Photo of the Week – October 3, 2014

I made my first ever visit to The Nature Conservancy’s Smoky Valley Ranch in western Kansas this week.  It won’t be my last.  Situated along the boundary between mixed-grass and shortgrass prairie, the Smoky Valley Ranch contains 16,800 acres of grassland – including a wide variety of prairie types – along with bison, lesser prairie chickens, prairie dogs, and even black-footed ferrets.  It’s quite a place…

A rock outcrop above an oxbow.  The Nature Conservancy's Smoky Valley Ranch - western Kansas.

Exposed rock above an oxbow. The Nature Conservancy’s Smoky Valley Ranch – western Kansas.

I was at the ranch as part of a small group invited to help the Conservancy’s Kansas staff think about their conservation strategies at the ranch, including fire and grazing management, restoration work, neighbor relations, and their research and monitoring approach.  The peer review team included Conservancy staff from Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, as well as several local landowners and partners from the local area.

Matt Bain of the Conservancy, discusses grazing strategies with other biologists and neighbors.

Matt Bain (left) of the Conservancy, discusses grazing strategies with other biologists and neighbors.

The thoughtful work being done by the staff at the ranch was really impressive.  They have been reconsidering their objectives and making some significant adjustments to their management approach.  Our job was to give them some feedback on the changes they’re already making and help them think about some additional possibilities.  It was two days of thought-provoking and stimulating conversation – mostly while standing in the middle of impressive grassland scenery.

A very colorful grasshopper.

A very colorful grasshopper.  (Pictured Grasshopper – Dactylotum bicolor)


Sandsage prairie.

Sandsage prairie – one of several different prairie types found at the Smoky Valley Ranch.


A giant ant hill.

A giant ant hill, made by harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex sp.)

I need to learn more about shortgrass prairie and the drier end of mixed-grass prairie.  Plant and animal communities respond very differently to management and restoration treatments with less annual rainfall and under more frequent/longer droughts.  However, I don’t feel like I have a good grasp of those differences.  Looks like I’ll have to start making some trips to western Kansas….

Oh darn.

Prickly pear cactus.

Prickly pear cactus.


Photo of the Week – March 9, 2012

Toadstool Geologic Park is a small public area hidden away in the northwestern corner of Nebraska.  The site is one of the most scenic in Nebraska, but is remote enough that relatively few people visit.  Those who do make the trip can see tracks and fossils of animals that lived in the area 30 million years ago, including camels, rhinos, and others.

Toadstool Geologic Park is part of the Ogalala National Grasslands, administered by the U.S. Forest Service.  The grasslands would be called shortgrass prairie by most of us, but they are technically part of the “shale mixed-grass prairie – characterized by cool season grasses such as western wheatgrass, green needlegrass, and needle-and-thread.  They and other plants, including sego lilies, rabbitbrush, and leafy musineon, grow in dry clay soils that only receive an average about 10-15 inches of rain per year.

One of the reasons I love Nebraska is the variety of landscapes found in the state.  I can travel from the oak woodlands and tallgrass prairies of eastern Nebraska to a place like Toadstool Park in a single day of driving.

There’s an awful lot to explore in between too, and I feel like I’m just getting started.