Flowers, Fire, and Wildlife

Jen Corman                                                                                                                         Coordinating Wildlife Biologist Northern Prairies Land Trust

Last December, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Biologist, Josh Kounovsky, watched 22 acres of oak woodland and prairie burn on Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA). In fact, he carefully planned and coordinated the burn himself: the burn was a prescribed fire designed with specific goals. One of the overall goals of the fire was to allow the woodland and prairie to function as woodland and prairie again. Great Plains grasslands and oak woodlands evolved with fire. As humans have focused on preventing fires, populations of trees that had been limited by fire, such as eastern redcedar, have increased and reduced the ability for oak woodlands and prairies to sustain themselves and the wildlife that depend on them.

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Prescribed fire has restored an area on Grove Lake WMA where oak woodlands and prairie meet. Small cedars killed by the fire are in the foreground.

Over the last few years, WMA managers have stepped in to cut and remove eastern redcedar that had begun taking over the woodland. They have also worked to thin out some of the hackberry, mulberry, and other shade-loving trees that have also started growing more densely in the forest due to the loss of fire. Cedar and other shade-loving trees shade out young oaks and native plants that grow on the forest floor. Young oaks cannot replace dying oaks where cedar and other trees have crowded into the forest. Cedar was also spreading from the woodlands into the surrounding prairie on the WMA. With the loss of forest plants, young oaks, and native grasslands, Grove Lake WMA was losing quality habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the turkey, deer, quail, and grouse that the WMA was created to support.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida, left) is blooming in the prairie openings and downy blue violet (Viola sororia, right) is blooming in the woodland. As described in a previous post, prairie violet is especially important for the regal fritillary butterfly which feeds only on violets during the caterpillar stage.

The initial, costly removal of many cedars from the woodlands and prairie allowed biologists to use prescribed fire as a more efficient long-term management tool. Thanks to Kounovsky and his experienced burn crew, the fire was a success, killing small cedars that had sprouted since cedar tree removal. Fire also made space for flowering plants that wildlife needs by clearing some of the dense leaf litter from the forest floor and the dense, dead grass in the prairies. The result is a rejuvenated oak woodland and tallgrass prairie with many wildflowers. Wildflowers provide food and cover for wildlife and support insects that anchor the food web. Insects are an especially important food for game bird and songbird chicks.

Hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense, left) and fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum, right) blooming on prairie restored by prescribed fire. Puccoon seeds are a nutritious food for grassland birds.

Fire is a tool that will ensure Grove Lake WMA will provide high quality hunting opportunities for future generations of hunters. Prescribed fire will benefit many non-game animals and plants as well. As spring arrives, we are excited to see what is blooming on the burn. We hope you enjoy these photos of mid-May blooms!

White-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) blooming in the prairie after prescribed fire. This delicate wildflower is not actually a grass.
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Violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) is especially abundant along woodland edges in the burn area.
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Groundsel (Senecio integerrimus), also known as lambstongue ragwort, growing in restored woodland this May.
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Pasque Flowers: Harbingers of Spring

“Early in the spring, when the snow has scarcely melted, the Northern Great Plains are covered with gray-blue flowers that look like smoke hovering over the prairie. These are the fuzzy pasque flowers–“very brave little flowers,” say the Cree Indians, “that arrive while it is still so cold that they must come wearing their fur coats.”
~Melvin R. Gilmore, Prairie Smoke 1929
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Pasque Flowers in their “fur coats” ready to bloom. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

I know of a place that holds a secret.  It’s a small patch of prairie soil.  Once, in early spring, during my first years out of a college, a mentor of mine drove out to this southeast quarter section and first shared what came to be for me, the magic of pasque flowers.   A handful of years later, I ended up living on a small acreage just across the road from that very place.  Ever since, spring has been marked by the hunt for the first blooms of spring.

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

The end of winter is always hard on me. I want sun, warmth in my bones and to sleep with my windows open. To me, stumbling upon a south facing slope with eyes trained on the ground, pasque flowers represent the stretching into the light and reaching out from under the symbolic death of winter. Or as Glimore wrote it, “… pasque flowers again bring their cheering promise of coming spring.”  With snow on the ground and all else still dead or dormant, these slight lavender blooms stand out against the gray browns.  Fragile but with a sense of duty to herald the life that is coming back to the prairie, pasque flowers are, again Gilmore, the “…first gladsome harbingers of the lovely hosts to follow.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Ethnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore, among other great accomplishments, collected Native American uses, stories and lore of the great plains plants and animals, including the pasque flower.  He writes,

“They [Native Americans] have songs and stories about many of the species of plants and animals with which they are acquainted such a song being the expression of the life or soul of the species to which it pertains.”

He relays the song of the pasque flower as translated from the Dakota language:

“I wish to encourage the children of other flower nations

Which are now appearing over all the land;

So, while they waken from sleep and rise from the bosom

Of Mother Earth, I stand here, old and gray headed.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

~Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairie Land Trust

Thoughts of Spring

The anticipation of spring cannot be felt more than by the movement of birds north through the central flyway. The sound of  goose or sandhill crane alone can warm my winter bones.  As we drag through this last bit of prairie winter, the subtle shift from dormancy and symbolic death to light and birth begins with the flight of birds on their spring migration.

I think Leopold says it best,

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

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Image Credit: Lowell Georgia

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairies Land Trust

 

Environmental Stewardship Begins with Heart

I think we all have ‘the’ story we can trace back through the foggy trail of memory to a collection of moments when we became forever bonded to wild places. Maybe it’s just my experiences, but those moments hover around the ‘unsupervised savagery’ end of the spectrum of childhood memories.  Foul smelling mud face paint.

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Like mother like son. Mud pit on National Mud Day      Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Running through the Platte River riparian zone like a NINJA! Dodging branches and hopping downed trees.  I was super human, I could talk to animals and move rocks with my Jedi mind.  My parents had no clue I would visit this place.

I wouldn’t be the same without those experiences and I still adventure like this.  Midnight forays at 10 below. Jumping the frozen creek, getting tangled in spent brome grass and running up the soybean field to catch the full moon rising over the hill. My heart is eight-years-old in those moments.

Your story may have had an adult to guide you or may include a sibling or neighbor.

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December sunrise tea-time contemplations. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Fishing with your brother, or turning over decaying trees with mom to look at centipedes and rollie pollies.   Perhaps it was similar to mine, an escape, a place of solitude and imagination shared with no one.  Whatever the case, it seems many things have changed since our childhoods.  Those changes may be a topic for another post for today seems a day needing inspiration.  So I leave you with this little ditty from Rachel Carson’s, ‘The Sense of Wonder’.  An ode to the young hearts in our lives and in ourselves.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had the influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.  Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge.  In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature-why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.  The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused-a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more imiportant to pave the way for the child want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust

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Taking a float break to hear stillness. In Stanton County, Nebraska Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Conserving Biodiversity Under Private Land Law

How do we explain the opposition to conservation easements? After all, isn’t an easement merely the expression of a private landowner’s intent as to how land will be used, no different from a decision to plow a field, dig a mine, build a house, hotel or airfield?

The answer is in the laws and customs that support private land ownership.  These land laws evolved over the last several centuries almost exclusively to encourage transformation of land into a human mold.  As Sax says: “A piece of iron becomes an anvil, a tree becomes lumber, and a forest becomes a farm.”  Traditional property law treats undeveloped land as inert and passive, waiting to be put to use; it considers the natural functions of the land, such as providing habitat for biodiversity, as expendable.  Through recent times, land law has been employed, essentially, to end the existence of natural systems.

Dirt road dissects private land in Stanton County, Nebraska. Image Credit: Jamie Bachmann

When  private landowners expand their intentions of how land should be used to include the ecological concept of protecting biodiversity, they move beyond the common interpretations of land use and law.  The ecological perspective views land as a system that performs valuable functions in its natural state, while the conventional perspective encourages the transformation of nature to achieve the goals of the Industrial Revolution.  Herein lies the source of the tension.

 

In the 21st Century, society requires a system of land laws that are equally attuned to protecting the remains of our biological heritage, restoring degraded waters and landscapes, and renewing forests and grasslands to play a positive role in controlling climate change.

Viewed this way, a conservation easement appears as a small but necessary step in the evolution of private land law. Just as land law evolved to support the Industrial Revolution, it now must evolve to support the new requirements of contemporary society.

JHD

Surprise Violets

Jen Corman, Coordinating Wildlife Biologist

Northern Prairies Land Trust

 

I ask a lot of questions when I walk through prairies and the Nebraska weather this year contributed to that process. The weather in 2017 was a yoyo. An unusually wet spring led to a hot, dry summer. The weather favored cool-season grasses, which do most of their growing in May and June and stunted warm-season grasses that do most of their growing in July and August. With little rain and intense heat, many plants in our prairies went dormant sooner than usual. Then we were treated to a warm, wet fall and we started to

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An (admittedly blurry) prairie violet (Viola pedatifida) blooms on Oct. 9, 2017 in Knox County, Nebraska.

see some fun, weird things start flowering, like violets. Violets are usually one of the first flowers to bloom in spring. Prairie violet generally finishes blooming by late May or early June and then is finished for the year. But in 2017, we were seeing prairie violets break dormancy and bloom again in October, like the one below that I photographed on Oct. 9 in Knox County.

Violets are the required food for caterpillars of regal fritillary butterflies, which have been steadily disappearing from our continent in step with the loss of North America’s violet-rich tallgrass and mixed grass prairies. An estimated 1-4% of our tallgrass prairie remains. Nebraska contains some of the US’s most intact prairie, making our state an important harbor for regal fritillary butterflies.

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Prairie Violet Photo Credit: Fontenelle Nature Association

But our regal fritillary caterpillars are not hatching in October so they were not feeding on the violets that bloomed in October, nor were there many insects at all to pollinate the violets. A little digging into violet biology taught me that while regal fritillaries need prairie violets, prairie violets do not necessarily need pollinators to produce seeds. In addition to the purple flower that is pollinated, a second type of flower with no petals can be found on the plant at ground level. Those ground-level flowers self-fertilize to produce seeds and appear to exist precisely because violets bloom so early in the spring that there may not be many pollinators around. With a second bloom in the fall, maybe we received a second dose of violet seeds to grow next spring, despite the lack of pollinators.

An interesting challenge for an unusual violet bloom in the fall is that the violets will be at a height disadvantage compared to when they bloom in the spring. In the spring, plants are just beginning to grow, so short plants like prairie violets have a chance to compete for sunlight. But in the fall, the 3-6 in. tall violets were blooming in the shade of taller grasses and other tall plants like asters that had had a full growing season to top the violets in height. Which made me ask: could the fall break in dormancy potentially stress the violet plants by using up valuable energy stores to bloom at a time when the shaded plants cannot access sun to store enough energy for next year?  Violets grow from a rhizome root system, so it is unlikely that a single season would affect their long-term energy stores, but what if fall blooms become more common in a changing climate?

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A regal fritillary butterfly drinks nectar on a red clover in June. Regal fritillary caterpillars feed on violets. Photo credit: Kelly Corman, NPLT

Timing is everything. I wonder how climate change may affect regal fritillaries and their host violets. As our climate shifts and the timing of rain and temperature swings change, will the timing of caterpillar hatch and violet bloom change in the same ways in response? Or will they begin to mismatch? What does this mean for our prairie butterflies?

Welcome

Thank you for visiting.  We intend this blog to be a place for NPLT current and former biologists, partners, educators or landowners to compile and document our paths in conserving the ecological life and integrity of the prairie ecosystem.

There are many divergent paths that we take in our professional and personal lives to extend our understanding and connection to this place we dearly love and strive to protect.  Creating legally sound easements for conservation minded landowners, putting management plans to work on the ground or providing prescribed fire training to ensure a deep understanding of fire ecology. But also we find ourselves on paths that stir within us our emotional connections to this land.  The questions we stumble upon while on a hike,  the defeat we feel when we are forced to take ‘two steps back’ and watch years of conservation effort buried in rich farm soil or the inspiration that fills us when we read a passage from A Sand County Almanac.  The pendulum swings across a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience, perceptions, mistakes and unanswered questions.

Northern Prairies Land Trust hopes this blog can be a space to share our stories and interact with our prairie community.  Thanks for stopping by.

If you would like to contribute please contact Jamie Bachmann: Jamie.bachmann@nebraska.gov