, and the concentration and redistribution of nutrients through manure – something capitalized on by this mushroom.

There was much discussion at the conference about the historical abundance and impacts of bison in eastern tallgrass prairie (more on that in a future post) but the introduction of bison to Nachusa Grasslands was not done because of history.  Instead, staff and volunteers are hoping that bison will catalyze more diversity in plant and animal communities in ways that weren’t possible with only fire and mowing management.  The science used to evaluate those impacts should teach us more about tallgrass prairie, it’s ecology, and its potential.

Nachusa's Cody Considine surveys the prairie where bison are augmenting an already complex prairie community.
Nachusa’s Cody Considine surveys the prairie where bison are augmenting an already complex prairie community.