The Problem with “Calendar Prairies”

I think I first heard the term “calendar prairie” from my friend Bill Whitney of Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  He was talking about the mental image many people have of prairies that comes from seeing photographs of grasslands full of big showy flowers in books, posters, and calendars.  The term, and its implications for prairie management, has stuck with me over the years. 

 
 
 

An example of a "Calendar Prairie" photo. The Henry C. Greene Prairie at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

 

Unrealistic Expectations

There are a couple of dangers associated with people holding a mental image of what a prairie is supposed to look like.  The first is that it’s easy for people to have unrealistic expectations for prairies.  I’m a photographer, so I know firsthand that flowery photos don’t always represent an accurate picture of the prairie in which the photos were taken.  Photographers are often drawn to the biggest patches of showy flowers, and by creative use of perspective they can make those patches look even showier than they look in real life.  The result is usually a beautiful photograph that someone familiar with the prairie might not recognize.  To be clear, I’m not saying this kind of photography is a bad; on the contrary, attractive photographs have been extremely important for building the public’s interest in prairies. 

However, photos dominated by big showy flowers have the potential to be counterproductive as well.  For example, I worry that someone whose only vision a prairie comes from a “calendar prairie” image will be disappointed when they first see a prairie in person.  Regardless of how wonderful that real-life prairie is, it’s unlikely to live up to the photograph(s) that person has seen.  If that happens, it’s possible that a possible prairie enthusiast might instead feel duped and decide that prairies aren’t their thing after all.

For people that are already prairie enthusiasts, or perhaps prairie owners/managers, calendar prairies can become an unfair standard by which they measure the prairies they’re familiar with.  I’ve been in some astonishingly showy tallgrass prairies, where photos full of big flowers are easy to take just by pulling out a camera and shooting randomly.  However, not all prairies look like that – nor should they – and the ones that do don’t usually look like that all season long.  There are numerous conditions (including topography, soil moisture, soil texture, management history, etc.) that determine the appearance of a prairie’s plant community.  Using a calendar prairie image as the standard by which all prairies is judged is obviously naïve – much like a young woman using a movie star as the standard by which she judges her own identity.  The value of a prairie can be judged in many ways, including by its habitat value for a wide range of animal and insect species, many of which do not rely on big showy flowers.  In fact, the biggest value of an individual prairie is its very individuality – its unique combination of species composition and habitat attributes makes a unique contribution to the larger prairie conservation mission.  (Read my earlier post on this topic.)

This is not to say that all prairies are perfect the way they are.  Most (all?) prairies can be improved, but goals for improvement should be based on increasing the value of those prairies for biological diversity – not on making them look more like a photograph.

Effects on Management

The second danger of a calendar prairie image is that it can affect the way a prairie is managed.  Prairie managers sometimes form a mental picture of what they want their prairie to look like.  Sometimes that picture is based on an unrealistic idea of what prairies should look like.  Other times, it’s based on a fond memory of what their prairie looked in a previous season.  Either way, the problem occurs when that manager tries to make the prairie look like that mental picture all the time.  Rather than managing the prairie in response to threats such as invasive species, or in ways that allow different plant and animal species to gain an advantage each year, the prairie gets the exact same management treatments every year.

A summer fire on The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies. We've seen very interesting and positive responses from summer fires, with and without grazing. For example, I've been managing this prairie for more than 10 years and have only seen wind flower (Anemone caroliniana) twice - both times it was growing in the portion of the prairie that had been burned the previous summer.

 

When a prairie gets the same management each year (e.g. early spring fire or summer haying) some plants, animals, and insects that are favored by that management and others are not – year after year.  Eventually, those species that are put at a disadvantage each year can disappear from the prairie.  Sometimes the strategy seems successful to the manager because the plant community appears the same each year; they always see the same big showy flowers blooming, for example.  However, other plant species may be slowly fading away.  More importantly, many animals and insects that have specific requirements for habitat structure will have a difficult time surviving in a prairie that provides only a single habitat structure type across the entire prairie each year.  Even those animals and insects that thrive may become more at risk from predation because the number of predators and their focus on particular prey species can both grow when their food source is consistently available in the same place and abundance each year.

 In a large contiguous grassland landscape, individual parcels of land that are managed the same way every year may not be a big deal – as long as there is variety among parcels.  If the Brown prairie is managed with annual late-spring fire, the adjacent Smith prairie is managed with annual summer haying, and nearby prairies are managed with other strategies, the conglomeration may retain good biological diversity, even if each individual tract of land contains a relatively narrow set of species.  However, when neighbors manage in similar ways, or when isolated prairies are managed in ways that decrease the number of resident species over time, the entire landscape can lose diversity.  If that happens, it’s unlikely that the diversity will recover because there are no places for the lost species to recolonize from.

 Ideally, every prairie would have multiple management treatments applied to various parts of it each year.  For example, a portion might be burned, a portion idled, and a portion grazed, with those treatments shifting from place to place each year – not necessarily in a predictable manner.  In a prairie managed that way, most or all plant species are likely to find favorable conditions in which to grow and bloom every few years – something that is critical to their long-term survival.  Animals and insects in a prairie that has multiple management treatments across it have a good chance to find suitable habitat each year by moving to the portion of the prairie that is most favorable in that year.

Light grazing on a restored Platte River Prairie - cattle are grazing the grass but leaving most wildflowers ungrazed. Periodic grazing can certainly change the appearance of a prairie, but plants that are grazed recover quickly. In the meantime, the grazing can provide different habitat structure and opportunities for plant species that are normally suppressed by dominant grasses.

 Some prairies are small enough that splitting them into multiple management units is not feasible.  In those cases, just shaking up the management so that it’s not exactly the same each year can be important.  Idling a different portion of the prairie each year – even if those portions are small – can provide a refuge for some of the plant and animal species that might not do well under the management applied to the majority of the prairie.  However, when prairies are both very small AND isolated from other prairies, some insect and animal species will simply be unlikely to survive long-term, even with good non-repetitive management.  In those cases, the management objectives may need to be altered – those sites could be treated more like museum pieces than prairies.

 Regardless of a prairie’s size, repetitive management over time can limit its biological diversity.  Prairies evolved under chaotic conditions; fires, grazing, outbreaks of herbivores, and drought came and went, and prairie animals and plants developed strategies to adapt.  Not only can prairie species survive management that changes year to year, they can thrive on it.

 Conclusion

Relying on idealistic visions of what prairies should look like (Calendar Prairies) creates an unrealistic image of what prairies really are.  Prairies evolved as dynamic natural communities that changed in appearance from day to day and year to year.  Rather than selling the public and ourselves on the idea that prairies should consistently look like showy flower gardens, we should celebrate and facilitate their changeable nature.  Real prairies are much more interesting (and valuable) than flower gardens anyway.