Photo of the Week – August 31, 2018

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.

The red calves we saw back in May have grown quite a bit, and have changed into a more standard bison color.
A yearling cow stares unflappably back at me…
After driving into a bunch of bison in our west pasture, we watched as one after another of them stopped and took a dust bath in the same spot, rolling around in a frankly ridiculous, but apparently effective manner.
More dust bathing…
I couldn’t quite convince my son that we have a two-headed bison at the Preserve now, but he had to look carefully at the photo before he was sure.
This big ol’ bull was off by himself and lying down in the grass as we drove by in the evening. He stood as we approached, looked us over, and then turned and walked away as if he couldn’t care less – which is probably accurate.

Hubbard Fellowship Applications Are Being Accepted NOW!

Applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellowships with The Nature Conservancy of Nebraska are being accepted from now until September 8, 2017.  This is a one year position aimed at recent college graduates  – with undergraduate or graduate degrees in natural resources, conservation biology, wildlife biology, or related fields.

The Fellowship is designed to give Fellows a very well-rounded set of experiences and skills that will jump start their conservation careers.  Fellows work on land management and restoration projects, develop and carry out independent projects, attend numerous conferences and other events, visit with and learn from Conservancy staff and partners, and get valuable experience in conservation planning, communications, marketing, budgeting, fundraising, and other aspects of conservation organizations.  They also play important roles in communicating conservation messages to a wide array of audiences.  Supervising the Hubbard Fellowship program has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m excited to keep the program moving forward.

Please click here for more details about the Fellowship.

To apply, click here and then hit the green “view positions” button and search for job # 45644.

The Fellowship runs from January to December 2018 and is based at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, though considerable time will also be spent at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the Omaha Field Office.

Please forward this to anyone you think might be interested.

Photo of the Week – April 28, 2017

Ten days ago, I wrote about monarch butterflies returning from Mexico and flying much further north than is typical, and some of the risks they face because of that.  Many of you responded with your own similar observations and stories of monarchs across the country.  Since writing that post, I’ve spotted numerous monarchs both at our family prairie and in our Platte River Prairies, and reports to Journey North show monarchs have traveled even further north than we are here.

Earlier this week, my wife got to watch a monarch laying eggs on some small whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) plants in our backyard prairie garden.  A monarch (same one?) came by when I was around too, so I snuck out and tried to get photos of it but it was too cagey.  At the end of last year, Kim and I were talking about how surprisingly fast the couple of small whorled milkweed plants we’d gotten for the garden had spread.  Now we’re worried that we don’t have enough whorled milkweed to support all the eggs that have been laid on them!

A monarch egg on whorled milkweed in our backyard.
Usually, the monarch laid only a single egg per plant, but some plants had as many as three on the same small plant. Hopefully, those caterpillars will be able to make their way to surrounding plants if they overwhelm the ones they start on.

Yesterday, I went walking in our Platte River Prairies, hoping to find some eggs there as well.  I was looking for common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) but all I found was more whorled milkweed.  Sure enough, I found eggs on some of those plants too, and even spotted a couple tiny caterpillars.  All the plants I found were in prairie patches we’d burned and grazed last year.  I’m guessing the monarchs had the same impression I did of that grazed habitat – it’s sure easier to find tiny milkweed plants when there aren’t a lot of taller plants and thatch hiding them!

This tiny little caterpillar was busily munching away on whorled milkweed in our Platte River Prairies. It was just a couple millimeters long.

Whorled milkweed doesn’t usually get the accolades or attention it deserves.  In our prairies, it is often most abundant in areas where native prairies have been degraded by a long history of overgrazing and broadcast herbicide use (before we acquired the properties).  The plants are relatively small (often less than a foot tall) and have small white flower clusters and skinny seed pods.  When we’re harvesting seeds for our prairie restoration work, we try to get enough seed to ensure the species will establish in our plantings, but probably haven’t always worked as hard as we should at it.

Whorled milkweed is often overlooked and underappreciated, but is certainly proving its worth this spring.

The monarch eggs and caterpillars I found yesterday were in a restored prairie we’d seeded back in 2000.  The patches of whorled milkweed I found were over 15 feet in diameter, and some contained well over 100 plants.  I’m awfully glad now that we took the time to find and harvest whorled milkweed seeds during the summer of 1999, and wish we’d harvested even more.  Nevertheless, the plants that established back in 2000 have spread successfully and are now helping to rear the next generation of monarch butterflies.  When those caterpillars emerge as butterflies, they’ll find themselves in the middle of a large and diverse prairie community, full of flowers for them to feed on.  Eighteen years ago, that same location was a cornfield.  Today, it is giving some way-too-early monarchs a chance at survival.

This plant had both an egg and an already-hatched caterpillar. Hopefully, as it grows, it will find not only sufficient milkweed, but also abundant nectar resources for its adult life. (You can see a larger and more clear version of this image by clicking on it.  Maybe you can figure out what the little white bump is on the caterpillar’s back…  Part of the egg?  Something else?)

A Family Roundup

During the 20 years of my employment with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, I’ve been involved in at least 20 bison roundups (we usually do two a year – one for each herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve).  Last week’s was my favorite, hands down.  It wasn’t because the roundup went well – though it went as smoothly as any we’ve done.  It wasn’t even because the weather was perfect – though it was.  Nope, it was my favorite because it was the first time it’s ever worked out to bring my kids along.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year's roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.
My son John, laughing with other workers at this year’s roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I didn’t get to bring all of them, but everything lined up just right for John and Daniel, who were on fall break from school and were old enough to be helpful and safe.  They had a great time, and the experience was far richer for me as well.

Now, to be perfectly clear, we don’t typically involve kids in our roundups, but I was able to supervise the boys personally and make sure they were safely doing work appropriate to their age and ability.  To begin with, both of them just watched the process to learn how the animals are moved quickly through a series of alleys and gates with as little noise and stress as possible.  Later in the day, they were both able to join in the work.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing "quality control" - helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.
Daniel spend most of the morning doing “quality control” – helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.
Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.
Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.
Unfortunately, the flag wasn't effective at warding off his dad/photographer.
Unfortunately, the flag wasn’t effective at warding off his dad/photographer.
Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.
Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.
Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.
Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.  Before long, however, he took over a sliding gate.
John seemed to enjoy the experience...
He seemed to enjoy the experience…
Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.
Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.
This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).
This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).
Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.
Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.
Eric hides behind a gate while bison move past.
Here, Eric is hiding behind a gate while bison move past.
Then he gets to show off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.
Then he shows off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.
After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town, where they (fruitlessly) waited for the prairie dogs to come back out of their holes.
After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town.  They learned that no matter how long you wait, prairie dogs don’t re-emerge from holes while you’re sitting there.
The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.
The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Sky is My Mountain

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric comes from Minnesota and brings great energy to our prairie stewardship work.  He’s also very bright, and an engaging writer, as you’ll see in this and other posts.

The sky is my mountain. I recently heard Jeff Walk from Illinois Nature Conservancy articulate this notion of prairie geography. If westerners are defined by their mountains, those of us from the Midwest and Great Plains are defined by our skies. Prairies are open horizons. Even on the most heavily plowed landscapes, the ghosts of prairies loom as long as the land stretches toward an expansive sky.

Sky
Flat land compensates the viewer with tremendous skies.

All landscapes affect the prejudices about comfort and beauty of those born to them. I know someone who moved to Minnesota from the West for a job and was gone within the week, overcome by the flatness of the land. That might be a little dramatic, but I can understand the uneasiness. For me claustrophobia and paranoia rises in deeply wooded landscapes that lack the promise of a lake or field offering a glimpse beyond the trees. I think we all have that affinity for particular aesthetics to some degree, and because of that I think we can all empathize with the plight of prairie wildlife.

Unlike humans, most prairie wildlife lacks the flexibility to adapt to the uneasiness brought on by changes in their natal landscapes. Prairie chickens may be the most well known of the prairie wildlife terrorized when the land loses the sky, but they are almost certainly not the only ones. One needs only to watch the predatory efficacy of hawks and owls from their perches high atop the crowns of trees to understand why the development of tall vertical structure results in the extirpation of prairie species. There are more trees than ever closing off the sky, threatening to fundamentally alter the ecology, composition, and aesthetics of our prairies.

Historical records from the mid-late 1800’s in Nebraska’s Lower Platte River Valley (to the east of our Platte River Prairies) suggest trees occurred as widely scattered individuals and small clusters; a far cry from the ubiquitous shelterbelts and heavily wooded groves that cloak what almost certainly was formerly prairie. Trees and the changes they have already wrought and continue to promise are why most of our field season at the Platte River Prairies has played out to the whine of chainsaws.

The small row of trees on the horizon may seem insignificant, but the removal of those trees would visually reconnect three chunks of prairie; potentially having pronounced effects on grassland bird nesting occurrences and brood rearing success. Photo by Eric Chien.
The small row of trees on the horizon may seem insignificant, but the removal of those trees would visually reconnect three chunks of prairie; potentially having pronounced effects on grassland bird nesting occurrences and brood rearing success. Photo by Eric Chien.

 

I am haunted by trees. Back on June 8th, Katherine and I picked up chainsaws and walked into a grove of cottonwoods along a creek bottom. On September 23rd, another 10ft tall Siberian elm twirled to the ground. In between, we spent hundreds of more hours felling, bucking, and stacking trees. Always to the backdrop of more deep green tree lines on the near horizon; a reminder of how far trees have come, and how far prairie stewards have to go.

Katharine Hogan (Hubbard Fellow) wields a chainsaw
Katharine Hogan (Hubbard Fellow), technician Calla Olson, and I spent several days extracting a row of large twisting mulberry trees from between two stretches of fence. Photo by Eric Chien
Looking down the fence line of this tree removal project illustrates the process. Sawyers fell, limb, and buck trees, while a tractor follows behind and piles material into burn piles within the interior of the prairie. Photo by Eric Chien
Looking down the fence line of this tree removal project illustrates the process. Sawyers fell, limb, and buck trees, while a tractor follows behind and piles material into burn piles within the interior of the prairie. Photo by Eric Chien
The most time intensive portion of tree removal, and thus limiting factor, is the organization and removal of downed tree material. Left on the ground, mature trees rarely burn up well in prescribed fires, and the skeletons impede maneuvering within the area during future management actions. Photo by Eric Chien
The most time intensive portion of tree removal, and thus limiting factor, is the organization and removal of downed tree material. Left on the ground, mature trees rarely burn up well in prescribed fires, and the skeletons impede maneuvering within the area during future management actions. Photo by Eric Chien

Despite the specter of an advancing forest, I love tree cutting. I like to think of tree control on the prairie as the big game hunting version of plant management. Removing mature trees demands thorough planning, and constant attention to one’s surroundings.  To date, I am not aware of an incidence of death by reed canary grass. Put that focus factor together with the fact that there are few prairie management activities with as immediately noticeable impact as the removal of dramatic woody encroachment, and it is a task ready made for those of us brain dead from spraying, and still cultivating patience for observing the effects of our work. Walking through a completed tree removal, or thinning, noting the full sunlight, and the unrestrained wind, gives me the same feeling as looking at a maturing prairie restoration. I think in many ways it is an equally profound change in the land; a taking back of the sky, and a return of a prairie.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Welcome to the Fourth Class of Hubbard Fellows!

Many of you have followed this blog enough to be familiar with our Hubbard Fellowship program and the experiences they’ve had with us during the last several years.  In June, our fourth pair of Fellows, Katharine and Eric, joined us here in Nebraska and have been quickly and enthusiastically learning about prairies and conservation.  Both of them have written a brief introduction of themselves, and you’ll hear much more from them over the next 11 months.

Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.
Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

From Katharine:

Greetings! I’m Katharine Hogan, and I am very excited to join The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska for the 2016-2017 Claire M. Hubbard Conservation Fellowship. I’m coming to this opportunity as a northeasterner who developed her love of nature while growing up in the mountains of Vermont. My summers and free time were spent horseback riding in the woods, swimming, gardening, forming what was then an unconscious but deep attachment to the natural world, and building the foundations for my future professional passions.

I am part of the fourth generation of my family to choose conservation as a profession. Whether this is generational conditioning or some genetic preference not yet understood, I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that I’ve always gravitated towards any science that required spending long hours outdoors studying nature directly. I remember as a teen deciding in part to pursue environmental science over other science fields due to a fear that they might require spending too much time indoors! This isn’t necessarily a fair summary of those fields, but ultimately I completed a B.S. and in 2014 an M.S. in Environmental Science from Taylor University in northeastern Indiana.

As a lifelong northeasterner relocating to a strikingly different ecosystem and culture, my interest in exploring more of the country post-college was piqued, leading me after graduate school to work first performing native plant restoration at North Cascades National Park in Washington state. Here, I learned firsthand how the world of conservation and land management far eclipsed what I could have possibly grasped in school, fell completely in love with the unforgiving wilderness, and essentially felt like I’d stumbled upon an entirely different world than I expected. However, it still provided everything I had been looking for in my hopes of developing a career in which I could do work that was both needed by the world and fulfilling for me to complete.

The lessons learned in Washington and at subsequent opportunities in vegetation monitoring in Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho created individual and collective experiences I couldn’t have dreamt of if I had chosen any other profession. I’ve been lucky enough to have learned and seen more of this beautiful country than I would have thought possible even three years ago. But here is where we come to the beauty of this Fellowship! Even having learned so much about different ecosystems and aspects of conservation, here in Nebraska there will be countless other opportunities to expand my knowledge of and appreciation for nature, all while contributing to the conservation of the beautifully intricate prairies on the Platte River and across the state. There will be new challenges around every corner, I’m sure, and I can’t wait to take them on, and see what I can contribute and accomplish by the end of the year. I have a feeling it will fly by and leave me looking for more at the end of it, so I suppose I’d better get busy! Thank you all for reading!

Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.
Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.

From Eric:

It is great to finally have arrived at the Platte River Prairies. I can still distinctly remember leaning over my chainsaw last December, the snow and cold driving though my face shield, wondering how I was going to find work that kept me on the prairie. The evening I pulled in earlier this June to begin a year as a Hubbard Fellow, a warm Great Plains wind swirled the grasses, cattle stood staring at the fence line, the bobolinks and bobwhite whistled away. With a change from the cold unknown to warm, welcoming opportunity, you can rightly imagine I am happy to be here.

I am from Minnesota; subjectively, but to my mind irrefutably, God’s country. I have basked in the state’s diverse, and rich natural heritage my entire life, living and recreating in and around our iconic waters and forests. It has only been relatively recently that I was enlightened to the wonder of the prairie. After returning home from Maine where I received my undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College, I worked for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota. Over the last couple years I have been blessed to work in some incredible restored and remnant prairies in Western parts of the state. (If you haven’t, check out Chris’s blog post from the Grassland Restoration Network last year at the Bluestem preserve in Hawlsey, MN to get a taste of the region and the work being done there.) As a result of weeks of work in the grass, long days spent cutting back woody plants and trees, wrestling with invasive grassland plants, and harvesting prairie plant seed, I am now a prairie person.  I can’t say exactly what it was or is that ties me to prairies, and the components of that interest seem to be changing day by day, but it’s there.

With my interest in prairies firing on all cylinders, I eagerly look forward to this upcoming year in Nebraska with the Nature Conservancy. I anticipate and aim to make it an opportunity that can help me translate my interests in grassland restoration and management into a portfolio of skills and knowledge that can be applied pragmatically and effectively for prairie conservation. With several weeks under my belt, I can already report that I have learned a great deal both about prairie ecology, and how we, as prairie scientists and enthusiasts, can begin to tackle the complex, and entangled issues that threaten the species, places, and livelihoods we care about.

Whether it is at volunteer events, conferences, or a chance encounter somewhere between some bluestem, I look forward to meeting many of you over the course of the next year. One of the things that has struck me most over the last couple years is the uniquely intense passion that people who work and/or have an interest in prairies possess. It has and continues to inspire me. So even if we never meet, I hope we can find ways to connect, and continue to find ways to learn about and work for prairies.

Finally, I just want everyone to know how welcoming the neighbors have been. On the first morning of being at the Platter River Prairies I opened my front door, and standing at the base of the steps was a hen turkey. That bird stared me right in the eye and clucked a couple notes before strutting off down the driveway- a great Platte River Prairie welcome.

 

Next Platte River Prairies Field Day – June 22, 2016

Please plan to join us for our next field day on June 22, 2016.  We will have multiple field sessions to choose from throughout the day from 9am to 3:30pm.  There is no cost for attending, and families are welcome.  Bring your own lunch (and sunscreen, insect repellant, and drinking water).

Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension Research Entomologist talks about prairie invertebrates.  Platte River Prairies Field Day, August 27, 2014.
Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension Research Entomologist will return this year to talk about prairie insect identification and ecology.

Session topics include:

Plant identification and ecology

– Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy

Principles of prairie management

– Gerry Steinauer, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Prairie insects

– Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension

Gardening with native plants

– Kim Helzer, TNC Volunteer and Centennial High School Science Teacher

Edible wild plants

– Cyndi Trail, The Nature Conservancy

Prairie seed harvesting and processing

– Mardell Jasnowski, The Nature Conservancy

How to help monitor monarch and regal fritillary butterfly populations

– Melissa Panella, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Each session will be available at least twice during the day.  We will likely add another couple session options within the next weeks stay tuned for a final agenda to be posted here within the next couple of weeks.   

The Derr House is located 2 miles south of the Wood River exit off of Interstate 80 (Exit 300).  Turn south immediately after the highway curves to the east and you’ll be there.

For more directions to the site, go to: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/nebraska/placesweprotect/eastern-nebraska-platte-river-native-prairie-nature-trail.xml

Photo of the Week – April 22, 2016

Carolina anemone, aka windflower (Anemone caroliniana), is one of my favorite spring wildflowers.  Like many early bloomers, it’s beautiful but inconspicuous.  Despite its gorgeous flower color(s), it can be really hard to see unless you’re within a few feet of it.

The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).
The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).  It’s hard to enough to find it when it is blooming.  When it’s not, the leaves (foreground) are so small and inconspicuous, they are nearly impossible to spot.

Earlier this week, the Fellows, Nelson, and I spent a couple hours hiking our Platte River Prairies, practicing some plant identification and talking ecology and management.   I’d mentioned the anemone as a species we might see if we were lucky, but we didn’t find it.  After our hike but before I headed home, I decided to revisit a hill we’d hiked earlier because I wanted to photograph some groundplum (Astragalus crassicarpus) flowers there.  After I finished with the groundplum, I stood up and walked a few steps downhill, and there, not 10 feet from where the four of us had stood a few hours before, was a small patch of Carolina anemone.

There were only five plants and they were in various stages of blooming – and in various shades of blue.  I spent a few minutes photographing them and then called Evan (one of our Hubbard Fellows) in case he wanted to come see and photograph them too.  Evan said something about a friendly little contest…  After describing the location to him, I drove back to town.

Last night, Evan sent me four of the images he came away with from that little patch of windflowers.  Have I mentioned that he’s an excellent photographer?  Also, he cheated by finding and photographing a crab spider on one of the flowers WHICH IS TOTALLY UNFAIR!

Anyway, without making it an overt competition, here are four photos each from Evan and me.  It’s always fun and interesting to see how different photographers interpret the same subject matter.  In this case, notwithstanding Evan’s crab spider, WHICH HE PROBABLY PLANTED, we were working with the same five flowers.  I put my four photos first, followed by his four.

My photos…

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ENPO160419_D033

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ENPO160419_D035

And now Evan’s photos…

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It sure is nice to be back in wildflower season again.  I’m glad to live at a latitude where we have a true winter dormant season, but part of the reason I like winter is that it increases my appreciation of the return of the growing season each year!

Photo of the Week – April 15, 2016

Back in July, I got to photograph flowers and insects at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie in Minnesota.  One of the subjects I enjoyed photographing was a little yellow-flowered plant in the genus Lysimachia.  I don’t know the name of the species (I’m sure someone will tell me what it is, which would be fantastic).

I played around with the background in my Lysimachia photos.  I moved the camera slightly up and down, changing what was visible behind the flowers.  The problem with doing that, of course, is that I had to later decide which version of the photo I liked better.  Or, as I sometimes do, I get lazy and just put multiple versions in a blog post to see if you have a preference.

Lysimachia sp. at The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie. Version one (a little lower perspective to show a little sky in the background).
Version 1. (a little lower perspective to show a little sky in the background).
Version 2.
Version 2.  (the camera was a little higher so the sky is not visible.)

If you have strong feelings, let me know if you like one or the other better, but don’t feel obligated to encourage my laziness.

And, just for fun, here’s a completely different composition of a different plant of the same species (from the same morning).  I actually like this composition less well, partly from an artistic standpoint, and partly because I just think the two earlier images better represent the way the flowers tend to delicately droop on either side of the plant.

Version 3.
Version 3. (Different plant, same morning)

Someone I know, not-to-be-named, likes the last composition much better than the first two.  That person is wrong, but to be fair to them, I’m including the composition in the post.  I’m sure all of you will agree it’s nice, but not as good as the first two…

Right?

Wildfire and Erosion (Or Not) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve

After the 2012 wildfire that swept through the Niobrara River Valley in north-central Nebraska, one of the concerns among our neighbors and other observers was the chance of significant erosion from both wind and water.  Based on previous experience with summer fire and grazing in Sandhills prairie, we weren’t overly concerned about erosion there, but we had less experience with the kind of steep slopes and loose soils found beneath the ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees on the bluffs north of the river.  We used timelapse cameras to watch several areas where we thought there was potential for erosion to happen.  (Spoiler alert: not much happened.)

One of our timelapse cameras, set up to watch the downwind edge of a big blowout in bison-grazed Sandhills prairie.
One of our timelapse cameras, set up to watch the downwind edge of a big blowout in bison-grazed Sandhills prairie.  After this photo was taken, fence panels were erected around the base of the camera post to keep bison from rubbing on it.

One camera was set up on the edge of a big Sandhills blowout (an area of bare sand created by previous wind erosion).  With a summer of severe drought, a July wildfire, and continuous bison grazing during and after all of that, it seemed possible we’d see some accelerated wind erosion there.  The camera was erected in April 2013 and set to take one photo per hour and document whether or not the blowout expanded in size following the fire.

The camera’s post twisted and shifted some over time (watch the distant bluffs in the top left corner of the images as a landmark).  That made it more difficult to track the edge of the blowout precisely, but it’s clear that if there was any expansion of the blowout, it was really minor.  This matches what we’ve seen previously after conducting prescribed fires (spring, summer, and fall) in bison-grazed prairie in the Sandhills.  Although ranchers are often advised to defer grazing after a fire to avoid damaging grasses and/or causing erosion, we haven’t seen any long-term problems arise from grazing immediately after fires.  Graduate research by Jack Arterburn at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is helping us further evaluate the recovery of grasslands from this latest wildfire.

Jeff Dale, of Moonshell Media, installs a timelapse camera on a steep slope north of the Niobrara River beneath fire-killed pine and cedar trees.
Jeff Dale, of Moonshell Media, installs a timelapse camera on a steep slope north of the Niobrara River beneath fire-killed pine and cedar trees.  Looking at Jeff’s feet versus the base of the tree he’s working on gives you a feel for the steepness of the slope.

North of the river, the wildfire ripped through stands of ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar that had become so dense that very little vegetation could grow beneath many of them.  Following the fire, the barren ground and steep slopes seemed ripe for significant soil erosion.  We had several cameras in this area to help see how much erosion actually occurred.  One of those (shown above) was set to look across a steep slope in a place that seemed particularly likely to lose soil during a downpour.

Some small gullies formed, and a few rocks even washed downslope along with some topsoil during spring rains in 2013.  After that, however, annual plants of various kinds established quickly on the slopes and subsequent soil loss between the summer of 2013 and the end of the season in 2015 appears to have been very minimal.  Perennial plants are now starting to spread across these slopes, but it will be a while before they are the dominant vegetation.  In the meantime, annual sunflowers, foxtails, and other short-lived opportunistic species seem to be doing their jobs and holding the soil.

This camera was deployed to record sediment coming off the steep slopes on the bluffs and into the bottom of this draw.
This camera was deployed to record sediment coming off the steep slopes on the bluffs and into the bottom of this draw.

We also put a camera at the bottom of a draw beneath the steep slopes shown earlier.  Any water and/or sediment coming from those slopes would have to flow into and through this draw, so we thought it would be a good place to watch.  In the first video below, you can see that a load of sediment did come down between May 18 and May 21, 2013 – the same time period during which we saw the most significant erosion in the video of the steep slopes.  The other story from this particular video is that you can really see the resprouting of the bur oak trees in that draw – nearly all of which seemed to survive the wildfire (albeit in a different form than before).

In the second video from this camera, you can see a quick progression of images from the three years following the fire.  The tall growth of vegetation (primarily annuals) makes it difficult to see the ground, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of erosion after that first half season of 2013.  We didn’t do any seeding or take other steps to reduce erosion on steep slopes, so it was reassuring to see that the plants there were up to the task of holding the soil.  Amanda Hefner and Dave Wedin from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been collecting data from the site that we hope corroborates the story we’re seeing through the cameras.

It would have been a lot more exciting to show you videos of blowouts moving across the Sandhills or torrents of rock and soil washing down steep slopes.  Sorry about that.  On the other hand, while we won’t likely win any awards for dramatic videos, watching nothing much happen in these timelapse images is pretty powerful in its own way.  It’s natural to assume the worst after a traumatic event like a major wildfire, and it can be difficult to convince ourselves and others that things will be ok without some pretty strong evidence.  Timelapse photography is only part of our effort to measure the impacts of the wildfire, but they provide visual reassurance in ways that data graphs just can’t.

We’ll continue to watch and react to the recovering landscape in the coming years.  For now, however, recovery of the Niobrara Valley Preserve seems to be on a good track.

Thanks to the Nebraska Environmental Trust for supporting our timelapse project other efforts to measure and track recovery from this wildfire.