The Joy, Angst, Excitement and Dread of Walking Through a Young Restored Prairie

Anyone who has watched a prairie seeding go through its first several years of establishment will appreciate and identify with this post.  For those of you who haven’t, the best analogy I can come up with is that the experience is a little like watching your son or daughter go off into the world on their own.  You can spend tremendous energy planning ahead, preparing a site, and harvesting and planting seed, but at some point, you have to just stand back and let the new prairie stand or fall on its own.  Sure, you can jump in and knock back the weeds a little now and then, but eventual success or failure depends upon many factors beyond your control, and it can be hard to predict the result during the first few years.

In February and March of 2016, we planted about 60 acres of land with a seed mixture of around 140 prairie and wetland plant species.  The site had been cropland for many years, and then was converted to a mixture of native grasses and used as pasture.  Eventually, the site became heavily invaded with tall fescue, smooth brome, and Kentucky bluegrass.  A few years ago, we decided to kill off the existing vegetation and try to establish a much more diverse plant community.  Although it had been farmed, the site still had some remnant wetland swales that had been farmed through and partially filled, but still had some wetland hydrology.  Restoring this 60 acres feeds into our larger restoration objectives of enlarging and reconnecting remnant (unplowed) prairies in the area.

Volunteers hand broadcast wetland seed on frozen wetlands during February 2016.
This “drop spreader” was used to plant the majority of the site.

We used a combination of herbicide application and tillage to get rid of the grasses and prepare a seed bed.  In addition, (under the appropriate permits) we had a contractor with a big scraper come in and deepen/widen the degraded wetland swales.  Using seed we harvested from nearby prairies and wetlands, a couple different groups of volunteers hand-planted the wetland swales and low sandy ridges created by excavation spoil, and we used a broadcast seeder behind a UTV to plant the remainder of the site.  (Thank you to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, and Nebraska Environmental Trust for funding this project.)

During the 2016 growing season, I visited the site very rarely, and didn’t spend much time there when I did.  Early in the season, there wasn’t much germinating and growing except the kinds of “weeds” you’d see in an abandoned crop field (foxtails, pigweeds, ragweeds, annual sunflowers, etc.).  Later in the season, those weedy plants had grown so tall and thick, it was physically difficult to walk through them.

This photo shows the kind of weed cover that grew during the first growing season. Lots of tall ragweed and annual sunflowers were joined by some perennial sunflowers and other plant species we had seeded.  This is pretty typical of what we see during the first year of our restored prairies.

I walked around this site on Monday of this week and tried to capture what I saw with my camera.  As I explored, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions.  Some areas are looking way ahead of schedule, with a nice diversity of prairie and wetland plants coming in, while others don’t look like they’ve even started, or have problematic plants that we might eventually have to deal with.  On the whole, I feel good about the progress of the restoration, though we do have some trees to control, but my overall confidence comes mainly because I’ve been through this process many times.  We’ve had restored prairies look like junk for 4 or 5 years before finally kicking into gear, and others that look like a prairie after two years.  Very rarely have we seen plantings fail.  Regardless, it’s way too early to guess how this planting will turn out.

For what it’s worth, here is what I saw and thought about during my walk around this prairie at the beginning of its second field season.

The first thing I saw as I walked into the new prairie was a pretty good sized patch of 3-4 foot tall cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides).  The parent trees can be seen in the background.  We’ve been getting smarter about removing those kinds of seed  sources before starting projects, but these trees are growing along a public road and we didn’t have the authority to remove them.  We’ll have to evaluate our options for controlling the young cottonwoods in our new prairie.
A skeleton of an annual sunflower from the initial season shows how big some of those pioneering species were last year. Many of the sunflowers were over 12 feet tall.
Biennial wildflowers, like this prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) germinated last year and are blooming this year. Hopefully, this one will start a colony that will help support spring-flying bees and other pollinators in future years.  A pair of crane flies are mating on top of this one.
I was excited to see quite a few sedges blooming in only their second year. We don’t always get quick establishment of sedges from seeds. This one (Carex craweii) was in a patch of maybe 10 plants along the edge of a wetland, and I found at least three other species growing elsewhere in the site.
To balance out the excitement of seeing lots of sedges, I also found quite a few areas where there wasn’t much yet growing from our seed. This big patch of marestail (Conyza canadensis) was representative of maybe 30% of the planting. I think this is a soil issue – in our alluvial soils, prairie plant communities can vary dramatically from place to place, based on the soil deposits beneath them. Restored prairies establish with great variation for the same reasons.
Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), and Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) make up a very nice patch of new prairie plants.
The wetland swales are filling in quickly with wetland plants, including lots of spikerushes, grasses, rushes, and a few forbs and sedges. Much of that vegetation came from our seed, but I think some also came from the seedbank.
We purposefully designed the wetlands to vary in their depth to groundwater so that we’d have some areas of standing water most of the time, but also many other areas that go dry each summer.
Some of the wetland pools had tadpoles in them, likely from the Woodhouse’s toads that have already colonized the area. I also saw leopard frogs hopping around.  In addition, numerous snails, and aquatic insects were moving around in the water, and dragonflies and damselflies were buzzing around above it.
This section of wetland had standing water a few weeks ago, but has now gone dry, leaving great habitat for shorebirds (but also for young cottonwoods).  The vegetation along the margin of this wetland is mostly native colonizing plant species such as fleabane (Erigeron annuus), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Canada wildrye.
Sweetclover (Melilotus sp) is abundant across much of the new site. Experience shows that sweet clover (though I don’t like it) doesn’t seem to actually affect plant diversity much in our restored prairies, so we’ll just let it go until the site is established well enough to support fire and cattle grazing. At that point, the cattle will keep the sweet clover suppressed because it’s one of their favorite plants to eat.
In addition to areas of strong native plant growth and others dominated still by non-native or “weedy” plants, there were also areas where bare ground was still plentiful. Again, alluvial soils make all of this really interesting because the soils vary greatly from place to place and strongly regulate plant growth.
Last year’s seed pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) show that this native perennial legume established and bloomed in its first year at the site.
Duck and raccoon tracks joined the tracks of many shorebirds along the edges of the restored wetlands. It’s really encouraging to see how quickly wildlife and insect species colonize these sites, even while the plant community is still young.

I’ll probably return to walk through this site numerous times this season because I can’t help myself.  Apart from working on cottonwood trees and a few musk thistles, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll actually do anything else here, so my visits will be mostly out of curiosity rather than to stimulate management.  As with this trip, I’ll see things on future walks that will encourage me and others that will make me wonder if the planting will end up as a disaster, even though I know it’s too soon to know anything.

Within the next few years, we’ll try to burn the new prairie whenever we can, and when the major grasses start to assert their dominance, we’ll begin grazing the site in ways that support a diversity of plants and animals.  Typically, that grazing begins when the site is between 5 and 8 years old.  In the meantime, there’s really nothing to do but wait.  (But I’ll still peek in now and then anyway.)

I was really glad to see coyote tracks along the edge of the site. The presence of these (relatively) large predators will be key to the long-term success of the ecological community in this restored prairie.

For those of you with technical questions about our restoration methods, we didn’t test our seed for viability, but based on previous experience, our seeding rate for this planting was probably about 2-4 lbs PLS/acre, about 2/3 of which was grasses and 1/3 was forbs, sedges, etc.  We typically broadcast our seed into recently harvested soybean fields, so this planting was a little different, but not that different.  We don’t mow weeds during the first season based on trials that have shown no difference in long-term establishment (sandy soils help keep weed densities low enough to still allow sufficient light to hit the ground, despite what it looks like in the 2016 photo in this post).  We don’t cultipack or harrow seeds in either.  We’re fortunate not to have much trouble with aggressive perennial invasive plants in our early plantings, which makes our weed control pretty easy.  Deciduous trees are the main exception to that, especially cottonwoods (as shown above) and Siberian elms (not too bad at this site).  Later, we see invasion by perennial cool-season invasive grasses, but we suppress those with fire and grazing.

Save the Date – Grassland Restoration Network July 11-12, 2017

The Grassland Restoration Network is a loose affiliation of people trying to use prairie restoration (reconstruction) as a way to rebuild, conserve and sustain grassland ecosystems.  Each year, we put on a workshop to share ideas, techniques, research results, and stories with other.  Workshops are hosted by a different site each year, giving us the opportunity to visit a range of projects over the years.  We were happy to host the workshop here in Nebraska in 2016.

A discussion in front of cardinal flower and a restored wetland during the 2016 Grassland Restoration Network at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.
A discussion in front of cardinal flower and a restored wetland during the 2016 Grassland Restoration Network at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

The 2017 workshop will be held at Konza Prairie (Kansas) on July 11-12, 2017.  This will be a great opportunity to learn from the intensive and impressive array of prairie research going on at this Kansas State University research site.  They have done research specifically on prairie restoration, but also a lot of other work that relates closely to the kinds of challenges faced by those of us working to restore grasslands.  The Hubbard Fellows and I made a trip to Konza back in 2014, and I wrote three blog posts about the trip and still didn’t feel like I covered everything we learned and discussed.  You can read those blog posts here, here, and here.

Please mark these dates on your calendar and stay tuned for more information to come (probably in April).  This workshop will be limited on space, and priority will be given to people actively working on, or studying, large scale prairie restoration.

A Milestone for Prairie Restoration

Because conservation work can sometimes seem like blowing into the wind, it’s important to pause periodically to celebrate progress.  For example, I am really excited about what has been accomplished in the field of prairie restoration.  We’ve known for a while that we can convert cropland to prairie vegetation with a high diversity of plant species (150 or more species per planting), and that we can do that on a scale of thousands of acres.  The Nature Conservancy has large projects in states like Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota where restored prairie landscapes now range from about 5,000 to 20,000 acres in size.  The U.S. Forest Service is transforming an old U.S. Army Arsenal into 20,000 acres of prairie in Illinois.  Prairie Plains Resource Institute, the organization that pioneered restoration techniques in Nebraska, is planting up to 1000 acres a year now and has established well over 10,000 acres total across the state.

Our staff celebrates a successful year of seed harvest back in 2015.
Our staff celebrates a successful year of seed harvest back in 2015.

Here in our Platte River Prairies, we’ve restored more than 1,500 acres of cropland to prairie.  That’s not insignificant, but more importantly, we’ve been testing the idea that those restored prairies can help defragment the ecological landscape around them.  Habitat fragmentation is one of the largest threats to today’s prairies because it shrinks and isolates populations of species, making them vulnerable to becoming locally extinct without the chance of recolonization from nearby sites.  The real promise of prairie restoration is that it can enlarge and reconnect scattered remnants of native prairie, providing populations of animals and plants a much better opportunity to survive and thrive.  It’s not feasible or desirable to convert the majority of cropland in the central North America back to prairie, but there are particular sites where strategic restoration work could make a huge difference in the potential survival of prairie species and ecological services.

In order for prairie restoration to help defragment landscapes, restored prairies have to provide suitable habitat for the species living in small isolated prairies.  Many bees and other insects specialize on certain plant species, for example, and other animals rely upon an abundance of prey, a diversity of seeds, or other particular food or habitat conditions.  Satisfying the individual needs of all those prairie animals is a critical measure of success if prairie restoration is going to successfully stitch isolated prairies back together.

Over the last several years, we’ve been collecting data to see whether the species of bees, small mammals, grasshoppers, and ants in our unplowed prairie remnants have moved into adjacent restored habitat.  The results have been very positive.  While not every species of animal living in our remnant prairies has been found in nearby restored habitat, we’ve found the vast majority of those we’ve looked for.  We suspect that most of the remaining species are also present but that our limited sampling effort just hasn’t yet picked them up.  We’ll keep trying.

Dillon Blankenship, a Hubbard Fellow, compared grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket communities on three pairs of remnant/restored prairies back in 2014. Almost all species were present in both restored and remnant habitats. In the three species that weren't, only one or a very few individuals were found, so it's likely just a sample size issue.
Dillon Blankenship, a Hubbard Fellow, sampled grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket communities on three pairs of remnant/restored prairies back in 2014. Almost all species were present in both restored and remnant habitats. In the three species that weren’t, only one or a very few individuals were found, so it’s likely just a sample size issue.
Data from James Trager and Kristine Nemec has helped us compare ant species composition in restored versus restored prairies along the Platte River. So far, we've documented 30 species and only one has been found exclusively in remnant prairie (and, again, it's likely to be a sample size issue).
Data from James Trager and Kristine Nemec has helped us compare ant species composition in restored versus restored prairies along the Platte River. So far, we’ve documented 30 species and only one has been found exclusively in remnant prairie (and, again, it’s likely to be a sample size issue).
Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter have both helped us compare small mammal populations between restored and remnant prairies. This table shows some of Jasmine's data from one site. In general, we're finding that the same species are in both restored and remnant prairies, but the relative abundance of those species is often different - with some apparently favoring remnant habitat and others favoring restored areas.
Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter have both helped us compare small mammal populations between restored and remnant prairies. This table is from Jasmine’s data from one site, showing the number of trapsites in which each mammal species was caught back in 2014. In general, we’re finding that the same species are in both restored and remnant prairies, but the relative abundance of those species is often different – with some apparently favoring remnant habitat and others favoring restored areas.  We’re now looking at how our management affects presence and abundance of each species through time.
We've had several research projects look at native bees in our prairies. Mike Arduser, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow), Bethany Teeter, and Shelly Wiggam Rickets have all helped us compare restored and remnant prairies. So far, we've found over 72 species and the vast majority have been in both remnant and restored prairie.
We’ve had several research projects look at native bees in our prairies. Mike Arduser, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow), Bethany Teeters, and Shelly Wiggam Rickets have all helped us compare restored and remnant prairies. So far, we’ve found over 72 species and the vast majority have been in both remnant and restored prairie.
I've collected more than 15 years of data showing that plant diversity and the frequency of occurrence of prairie plant species has remained stable through time. These four graphs show four species in one restored prairie where we're comparing fire/grazing management to fire only management.
I’ve collected more than 15 years of data showing that plant diversity and the frequency of occurrence of prairie plant species has remained stable through time. These four graphs show four species in one restored prairie where we’re comparing fire/grazing management to fire only management.  The long-term persistence of prairie plants and diverse plant communities is critically important for plant communities, but also for the success of efforts to defragment habitat for animals.

These results mean that where prairie landscapes have been largely converted to row crops, we don’t have to just watch while insect or small mammal populations careen toward local extinction in tiny isolated prairies.  We’ve shown that we can make those prairies larger and more connected, and that animal populations can grow and use new restored habitat and diverse plant communities.  We’ve also shown that restored prairies can sustain their biological diversity for decades, even through periods of intensive grazing and drought.  While there are still plenty of questions and potential improvements we can make, we’re now at the point where society needs to decide whether and where to do this kind of restoration.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty exciting!

Nebraska and other states in central North America have large swaths of productive and important cropland.  As I said earlier, I’m not advocating that we convert most of that back to prairie.  However, there are specific sites where row crop agriculture is marginally productive/profitable and the long-term interests of both society and local landowners might be best served by putting land back into diverse and productive grassland.  Agricultural policies and subsidy programs will obviously play a huge role in this kind of strategic large-scale restoration, and getting the policies in place to facilitate this kind of common sense restoration will be plenty difficult.  That’s nothing new, however.  What’s new is our confidence that if we can implement targeted restoration work, it can make a real difference to prairie conservation.

Restoring the viability of prairies in fragmented landscapes is critically important to prairie conservation success.  The challenges of conserving species in small isolated prairies are immense, and many of those prairies will continue to see declines in biological diversity and ecological function over time unless we can make them bigger and more connected with other prairies.  Helping to document our ability to do that – at least for many prairie species – has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done during my career.

 

Important footnote:  Restored prairies are not the same as remnant unplowed prairies.  Soil organic matter levels, for example, can take many decades to recover from tillage, and relationships between plant and microbial communities may take just as long to become reestablished.  Our success in prairie restoration should definitely not be used as justification for plowing up remnant prairie!  However, it’s equally true that prairie restoration efforts aren’t failures just because they can’t create an exact replica of prairie as it existed before it was converted to farmland.  If defragmenting prairie landscapes is the primary goal of restoration, we just need to create restored prairies that complement – not copy – remnant prairies. 

 

Register Now – 2016 Grassland Restoration Network Workshop

It is time to register for the Grassland Restoration Network’s 2016 workshop.  The Grassland Restoration Network has helped people working on prairie restoration share techniques and conservation strategies since 2003.  You can read my blog post from last year’s workshop in Minnesota here and from the 2014 workshop at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois here.

One of the best ways to learn from each other is to visit each others' projects and evaluate them together. 2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop - Minnesota.
One of the best ways to learn from each other is to visit each others’ projects and evaluate them together. 2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop – Minnesota.

The 2016 workshop will be September 13-14 right here in Nebraska.  It is co-hosted by The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies and Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  You can see the agenda and other information for the workshop here.

Registration for the workshop is open now through August 19.  There is no registration fee for the first 75 people to register, but you’ll be responsible for your own transportation and lodging, and some meals.  To register, send an email to Mardell Jasnowski at mjasnowski(at)tnc.org.  Include answers to the following questions:

Name

Organization/Affiliation

Address

Phone Number

Email Address

Will you take part in the optional Tuesday morning tour in Aurora?

Will you be eating Tuesday evening supper?

Will you be eating Wednesday lunch?

Do you have any dietary restrictions?  If so, list them here:

Thank you to Pheasants Forever and the Nebraska Environmental Trust for helping to cover the costs of registration for this conference.

 

Chuck Norris of the Prairie

A big topic of conversation at this year’s Grassland Restoration Network (GRN) workshop had to do with designing seed mixes to combat potential invasive plant problems.  When converting cropland to prairie vegetation, the first few years of establishment are sometimes a race for dominance between prairie plants and invasives.  Once a strong native plant community becomes established, it is more difficult (but still possible) for invasive plants to become dominant, so those first few seasons are critically important.  Over the years, a number of people have tried using extra high seeding rates of various native plants to see if those natives could help stave off invaders.  In an ideal scenario, a high abundance of some showy wildflower would outcompete invasive plants but allow other native plants to establish.  Nice, right?  Lots of pretty flowers during establishment, no invasive species to worry about, and a nice diverse prairie community in the long run.

Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in restored prairie - TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Black-eyed Susan is a species that has shown some promise as a species that can compete against invasives but still allow the establishment of a diverse plant community around it.   The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I first heard about this idea at the 2004 North American Prairie Conference.  In one of my favorite presentations of all time, Shawn Schottler of the Science Museum of Minnesota compared various plant species to celebrities.  As he described his experiments, he said he was trying to find Chuck Norris plants (tough good guys) that could fight off Mike Tysons (aggressive invasives) while still allowing Patsy Clines (less competitive natives) to establish.  As I recall, he was having some luck with Chuck Norris species such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and others.  At this year’s GRN workshop, Jack Norland of North Dakota State University described recent results of some similar experiments on U.S. Fish and Wildlife restoration projects.  The “spike” treatments they used consisted of ultra high seeding rates of species such as plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), and others.  His data showed Canada thistle to be much less abundant in spike treatments than in the controls.

Interestingly, we’ve had some accidental experience with this topic here in our Nebraska Platte River Prairies.  During the drought years of the early 2000’s, some of our prairie plantings ended up with lots and lots of Canada wild rye.  In some cases, the species was so abundant that our plantings looked like wild rye monocultures.  We weren’t the only ones.  Prairie Plains Resource Institute had plantings that looked much the same during those years.  There was some hand wringing about whether or not the plantings had failed, especially given the drought conditions at the time, but Bill Whitney of Prairie Plains assured us that it wasn’t a big deal.  He was right, as usual.  The plantings eventually emerged from their wild rye phase and turned into very nice prairies.  In fact, our site that had the “worst” wild rye infestation is now the showiest (in terms of big colorful wildflowers) prairie we have.  I’m not sure the wild rye helped suppress any invasive species, but a high density of wild rye plants didn’t seem to keep Patsy Clines from eventually thriving.

This 2004 shows one of our Platte River prairie plantings in its third year of growth.  Canada wildrye is visually dominant, but other species are present as well.
This 2004 photo shows one of our Platte River prairie plantings in its third year of growth. Canada wild rye is visually dominant, but other species are present beneath its canopy.  Many of our young plantings from about that time period looked much like this for several years in a row.
After this prairie was seeded in 2000, it was a near monoculture of Canada wild rye for several years but today is our showiest wildflower patch.
After this prairie was seeded in 2000, it was a near monoculture of Canada wild rye for several years.  Today it is among our most diverse prairies and showcases our showiest wildflower patches.  (July 2015 photo)

Spike treatments/Chuck Norris species/etc., are really just variations on the idea of using a cover crop – planting something intended to establish early and then fade away (mostly or completely) as the desired vegetation takes hold.  In some places, cover crops are very useful in agricultural systems as a way to prevent soil erosion and loss of fertility, suppress weeds, and/or preserve soil moisture.  It seems logical that they would also help with prairie restoration establishment.  In fact, I recently talked to someone with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in north central Nebraska who says their best successes in restoring sandhill prairie come when they use a cover crop of millet.

On the other hand, I remember a GRN workshop about five or six years ago when we had a group discussion about our experiences with various cover crops.  Participants from across the Central U.S. seemed to reach consensus that cover crops were as likely to be counterproductive as helpful to prairie restoration efforts.  This seems to conflict with the successes seen by people like Shawn Schottler, Jack Norland, and others.  Why the differences?

Part of the issue is certainly that we’re still experimenting with different species, and still have a lot to learn.  Beyond that, though, anyone who has spent many years restoring prairie knows that establishment results can be very difficult to predict, even within the same site.  Just when you think you’ve got something figured out, your next planting turns out completely unlike what you’d expected.  Those kinds of inconsistencies, combined with differences in site attributes such as soil texture and fertility, rainfall, and latitude make it almost impossible to come up with restoration recommendations that apply everywhere.  In fact, if we’ve learned anything through the Grassland Restoration Network, it’s that it’s important to start big projects by doing some small experimental plantings to see what works best in that place before investing in larger scale work.

Grassland Restoration Network Meeting.  Hosted by TNC Minnesota.
There is great value in getting a bunch of restoration practitioners together in one place.  We often bring home new ideas to try.  Sometimes they even work.  2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop – Minnesota.

Clearly, the idea of “spike” treatments and similar strategies hold a great deal of promise if they fulfill their promise of preventing invasives while facilitating establishment of diverse plant communities.  However, since it’s also clear that successful strategies from one site don’t always translate well to others, we may each have to find our own formula for success.  Hearing about Dr. Norland’ experiments in the Dakotas has inspired us to do some more experimentation here.  Maybe we can find a few Chuck Norris species to keep the peace in our Platte River Prairies.

If you’ve had positive or negative experiences with cover crops in prairie restoration, or have found your own Chuck Norris of the prairie, please share what you’ve learned in the comments section below.  Thanks.

P.S.  You may have seen or heard some of the many Chuck Norris jokes out there that play on the idea that he is seemingly invincible.  My 14-year-old son likes to share them with me now and then.  A few of my favorites are:

Chuck Norris doesn’t wear a watch. He decides what time it is.

Chuck Norris makes onions cry.

There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but it was changed because no one crosses Chuck Norris.

When Chuck Norris does a push up, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

A bulletproof vest wears Chuck Norris for protection.

Media Coverage of Our Restoration Work

Our friends at Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT) created a very nice radio piece about our restoration work that aired on NET Radio (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications) today.   The link below includes that audio, along with a transcript and short video of our staff harvesting, mixing, and planting seed.  You can also see video of me describing what we’re doing and why.

It’s always difficult to distill the complexities of land management and restoration into sound bites and video clips, but this was a very good description of our work.  I really appreciate the time and consideration that Ariana Brocious, Peter Stegen, and others at PBT put into this project.

If you’re interested, you can see and hear the story HERE.

Ariana Brocious (with headphones) and Pete Stegen (green coat) collect audio and video footage as we prepare to overseed a degraded prairie back in January of this year.
Ariana Brocious (with headphones) and Pete Stegen (green coat) collect audio and video footage as we prepare to overseed a degraded prairie in January of this year.

 

 

Every Little Bit Helps

I’m getting excited about this upcoming field season.  For the first time in several years, we’re going to be attempting to harvest seed from as many prairie plant species as we can.  Between about 1997 and 2005, we spent much of each field season hand-picking seeds from a broad diversity of species – often ending up with over 200 species by the end of the season.  It was exciting and fulfilling, and we were often able to create up to a couple hundred acres of new prairie habitat each year.  Since that time, we’ve focused less on converting cropland to high-diversity prairie (we ran out of cropland!) and more on harvesting large amounts of fewer species to overseed degraded prairies.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to harvest as many as 200 species this summer – we’re pulled in many more directions now than we were in our “glory years” of seed harvesting – but making the attempt will be fun.

A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting.
A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting.  It isn’t hard to find these patches (when they’re blooming) despite the fact that we had only about 1 cup of seed spread over about 70 acres.

During those glory years, we worked hard to build the most diverse seed mixture possible.  We used to joke about how many seeds we had to get from a plant species before we could add it to that year’s harvest list.  It kind of felt like cheating when we’d only find a handful or two of seeds from a species but would add it to the list anyway.  However, we justified listing those species because of conversations with people who had much more experience than we did (especially Bill Whitney with Prairie Plains Resource Institute) who claimed that even a few seeds would usually be enough to establish a species in a new prairie.  Besides, we figured if the species was appropriate to the site, tiny populations would spread out over time.

Now that I’ve had up to 17 years to watch the establishment of plantings I personally harvested seed for, I can testify that Bill and others were right.  Sometimes, just a few seeds really are enough.  That knowledge is awfully good for morale when we’re on our hands and knees searching for violet or pale poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) plants to harvest from.  Those are just two or many examples of plants that are short, have widely scattered populations in our prairies, and are difficult to find at seed harvest time because the surrounding vegetation has grown tall enough to obscure them from sight.   To make things worse, neither of those species produces many seeds per plant, so even when you find a plant, you might only get 20-50 seeds out of it.  Knowing that those 20-50 seeds are worth finding makes crawling on hands and knees seem much less tedious.  Ok, a LITTLE less tedious.

Violets are difficult to find after they are done blooming.  Even when you find them,  each plant produces few seeds (and you have to get them before the pods pop open and toss the seeds away...)
Violets are difficult to find after they are done blooming. Even when you find them, each plant produces few seeds (and you have to get them before the pods pop open and toss the seeds away…)

Last week, I finally found time to finish data entry from my 2014 plant community monitoring of some of our restored prairies.  Looking through the long-term data trends, it was gratifying to see hard evidence that small amounts of seed really do turn into robust plant populations.  Here are a few examples.  (Warning: this next portion of the post includes actual graphs of actual data.  If you are turned off by graphs or data, please skip to the last paragraph now.)

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Data from a mesic restored prairie with sandy/loam soil and scattered sand ridges.
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Data from an upland sandhills restored prairie.

In the above two graphs, similar trends can be seen for populations of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis).  These data were collected from approximately 100 1×1 m plots across each site, and the graphs show the % of plots within which each species was present.  The top site (mesic) was sampled annually and the bottom (sandhills) was sampled every other year.

It might look as if Missouri goldenrod is a rare plant in these prairies, but remember that in order to show up in more than a couple 1×1 m plots, it has to be fairly abundant.  Stiff sunflower, on the other hand really is ubiquitous.  Interestingly, only about 3 gallons of fluffy/stemmy Missouri goldenrod seed was in the mix for the  70 acre mesic site and 10 gallons for the 110 acre sandhill site.  About 5 gallons of sunflower seed (still in hulls, with some stems included) was planted in the sandhills and 3 gallons in the mesic site.  Both are fairly respectable amounts of seed given that they were hand harvested, but they were spread pretty thinly across 180 acres.

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The second two graphs (above) show two perennial species, a grass named Scribner’s panicum (Panicum oligosanthes) and the short-beaked sedge (Carex brevior), as well as the annual grass six-weeks fescue (Vulpia octoflora).  The two perennials seem to be on a slow steady climb in abundance across both sites, which is excellent.  Meanwhile, the annual appears to be doing what annual plants should do, which is to flourish during periods when competition from surrounding plants is temporarily suppressed.  We had harvested very little seed for all three of these species that year, so it’s gratifying to see that they are becoming part of the established plant community.  Specifically, we had:

– only 7 cups (!) of seed for the short-beaked sedge across 180 acres (both sites combined).

– about 2 gallons of stemmy seed for Scribner’s panicum.

– 3 1/2 cups of six-weeks fescue (tiny seeds) for the sandhills and 1 cup for the mesic site.

I knew we hadn’t collected much seed for these species, but I was still surprised by how little we’d had when I went back to check the records.  There are many other examples I could share of species that established very nicely (and/or are increasing over time) despite small amounts of seed in the planting mixture.  Some of those species established fairly quickly, but most are slowly increasing in abundance, either through clonal (rhizomatous) growth or because each new generation of plants puts out more seed to spawn the next generation.

Fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) established well in the sandhills restoration despite only 2 cups of seed planted.  The biennial species is episodic in its abundance, but
Fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) established well in our sandhills restoration despite less than 2 cups of seed planted on 110 acres. The biennial species is episodic in its abundance – just as it should be.

The seed we harvest this coming season will be planted on about 50 acres – far fewer than the 150-200 acres we planted each year before we ran out of cropland to restore.  However, regardless of planting size, the major challenge is still to find and harvest seed from a diverse mixture of plant species.  We’ll be digging out our old lists of species, harvest times, and notes about where the best plant populations can be found.  Then we’ll strap buckets to our waists and start picking seeds.  It should be a fun year!

…and on those days when we’re laboriously searching for tiny plants hidden beneath tall grass, we’ll remember that with seed harvesting, every little bit helps!

Click here for more information on prairie restoration in Nebraska.

 

 

Why Does Plant Diversity Matter? Help Us Figure It Out!

How important is plant diversity in restored prairies?

Are diverse prairies more resistant to drought and invasive species than less diverse prairies?

How does plant diversity influence invertebrate communities and their ecological functions?

These kinds of questions have been the focus of multiple research projects in our Platte River Prairies over the last decade or so.  We have numerous restored (reseeded) and remnant (unplowed) prairies that provide excellent field sites, and have also established two sets of experimental research plots to help focus specifically on questions related to plant diversity.  Those plots are 3/4 acre (1/3 ha) in size and represent varying levels of plant diversity, allowing us to investigate the functional differences between them.  Researchers from the University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, the University of Illinois, and Simpson College have been involved in data collection efforts so far.

2013 photos from
2013 photos from our experimental research plots.  The plots from left to right were planted to a monoculture (big bluestem), a low diversity mixture (mostly grasses and a few late season wildflowers) and a high diversity mixture (100 plant species).  We are investigating functional differences between these kinds of plant communities.

Craig Allen, Leader of the Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, and I are hoping to take the next step in these efforts by bringing on either a PhD or Post-Doctoral Research Associate.  We have data to build upon, including some intriguing results regarding invasive species and insect herbivory rates at varying levels of plant diversity, but want to greatly expand upon those data.  If you or someone you know is interested in these kinds of questions, please read below and contact Craig or me with questions.

Here is the official description of the position:

Ph.D. or Post-Doctoral Research Opportunity:  Grassland diversity, restoration and resilience

Ph.D. graduate research assistantship or Post-Doctoral Research Associate.  Available starting in May 2015, to investigate the relationship between grassland restorations and ecosystem services and resilience.  The assistantship (or Post-Doc) is with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, working closely with the Nature Conservancy scientists and resource managers.   The research project will include a synthesis of literature to identify prominent knowledge gaps related to the restoration of grasslands and resilience.  In addition to synthesis, field work will occur on a suite of restorations in central Nebraska.  Some questions of interest are listed below, but ultimately, successful candidates will be expected to develop a specific research project(s).  The candidate could approach this project from a broadly ecological, or botanical, or entomological frame.

The successful applicants will be highly motivated, with a strong work ethic, strong and demonstrated writing skills, a passion for field work, and the ability to work in collaboration.  Experience in restoration ecology is helpful, but not required.  Ph.D. applicants should possess a M.S. in Wildlife, Biology, Zoology, Botany, or Entomology, or a related field and have a valid driver’s license.  Post-doctoral applicants should possess a Ph.D.

Interested applicants should send a cover letter, names and emails of 3 references, GPA and GRE scores, and an updated CV as an electronic PDF or Word document to Craig Allen, allencr@unl.edu

Review of applications will begin March 15 and continue until a qualified candidate is identified.  For more information on the Nebraska Coop. Unit and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln please visit us at:

http://snr.unl.edu/necoopunit/default.asp

Applicants should also review:

https://prairieecologist.com/

Specific projects could include all or part of the following:

Relationship between restoration diversity and ecosystem services, such as invasion resistance and herbivory; interactive effects that might mediate some resilience properties; responses to multiple disturbances; how invasions might weaken the ability to cope with disturbance; microbial diversity and ecosystem function and services; response to pulse and press disturbances and mechanisms driving responses; functional trait diversity and redundancy and resilience.

Seeing Past the Ugliness

I’ve spent much of my career restoring prairie, and I gain immense satisfaction from watching bare ground turn into beautiful prairie.  Following the lead of Bill Whitney and Prairie Plains Resource Institute, we have tried to harvest seed from as many plant species as we can for those prairie restoration projects, often collecting from more than two hundred species.  As a result, most of our restored areas are full of color and beauty throughout the growing season.  It’s a pleasure to walk through those areas, photograph them, and take visitors out to see them.

Our restored prairies can be very beautiful.
Our restored prairies can be very beautiful.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

However, not every square foot of our restorations is lush and beautiful.  In fact, some areas are pretty ugly; dominated by weedy species and abundant bare ground.  Those are the areas I don’t usually take visitors to see, and when I walk or drive through our sites, I tend to either avert my eyes or just avoid traveling past them in the first place.

It’s actually not my fault those areas are ugly.  I tried to make them beautiful…  I seeded them with dozens of showy wildflower species, but none of them took.  I re-seeded many of them, but nothing changed.  The alluvial soils beneath our lowland prairies were deposited by old river channels meandering across a broad floodplain, carrying and dropping many layers of sediment.  As a result, our sandy loam soil consists largely of a thin layer of sandy topsoil (4-8” or so) over sand and gravel.  In places, that topsoil may be a little thicker, but in other places, it’s non-existent.  That’s especially true in former cropfields that were scraped flat to aid irrigation, but even in unplowed prairies, there are strips of coarse sand with little or no organic matter – and that’s where my ugly patches are.

weedy patch
This little ugly patch is part of a restoration in its twelfth year of establishment, but it is still dominated by annuals, including annual brome, black medick, and annual sunflower (among others).  This patch is maybe an acre in size. Most of the rest of the planting looks very nice, though there are other ugly patches scattered throughout.

There are few plant species that can grow in almost pure coarse sand.  During periods of relatively consistent rainfall, seeds can germinate and plants can grow, but when the rain stops, most of those plants wither and die once the last of the soil moisture is used up or drains away.  Plants in these sites tend to grow and bloom during the spring, which is typically our wettest season, and then die or go dormant during the hot summer when rainfall is more sporadic. Our ugly patches are largely dominated by species such as daisy fleabane, annual sunflowers, annual bromes, buffalo bur, black medick, sweet clover, mullein, and “rougher” grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass or tall dropseed. While some of them are exotic species, most of those are either innocuous or already common throughout our sites, so it’s not like the ugly patches are breeding evil invaders.  They’re just ugly.

Ok, hold on a minute…

Ecologically, of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with these areas.  The plants in those coarse sandy soils are exactly the ones that should be there, given the options available.  Just because they are not species often considered to be attractive, or even desirable from some people’s aesthetic viewpoints, they are still the right plants for the job.  Not all are native, but none are problematic in those little patches where very little else can grow anyway.

Hoary vervain (purple) helps trace the outline of this ugly patch, which is also filled with species such as sweet clover, tall dropseed, and Kentucky bluegrass.
Hoary vervain (purple) helps trace the outline of this ugly patch, which is also filled with species such as sweet clover, tall dropseed, and Kentucky bluegrass.

The primary objective for our restoration work is not to create pretty flower gardens; it is to create new prairie habitat that expands and reconnects formerly small and isolated prairies in a fragmented landscape.  To be successful, those restored areas need to be floristically diverse enough to provide for communities of pollinators, herbivores, and other organisms that rely on that kind of diversity.  They must also provide habitat that allows the plants and animals in adjacent prairie fragments to expand their range into, and through, our restored areas.  Larger and more connected habitats facilitate larger and more connected populations of prairie species, making those populations more viable.  We don’t want to precisely replicate the habitat in nearby prairie fragments, we just want our restored habitats to be useable by the species living in those fragments.  In fact, we hope our restored areas provide some complementary conditions – valuable habitat types that might not exist in the prairie fragments.

According to those criteria, our “ugly” patches are perfectly fine.  In fact, they add value to our restored prairies.  A prairie planting that is relatively uniform in plant composition and structure throughout would be much less useful in terms of habitat diversity.  The bare ground in the sparsely-vegetated “ugly” patches provide great places for invertebrates and reptiles to sun themselves.  They are also excellent brood-rearing habitat for quail, prairie chickens, upland sandpipers and pheasants, whose chicks can’t move through dense vegetation but still need overhead cover from predators.  Pollinators probably find our “ugly” patches quite beautiful when they are filled with resource-laden annual sunflower or hoary vervain blossoms, and even less popular species such as daisy fleabane offer food value for at least some insects.

fleabane a
While daisy fleabane is not usually found on lists of species to plant for pollinators, it does provide food for many insects.

Intellectually, I know these rough-looking areas aren’t truly ugly, and I am glad to have them, but my mind doesn’t always think intellectually.  As the person who collected and planted many of the seeds for our restored prairies, I sometimes catch myself thinking of them almost as gardens, or even works of art.  (I imagine architects rarely take visitors to the furnace rooms or utility access areas of the buildings they design, though they certainly appreciate their value.)

Putting ourselves in the role of artist or gardener is a trap many of us can fall into, but it’s a dangerous trap indeed.  The greatest risk is that aesthetics start to guide the way we design and manage restored sites.  We could, for example, devise seed harvest strategies that emphasize greater collection of seeds from big showy plants and minimize harvest of plants with less aesthetic value.  Even worse, its tempting to avoid defoliating prairies during the peak flowering period of our favorite flowers, even though we know periodic mowing or grazing has no long term impact on their populations.  It can also be tempting to spend time removing plants we think are unattractive or undesirable, even though they don’t actually cause any harm (e.g., exotic plants that aren’t truly invasive).  Since I’ve never met a land manager who feels he/she has enough time or resources to deal with the invasive species they have, wasting effort on the removal of non-invasive species is just silly.

Here in the Platte River Prairies, we’ve been very careful to set and follow clear ecological objectives for the restoration and management of all of our sites.  We consider habitat diversity and availability rather than blooming periods of attractive plants as we devise annual management plans, and we harvest seed from every plant species we think can play an important role in our restored prairies (excepting those species we know will colonize on their own).  However, I still find myself tempted to chop down any “ugly” plants I come across while I’m out on musk thistle patrol.  I was also appalled to find that I had almost no photographs of the “uglier” patches among our restorations when I started working on this post (but lots of photos of “pretty” patches).   Clearly, I’m not immune to the gardener/artist mentality – I just resist it the best I can.

P.S. We also have other scattered “ugly” patches in our prairies caused by factors such as high soil nitrogen or grazing/loafing patterns of cattle.  While I don’t often photograph them either, they are just as valuable as the ones featured in this post – they add to the heterogeneity of our prairies.  Next time you stop by, remind me and I’ll show them to you.  That’ll be fun…  

 

So Similar, Yet So Different

It’s wrong to assume that successful restoration or management tactics from one prairie will work in another.  Instead, every prairie has its own “personality” and responds accordingly.  The key to success is experimentation and adaptive management.

Bill Kleiman is one of my favorite people.  We have much in common: a love of prairies and restoration, a drive to learn from our mistakes and share what we learn with others, and a strong belief in the importance of conservation.  We’ve both worked for The Nature Conservancy for a long time (he’s got a couple years on me) and have been co-leading the Grassland Restoration Network for the last several years.  He’s also a great guy and a good friend.

Bill Kleiman (white hat) leads a tour of a restored prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grassland.
Bill Kleiman (light-colored hat) leads a tour of a restored prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands.  2014 Grassland Restoration Network workshop.

However, despite the fact that Bill and I are friends and have a lot in common, there are some big differences between us as well.  Bill is much more patient than I am, and better at the social niceties needed to build close relationships with neighbors and volunteers.  I tend to say what I think – sometimes inappropriately.  Bill is not shy about expressing his opinion, but does it less frequently, and usually with kindness and self-deprecation.

Bill and I both manage grasslands for The Nature Conservancy, but just as there are differences between us as people, there are also some stark differences between our sites and the approaches we take toward prairie restoration and management.  Bill’s site, TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands, is located in rolling hills about two hours west of Chicago, Illinois.  My Platte River Prairies are on mostly flat alluvial (river-formed) soils in south-central Nebraska.  As a result, the soils, topography and climate vary greatly between the two sites.  Moreover, our sites each have unique land use histories, invasive species legacies, and social and cultural contexts.

Bill again, talking to a tour group - with the Nachusa Grasslands in the background.
Bill again, talking to the same tour group, with Nachusa Grasslands’ undulating topography in the background.

I was thinking about all of this last month as our Platte River Prairies crew traveled to Nachusa Grasslands where Bill and his team were hosting this year’s annual Grassland Restoration Network workshop.  It was fascinating to compare the land management and restoration strategies we each use, especially knowing that both of us have diligently tested and refined our methods to meet the individual challenges of our respective sites.  Below are some of the similarities and differences between our approaches.

1. Seed Mixtures and Seeding Rates

Both Nachusa Grasslands and the Platte River Prairies have been actively restoring cropland to high-diversity prairie habitats.  At both sites we broadcast our seed (as opposed to drilling it).  The seed is broadcast either by hand or with a drop spreader – a fertilizer spreader that drops seeds onto the ground.  In fact, broadcast seeding is the technique of choice for the vast majority of sites that participate in the Grassland Restoration Network.  (You can learn more about fairly universal strategies and tactics in the “Lessons from the Grassland Restoration Network” document several of us put together.)

However, while we both broadcast seeds, Bill has found that successful prairie plantings at Nachusa require much heavier seeding rates (around 50 bulk pounds of seed per acre) than we use along the Platte River (8-10 bulk pounds).  Bill’s seed mixes include lots of seed from wildflowers, sedges, and “subdominant” grasses such as little bluestem, prairie dropseed, and sideoats grama, but almost no seed from more dominant grasses such as big bluestem and indiangrass.  In our Platte River Prairies seed mixtures, dominant grasses make up about half of the weight of the mixture.

James Trager (Shaw Nature Reserve) and Nelson Winkel (TNC Platte River Prairies) look over a restored prairie at Nachusa Grasslands.  This prairie was relatively unique in that it had a fair amount of indiangrass in it.  Most of the seed mixtures have none, or very little, seed from big grasses such as indiangrass and big bluestem.
James Trager (Shaw Nature Reserve) and Nelson Winkel (TNC Platte River Prairies) look over a restored prairie at Nachusa Grasslands. This prairie was relatively unique in that it had a fair amount of indiangrass in it. Most of the seed mixtures have none, or very little, seed from big grasses such as indiangrass and big bluestem.

Both Bill and I have experimented with many variations of these seed mixtures and have settled on these broad recipes as appropriate for our respective sites.  Though we do things differently, we both end up with very diverse prairies that meet our objectives.  When Bill uses lighter seeding rates, his new prairies get swamped out by invasive species before native plants become well established.  He’s also found that adding dominant grasses to the initial seed mix leads to plant communities that become overly grassy and not very diverse.  In contrast, using lighter seeding rates on the Platte allows us to plant more acres per year with the same seed harvest effort, and while it takes longer for our plantings to establish, they still end up being very diverse.  As our plantings mature, fire and grazing management helps suppress the dominance of big bluestem and indiangrass and maintain high plant diversity.

2.  Weed Control in New Restored Prairies

Weed control strategies for new plantings also vary greatly between Nachusa Grasslands and the Platte River Prairies.  At Nachusa, Bill and his crew walk every inch of new plantings multiple times each year until the native plant community is well established.  They remove (by pulling or spraying) every invasive plant they find – focusing mostly on perennial legumes such as birds foot trefoil, crown vetch, and sweet clover.  Once the native community is established, they can relax a little, but they still watch each site very closely.  In some cases, they’ve not been able to keep up with the pressure from invasive plants and they’ve made the difficult decision to just give up and start over, rather than fighting a losing battle for years.

The soybean field on the left is a former restored prairie that just never established as Bill hoped, so he and his crew made the decision to start over.  After it is farmed for a few years, they'll try again.
The soybean field on the left is a former restored prairie at Nachusa Grasslands that never established as Bill hoped, so he and his crew made the decision to start over. After it is farmed for a few years, they’ll try again.  While it’s a lot of work to start over, it’s less work than many years of fighting weeds and never winning.

Our weed control on the Platte River Prairies looks much different.  We don’t really have problems with perennial legumes or other non-native forbs.  In fact, we pretty much ignore sweet clover, and most other “weeds” during the establishment phase of a new prairie are annuals such as foxtail, marestail, and annual sunflower that just fade away as perennial prairie plants take over.  Our major fears have to do with perennial invasive grasses, such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass, and we deal with those mainly by suppressing them with fire and grazing management.  We also worry about deciduous trees, such as Siberian elms, that we have to control with herbicides because fire and grazing don’t do the job.  However, during the first few years of establishment, while Bill and his crew are painstakingly patrolling their sites, we can mostly ignore our new plantings – except for an occasional prescribed burn to limit the buildup of thatch.

3. Overseeding

A third difference between our sites has to do with overseeding.  In both remnant (never plowed) and restored prairies, we occasionally want to add missing plant species.  At Nachusa, they just burn the prairie and throw the seed out on the bare ground – and it works!  In our drier Platte River Prairies, we’ve not had very much luck with that strategy.  Using grazing to weaken the dominant grasses seems to help us get better establishment of new plants because it suppresses competition for moisture and other resources.  Bill’s crew doesn’t seem to have to worry about that – even in sites with lots of grass.

Bill (left) oversees some "data collection" during this year's Grassland Restoration Network, which was done to help tour participants evaluate an overseeding project.  Becky and Hank Hartman (volunteer stewards) have used repeated overseeding to transform an area from exclusively grasses to one with very nice wildflower diversity.
Bill (left) oversees some “data collection” during this year’s Grassland Restoration Network, which was done to help tour participants evaluate an overseeding project. Becky and Hank Hartman (volunteer stewards) have used repeated overseeding to transform an area from exclusively grasses to one with very nice wildflower diversity.

 

Mike Konen (in orange) from Northern Illinois University talks about soils during this year's workshop at Nachusa.  He is standing in prairie that is going to be grazed by the newly introduced herd of bison.  Grazing will give Bill and I one more thing to compare notes on...
Mike Konen (in orange) from Northern Illinois University talks about soils during this year’s workshop at Nachusa. He is standing in prairie that is going to be grazed by a newly-introduced herd of bison (the bison should knock the height of that indiangrass down some…) Now that Nachusa is using grazing  as a management too, Bill and I will have one more thing to compare notes on…

Bill and I have done extensive experimentation to come up with effective prairie restoration and management strategies at our respective sites, and we continue to adapt as we go along.  We can learn from each others’ experiences, but there is also much that doesn’t translate well between sites.  Some of that is due to the distance between Nachusa and the Platte, and the corresponding differences in climate and soils.  However, even prairies that are much closer together can respond very differently to management and restoration tactics.  Soil types, seed banks, topography, management history, landscape context, and many other factors combine to give every prairie it’s own “personality”.

It might seem overwhelming to learn that every prairie requires a unique set of restoration and management strategies, but it’s really not that bad.  There are a still a lot of commonalities between prairies – just like there are many similarities between Bill and me.  However, just as you would need to consider differences between Bill’s personality and mine in terms if you wanted a positive response from us, the same holds with prairies.  (If you want a favor from Bill, you might want to invite him to a little gathering and serve good beer.  On the flip side, if you want something from me, pizza would make a better bribe, and while I’m not against parties, the less small talk needed, the better…)

Above all, beware of anyone who tells you’ve they’ve figured out the magic formula for how to manage or restore prairies.  It’s just not possible.  Instead, take a look at what others do, learn from their experiences, and then experiment with a variety of techniques at your own site.  It won’t take long to figure out what moves your prairie in the direction you want.   Fortunately, unlike Bill (I’m kidding!) prairies are pretty forgiving, so if you try something and it doesn’t work, they aren’t likely to hold a grudge.

P.S. Bill will be appalled that I’m giving him so much credit for the work at Nachusa.  Clearly, both Bill and I have crews of staff and volunteers that do most of the work and much of the thinking.  For this post, however, I was trying to build an illustration of personalities in people and personalities in prairies.  It was a lot easier to do that by focusing just on Bill and me.  Please understand that the ideas and work of Nelson, Cody, Mardell, Hank, Becky, Karen, Al, Bernie, Jay, Susan, Leah, and many others are represented here as well.  (There, does that make you happier Bill?)