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.
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.
During the last month or so, I’ve had several people tell me how aggressive marestail (horseweed, aka Conyza canadensis) is, and how this is a particularly bad year for it. One person suggested marestail should be added to Nebraska’s noxious weed list. This week, Olivia and I drove from our Platte River Prairies to the Niobrara Valley Preserve – right through the center of our state – and I tried to document what is certainly a summer of abundance for marestail.
Here are a few things you should know about marestail right off the bat. First, it is native to Nebraska and most of North America. It acts as an annual plant in states to the east of us, but acts as a biennial here, usually germinating in the fall and blooming the following summer. In its native habitats (including grasslands), marestail is a colonizer of bare ground, filling spaces between plants left open by disturbances like grazing, trampling, animal burrowing, drought, or fire. Because marestail loves open soil conditions, it isn’t surprising that it has become a weed in crop fields. It has garnered special attention lately because it has a strong ability to become resistant to herbicides, including glyphosate, which it started showing resistance to way back in 2006.
In other words, marestail is a tough native plant that has always scraped out a living when and where it can. However, it’s not a plant that can push other plants around. Instead, it sits in the soil (as a seed) and waits for a time when surrounding plants are weakened and abundant light is hitting the soil. Then it pops out of the ground and tries to grow, bloom, and produce as many seeds as it can during its short window of opportunity. In any particular year, marestail can be found here and there in most Nebraska prairies, especially those in the western 2/3 of the state. However, it also seems periodically to respond to certain weather patterns and exhibit a flush of abundance across a larger region – as it is doing this year. Many short-lived plants do the same thing, each with its own individual preferences for weather patterns. Many Nebraskans might remember the huge sunflower party across the Sandhills back in 2013, for example, following the big drought of 2012.
Whether it’s sunflowers or marestail, huge regional flushes in abundance don’t last long. By 2014, annual sunflower numbers in the Sandhills had returned to normal – patches of yellow flowers here and there, around livestock tanks and fence corners, and wherever else there was open soil to grow in. Marestail will do the same thing in 2019. That pattern of boom and bust is not evidence of an invasive plant. Instead it characterizes a plant that is too weak to compete most of the time and has to take ultimate advantage of the few windows of opportunity it gets. When it is abundant, marestail isn’t stealing resources from other plants, it is taking resources that weren’t being used. I don’t know for sure what weather patterns led to rampant marestail germination last fall, but I’m sure this year’s abundant rains have played a big role in the survival of a large percentage of those seedlings.
When short-lived plants like marestail and sunflower (along with ragweed, gumweed, and many more) are in the middle of a short-term explosion in your prairie, you could choose to fight them. You could, for example, mow them off, trying to prevent them from making seed. However, that’s a lot of work, and the plants will do everything they can to regrow and still produce seed – it’s what they do, and they only get one year to do it. Even if you do keep them from going to seed, there are many thousands of seed already in the soil, ready to spawn the next generation of plants whenever they get the chance. You could also spray short-lived opportunistic plants with herbicide, but I wouldn’t recommend it. First, you’ll likely kill the surrounding plants (the ones that normally out-compete marestail and sunflower) and just trigger another explosion of opportunistic plants the f0llowing year. Second, with most short-lived plants, by the time they’re big enough that you notice them (especially by the time they’re flowering) herbicide treatments just make them produce seed more quickly, so are counterproductive.
The smartest choice is to just sit back and marvel at these periodic phenemona, knowing you’re watching a short-term and harmless event. Marestail, of course, doesn’t have the wide aesthetic appeal of sunflowers (though not everyone likes sunflowers either), but it has its own distinctive charm. I think it adds an attractive texture to the landscape, but I’ll admit I’m a little odd. Regardless of whether you find it attractive or not, it’s here, and it’ll be here whether you like it or not.
Fighting back against these periodic flushes of marestail and other opportunists is expensive and futile, and usually results in weakening the plant community that normally keeps them in check. Most importantly, remember that, at least in grasslands, marestail doesn’t steal resources from the plants you like, it just takes what they can’t use. What’s to dislike about that?
We are now accepting applications for the 6th class of Hubbard Fellows with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. Application deadline is September 21, and the position will run from February 2019 through January of 2020.
This has been one of the most satisfying programs I’ve ever been involved with. The opportunity to supervise and mentor young, bright future conservation leaders is incredibly energizing, and fills me with hope. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the Fellowship, you can click here or just go to the Hubbard Fellowship tab at the top of this blog’s home page.
The Hubbard Fellowship program is designed to help recent college graduates get comprehensive experience with a conservation organization and give them a big leg up toward their career. The hope is to bypass the need to spend several years working short-term seasonal jobs to gain a variety of experiences by giving them all those experiences within one position.
Fellows become an integral part of our land management and restoration team – harvesting and planting seeds, killing weeds, clearing trees and brush, fixing fences, helping with bison roundups, and much more. They also collect data and interact with a number of scientists and research projects. Beyond that, however, they are also very active in communication and outreach, leading volunteer work days and sandhill crane viewing tours, speaking to various audiences, writing blog posts and newsletter articles, and helping with our social media presence. They get a chance to learn about and help with fundraising, see how budgeting and financial management works, and become active participants in conservation strategy meetings and discussions. Fellows attend our statewide board meetings, are active participants in our statewide strategy meetings and workshops, and attend multiple conferences in and out of the state.
Beyond those experiences, Fellows also develop and implement an independent project that both fits their particular interests and fills a need for our program. Those projects have included field research, social science research, enhancing our volunteer program, developing educational materials, and more. Those projects give Fellows in-depth experience within a topic of interest, but also a substantial accomplishment to point to as they move toward graduate school or apply for permanent jobs.
We are looking for motivated, future conservation leaders who want to live and work in rural Nebraska and become an integral part of our conservation efforts for a year. The application process includes a short essay and letter of reference, in addition to a cover letter and resume. All materials must be submitted by midnight on September 21, 2018. Housing is provided for the Fellows, right in the middle of our Platte River Prairies, west of Grand Island, Nebraska.
Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, I posted some drone photos of the Niobrara Valley Preserve from the air. The sun popped out of the clouds just as it was nearing the horizon and provided some great light for those images. As I was packing the drone away, I kept an eye on the sky, and it looked like there might be some nice post-sunset color on the way, so I scrambled up the hill to my favorite sunset spot at the Preserve. For the most part, I get pretty easily bored by sunset photos, so it takes a pretty spectacular night to get my camera out of the bag. That night qualified as spectacular.
Over about a 15 minute period, I worked back and forth across the top of a ridge overlooking the Niobrara River, trying various angles and perspectives. The color and texture of the clouds was fantastic, but I knew the color would fade quickly. After I got back and sorted through the images, I had a hard time narrowing down my favorites. Nearly two weeks later, I still couldn’t decide on just one (or even two) shots to share with you. Instead, I chose a selection of four images from various angles and with different lenses. If you have a strong favorite, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section. At this point, I like all of them for different reasons. I also like about 10 more, but I had to cut something…
I’m presenting these photos in the order they were taken. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the color tone changed incrementally over the 15 minute period. You might also notice that each successive photo was taken with a longer focal length. Part of that was me playing with different ideas, but the color was also receding into a smaller and smaller portion of the sky, so I was matching that with focal length changes.
It’s pretty hard not to take attractive photos at a place like the Niobrara Valley Preserve, especially when the sky does its part to add to the scenery. One of the hardest parts of working up there is keeping my camera in its bag long enough to get some other work done!
We arrived at the Niobrara Valley Preserve yesterday in pouring rain. The road in from the south was nearly impassable and our data collection plans were scrapped for the day. As evening neared, though, the rain started to let off, and just as the sun was nearing the horizon, it popped out from behind the clouds. Suddenly, the entire Niobrara Valley was bathed in gorgeous golden light. I scrambled to get the drone up into the air.
The Niobrara Valley Preserve is already magical, but when you add that kind of evening light, it just becomes absolutely spectacular. Below is a 30 second video showing more of a panorama view of just one small part of the 56,000 acre property.
Thank you to everyone who supports our conservation work, both at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and elsewhere around the state, country, and world.
Special thank you to the Nebraska Environmental Trust for funding this effort through a PIE (Public Information and Education) minigrant, administered through the Nebraska Academy of Sciences.
I feel like I need to apologize to long-time readers of this blog. This is the seventh spring season I’ve photographed and shared via this blog, and each of those spring seasons starts with essentially the same wildflower species. Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus), and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – in no particular order – are the first three wildflowers I find and photograph almost every single year. I’m always excited to find them because they are an important signal of a new growing season, but also because I’m desperate for something vibrant and colorful to photograph after a long winter.
Sharing those spring flower photos with you each year feels to me like a shared celebration of the annual prairie rebirth, but I also imagine some of you checking in on the blog, seeing the photos, sighing deeply, and checking right back out again. If that’s you, I really do apologize, and you’re free to go. I’ll try to do better next week. For the rest of you, guess what! It’s spring! Look at these gorgeous flowers!!
In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate is changing. Things are getting weird, and they’re going to get weirder. Here in central North America, we’re expecting more and more intense storm events and drought periods in the coming decades. Scientists are scrambling to figure out how to predict and facilitate the inevitable changes those crazy weather events will bring to natural systems, including prairies.
Fortunately, prairies have been training for this for a very long time. A few months ago, I wrote a post about the resilience of prairies, and how that resilience is built largely upon the diversity within their ecological communities and the size and connectivity of prairie habitats. Prairies that are relatively big and still have the majority of their potential plant and animal species are going into this encounter with rapid climate change with what you might call solid bench strength.
In sports, teams want to have lots of available players that represent a broad diversity of skills. Each opponent they face will have its own individual mix of power, endurance, speed, and other attributes. A successful team can build a roster for each game that counters their opponent’s strengths, no matter what they are. The number and quality of their players is a team’s bench strength.
Healthy prairies have great bench strength too. No matter what gets thrown at them, they can adapt by changing their roster of species. The speed at which they can drastically change the makeup of their “team” is impressive. Anyone who has spent many years watching the same prairie has seen this in action, but none of us have seen prairies go through what Professor John Weaver saw back in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Weaver, one of the best known prairie ecologists of all time, had been studying 30 “large typical prairies” across parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Colorado prior to the start of the Dust Bowl era. His baseline data gave him an invaluable opportunity to document the dramatic changes to the plant communities of those prairies during and after the droughts of the 1930’s. What he recorded, along with his former student F.W. Albertson, was an incredible testimony to the dynamism and resilience of those prairies. Their 88 page 1944 publication, entitled “Nature and Degree of Recovery of Grassland from the Great Drought of 1933 to 1940” encapsulates the bulk of their findings in one place, and is worth a read if you have the time.
One of the biggest plant community shifts Weaver and Albertson documented was the widespread and dramatic death of grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), and the subsequent rise of other grasses such as prairie dropseed (Sporobolous heterolepis), sand dropseed (Sporobolous cryptandrous), porcupine grass (Stipa spartea), and most of all, western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii). Western wheatgrass populations exploded throughout the mid to late 1930’s, to the point where many prairies were completely dominated by it, to the near exclusion of other plant species. In fact, in a 1942 publication, Weaver said the following, “The large area of drought-damaged true prairie and native pasture now dominated by western wheat grass and the harmful effects of the successful competition for water of western wheat grass with species of greater forage value present a problem of much scientific interest and great economic importance.”
In other words, as they made massive substitutions within their lineups, prairies were changing so much they became almost unrecognizable, even to those who knew them best. Weaver and Albertson watched waves of forb species they’d always considered to be of little value become stars on the field, and they and others didn’t quite know how to react. Daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus), Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis), and heath aster (Aster ericoides) were all examples of wildflowers that suddenly rose to prominence in new and major ways. The two dismayed scientists described how heath aster, a “nearly worthless native forb,” formed near monocultures across wide swaths of prairie, to the extent that it “ruined many of the prairies…for the production of hay, because of its brush-like growth.” Others were out of their depths on this too, and Weaver and Albertson reported that “considerable native sod was broken because of the seriousness of this pest.” In the following sentence, however, they begrudgingly added a short sentence, “Of course, it did protect the soil.”
Exactly. While the strategy was foreign and frightening to those who hadn’t seen prairies dealing with these kinds of conditions before, those prairies were just doing what they’ve done many times before – making whatever roster adjustments were necessary to keep functioning at a high level. In addition to forb species they denigrated as weeds, Weaver and Albertson noted that many wildflowers with “large storage organs”, including bulbs and corms, also greatly expanded their population size during the dust bowl years. This included species like Violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violaceae), bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), windflower (Anemone caroliniana), and wild garlic (Allium canadense). Those species and others increased the size of the patches they’d occurred in previously, but also were found “in many new locations.” Other native forbs that became superabundant in some prairies, especially early in the dust bowl years, included prairie ragwort (Senecio plattensis), white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
As rains started to return in the early 1940’s, Weaver and Albertson watched with amazement and renewed optimism as plant communities started “recovering”, which of course meant they were returning to a composition more familiar to the people observing them. Grasses were often the first to rebound in prairies, including big bluestem, which initially formed large and lush monocultures in many places. Wildflowers that hadn’t been seen for seven years or more, suddenly appeared everywhere, including blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre), which grew “more thickly than if the stands of 7 normal years had been combined.” Downy gentian (Gentiana puberula), which had been considered rare prior to the big droughts, became much more common in the early 1940’s than Weaver and Albertson had ever seen before, with abundances of “15 or more plants in a space of a few rods”.
Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) returned fairly quickly to “normal abundance” by 1943, as did many others, including silverleaf scurfpea (Pediomelum argophyllum), cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), and buffalo pea (Astragalus crassicarpus). Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida), pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta), and others came back more slowly, but returned nevertheless. Importantly, those returning species didn’t appear to be traveling from long distances. Instead, they simply re-emerged, either from seeds or underground buds, from where they’d been sitting on the metaphorical bench, awaiting the call to step up to the plate again.
The prairies we know today have been through a lot. In Nebraska and surrounding states, we have specific documentation of the kinds of extreme roster changes prairies can and have made to adjust to the world around them, thanks to the work of John Weaver and F.W. Albertson. If you have a favorite local prairie, and I hope you do, it’s important to remember that the way it has looked for as long as you’ve known it is only a small sample of what it’s capable of. Smart teams don’t reveal their secrets before they need to.
As we work to keep prairies healthy through this period of rapid climate change, it’s both useful and reassuring to remember what they’ve been through before. Today’s prairies certainly have additional challenges to deal with today, compared to the dust bowl days (more invasive species, more landscape fragmentation, etc.), but many should still have sufficient bench strength to make the adjustments they’ll need to make in the coming years. Our responsibility is to provide management that helps prairies sustain their plant and animal diversity, as well as to protect prairies from additional conversion to cropland or other land uses. Where possible, restoring prairie habitat around and between prairie fragments can also help build resilience. In short, we have to allow prairies to do what they do best – adapt and adjust. Prairies are wily veterans and they’ve been in this game for a long time. It’s a good bet they’ve still got a few tricks up their sleeve.
Spring is almost here. I spotted my first butterfly this week (too far away to identify it) and there are a few other insects starting to move around as well. Not much flowering in the prairies yet, though plants are starting to green up, especially where we’ve burned. While I wait for the new season to fully kick into gear, I’m falling back to a popular (to me) theme of “Random Photos from Last Year” to fill the gap. Enjoy.