Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Interview with Chris Helzer: Part 3

What advice would you give to beginning conservationists? What are the particular challenges of being a conservationist in the Midwest?
Learn how to identify plants. And insects, if you can. Evaluating how well a prairie, or any other natural system, is responding to management is very difficult if you can’t even identify at least the major plant and insect species. Birds and other vertebrates are relatively easy to learn, but they are relatively poor indicators of whether or not management strategies are benefitting the overall function of the natural community. Plants aren’t really hard to learn, if you’re motivated to do it, but you first have to get away from the idea that nature is all about big charismatic animals. Wolves and eagles are important, and they used to symbolize nature for me too, but what really makes a prairie tick are things like robberflies and panic grasses.

Being a conservationist in the Midwest generally means working with fragmented landscapes.  That means there’s an added pressure—we’re trying to save as much as we can of what’s left. In some instances, we know every one of the handful of sites where a particular species still exists, which can be a little depressing. Every time a prairie gets plowed up or aerially sprayed, you wonder if the last population of some species we haven’t even discovered yet died with it. On the other hand, the great thing about prairies is that even small ones can have incredible diversity, and it would take many lifetimes just to catalog all the species living there. That complexity helps keep me energized to learn about the species and about how to keep them all going.

What are your favorite natural areas in the Midwest? What areas do you return to constantly, and what's your favorite newly visited  area?
I have two favorite prairies close to home. One is the Griffith Prairie, owned by Prairie Plains Resource Institute—a local prairie conservation/education organization in my home town of Aurora, Nebraska. Griffith Prairie is about 15 miles north of town and has incredible steep knobby hills of surprisingly diverse prairie overlooking the Platte River. The other is The Nature Conservancy’s Dahms/Derr Tracts, which are the center of much of the research and experimentation I do with prairie restoration and management. I feel like I know every inch of each of our management units, but every time I walk around them I find something new.

Farther from home, I feel lucky to live close enough to the Nebraska Sandhills that I can get to them within an hour or so. When a work or vacation trip takes me into or through the sandhills, I’m always surprised how quickly the drive goes—it’s impossible to get tired of the scenery in a 12-million-acre landscape full of contiguous hilly prairies. When I have time to stop and walk, I love to lose myself in the seemingly endless expanse of grass.

The place I wish I could visit more often is The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois. Bill Kleiman, his staff, and his incredible cadre of volunteers are doing simply amazing restoration work, and it’s inspiring to be there with both the prairies and the people.

Summer fire. Fire is an integral part of prairie management, but many prairie managers burn only in the early spring. With sufficient rest to build up thatch and dead grass stems, prairies can burn during any season—including the middle of summer. Summer fires can be helpful in reducing the vigor of dominant warm-season grasses that can otherwise monopolize resources at the expense of wildflowers and other plants. On the other hand, in northern prairies, summer fire can sometimes favor cool-season exotic grasses like smooth brome, tall fescue, or Kentucky bluegrass unless fall or spring grazing or some other treatment is used to neutralize the advantage to those invaders.

Cattle watching a prairie fire. One of the management systems we are experimenting with on lands I manage is patch-burn grazing, in which a portion of the prairie is burned each year.  Cattle have access to the whole prairie all season long, but they spend the majority of their time grazing the fresh regrowth in the most recently burned patch. One variation on the patch-burn grazing system we are experimenting with includes burning the new patch while cattle are in the prairie with us. The first couple times we did that, we were a little nervous about how the cattle would respond, but as it turns out, they generally stand back and watch from a safe distance as we create their next feeding area.

Chris Helzer, author, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States

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