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I spent much of last week in eastern Idaho, visiting The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch Preserve.  The Flat Ranch consists of about 1,600 acres of mostly-flat and sub-irrigated grassland along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and is managed by the Conservancy’s Matthew Ward.  Matthew and Bob Unnasch (The Conservancy’s Director of Science in Idaho) contacted me a couple years ago to brainstorm management ideas with them.  I gladly agreed, since I always learn a great deal from that kind of interaction.

This view from the Flat Ranch Preserve Visitor’s Center does a good job of showing off several aspects of the place. A group of Master Naturalists learns about entomology, cattle graze the lowland meadows, and mountains line the horizon of this special place.

When we first talked, we focused on two objectives.  Matthew wanted to create more habitat heterogeneity and increase plant diversity on the ranch, especially in areas dominated by non-native grasses. He had been running the rotational grazing system he’d inherited from the previous manager and wasn’t seeing any positive movement toward his objectives.  Most rotational grazing systems are designed to protect the health/dominance of grasses and encourage even forage utilization, neither of which matched Matthew’s ecological goals.  To create more habitat heterogeneity, we wanted to come up with something that would create short vegetation structure in some places and taller structure in others – and then shift the location of those habitat types over time.  Often, that scenario also favors plant diversity, which fit Matthew’s second objective.

After discussing a range of possibilities, Matthew decided he’d like to try out the “open gate rotation” approach that we’ve been experimenting with in Nebraska.  He began implementing it in 2018 and sent me photos to show me what it was looking like.  Then, in 2019, he came to Nebraska to see what our sites looked like and I made a reciprocal visit to Idaho last week.  Those visits and discussions were really thought-provoking, so I thought I’d try to share some of what we talked about in this post.

Matthew is employing grazing to create a variety of habitat structure types across the ranch. This photo shows the style of fence used in these kinds of high elevation pastures, in which the thinner posts hold the barbed wire and can be disconnected from the bigger posts and laid down at the end of the season before crushing snows come along.

In some ways the Flat Ranch and our Nebraska Platte River Prairies are similar.  Both sites are dominated by lowland sub-irrigated prairie and wetlands, and both have been invaded by non-native grasses that can suppress plant diversity.  However, there are some striking differences between the sites too.  One major difference is in the length of the growing season.  At the Platte River Prairies, we see green-up of vegetation in late March of most years and continue to see blooming plants through much of October.  At the Flat Ranch, its high elevation (above 6,000 feet) means it is covered with snow much of the year and is typically frost free for an average of 56 days each year.  This means that they don’t have plants scattering their growth and blooming times across a long season.  The schedule is much tighter, and most plants are on a pretty similar growth trajectory.

The amount of snow received at the Flat Ranch also creates some major differences from our Nebraska prairies.  Matthew says the site is covered by 8 feet of snow for much of the long winter.  They take all their fences down at the end of each season and put them back up for the next in order to protect them from the weight of all that snow.  That heavy snow also smushes all the previous season’s vegetation flat and seems to greatly inhibit thatch accumulation from year to year.  Flattened vegetation affects habitat structure, of course, but it also makes it impossible to burn in the spring (as does all the water at the site during that time of year).  The best window for prescribed burning is in the fall, but the county usually has a burn ban in place until the first big winter weather event greatly reduces the likelihood of wildfires.  The Conservancy has been able to do a little prescribed burning during the narrow available window between burn ban and major snows, but it isn’t currently a big part of their management.

During my time in Idaho, I got to see most of the Flat Ranch Preserve, and we also made a trip into Yellowstone National Park to see similar habitats there.  I was struck by the abundant flowers across both sites – helped, of course, by the fact that the flowering season is very compressed.  As I said earlier, the Flat Ranch is handicapped by non-native grasses that seem to be suppressing plant diversity.  Specifically, timothy (Phleum pretense) and Garrison creeping foxtail (Alopecurus arundinaceus) are the problems.  The meadows we saw at Yellowstone didn’t have either of those invasive grasses, so it was helpful to visit those sites as kind of reference – though those meadows aren’t necessarily models for what the Flat Ranch grasslands “should” look like.  One big difference, however, between the Yellowstone and Flat Ranch was the abundance and diversity of native grasses.  In particular, tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) was much more abundant in similar-looking habitats at Yellowstone compared to the Flat Ranch, where those habitat types were dominated by timothy and creeping foxtail – sometimes in near monocultures. 

Stefanie Wacker, an ecologist with the National Park Service (center) led us through several beautiful meadows in Yellowstone National Park. The sites provided an alternative view of plant communities on soils and topography similar to those at the Flat Ranch Preserve.
Pedicularis groenlandica accented this wet swale in one of the Yellowstone National Park meadows we visited.

  After visiting the Yellowstone meadows, looking over the fences at neighboring properties, and a lot of wide-ranging discussion within our little group and with a couple other ecologists/botanists, we came up with a short list of the big issues we felt were most important to address.  First, we felt like the timothy and creeping foxtail (along with Kentucky bluegrass – Poa pratensis) were significant threats to the Flat Ranch and seemed to especially reduce native grass diversity and abundance.  Forb diversity seems to be in pretty good shape across the ranch, especially at a large scale, though in places, the forb community was largely dominated by a few species.  Finally, neighboring ranches had a lot of silver sagebrush (Artemisia cana) dominating what seemed to be the same kinds of soils/topography as are on the Flat Ranch.  Since that species is almost completely absent from the Flat Ranch, it seems likely that it was intentionally eliminated at some point in the ranch’s history (long before the Conservancy’s ownership).

Timothy (Phleum pratense) is the most abundant of the non-native grasses Matthew is trying to suppress at the Flat Ranch.
Garrison creeping foxtail (Alopecurus arundinaceus) has been promoted as a forage grass by some, but has shown itself to be an aggressively invasive species in many places. It is certainly abundant at the Flat Ranch and seems to be suppressing plant diversity where it occurs. This cinquefoil (Potentilla sp) was one of the more abundant blooming forbs during my visit. It seemed to persist successfully where timothy and creeping foxtail appeared to be suppressing other species.

While it is still early days, the open gate grazing approach seems to be creating satisfactory habitat heterogeneity – at least from a visual standpoint.  It would be great to do some data collection, or at least rigorous observations, to see how that heterogeneity might actually be affecting animal populations.  However, that seems like a lower priority than the plant community issues we were discussing.  We didn’t see much evidence that changes in the grazing strategy were yet having either a positive or negative impact on plant diversity.

I’d love to tell you that we came up with some sure-fire solutions to those plant community problems, but land management rarely works like that.  Instead, we came up with a number of questions that we felt needed to be answered through some small-scale experimentation.  The answers to those questions should help drive future management decisions.  Here are some of the experiments we talked about trying:

  • It would be pretty easy, but valuable, to build some grazing exclosures (maybe 16’ by 16’) in at least several pastures to help evaluate how current grazing strategies might be affecting timothy and creeping foxtail dominance. 
  • Garrison creeping foxtail seems to be the bigger threat among the two non-native grasses and is often found in distinct patches (though there are a lot of those).  We decided it would be interesting to see whether or not those patches are increasing in size, and if so, how management might be affecting that.  One way to do that would be to use measure the size of creeping foxtail patches that span the boundaries between pastures/management units.  By using fence posts as center points, Matthew could measure distances from the post to the outer limits of the patch in various directions – over time, repeated measurements would show whether each patch is getting bigger, and if spread rates are affected by management on each side of the fence line.   
  • We also decided it would be good to try a few small-scale experiments with both mowing and herbicide treatments to learn more about what might suppress the dominance of the invasive grasses and how the plant community might respond if those grasses were weakened.  Mowing at different times of the season and at different frequencies might provide some interesting results.  In addition, we talked about using Poast Plus or another grass-specific herbicide (at both lethal and sub-lethal rates) in small plots to see how the plant community responded to that kind of treatment.
  • Finally, it was clear that we needed more input and information from other ecologists and the literature.  Matthew and Bob were going to find more information on the feasibility and logistics of reintroducing silver sagebrush to the site and potentially overseeding tufted hairgrass and other grasses into areas where invasive grasses had been weakened.  We had some ideas about both the sage and grass restoration options but felt like we needed to know more before starting down those paths.
This ragwort (Senecio sp) had flowers like the ones in our Platte River Prairies, but was clearly a different species. I saw a lot of that during the trip – plants that looked pretty familiar, but weren’t quite what I was used to seeing. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was a plant species I recognized from home, and while I don’t know what species of plume moth this was, it looked like the ones I’ve seen at home too.

Regardless of how timothy and Garrison creeping foxtail got into the plant community, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that they’ll ever be eliminated, given how ubiquitous they’ve become.  As a result, the most logical objective is to find ways reduce their ability to suppress plant diversity.  Hopefully, Matthew and Bob will be able to find some management options that will start pushing in that direction.  Depending upon the results of the next few years of experimentation and information gathering, it may or may not make sense to try active restoration of plant species (especially grasses and silver sagebrush) that are currently less abundant than is desired. 

I’m excited to track the progress of the Flat Ranch from a distance, and I hope someday to make a return trip – especially if they have some success.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in the Island Park area of eastern Idaho, I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Flat Ranch.  You can hike through some beautiful meadows (at least during the short summer) and look for moose, grizzly bears, and other wildlife.  I hear the fly fishing is excellent as well!

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I’m sorry for not posting earlier this week, but I spent most of the week in Idaho, visiting The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch. We spent a lot of time on the ranch, as well as a little time in Yellowstone National Park, looking at similar habitats. As a bonus, I went up to the top of Sawtelle Peak twice because it was just south of the Ranch. I plan to summarize some of the intriguing discussions we had in a future post, but for now, here are a few photos from Idaho. I still have a lot of trip photos to get through, so more will be forthcoming.

My trip home from Idaho went really well. I do hope, however, that my luggage decides to follow me home at some point (it apparently stayed in the Jackson Hole airport, for some reason, instead of riding on my airplane.) I understand why it might have felt like staying, but since half my camera gear was in that bag, it would be convenient for me to get it back…

The Flat Ranch visitor center, right off the highway at Island Park, Idaho, is a great place to start a hike. The yellow flower is northern mule’s ear (Wyethia amplexicaulis). The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch. Of all the flowers I saw that I don’t have in local Nebraska prairies, I have to say prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) was my favorite. This is one of MANY photos I took of this beautiful flower. I know a lot of you get to see it all the time, and good for you, but it was pretty special for me. I learned that the bulb of blue camass (Camassia quamash) is edible, but that they are often harvested after flowers have disappeared and you have to be careful not to grab the bulb of the similar-looking mountain death camass (Zigadenns elegans) which lives up to its name. I have a new favorite Cirsium species and it is elk thistle (Cirsium scariosum). Just wow. Up on Sawtelle Peak, this mountain goat was sticking its head down into a hole (to get salt?) and then brought its head up and licked its lips repeatedly. After I walked away to photograph flowers, a second goat showed up (I’m told) and a fight ensued. My “friends” neglected to call me back over… I don’t have shooting stars (Dodecatheon spp) in prairies close to me. I sure did enjoy seeing them in Idaho. They got even smaller and cuter at high elevations. This scene was taken from Sawtelle Peak, just south of the Flat Ranch. As we were leaving Sawtelle Peak, I looked to the east and saw this hazy scene, which I was able to capture with a telephoto lens. From Sawtelle Peak, we could look west to Mount Jefferson, the uppermost source of water to the Missouri River. It also feeds the Snake River, which runs west into the Pacific. Mount Jefferson is the highest point shown in this photo.
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Milkweed is in its full blooming glory right now. Not just the big pink ones, but also orange, white, and green-flowered varieties. I spent a couple hours at Lincoln Creek Prairie this week, photographing lots of different subject matter, but milkweed definitely constituted a dominant theme in the resulting photos. And yes, Bill, I hit the south lobe on the east side of the creek, and it was beautiful, as you promised. Thanks for the tip.

Here are some of the many milkweed photos I took this week.

A large milkweed bug ( Oncopeltus fasciatus ) on the buds of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Common milkweed flower buds Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) The same large milkweed bug, but on a different nearby flower. More common milkweed flower buds; because I like them. A skipper butterfly (Sachem?) on common milkweed. Common milkweed blossoms with thrips (the tiny insects). Pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) on common milkweed. The American bumblebee (Bombus pennsylvanicus), appropriately photographed on the 4th of July, on Sullivant’s milkweed.
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Important: This post is only for those who are already in love with prairies and will traipse happily through them despite any hazards that may or may not exist. If you’re on the fence about hiking in prairies, trust me – it’s a great idea and you should do it. Just don’t read this post before your hike.

Here’s a piece of trivia most people don’t know: I’m allergic to grass pollen.  Why are you laughing?  I’ve had allergic reactions to grass pollen since I was in high school and blundered through a patch of pollen-laden reed canarygrass while fishing.  It’s not so bad now – it only bothers me when I’m around grasses.  Seriously, that giggling doesn’t become you.  Fortunately, medications and allergy shots have helped a lot and my symptoms these days are pretty minor.

In fact, at this time of year, my grass allergies are way down the list of things that bother me when I’m out in prairies.  Mosquitoes, for example, are pretty nasty this year, especially with all the flooding.  Fortunately, long-sleeved clothing and DEET work well enough to get me through days when there is no breeze to help push them away.  Ticks are abundant right now too, but for some reason I’ve never understood, I rarely find ticks on me – even when colleagues are picking them off themselves regularly. 

Mosquitoes and ticks are annoying, but nothing compared to the bane of my existence during summer fieldwork season – chiggers.  If not for my regular twice-a-day routine of DEET application to my ankles and waist, I would be completely incapacitated by red swollen and itchy bumps all over my body.  I know this to be true because it has happened.  One summer when I was a kid at Boy Scout camp, some researchers were studying chiggers and did pre-camp and post-camp counts of red bumps on Scouts.  Due to an unfortunate “wilderness survival” outing, during which I “slept” all night in tall grass, I was deemed the champion of chigger week by those researchers when my chigger bite count exceeded 900.  That is not an exaggeration.  I spent much of the latter half of that week hiding behind trees where I could scratch the more private areas of my body, where itching was most severe.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to photos of chigger welts, or even the chiggers themselves (they’re too small for my paltry camera equipment anyway). Instead, I’ll just provide photos of the context within which chiggers attack – like this prairie.

Chiggers have continued to plague me ever since that long-ago summer.  On occasions when I remember to apply DEET, I might get a few chigger bites per day.  When I forget, all bets are off.  I’ve never reached Scout Camp Champion status again, but that is still a reasonable possibility, especially on days when I’m lying in the grass photographing small flowers or insects.

There is a lot of mythology and misinformation surrounding chiggers, so I’d like to set the record straight.  It’s bad enough having to battle chiggers without also having people trying to get me to try home remedies that don’t work or spouting false natural history facts about what chiggers are and how they attack us.  Here are some actual facts about chiggers – I hope they are helpful to you.  If you don’t live in a place where chiggers live, or haven’t had trouble with chiggers like I have, congratulations to you.  You are welcome to skip the rest of this post, unless you’re just morbidly curious about something that afflicts others.

The term “chiggers” actually refers to numerous species of Trombiculid mite, variously known around the world as berry bugs, harvest mites, red bugs, scrub-itch mites, etc.  Approximately 30 species are known to attack animals and feed on their skin cells (more on that in a moment), and they are found around much of the globe except where it is too hot, dry, or high (elevation) for their comfort.  If there is one chigger-related thing for me to be grateful for, it is that North American chiggers don’t seem to be major disease carriers.  In east Asia and the South Pacific, chiggers can cause a disease called scrub typhus (aka Japanese river disease), which can trigger headaches, fever, muscle pain, coughing, and gastrointestinal problems.  Pleasant little creatures, aren’t they?

The larvae of these mites are what actually cause us problems.  Chigger larvae are red, hairy, and tiny – less than ¼ mm in diameter – and have six legs, despite being mites, which are supposed to have eight legs.  (Chigger larvae don’t give a hoot about our so-called rules.)  They can also move much faster than you’d expect, based on their mite-shaped bodies and relatively short legs.  Around here, they hide in tall grass, where they can quickly swarm up our legs as we pass by – especially if we have the audacity to stop and, for example, smell a rose or something foolish like that.  When they do end up on our bodies, they tend to head for areas where clothing is tight (under socks and underwear and behind the knees).  You know, the places hardest to scratch, especially in polite company.

You can’t see them, but they’re there – hiding among the flowers, ready to ambush us as we walk past…

Chiggers don’t actually bite us, but instead poke a tiny hole in our skin and inject us with digestive enzymes.  Those enzymes break down skin cells and form a hole in our skin called a stylostome, through which larvae can suck up our digested skin tissue.  I still refer to welts on my skin as chigger bites because it’s easier to say than “inflamed stylosomes”, but I also recognize how that kind of lazy nomenclature has led to a lot of misunderstanding about chiggers and how they attack us.

That skinny hole in our skin, filled with digestive enyzmes, causes swelling and itching.  While that might sound unsurprising, we’ve actually got countless other tiny creatures feeding on us all the time, both internally and externally, but most of them have the grace to do so without leaving behind big itchy welts.  In a particularly evil twist, the itching and swelling from chigger “bites” doesn’t usually start until 24-48 hours after the initial puncture, by which time the chiggers have likely dropped off.  Once they leave us behind, they mature into nymphs, and then – eventually – adults.  (The nymphs and adults are 8-legged like they’re supposed to be, so apparently it’s just the young hoodlum larvae stage that are particularly rebellious.)

Adult chiggers are predatory, feeding on even smaller arthropods in the soil, and maybe some plant material as well.  During this phase of their lives, they are harmless to prairie ecologists and other people in tall grass, other than the fact that adults create eggs, which then grow into those awful little larvae.  From the information I’ve found online, females are purported to lay only 3 to 8 eggs each, but I’m not sure that low number adequately explains the hordes of chiggers in our prairies.  In temperate zones, chiggers can go through the egg-to-adult cycle three times in a year, but in warmer places, they can be active year-round.

What can we do about chiggers?  Not very darn much, unfortunately.  If you listen to friends or (heaven forbid) look online for remedies, you’ll likely hear all kinds of foolishness.  Trust me, it doesn’t do any good to put rubbing alcohol, nail polish, or bleach (?!) on your skin to try to kill or suffocate the chiggers.  Again, by the time you feel the itchiness, they’re likely long gone.  Even if the chiggers are still there, putting bleach on your skin is just dumb.  Don’t do that.  Plus, once they’ve made the initial hole, itchiness will ensue, regardless of what crazy strategies you employ. 

I shudder to think how many chiggers are climbing the legs of these poor people…

I’ve seen a lot of advice about taking a hot shower or bath, or just rubbing yourself down with a towel or abrasive cloth as soon as you get in from the field.  The idea is to knock chiggers off before they attach, I guess.  Hot showers or baths are also suggested.  I guess those are worth trying, though I’m thinking chiggers are probably attached by the time I get home from the field.  In that case, even if I do rub a chigger off, it’s not going to prevent the itchy welt.  

Maybe dislodging the chigger in my house will prevent it from finding appropriate outdoor habitat for its continued survival and it will die, alone and confused.  Revenge, however, is never the answer (say people who aren’t covered in itchy welts).  More importantly, it wouldn’t surprise me if those dislodged chiggers just attacked me (or my family members) again inside my house.  (To be clear, I have no specific information that dislodged chiggers in your house can or will reattach themselves to you.  I’m just drawing unsubstantiated conclusions based on their apparent overall sinister qualities.)

Here’s my point in all of this.  Chiggers are the worst.  They are miniscule little creeps that sneak onto our bodies to suck out our skin cells and cause severe itchiness in embarrassing places.  They lurk about in tall grass, just waiting to crawl rapidly onto and up our legs as we walk by.  We can’t avoid them (other than by avoiding areas with tall grass, which is, of course, ridiculous), so the best we can do is to wear insect repellant and maybe futilely rub ourselves with a towel when we get back home.  I’m an ecologist with a special affinity for insects and other small creatures, but chiggers are a step too far, even for me.  I hate them.

In unrelated news, prairies are really starting to pop with color right now – it’s a great time to go out and hike!

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This week, I made a trip up the Niobrara Valley Preserve. A colleague from Idaho was visiting Nebraska to discuss grazing and other prairie management strategies and I couldn’t very well let him leave without seeing the Niobrara Valley. In addition to Matthew, the Fellows (Chelsea and Mary) also came along. Here are a few photos from the quick visit.

The Niobrara Valley, photographed by drone, just east of The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters. Backlit ridges with tree skeletons from the 2012 wildfire. This area north of the river is recovering, but we are still discussing how to best guide that recovery to avoid re-invasion by eastern red cedar. Matthew Ward at “The Chute”, a local landmark waterfall just upstream of the Norden Bridge . A Rorschach ponderosa pine bark test. What do you see? A portion of our east bison pasture (10,000 acres), as viewed from across the river. Chad Bladow points out a potential route for a fire break as we discuss a future prescribed fire on the north side of the river. Chelsea is taking photos and Matthew is just below, enjoying the scenery. Fungus grows on a log in the middle of a spring-fed creek along the south side (north-facing slope) of the Niobrara River. We started where the creek emerged from the ground and followed it quite a way downstream, enjoying the cool moist air along the way. Mary (left) and Chelsea (right), photographing slightly different views of the Niobrara River. Looking southeast from the ridge north of the river.
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This post was written and wonderfully illustrated by Mary Parr, one of our Hubbard Fellows. I hope you’ll enjoy her perspective on our trip to western Nebraska a couple weeks ago. It’s a fantastic landscape and it’s fun to see it through the eyes of people who are experiencing it for the first time.

Last week, I experienced northwestern Nebraska for the very first time. The landscape was vast and not flat at all! Chris, Chelsea, Olivia and I explored the Murphy Ranch in the Wildcat Hills, the Cherry Ranch in the High Plains, and Fort Robinson in the Pine Ridge. As we made our way west last Wednesday, my anticipation built as the landscape changed from sandhills to buttes and gravely sandstone outcrops. I could not help but reminisce on stories and cowboy lullabies my Chadron alumna father reared my siblings and I up on. I can hear it now, the Nebraskan remix of “Country Roads”.

Cherry Ranch with flowers in the mid-morning.

As we arrived at Cherry Ranch in the high plains (as my dad would call it), a mosaic of mixed grass and short grass prairie, I looked out at the expansive grasslands, not an eastern red cedar or other tree in sight. I felt as if I was staring at an ancient sacred landscape. Grassland rolling by, with abrupt pauses of exposed rock, sculpted by the elements. I imagined bison by the millions scattering across the hills. I looked down at the Niobrara River headwaters in the valley below me and envisioned bands of Lakota watering their horses. I could see the pioneers pulling wagons with oxen navigating around the steep bluffs. I stood on land that has served countless individuals and weathered immeasurable storms.

Desert sandwort (Eremogone hookeri) and a spectacular sunrise view. Desert sandwort close up.

On the Cherry Ranch, we chatted with Travis, our lessee and generational local rancher, about plants and livestock forage. Travis explained how much the cattle love the native sedges, sun sedge and thread leaf, “They eat it up like ice cream and it is incredibly nutritious”. Chris went on say that those sedges spread extremely slow by rhizomes and some colonies are likely thousands of years old! I looked down at the sedges near my feet in amazement, feeling guilty for stepping on the old souls.

Can you see the thin film of hair all over this crested penstemon (Penstemon eriantherus)?

Fascinated, I made my way to the edge of the rocky bluff. The exposed rock was painted with a crusty texture of vibrant lichens of orange and pastel green – as if the rock itself was alive. There was an array of plants growing out of the cracks and in small pockets of soil medium. It is amazing to think there is so much life in a region that receives an average of 17 inches of rain annually.

Look at this prairie buck-bean (Thermopsis rhombifolia) growing out of a long crack in the exposed rock.

These rock plants are excellent survivalists, especially in terms of water retention. Often these plants have very deep taproots or very fibrous roots that make the most of the little soil available. The leaves have adapted to reduce heat absorption and water loss through a few mechanisms: thin rigid leaves, having a light gray-green color, or even hairs to provide shading. Some plants produce especially hard seed coats that prolong their viability and can only germinate when there is sufficient soil moisture. I always enjoy thinking about plants and observing their strategies, especially in abiotically stressful areas. They are truly ingenious.

Drone photo of Mary by Chris.

I was disappointed our trip was so brief, but a taste was all I needed to begin plotting my return. Until next time northwest Nebraska!

Gumbo-lily (Oenothera caespitosa) prefers gravelly soils, buttes, and rocky banks. According to Jon Farrar’s Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains, it has a very deep taproot that was used by Native Americans for food and medicine for respiratory ailments.
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REMINDER!  Our Butterfly Bioblitz is one week away (June 29) at the Platte River Prairies.  Please RSVP if you’re coming.  You can see more information here.

So much has happened over the last few weeks, I’m pretty far behind on sharing photos.  On the way back from the North American Prairie Conference, Kim and I stopped at a couple different sites.  One of those was the Clymer Meadow Preserve northeast of Dallas, where site manager Brandon Belcher and his interns gave us a tour.  Clymer is a beautiful example of blackland prairie, and was resplendent in color, especially where they had done a summer prescribed fire in 2018.  Brandon is a really thoughtful land steward and it was fun to learn from him and see a prairie type that is very different from our Nebraska sites.

The Nature Conservancy’s Brandon Belcher walks through Clymer Meadow Preserve a few weeks ago.

Among all the blooming wildflowers, I recognized the genera of many of them, but not the species.  A lot of the flowers were clearly different, but some – like the Silphium growing at Clymer – looked just like a our rosinweed at home, but wasn’t.  It’s always an eerie, but fun, feeling to almost recognize a bunch of plants…

Dark clouds dissipated as we walked, providing some nice photographic light, so I was that annoying person who slows the tour by repeatedly stopping to take pictures.  Since I did that, I feel like I should at least share some of the nicer ones I got.  Here they are:

Centaurea americana (American basketflower). We spotted several stick insects as we walked around, which probably means there were thousands of them… Another of the stick insects. If you look closely at the flower (Dracopsis amplixicaulis) on the left, you can see a couple petals are folded up. Often, there is either a spider or caterpillar inside a folded petal like that. In this case… (next photo) …it was a caterpillar. I don’t know what kind, but maybe a savvy reader will save me the trouble of looking it up! Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) is a species that just makes it into the southeastern corner of Nebraska. I also see it now and then in planted populations, but it was fun to see and admire it in its native habitat. This little spider also seemed to enjoy having eastern gamagrass around… I believe this is a black swallowtail larva and Kim and I both think we remembered that it was on prairie parsley (Polytaenia), but I won’t guarantee that. The wildflowers were just stunning in the 2018 summer fire units. This is not a selected photo that makes it look like there were more flowers than there really were – it really looked like this across much of the site.
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My current job title is “Director of Science”, which I have to admit is a pretty cool title. It’s almost as good as the best job title I’ve ever held, which was “Land Steward”. I’ve worked hard to get my current job title, but also to shape the job description that goes with it. Specifically, throughout my career, I’ve fought to keep myself in the field, where I’m consistently able to explore and study prairies up close.

All the photos in today’s post are from the last couple of weeks, and illustrate minor discoveries of sorts that I’ve made while acting as a naturalist. In this case, I’ve been keeping track of the kinds of insects that visit spiderwort plants, and the vast majority are flies. As a result, seeing this bee feeding from spiderwort was noteworthy. Ok, it’s not an observation that will change the world, but it was interesting, nonetheless.

I’ve fought those battles because my sanity and well-being depends upon the sense of discovery I get whenever I’m in a prairie or other natural area. I recognize that I’m really fortunate to have been able to shape my career as I have, but even if I had to work outside of the arena of conservation, I’d still find time to be a naturalist. Heck, even now, I’m in the field during the majority of my work time, but I still spend a lot of my off hours in prairies.

I’m guessing most of us in the conservation arena got here because we were inspired by outdoor experiences as kids or young adults. I remember collecting snails in the road ditch across from my house when I was 6 or 7 years old, for example, and regularly riding my bike to the fishing pond across town when I was in 3rd grade. My aspirations for college were to get a degree and become a park ranger in a remote place where I could somehow get paid for exploring nature (like many people that age, I didn’t have a very realistic idea of what jobs are like).

I’ve seen many butterfly species feeding on minerals left behind by evaporation around mud puddles, etc. but I’d never seen a regal fritillary doing so until I spotted a couple along the trail at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.

There is certainly a lot more to my job duties than simply “exploring nature”, but I will defend that facet of my job vigilantly. I encourage everyone else in conservation to do the same. Not only does spending time as a naturalist help keep us inspired and energized, it’s how new discoveries and forward leaps in natural history happen. Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about the natural world, there are still gargantuan gaps in our understanding. Many times, we don’t even know what questions need to be asked, let alone how to answer them. As a simple example, I direct you to a short post written by Katharine Hogan, our Hubbard Fellow a few years ago about something I’ve noticed as well. We don’t yet know why all those silken strands sometimes appear in prairies, but I bet the answer will be a doozy when we find it!

I first learned about clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) while at the Cedar Point Biological Station in college. It’s a parasitic plant, and I was told at the time that it pulls nutrients from fringed sage (Artemisia frigida). I spotted several last week at Cherry Ranch in western Nebraska, and most were next to sage, but not all of them. I went looking for more information and found that its host plant selection is much broader than I’d previously thought. Aha!

Aside from the scarcity of natural areas in many places, it’s never been an easier time to be a naturalist, and it’s a pursuit open to anyone, of any level of experience. First of all, of course, there’s no requirement to identify what you see in order to enjoy finding it. However, if you do want to learn what species you’re admiring, there are now countless digital resources to help you, in addition to the standard books and experts that have been around forever. In addition, not only can you easily share discoveries with friends and potential friends through online communities, your discoveries can contribute to the growth of global scientific knowledge through programs like iNaturalist, Journey North, Bugguide, and many others.

Everyone knows that convergent ladybird beetles (and other species) feeds on aphids, right? Well, just yesterday, I spotted this one clearly feeding on pollen, so I went in search of more information. It turns out pollen and nectar are both important sources of food when aphids aren’t readily available. I certainly wasn’t the first to discover that, but it’s the kind of discovery that can be made by any of us if we’re observant.

The old adage about stopping to smell the roses applies just as much today as ever. It’s what makes life worthwhile. When I’m working in the field, I frequently interrupt what I’m doing to follow a trail or check out a spider web. I feel no guilt about that at all. First of all, I consider it part of my job to increase my experience and skill as a naturalist – and to pursue opportunities for scientific discovery. And second, it’s a tiny investment in my job satisfaction and energy level, from which my employer will reap many benefits. I would encourage everyone reading this to carve out your own naturalist time, regardless of whether that happens at work or not. Besides being good for you, it will be good for the world too.

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The far western end of Nebraska bears little resemblance to the visual image most people have of Nebraska. A combination of geologic forces and climate have joined to create a landscape that appears desolate and/or beautiful, depending upon one’s individual aesthetic. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of wide open space, maybe because I lived there for part of my childhood. As is true across the state, the panhandle is mostly privately-owned, though there are some prominent exceptions within the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills landscapes, as well as the Oglala National Grassland.

Our staff stands on an escarpment at Cherry Ranch with Travis Krein, the rancher who leases the property from us for grazing. Travis is a smart and thoughtful rancher, who has been a strong partner for us over many years.

The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch, south of Harrison, Nebraska, is a prime example of the beauty and remoteness of the panhandle. The roughly 7,000 acre site supports populations of swift foxes, lark buntings, burrowing owls, and many other wildlife species. Plant communities include sedge meadows and mesic prairie down low and western mixed-grass prairie at higher elevation, much of which is dominated by threadleaf sedge, aka blackroot sedge (Carex filifolia), along with a strong diversity of grasses and wildflowers.

Dwarf Indian plantain (Castilleja sessiliflora) was thriving in large populations on some of the rockiest hilltops.


The site is also bisected by the upper reaches of the Niobrara River, which is considerably smaller there than it is as it passes through our Niobrara Valley Preserve, nearly 200 miles downstream. Most spectacularly, the ranch is characterized by a number of rocky escarpments, which provide both stunning views and distinct plant communities. The site is not currently open to public access, but hosts a number of research projects, as well as a working cattle operation.

The Niobrara River winds aimlessly through the landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch.

A small group of staff visited Cherry Ranch this week to discuss management with our lessee and explore/photograph the various habitats of the site. We had a great trip, full of wildlife and plant observations, the highlight of which was two gallivanting badger cubs that let us watch them for a few minutes. I was disappointed that we didn’t find a prairie rattlesnake, but that sentiment wasn’t unanimous. We spent part of an early evening on the site and then returned the next morning to catch the sunrise. The Fellows will likely have stories and photos to share in the near future, but here are a few of the photos I took during the visit…

Drone photography is really helpful for showing the scope and beauty of the grasslands at the Cherry Ranch. Cattails are getting a little thicker than we’d like in a few stretches of the river, so we’ll be using some flash grazing by cattle to periodically thin them out. Travis has had success with that in the past, as have many others across the state, including our own experimentation in the Platte River Prairies. Mary, one of Hubbard Fellows, waits for the sunrise atop one of the rocky ridges. Early light. Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) was one of many spectacular flowers blooming at the site. Uncharacteristically, I found myself photographing the landscape much more than individual plants and insects this trip. I’m pretty sure these are gumbo lilies (Oenothera caespitosa), but there are a lot of Oenothera species out west, though not nearly as many as there are Astragalus species, especially on rocky outcrops!
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This post was written by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Chelsea and Mary had a busy spring, including quite a few prescribed fires around the state. In this post, Chelsea writes about helping a Sandhills rancher with a successful burn to kill eastern red cedar trees.

Sore legs and blistered feet brought the satisfaction of another mission completed. The dust from over 400 miles of travel and the smell of burnt grass and cedar that had settled on our protective gear was lifted into the air as I hung each set – helmet, radio harness, fire shelter pack – back on its hooks in the shed. The scent of prescribed fire – a mix of sweat, ash and fuel – brought back the excitement I felt during our most recent burn. Despite the still-lingering exhaustion from working hard in hot smoke I ached for another chance to help fill the prairie’s next prescription. I smiled and sighed as I put the drip torches back where they would await their next call to action, standing at attention all the while. The red canisters of fuel once seemed heavy and intimidating, even dangerous. After seven burns I felt an admiration for them, the kind one feels for the tool most trusted to assist with hard work.

A drip torch sits in the grass during a temporary pause in ignition.

The adventure that would spark my romance with prescribed fire began one Wednesday as Mary, Olivia, Nelson and I packed our things into Bubba, our trusty diesel truck. As we headed north, things tucked strategically around the water pump in the bed of the pickup, I was filled with gratitude and excitement. While I have had many such moments thus far in my fellowship, this one was especially invigorating. My coworkers and I were a squad of prairie guardians on the move, called to assist other such units in preserving breathtaking bits of habitat nearly three hours away.

Bubba the truck, full of equipment and supplies.

Our journey brought us to the home of a rancher near Thedford, Nebraska. This prescribed burn would cover an area similar to previous burns, around 416 acres, but held a slightly different significance. Since the land was privately owned, we would complete the mission with the help of local ranchers. They were keepers of Sandhills prairie for whom prescribed fire was a treatment still in the clinical trial phase. The encroachment of cedars threatened the suitability of their lands for grazing, but using fire was a method of tree removal they weren’t very familiar with. The confidence and excited energy of participants in yellow Nomex mingled with the curiosity and uncertainty of those in plaid shirts and baseball caps. Together we ate from pizza boxes piled on the hoods of pickup trucks. With all our bellies and water bottles filled, our newly formed team headed out in a caravan of UTVs and rancher rigs to the staging area of the burn unit.

The line of vehicles heading toward the ignition point.

After some discussion about the fickle nature of the light winds that evening and a subsequent change in location for the burn’s ignition, the trucks and UTVs lined up in their respective positions. Each member of my squad from the Platte River, a land with much less variable topography, would be lighting the fire. Carrying drip torches on foot through hills steep enough to challenge the engines of diesel trucks seemed daunting, but I was excited to work up a sweat in the name of prairie conservation. Even more exciting was the potential to show the local ranchers that prescribed fire was a feasible and effective way to conserve their land for grazing while also maintaining a high-quality habitat for the wildlife of the Sandhills prairie.

As Mary and I climbed the steep hills of the parcel, dragging lines of hot flames behind us, the ranchers laying the wet line ahead of us were learning on-the-fly about how much water is needed to contain such a blaze. They were eager to learn and open to suggestion – “How are we doing? How’s this pace for you?” My experience with previous prescribed burns made me confident in my ability to give them some pointers. The fact that they were asking me for such advice was endearing and profound. A few hours earlier we had been total strangers. Now we were united to address a common concern, however different our reasons for that concern may have been.

Mary, doing some interior ignition, widening the black.

Night had fallen by the time Mary and I brought our lines of fire to meet those of Nelson and Olivia. By completing the ignition of the perimeter from both sides we were able to shift our efforts to monitoring the fire’s behavior as flames closed in around the hilly pasture. Keeping an eye on the parcel was hard to avoid. Its peaks and valleys were striped with glowing flames and dotted with torching cedars. While there had been stressful moments during the four-hour execution of the burn, the apprehension of the ranchers had evolved into enthusiasm for prescribed burning. It was clear that they felt right at home with work that was difficult, demanding, and a bit dangerous. As we discussed our experiences that night, the energy was one of a team who had just won the big game. Exhausted but exhilarated, we chatted for a while, smiling through our soot-smudged faces.

The crew gathers to watch the fire burn itself out.

While I learned so much about the efforts that go into conserving high-quality prairies during each burn this spring, the connection with private landowners created during that Sandhills experience taught me the most. Though the ranchers admitted that burning that night was the most fun they’d had in a while, their willingness to use prescribed fire on their own land would depend on the results. I knew a reduction in cedar density in the burn unit was likely and felt proud knowing I played a part, however small, in sharing conservation-friendly management techniques with a wider audience. In a state where most of the land is privately owned, having such an audience was a profound opportunity.

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