Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Seed Harvest Musings

A guest post by Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

I had a pretty good foundation in forest ecology leaving graduate school, but I’ve really developed my forb and grass ID skills since starting work here in Wood River.  Prairie ecology has grown on me.  I was trying to explain it to a forest-loving friend: once you know the local plants, (that is, you see their uniqueness and their ecological and historical roles), you get a better feel for a place.

One of my favorite stewardship tasks is harvesting native seeds.  The best assignments are for hard to find plants that require some knowledge of their life history to locate.  I really enjoy the scavenger hunt and foraging aspects of searching for less widely distributed species.  I also had one of my major botanical victories seed harvesting on the prairie.

Prairie seeds drying in our seed barn.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  Photo by Eliza Perry, Hubbard Fellow.

Prairie seeds drying in our seed barn. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. Photo by Eliza Perry, Hubbard Fellow.

I was driving around, looking for Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), when I spotted a familiar stalk sticking up in the pasture.  I remembered it as a plant that had ridden shotgun in the truck with my field supervisor for a few weeks- clearly someone had harvested it.  I just didn’t know what it was.  Its flowers were now gone, only the long brown stalks and seed heads remained.  The leaves looked like a cross between a strawberry and a prairie rose (Rosa arkansana).  I collected the seeds and took the stalks home to identify. I was excited to discover that the plant in question, tall cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta), is indeed in the rose family!  Ecologists find their thrills where they may…

As a natural history geek, I can’t help but delight in picking up random facts about prairie plants.  For example, rocky mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) is a glorious nectar source for pollinators in mid-summer.  Doves eat the seeds in the fall.  Its leaves and seeds were also eaten by some Native Americans, “in spite of its strong smell” (“Grassland plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains”, Johnson & Larson 1999). It takes all kinds, the authors seem to say.  I didn’t find the odor especially displeasing, but evidently even botanists have personal opinions.

Rocky mountain bee plant.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Rocky mountain bee plant. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) is one plant whose smell I do find distasteful, and its fragrance garnered no mention. This wildflower is not widespread, but neither is it difficult to find.  You smell it before you see it.  Interestingly, it’s the seed heads and red stalks that stink, not the flower.  I left a bucket in the cab of the truck while I harvested other things, and when I came back the cab was filled with flies.  They followed the bucket to the truck bed when I moved it.

Most of the seeds we collect this year will be used in over-seeding projects, intended to increase the diversity of prairies we manage.  Over-seeding is one strategy we can use to boost a site’s forb population without tearing up the prairie and starting over.  Building a native seed bank of local ecotypes is a useful technique to increase your chances of success in prairie restoration.  It’s not bad work either, if you can get it.

The Right Metaphor for Prairie Restoration

Prairie restoration can be a powerful tool for grassland conservation, but we’re not taking advantage of its full potential.  Too often, we think and talk about prairie restoration (aka prairie reconstruction) in the wrong way.  Instead of trying to restore an ecosystem, we try to reproduce history.

Nelson Winkel, land manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, harvests grass seed using a pull-behind seed stripper.

I was in Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago and visited Ford’s theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  After the death of the president, the building went through drastic changes, including being completely gutted after a partial collapse of the interior.  By the time the decision was made to restore the building for use as a historic site, the National Park Service basically had to start from scratch.  Regardless, through painstaking research and a lot of hard work, the theater was rebuilt to closely resemble Ford’s theater of 1865.

The rebuilding of Ford’s theater is a decent metaphor for much of the early prairie restoration (or reconstruction) work dating back to the 1930’s in North America – as well for some of the restoration work that continues today.   In the case of prairie restoration, someone identifies a tract of land that used to be prairie but has been converted into something completely different (usually cropland), and tries their best to restore what was there before it was converted.  Just as in the restoration of Ford’s theater, the prairie restoration process requires lot of research and hard work to identify, find, and reassemble what had been there before.

Unfortunately, the Ford’s theater approach has turned out to be a poor fit for prairie restoration.  Prairies aren’t buildings that have specific architectural plans and well-defined pieces that can be collected and assembled to create a pre-defined end product.  Prairies are dynamic ecosystems that are constantly changing and evolving, and their components include organisms that interact with each other in complex ways.  Trying to recreate a prairie that looks and functions just as it used to – especially on a small isolated tract of land – is nearly impossible.

Reseeded prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Restoration Project in Indiana. If the plant community today looks different than it did before it was farmed, is that really a failure of the restoration project?

That doesn’t mean small scale prairie restoration is a bad idea.  I think reestablishing vegetation that is similar to what was at a site many years ago can have tremendous historic and educational value, and can also provide important habitat for many grassland species.  Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it.  It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc.  These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.

In reality, prairie restoration has proven to be very successful, and is a tremendous tool for grassland conservation.  We just need to find and apply a better metaphor.

A Better Metaphor for Ecological Restoration

Unlike efforts to restore old buildings, prairie restoration projects should not be aimed at recreating something exactly as it existed long ago.  Instead, effective prairie restoration should be like rebuilding a city after large portions of it are destroyed in a major disaster.  When reconstructing a metropolitan area, replicating individual structures is much less important than restoring the processes the inhabitants of the city rely on.  The people living and working in a city depend upon the restoration of power, transportation, communication, and other similar functions.  Those people don’t care whether roads, power lines, or communication towers are put back exactly as they were before – they just want to be able to get the supplies and information they need, and to travel around so they can to do their jobs and survive.  Restoration success is not measured by how much the rebuilt areas resemble the preexisting areas, but by whether or not the city and its citizens can survive and thrive again.

Similarly, restoration of fragmented prairie landscapes should not be an attempt to recreate history.  It should be an attempt to rebuild the viability of the species – and, more importantly, the processes – that make the prairie ecosystem function and thrive.  Success shouldn’t be measured at the scale of individual restoration projects, but at the scale of the resultant complex of remnant and restored prairies.  Are habitat patches sufficiently large that area-sensitive birds can nest successfully?  Are insects and animals able to travel through that prairie complex to forage, mate, and disperse?  Are ecological processes like seed dispersal and pollination occurring between the various patches of habitat?  When a species’ population is wiped out in one part of the prairie because of a fire, disease, or other factor, is it able to recolonize from nearby areas?

Pollination is an example of an important process that drives prairie function. Increasing the size and/or connectivity of prairies by restoring areas around and between prairie fragments can enhance the viability of pollination and other processes.

At first glance, choosing the appropriate metaphor for prairie restoration may seem insignificant compared to other challenges we face in grassland conservation.  However, if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark.  Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together.

After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.

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Read more on this subject…

– An earlier blog post about using prairie restoration as a landscape scale conservation tool.

– A prairie restoration project case study, with ideas about how to measure its success.

– Some recent early attempts we’ve made to measure restoration success by looking at the responses of bees and ants.

– A post about the importance and definition of ecological resilience in prairies.