Just When I Think I’ve Got Something Figured Out…

I pay close attention as I walk through prairies.  I watch for tracks to see what animals are around and I notice which flowers are blooming and which insects are feeding on them.  Often, I notice changes in prairie plant communities and try to attribute them to our management treatments, weather patterns, or other factors.  Observations such as these are an important part of how I learn more about prairies and adjust the way we manage and restore them.

Observations are a critical component of understanding natural systems and how management and restoration actions affect them.
Careful observation helps ecologists and land managers understand how natural systems work and how they are impacted by management actions.  However, observations are tricky because they provide an incomplete picture of what’s happening and are influenced by personal bias.

Unfortunately, observations are inherently biased.  When I start to notice a pattern through observation, I construct a theory to explain it.  That’s good science.  However, once I have a theory in mind, it influences the way I see things – and I tend to interpret my observations based on my theory.  That means it’s pretty easy to start telling myself a story that sounds good, but isn’t actually true.  Sometimes, I figure out that my story is wrong through repeated observations.  More often, however, what causes me to stop and reconsider is cold hard data.  Here’s a recent example of my data showing me that I need to reconsider a theory based on observations.

Canada wildrye (Elymus canadensis) is a native cool-season grass that establishes very quickly from seed in our prairie restoration (cropfield conversion) work.  It is often very abundant during the early years of a seeding before settling down into the plant community after a few years as other prairie plants become more dominant.  A common complaint from those working with Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or similar prairie seeding projects is that wildrye tends to disappear a few years after planting, leading people to question the value of including the species in the seed mixture.  However, in our restored prairies, I’ve observed that while Canada wildrye declines in abundance after the initial establishment phase of a seeding, it seems to persist pretty well at a moderate abundance from then on.  I’ve attributed that to our grazing management, which is partially aimed at periodically decreasing the vigor of dominant grasses.  Weakening dominant grasses should help prevent less dominant species such as Canada wildrye from being pushed out of the community altogether.

Canada wildrye  is a native cool-season grass that is common in our restored prairies.
Canada wildrye is a native cool-season grass that is common in our restored prairies.

So, my theory (which I’ve shared with many people) has been that Canada wildrye is a grass species is tied to disturbance regimes.  If a prairie is managed with a mixture of intensive grazing periods and rest periods, wildrye can sustain a fairly steady population.  It was a good theory, and seemed to fit my observations.  Until last week, I was pretty happy with it.  Then I looked at some recent data.

These data were collected from about a hundred 1 meter square plots across a prairie.  Each time I laid down the plot frame, I listed the plant species found within it.  By looking at the data from all of the plots, I can calculate a frequency of occurrence for a plant species (the % of all plots it was found in).   The data in this graph were collected from a restored prairie seeded in 2002.


These data were collected from a restored prairie that was seeded in 2000.


More data – this time from a restored prairie seeded in 2001.

From looking at the above three graphs, you might conclude that Canada wildrye populations stayed high for the first eight or nine years after planting a restored prairie and then started to taper off.  Another interpretation might be that our grazing was able to prop up those wildrye populations for a certain amount of time, but it is now starting to suffer the same fate my colleagues have complained about in CRP plantings.

Now, consider this next graph.

This graph shows data from the same 2002 planting as shown in the first graph (red lines in both graphs).  In this graph, however, the orange line is data from a large exclosure at the same site that has been burned but never grazed.  The two blue lines are from a different restored prairie seeded in 1995.  The dark blue has had fire and grazing management since 2002, while the light blue line is from a large exclosure at that site that has never had grazing within it.

By looking at the red and orange lines you might conclude that grazing management had a strong negative impact on Canada wildrye in the 2002 planting between 2011 and 2013.  The lines from the grazed portion of the site (red) and the exclosed portion (orange) are heading strongly in opposite directions.  However, the site was also grazed in 2008 and 2009, and there is less difference between grazed and exclosed in those years.  In addition, the blue lines on this graph show data from populations in a different nearby restored prairie (seeded in 1995) which don’t seem to be strongly affected by whether or not they are grazed.  There is less wildrye in the ungrazed exclosure of that 1995 planting but the changes in frequency seem pretty similar between the grazed and ungrazed areas.  Hmmm…

This graph shows data from two of the sites shown earlier (2000 and 2001 plantings) as well as another nearby restored prairie that was seeded in 1999.  Despite very similar management regimes, the 1999 restoration seems to be maintaining a high population of Canada wildrye.

This last graph just muddies the water even more.  While populations in the 2000 and 2001 restoration seem to be declining over time, wildrye frequency in the 1999 restoration has been holding steady for 15 years.  All of these sites are within a mile or two of each other, were planted with the same kinds of seed mixtures and have been managed with very similar mixtures of periodic fire, intensive grazing, and rest (modified patch-burn grazing).

It’s possible that soils play a role in the differences between sites, but all the prairies above are on similar alluvial (river deposited) soils.  None of them seem all that different from each other (I need some data on that!).  Weather could also be a factor, though most of the declines seemed to start around 2008 or 2009 – a few years after a long drought period – and have continued through both wet and dry years since.  I’m not sure what weather factors might have popped up since 2009 that would cause a decline in wildrye abundance (and only at some sites).

Surprise!  Reality is more complicated than a simple cause and effect relationship between a management regime and a plant species…

I take two major lessons from this.  First, I need to be more careful in my assumptions about how our management is impacting prairies.  That’s nothing new – I fall into that trap all the time, and frequently have to remind myself not to overgeneralize.  In this case, I had constructed a logical story explaining why Canada wildrye was abundant in our well-established (old) restored prairies but rare in ungrazed plantings such as CRP fields.  There are, of course, many possible explanations for that phenomenon (differences in soil types, plant diversity, seeding rates – particularly of warm-season grasses, fire management, etc.) but I grabbed one simple explanation without adequately considering all those other factors.

The second lesson is that it’s dangerous to rely solely on observations when trying to figure out natural systems.  This is not a new lesson either, and it’s why I try to collect as much data as I can.  Observations are really important, but are easily biased by what we think is – or should be – happening.  It’s natural to see what you expect to see.

Collecting some unbiased data, even just a little, is well worth the effort – especially if you target the data collection to your objectives.  It’s not useful to just collect data for the sake of data, but if you have a specific question (“are we maintaining diverse plant communities in our restored prairies?”) data can help answer it.  I consider plant community data collection to be a very important part of my job, but it doesn’t actually take that much time.  It takes about a day per year for each site I sample, including data collection, data entry, and analysis.  I strongly encourage every land manager to collect some kind of data from their sites.  It doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming – just something that can help evaluate how management treatments are working.  Observations are great, but unbiased data is a good way to make sure you’re telling yourself (and others) the right story.

I’m not sure what to think about Canada wildrye now.  It’s a little disappointing to find out that my story was wrong – or at least incomplete.  On the other hand, the complexity of interactions that apparently drives Canada wildrye populations are why I love prairies and prairie management.  If it were simple, it’d be boring.

And no one likes a boring story.

Is Poison Hemlock Repelled By Plant Diversity? Early Results Say Yes

How important is plant diversity?  Most ecologists think it’s a critical component of resilient ecosystems.  Last week I collected some data that lends support to that view.  In some experimental prairie plantings we’ve established in our Platte River Prairies, plant diversity appears to be suppressing the invasion of poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).

A floristically rich restored prairie, in which prescribed fire and grazing are being used to maintain high plant diversity.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A floristically rich restored prairie, in which prescribed fire and grazing are being used to maintain high plant diversity. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Back in 2006, I established some research plots in our Platte River Prairies so we could take a more experimental approach to our work to understant how plant diversity affects prairie ecosystems.  Those research plots consist of 24 squares, each of which is 3/4 acre in size.  Half of those plots were planted with a high diversity seed mixture of about 100 plant species.  The other half was planted with a lower diversity mixture of 8 grass and 7 wildflower species.  Since then, several university researchers have helped us collect data on the differences between those high and low diversity plantings.  We’ve looked at a number of variables, including soils, drought response, insect populations, insect herbivory rates, and resistance to invasive species.

An aerial photo of our 2006 diversity research plots.  Each plot is 3/4 ac (1/3 ha) in size and is planted with either a high diverisity (100 species) or low diversity (15 species) seed mixture.
An aerial photo of our 2006 diversity research plots. Each plot is 3/4 ac (1/3 ha) in size and is planted with either a high diverisity (100 species) or low diversity (15 species) seed mixture.

Kristine Nemec, a recent PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has done the bulk of the data collection and analysis from those experimental plots.  A soon-to-be-published research paper from that work will report that plant diversity appears to be suppressing the spread of two invasive species: bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and smooth brome (Bromus inermis).  Poison hemlock wasn’t included in that project because the methods we chose for measuring vegetation weren’t well suited to capture its presence and abundance.  However, from a purely observational standpoint, it’s always appeared that a lot less hemlock grows in the high diversity plots than in the low diversity plots.  Last week, I decided to test that observation by collecting some data.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) has invaded portions of our research plots, sometimes forming large colonies that are near monocultures.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) has invaded portions of our research plots, sometimes forming large colonies that are near monocultures.

Since hemlock is abundant mainly in the southern half of our 24 plots, I only collected data from those 12 plots for this pilot effort.  Half of those 12 plots had been seeded with a high diversity mixture and the other half with a low diversity mixture.  I walked three transects across each of those plots, and counted the number of last season’s hemlock stems that were within a meter of me on either side.  I only counted stems that still had seed heads to help ensure that I wasn’t counting stems from multiple years’ production.  You can see the results of my counts in the graph below.

The number of poison hemlock flowering stems found by transect in low diversity and high diversity plots.  Platte River Prairies - Diversity Research Plots.  April 2013
The number of poison hemlock flowering stems found by transect in low diversity and high diversity plots. Platte River Prairies – Diversity Research Plots. April 2013

Although I haven’t yet run any statistics on these data, there is a striking difference in the number of poison hemlock plants between the two treatments.  Hemlock was rare in the high-diversity plots, but was found in large numbers in many of the transects through the low-diversity plots.  This was just a quick and dirty pilot effort to see if there was enough difference to warrant a full-fledged research project, but I feel pretty comfortable that plant diversity is having an impact on hemlock abundance.

I plan to collect some more comprehensive data on poison hemlock this summer.  I’d also like to collect the same kind of data from an adjacent set of plots we established in 2010.  Those newer plots are the same size as those from 2006, but include three different seed mixtures: high diversity, low diversity, and a monoculture of big bluestem.  If I see a similar pattern of hemlock abundance there, that will go a long way to confirm what I think I’m seeing in the 2006 plots.

I’ve never considered poison hemlock to be a particularly dangerous invasive species in our Platte River Prairies.  It seems to be most abundant in old woodlots, and doesn’t often show up in our native or restored prairies.  On the other hand, the plant’s toxicity can cause big problems, especially from an agricultural perspective.  In fact, we’d considered haying our research plots last summer but couldn’t find anyone to harvest them because hay containing poison hemlock can’t be fed to livestock.  If prairie plantings with a high diversity of plant species resist invasion from hemlock, that could have important ramifications for farmers who want to establish new grasslands for hay or grazing production.

Poison hemlock is most often found in old woodlots along the Platte River.  It's unusual for us to find it in our diverse prairies.
Poison hemlock is most often found in old woodlots along the Platte River. We don’t usually see it in our diverse prairies.

My little pilot study is a small addition to a growing list of other research projects demonstrating the value(s) of plant diversity.  Unfortunately, high diversity prairie plantings are more expensive than lower diversity plantings, so it’s important for landowners and conservation organizations to know exactly what they get for that higher cost.  High plant diversity provides nectar and pollen resources for pollinators, improves total vegetative production, and has other benefits, including quality wildlife habitat.  However, one of the most intriguing aspects of plant diversity is its potential to help suppress invasive species.  If we continue to find that more diverse plantings help repel species such as bull thistle and poison hemlock, that will have important implications for both agricultural producers and wildlife/prairie managers.

Stay tuned as we keep learning…

Confessions of a Data-Starved Scientist/Photographer

Here’s a sign that I’ve been spending too much time in meetings, and not enough time working on science projects.  Apparently, I’m getting a little desperate for some data to analyze…

The other night, I found myself idly wondering how many photos I take in a year.  “What the heck,” I thought, and went back through my files and counted the number of photos I took in 2012.

.     Total # of photos taken in 2012 = 11,151

This image of prairie four o'clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) was one of about 310 photos I took on June 7, 2012.
This image of prairie four o’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) was one of about 310 photos I took on June 7, 2012.

Then, because I’m a huge dork, I looked at the “data” in a few different ways..

.     70 photo batches from 2012

.     # of photos per batch ranged from 2 to 469.

.     Average # photos/batch = 159

Of course, not all of those photos were good enough to keep.  I often take 3-4 shots of a particular composition to make sure I get the light, depth of field, sharpness, etc. just right.  I also often try several different compositions of each subject because I’m not sure which I like best at the time.  As a result, I end up doing a lot of sorting through photos to pick out the ones I actually like enough to keep and use for publications or other projects.

.     # of “keeper” photos in 2012 = 1,071

Here's another photo from the same day as the image above.  June 7 was a good day.  I ended up with 62 keeper photos - about a 5:1 ratio of photos shot to keepers.  (Can you believe I went through the trouble to figure that out??)
Here’s another photo from the same day as the image above. This one is a dogbane beetle on a dogbane plant.  June 7 was a pretty good day – not only did I shoot over 300 images,  I ended up with 62 keepers – about a 5:1 ratio. (Can you believe I went through the trouble to figure that out??)

The ratio of all photos to keeper photos in 2012 was about 10:1.  Interestingly, I think that’s about the same ratio as when I first started getting serious about photography in the early 1990’s.  I was shooting slide film then, and always figured I was doing pretty well if I could get 3-4 publishable images out of a roll of 36 slides.

Since I was on a roll, and weirdly enjoying the process, I decided to look at how many “keepers” I’d taken in a couple other years – to see if the number was similar between years.

.   # of Keeper Photos from:

.        2011 – 957

.        2010 – 913

.        2009 – 1,113

I did NOT go back and count ALL the photos I’d taken in the years 2009-2011. (That would just be crazy.)  I also didn’t take the time to graph the results – – though I admit to considering it…

What does all of this mean?  Not a dang thing, really, but it gave my data-loving brain something to occupy it for about an hour.  Maybe tonight I’ll count how many times I chew my food at supper or something…

Boy, I hope the field season comes soon.

If you want to see a sample of some of my favorite “keeper” photos from 2012, you can click here to see my December 19 post, which included my best photos from the year.

Trying to Figure Out What We Did Right

When converting crop land to restored prairie, it’s always hard to predict what you’re going to get.  Numerous examples prove that even when you control as many variables as possible – including soil conditions and the rate, timing, and technique of planting – no two seedings turn out alike.  Sometimes, you can use hindsight to explain what happened (weather conditions, herbicide carryover, etc.) but most of the time it’s clear that we just don’t understand much of what’s happening out there.

I’ve been analyzing some data from one particular restored prairie lately, and trying to puzzle out what’s going on.  In this case, the results are good – which is nice.  It’d be nicer, of course, if I could explain WHY things worked so well and then replicate whatever happened…

The Dahms 2000 prairie restoration has turned into one of the most aesthetically pleasing prairies we manage along the Platte. It has tremendous diversity and abundance of wildflowers. Most importantly, its plant diversity is still increasing fairly rapidly after twelve field seasons.

The prairie in question was seeded with a mixture of about 200 plant species onto 69 acres of disked cropland that had been in corn the previous season.  The seed was planted sporadically between December 1999 and April 2000.  Wetlands were added to the site by excavating down close to groundwater and recreating the kind of swale/ridge topography that is typical of nearby Platte River meadows.  Those wetlands and sandy spoil piles (ridges) were seeded with appropriate seed as well. 

All of the seed was broadcast onto the site – some by fertilizer spreader and some by hand (I was experimenting) and no harrowing or packing of the soil was done.  Unfortunately, this was the last year BEFORE I started keeping good records of the amount of seed from each plant species I included in the mixture, so I only have a list of the species we harvested seed from that year.  What I know is that my seeding rate per acre was about 15 gallons of grass seed (mostly big warm-season natives) that was harvested by combine from nearby prairies, and about 1/2 gallon of hand-harvested forbs, grasses, and sedges.  That’s roughly 12 bulk pounds of grass seed and 1/2 pound of forb (wildflower) seed per acre.  I have no idea what germination rates were that year, but it was a pretty light seeding rate compared to what many others around the country use.  Today, our typical mix is a little lighter on grass and includes about twice the forbs.

To cut to the results, this prairie has turned into our most diverse and showy restoration we’ve ever done.  You’d never know we’d used such a light seeding rate of forbs by looking at the site now – its appearance is dominated by big showy wildflowers.  By every measure I use to look at the plant communities of our restored prairies, it comes out high.  I’ve found 178 plant species in the site so far, which is excellent.  The mean Floristic Quality (combination of species number and “conservatism values”) is high, and still climbing rapidly.  It averages twelve plant species per square meter, which is higher than most other restored or remnant prairies in the area.  (Yes, I know that seems like a very low number to you eastern tallgrass prairie folks, but it’s good for out here.  Don’t rain on my parade, ok?)  Twelve years after it was planted, tall warm-season grass species are still not very dominant.  The species found at the highest frequency is big bluestem, and it was only in about 80% of 1m2  plots stratified across the site last June.  In short, it’s a beautiful prairie.  And I don’t know why.

I know most of you are ITCHING to see the actual data tables and graphs, but because there are a few who aren’t, I’m including them as a PDF file, which you see by clicking here.  The PDF also includes a cumulative list of plant species found in the restored prairie.

Flower species such as black-eyed Susan (foreground) and bee balm (pink flowers in the background) are still dominating the plant community in this photo from 2009 (the 10th growing season of this seeding). The lasting abundance of those species is, I think, tied to the lack of dominance by major grass species.

It’s particularly impressive that this seeding turned out so well, because the odds seemed stacked against it early on.  It was seeded right at the beginning of a 7 year drought.  The first several years were dominated (as usual) by weedy species and a few colonizing native species such as Canada wild rye and common evening primrose, but in this prairie those species remained dominant for several more years than is typical.  Once other plant species started breaking through, there were few legumes present – and we don’t typically have problems establishing legumes in our prairies.  Those legumes are still more scarce than in other nearby sites, but they’re increasing over time.  Finally, in about its eighth season, the site stopped looking like a weed patch and matured into something that most people would recognize as a prairie.

As I’ve discussed in other blog posts, I’m still struggling to define success in our overall prairie restoration efforts, but at the scale of individual seedings, there are a couple things I look for.  First, I want to see a good diversity of plant species, and I want to see that diversity sustain itself over time.  Second, I don’t want to see invasive species increasing at the expense of that overall plant diversity, even as the prairie is exposed to disturbances such as drought, fire, and grazing.  So far, this restored prairie passes those tests with flying colors.  We’re moving toward implementing some measures of invertebrate use as well, but aren’t there yet.  Initial data and observations, however, show higher butterfly abundance and diversity in this site than in other nearby restored prairies – for whatever that’s worth.

The prairie has been managed with some periodic fire and grazing, which should be helping to suppress dominant grasses. However, this site has gotten much less of that kind of management than nearby restored prairies, and those other prairies have stronger populations of major grasses, so management can't explain the whole phenomenon. In this photo, cattle are grazing in the burned portion of this site - within a patch-burn grazing system. The grasses are primarily grazed short, helping to showcase the abundance of the forbs.

So why did this restoration turn out so well?  I really have no idea.  It caught a couple nice rains during its first spring, but the rest of the summer was awfully dry.  The overall seeding rate for forbs was considerably lower than we use now, but I don’t know how much seed we had of individual species.  I wish I understood why it has taken the big grasses so long to fill in, but I don’t.  I think the delayed grass dominance probably plays a role in encouraging the abundance and diversity of wildflowers at the site, but I don’t know how to replicate it.  The soils at the site are a little sandier than some of our other sites, but we’ve worked on sandier soils and had very quick grass establishment, so it seems unlikely that the sand is the key.

Besides its aesthetic appeal, the prairie is also a great seed harvest site because of its wildflower abundance. Nanette Whitten (left) and Mardell Jasnowski (right) are harvesting seeds in this photo.

The vast majority of our prairie restorations turn out pretty well, but this one is extraordinary, and I can’t explain it.  Was it something about our technique?  Something about the weather or soil conditions?  I know I should probably just be happy with the results, but I want to know WHY! 

Success is sure frustrating.

When is a Prairie Restoration (Reconstruction) Project Successful?

This is a follow-up to last week’s post on using prairie restoration to enlarge and reconnect remnant prairies.  In this week’s post, I present a case study of a remnant sand prairie and an adjacent prairie restoration, and give thoughts about how to measure the effectiveness of that restoration project.  We’re (all of us) just getting started figuring out how to measure this kind of thing, so I’m hoping my thoughts will stimulate others to come up with their own ideas to improve upon – or contradict – mine.

Last week, I wrote about how we can improve our chances of conservation success in small isolated prairies by using prairie restoration (reconstruction) to enlarge and reconnect prairie fragments.  I even made a goofy analogy about catching falling popcorn.  At the end, I mentioned that when measuring the success of a prairie restoration – as a tool for enlarging or reconnecting remnants – we need to take a different approach than simply comparing the remnant and restored prairies to see how similar they are.  If the point of the restored prairie is to reduce the level of threat to species and natural communities inside the remnant prairie, that’s what we need to measure.

To explain what I mean, let me use a restored/remnant prairie complex along Nebraska’s Platte River as an example.  In 2000, The Nature Conservancy added several hundred acres to our Platte River Prairies through a land acquisition.  Most of the new land was cropland, but it also included 60 acres of remnant mixed-grass sand prairie with good plant diversity.  Two years later, using seed harvested from the remnant prairie and other nearby sites, we seeded 110 acres of cropland directly adjacent to the sand prairie.  The restored cropland has the same kind of hilly topography as the remnant, but also includes some low areas more appropriate for mesic tallgrass prairie.  Thus, the 162 species in our seed mixture included plant species from both mixed-grass sand prairie and mesic tallgrass prairie.

Remnant sand prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

In June of 2010 I collected plant data from both the remnant and restored prairie (in its ninth growing season).  The data were collected by counting the plant species inside a 1m2 plot frame from 100 locations across each prairie.  Those data allowed me see the frequency of occurrence of each species (the % of plots in which each species was found).  To make the results easier for you to visualize, I’ve used a color-coding system to create what I call a plant composition signature for each prairie.  The complete comparison of the two prairies, with additional interpretation, can be seen here if you’re interested, but for this example, I’m just going to show some representative excerpts.

After the latin and common name for each species, you’ll see a column labeled “C”, which is the C-value (or coefficient of conservatism – defined by Swink and Wilhelm 1994).  If you’re not familiar with this categorization of species, a quick explanation is that lower C-value species are more opportunistic plants that can generally thrive in very disturbed environments and higher C-value species are more tied to intact native communities.  Another way to look at it is that higher C-value species are more vulnerable to habitat degradation.  All species are ranked on a scale from zero to ten (the values I’m using are specifically for Nebraska) and all exotic species get an automatic zero.

In general, the restored prairie has the same grass species as the remnant, although many are less abundant. Most of those less abundant species will spread over time as the restored prairie continues to mature. A few sedges, including sun sedge, do not establish well from seed, and we're attempting to bring them in as transplants and let them spread from there.
The main difference in "weedy" forbs between the remnant and restoration is the abundance of goldenrods in the restoration. Canada and late goldenrod were both from the seedbank, but stiff goldenrod was planted by us. At this point, I'm not concerned about the goldenrods (they don't appear to be as aggressive here as in some places) because they haven't been decreasing species diversity over time.
As with other species, I expect many of the more conservative forbs species will increase over time in the restoration.
Based on experience, I'm sure Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome will increase over time in the restoration, but so far we've been able to manage those species to keep them from overwhelming the plant diversity in other older restorations. Apart from those two species there are no serious invaders that in the restoration that might threaten the remnant, which is good to see.

It’s easy to find differences between the remnant and restored plant communities in this example – some plant species are much more abundant in one than the other.  On the other hand, very few plant species from the remnant are missing completely from the restored prairie, and those that are less abundant are likely to increase over time.  As a prairie ecologist, I can see some obvious visual differences between the restored and remnant prairies, but most visitors to our site see the two as one large prairie.  But… Does any of this matter?  How do I decide?

First, remember that the objective of this restoration project was NOT to replicate the remnant sand prairie, but to increase the viability of the species and communities living in it.  Given that, the real questions I need to answer include the following:  Does the restored prairie increase the population size of species formerly constrained by the small remnant prairie?  Does the combination of the restored and remnant prairies provide suitable habitat for species that don’t occur in prairies the size of the remnant alone?  Does the restored prairie add to the overall resilience or ecological function of the remnant prairie?  Any questions about similarities or differences in the abundance of individual plant species need to be framed within the context of these kinds of broader questions – and tied to the specific objectives for the restoration project.  Comparisons outside of that context are relatively meaningless.

To begin evaluating the impact of the restored prairie, one first step could be to look at a few at-risk species in the remnant prairie to see if the restoration appears to benefit them.  If the remnant prairie has been harboring a small population of Franklin’s ground squirrels, for example, it’d be good to find squirrels (and their burrows) in the restored prairie as well.  If there was a rare penstemon species in the remnant (bumblebee pollinated) it’d be interesting to follow bumblebees from the plants in the remnant to see if they also visit penstemon plants in the restored prairie  – indicating that the restored prairie has facilitated growth of a genetically-interactive penstemon population.

Besides at-risk species, it would be worthwhile to search the restored prairie for the presence and/or abundance of species from other categories as well.  These categories might include:

–          Species that are representative of various types of relationships (e.g. predators and their prey, parasites/parasitoids and their hosts, insects and their larval host plants, etc.).

–          Species that have a cascading effect on other species and ecological processes (e.g. allelopathic or parasitic plants, burrowing insects/animals, etc.).

–          Species that are particularly important as food sources for a range of other species (e.g. springtails – aka Collembola, grasshoppers, “soft-bodied insects” like caterpillars and other similar larvae, etc.).

–          Area-sensitive species that may not have been able to survive in the small remnant alone but that might have a chance in the combined restored/remnant prairie (e.g. prairie chickens, badgers, and other vertebrates).

It’s also important to evaluate impacts of the restoration project on groups of species that influence ecological processes – such as pollinators and seed dispersers.  Pollinators are relatively easy to observe, and both the pollinators themselves and the resources they depend upon can be evaluated.  Ideally, of course, it’d be great to have several years of data on the species richness and abundance of pollinating insects in a small remnant prior to initiating a restoration project, followed by similar data collection after the restoration has established.    However, simply looking at whether or not purple prairie clover plants (for example) in the restored prairie are getting pollinated by the same species and numbers of pollinators as the prairie clover plants in the remnant could be very informative.  From the resource perspective, if the remnant prairie tends to lack an abundance of flowering plants at a particular time of year (late spring, for example, or early fall), measuring whether or not the restored prairie provides appropriate blooming plant species to fill that gap is very important.

Purple prairie clover being pollinated by a native bee.

There are numerous other things that could be measured, including taxonomic groups we really don’t know much about at this point.  For example, soil fauna, fungi, and obscure groups of invertebrates may very well have strong roles to play in ecological functioning of prairies, but we don’t know much about what those roles might be or how to evaluate them.  While it’s certainly important to learn more about those other taxonomic groups, our lack of knowledge shouldn’t stop us from measuring what we do know in the meantime.

The last thing to consider is whether or not a restored prairie could be actually be negatively impacting the adjacent remnant prairie or its species.  One example of this could be an invasive species that becomes established in the restored prairie – thus threatening the remnant.  A second possibility is that the restoration could function as an “ecological sink” for some species from the remnant, in which a species is drawn out of suitable habitat into attractive-looking but perilous habitat instead.  We’ve actually been testing for one possible example of this in our Platte River Prairies.  Regal fritillary larvae feed only on violets, but adults don’t lay their eggs directly on violet plants.  Our lowland remnant prairies have lots of violets, but our restored prairies have very few (so far) because we are unable to harvest large numbers of seeds.  We’re trying to make sure fritillaries aren’t laying eggs in the restorations where the larvae would be doomed to starve because of the near absence of violets.  (So far it looks like it’s not a big problem.)

As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re just starting think about how to measure the effectiveness of restored prairies as conservation tools.  Since the initial practical work of a prairie restoration project involves the establishment of a new plant community, it’s natural to assess the success of the various species we included in the seed mixture.  Unfortunately, it’s also easy to overemphasize the importance of floristic differences between a restored prairie plant community and nearby remnant prairies.  For many reasons, it’s not practical to recreate a historic prairie or replicate an existing remnant prairie.  However, it is possible to use prairie restoration to increase the viability of our remaining remnant prairies.  It is imperative to set clear objectives for this kind of restoration work, including the specific ways we want the restored prairie to help abate threats to species and communities.  Clear objectives will lead to easier decisions about how to measure success.

Many of the suggestions here are just first steps, and they and subsequent steps will require considerable resources, as well as collaboration with academic researchers.  Yes, there’s a lot to measure, but as we start to establish consistent patterns of success with some kinds of species or ecological processes, we can start focusing attention more narrowly on others.  We don’t have to test everything at once, and the most important measures at each site are those that evaluate whether or not specific objectives for that restoration project are being met.  However, it will be critical that we all share what we learn – successes and failures alike – to build up our cumulative knowledge as quickly as possible.

There are a number of examples of restoration projects where remnants have been enlarged or reconnected by restoring adjacent lands.  We should look closely at those existing sites to see if we can find evidence of success or failure (based on some of the suggested strategies above – and others).  That knowledge can guide us as we plan and implement new projects in the coming years.  It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to design restoration projects to benefit every prairie species and function, but we can certainly do a lot of good.  There’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m very optimistic about our ability to make a real difference.