Friends of the Big Sioux River and Northern Prairies Land Trust Join Forces

Friends of the Big Sioux River (FBSR) and Northern Prairies Land Trust (NPLT) are excited to announce their new organizational partnership. By this partnership the two 501(c)(3) nonprofit conservation entitles will work together to advance their common goals of land and water conservation within South Dakota and to promote a conservation ethic in the region.

The organizations will be headed by Travis Entenman as director while maintaining their separate boards, goals, and identities. The partnership between the two organizations will develop and advocate local policy, increase fundraising efforts (memberships, donations, and grants), land protection (easements and conservation toolkit), water protection projects, and overall awareness and education on how these environments are interlinked and their effect on agriculture, economic development, habitat stability, and climate change.  At the same time, the new relationship will help maximize administrative efficiencies.

FBSR seeks to make the Big Sioux River and its tributaries swimmable, in keeping with the Clean Water Act, for the health and enjoyment of everyone in the community. Community involvement is critical to achieving this vision and FBSR seeks win-win solutions through strong partnerships and coalitions, with all parts of the community, government, and other stakeholders.

NPLT works to facilitate and encourage land and water conservation practices by private landowners in both South Dakota and Nebraska. NPLT is organized as a land trust in order to accept and hold conservation easements when private landowners choose that tool, but the activities go far beyond those of a simple land trust. NPLT is committed to the proposition that private lands can be managed in a way that achieves the goals of private landowners while simultaneously serving the public need to conserve natural resources and sustain rural and agricultural communities.

For more information regarding each organization, visit http://www.friendsofthebigsiouxriver.org and http://www.northernprairies.org.

In Memoriam: John H. Davidson

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It is with great sadness that we share that John Davidson passed away last week. We will remember John as an unshakeable conservationist and humble teacher with a deep understanding of the political and social architecture we need in the US to sustain healthy land and water. As a leader at NPLT and in close partnership with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, he worked to achieve real, on-the-ground results to restore and conserve grasslands and woodlands in Nebraska and South Dakota.

We re-posted one of his articles below. You can read another article by John Davidson on how  prairie conservation is vital in our fight against climate change here: http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2010/06/north-americas-great-carbon-ocean

ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE IN OUR NORTHERN GREAT PLAINS

At Northern Prairies we visit each of our conservation projects at least annually.  For the most part, this is a delightful exercise.  We renew friendships with private landowners who are dedicated to protecting the conservation values of their land.  During these visits we are enriched by hours spent walking on healthy and productive grasslands.

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John Davidson (left) and Bob Warrick (right) walk through a prairie easement in Pierce County, Nebraska.

Recently I, John Davidson, walked on a section (640 acres) of native grassland which is protected by a conservation easement held by Northern Prairies.  The land supports healthy cattle grazing and native wildlife of all kinds, including Prairie Chicken.  The owners of this land view protection of the native grasslands as an inter-generational family legacy.  Not too many years ago I could stand on a high point and observe that the surrounding land included ample amounts of native grasslands, stocked with healthy livestock. This year, when I stood on that same place, I saw that our protected native habitat was surrounded on all sides by corn.  Our conservation grassland had become a remote island in a sea of corn.

This is not an isolated incident, but is repeated time and again.  Fields are plowed to the edge of rivers and streams. Formerly rich wetlands are drained with subsurface plumbing as complex as that found in cities. Lands that were formerly considered to be marginal for anything other than grazing are now intensely cultivated, right up to the edge of roads, and often without regard to the resulting erosion and exposure to drought. Because grasslands are closely associated with wetlands, the prairie potholes which formerly defined the Great Plains are disappearing.

Statistics back up these observations. Between 2006 and 2011 about 1,400,000 acres of grass were plowed for corn and soybean production. Currently, the rate of grassland conversion in the northern plains is more than 5% annually.  These are conversion rates not seen since the 1920s, and are comparable to the deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a parallel course, we are losing wetlands at a rate that easily exceeds 15,000 acres a year, resulting in degraded water quality, reduced wildlife habitat, and the inevitable increase in the severity and frequency of flood events downstream.

At a time when nations are struggling to reduce carbon emissions, the plowing of native grasses releases vast amounts of carbon which would otherwise be safely sequestered in the ground.

Proponents of this wastage cite the short-term financial rewards.  They also claim that they are “feeding the world,” which is an asinine red herring, unless the poor of the world are to be fed hamburgers and barbecue. The long-term costs to society will be borne by future generations, and the poor of the world will remain unfed.

This is an environmental catastrophe that will not be brought under control until citizens speak out in large enough number to be heard.

John Davidson

 

Cedars up in Smoke this March

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Al and Ev rallied 18 friends and neighbors to conduct a successful prescribed fire on March 27th in their Sandhills prairie pastures in Rock County, NE. They burned 322 acres to kill cedar seedlings in their pasture. In addition to controlling cedar trees, the burn will improve pasture quality for grazing and improve wildlife habitat.

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Lighting a test fire to begin a 322 acre Sandhills burn in Rock County in March 2019. Friends, neighbors, fire department volunteers, and agency partners assisted on a safe burn that met its objectives.

Participants gathered in the morning to discuss the plan and line up equipment they had brought. Al led the crew as the Burn Boss. Ev provided a delicious lunch for everyone and took her place on the crew in a pickup with a water tank and hose. The fire started shortly before noon and finished around 5 pm with a dramatic smoke plume. Weather conditions remained within the safe range (in “prescription”) for the amount and type of grass and trees present on the site. The crew monitored wind, humidity, and temperature throughout the day.

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Al and Ev had thoroughly planned the burn and prepared over the last year. Tasks included mowing and raking burn boundaries, clearing the mow lines of cottonwood limbs, and filling water tanks. Last summer cattle grazed the area but for fewer days than usual to grow grass fuel for the burn.

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Many thanks to the crew that made the burn possible! With their help, the burn was efficient and safe with no major accidents, injuries, or fire escapes. The Bassett and Newport Fire Departments both contributed equipment and a couple of volunteers to the burn. Prescribed fires make great training opportunities for fire departments. Staff of various natural resource conservation groups that support prescribed fire also assisted, including Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), Northern Prairies Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the Upper Elkhorn NRD, and Pheasants Forever.

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In addition to killing cedar seedlings, the landowners and grazing tenant are looking forward to improved pasture quality for cattle grazing and high quality grasslands for wildlife, including the greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse we have observed on-site and the American burying beetles observed in surveys nearby. The prairie contains a mosaic of wet and dry sandy soils which should be excellent American burying beetle habitat. Changes in vegetation structure and increased forb diversity and abundance due to the prescribed burn could also benefit loggerhead shrikes, long-billed curlews, monarch butterflies, regal fritillaries, and many other grassland-dependent wildlife species.

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The crew puts finishing touches on part of the burn.
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A dramatic smoke plume concludes the burn at the end of the day.
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The goals of the 322 acre burn: control cedar trees, improve grazing for cattle, and sustain high quality grasslands for wildlife.

Section 7: A History of Warrick Prairies

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust
With permission from: Robert Warrick, Landowner

Robert Warrick is a conservation minded landowner who has lived most of his life in Meadow Grove, Nebraska.  In 2008, with the help of the Northern Prairies Land Trust, Warrick and Sons Inc. placed a conservation easement on what he calls ‘Section 7’.  Section 7 is a piece of land in Pierce County, Nebraska that Robert first began to know over seventy years ago.  Below, Robert passed on to me a little history of that land now known as Warrick Prairies.

My first remembrance and contact with what I will call ‘Section 7’ was when I was in grade school in Meadow Grove, (about 10 south of Section 7) in the 1940’s.  Section 7 was part of a large area that was taken over by the United States War Department in the 1940’s during World War 2 and was called ‘Pierce Air to Ground Gunnery Range’. It was a couple thousand acres and Section 7 was the center of constant air bombing and fighter plane strafing.  As a young boy in grade school, my parents would take my brother and sister to a hill overlooking the area and we would watch as P47 and B24 bombers would come in at tree top level and practice blasting the poor sand dunes.  Between sorties, we would run out into the range and pick up spent 50 caliber casings and many times, live ammunition.  Dangerous?  Probably, but it was really exciting.  For many years I had an official sign that I had “borrowed” from the range. It read in large red lettering:  ‘Air Ground Gunnery Range KEEP OUT’. It was placed, appropriately, above my toilet stool.

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Landowner Robert Warrick points out gunnery damage still seen today.

Section 7 actually had a target, made on the land, by the Army.  It was many hundreds of feet in diameter, which can still be seen when the light is right.  I remember in the 40’s a large U.S. Army convoy came through Meadow Grove on the way to build a replica of a town on section 7 so that fighter pilots and bombers could practice shooting and bombing.  When I first started grazing cattle on Section 7 I made it a practice to pick parts of bombs that were partially buried or broken.  Many times they would fill the box of the pickup.  I have received notices recently, “As part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, munitions may still be present on Section 7. These munitions may pose an explosive hazard to you, your family other property users, or the public.  The Army recommends you share the enclose information with those who use your property, including those who lease or rent your property”.  THAT I HAVE DONE!

For many years after the closing of the Gunnery Range, farmers in the area would be tormented by ammunition clips of the 50 caliber machine guns from the planes.  They would be picked up by their cultivator on the shovels, while cultivating corn.

The Warrick & Sons Inc. placed the conservation easement on Section 7-25-3 in Pierce County, NE through the Northern Prairies Land Trust on 04/28/2008.  . Warrick & Sons have owned this Pierce section since 1988.  Robert Warrick (the author) is President of Warrick & Sons Inc. My wife Gudrun, my brother Jack and his wife Jean are the only stockholders in the corporation.  It is a family corporation, registered with the State of Nebraska. 

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Conservation Easement Boundary of Section 7.

My Great Grandfather Theodore A. Shafer, homesteaded in Madison County in 1879.  Warrick & Son’s received the Pioneer Farm Award in May, 1979. That land is still owned by my wife and myself. My grandfather J. W. Warrick came west in the 1870’s, He started a rural business in Meadow Grove, prospered, bought the land that I farmed.  My great grandfather Shafer retired to California on a small pension he received from the federal government from wounds he received in the civil war.”

A landowner I know in Dodge County, Nebraska who has spent his life farming and caring for his land was just recently interviewed about proposed cuts to the Farm Bill Conservation Stewardship Program.  The last line he repeated, and it has found a place in most of my days since.  He said, “The land remembers. The land remembers.”

Those of us who have been out to Section 7 with Robert Warrick have seen his work on restoring this piece of land. The scars left behind are easily recognizable.  The land remembers.  Perhaps anyone who spends a lifetime knowing a piece of land understands this secret. Robert Warrick knows the sentiment, “Blowouts can still be seen caused by this military training.  It is all now in private ownership and is healing, but it takes care and time to heal man’s follies and ventures.”

Thank you Robert for sharing this piece of history.  Your passion, dedication and love of the prairie inspires all who you give your time to. Thank you.

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.

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

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?