Tag Archives: National Wildlife Federation

Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve near Manhattan, Kansas, August 2013

the 2013 America’s Grassland Conference: Synopsis and Notes

Hosted by the National Wildlife Federation and Kansas State University

August 12 – 14, 2013, Manhattan, Kansas

Here’s a PDF of the program. Please excuse my stray markings in the PDF: America’s Grassland Conference Program

This was the second biennial conference on the conservation of America’s Grasslands and the first one I attended. In this post, I’ll be sharing my experience of the conference and the presentations that I attended. I will make separate posts for the field trips to the Flint Hills Prairie and Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, Chase State Fishing Lake Prairie, and the Konza Prairie Biological Station.


Fall in love with the prairie.

Respect your elders.

Prairie is one of the most threatened and ignored ecosystems: loss rate is greater than that for rainforests.

We are set up for another dust bowl, largely due to land conversion to croplands.

We need a cultural revolution to address these issues. – the current “business” trajectory is irresponsible because it expects the prairie to be a stock market and not a living ecosystem.



I want to start by thanking the organizing committee and the plenary presenters. They did an outstanding job.

Organizing Committee included:

John Briggs, Kansas State University

Sam Fuhlendorf, Oklahoma State University

Aviva Glaser, National Wildlife Federation

Eric Lindstrom, Ducks Unlimited

Ben Larson, National Wildlife Federation

Lisa Long, Kansas State University

Rob Manes, The Nature Conservancy

KC Olson, Kansas State University

Susan Rupp, Enviroscapes Ecological Consulting

Troy Schroeder, Kansas Wildlife Federation

Julie Sibbing, National Wildlife Federation


Plenary Speakers were:

Michael Forsberg, conservation photographer

Mike Kelly, third generation rancher near Sutherland, NE

Chuck Kowaleski, Farm Bill Coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife

Travis Maddock, fourth generation rancher, near Maddock, ND

Julie Sibbing, Director of Agriculture and Forestry Programs at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D. C.

Doug Sieck, family rancher near Selby, SD

Bill Sproul, rancher in the Flint Hills near Sedan, KS

Christopher Wright, landscape ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at South Dakota State University



I am completing a project on the ant assemblages in the Fort Worth Nature Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Although this prairie habitat (part of the Cross Timber Ecoregion) is not as extensive as the tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains highlighted in this meeting, I wanted to share the importance of ants in grasslands and their potential as indicators of habitats and ecosystem health (following the work of Alan Andersen and colleagues).

I learned a great deal at this meeting, especially about the complexity of issues facing the USA and our grasslands, met many interesting folks, made some good contacts, and enjoyed several marvelous prairies.

Sunday, August 11, 2013, my flight from Dallas/Fort Worth began delayed but the flight itself was good and I had a window seat. Kansas is not as flat as I (originally from Virginia) have been led to believe. Upon my arrival I did not see the Hotel shuttle bus but was offered a ride by several local folks. Finally, it was decided and a local farmer and his family gave me a ride from the airport to the hotel. Despite all, not a bad beginning and introduction to Kansas.



Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday was a day for registration and field trips in the Flint Hills Prairie. I went on the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve field trip which had to be modified due to excessive rains this summer. So, we saw a bit of the National Preserve but visited Chase State Fishing Lake and its prairie and the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs where I picked up some information on the history of the area and saw some very nice art work.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Morning Plenary Session

Welcome and Introductions with Aviva Glaser and John Briggs

Wonderful Photo Essay Presentation by Michael Forsberg

His photos and commentary were exceptional. He has worked hard to capture the beauty and significance of the great plains – and learned a lot in the process. His photos were an excellent way to begin this conference. His photo essay book is called “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wildness.”

Michael described his work as falling in love with the prairie and gaining a great sense of history, including the destruction of grasslands since white settlers came to the area. This destruction has largely been the result of misusing the land because we did not understand it – not all prairie can sustain plowing for instance. The ecology here is varied and critical. The ecological infrastructure underpins all resource use, etc. that we currently put on the prairie. Ducks live in grass and make nurseries in the water. Michael shared an awesome experience trying to photograph a burrowing owl. He kept attempting this photo over several weeks with some frustration. Then, he got the shot – the owl’s head began to appear and when the owl finally surfaced, Michael said, “the owl stared right into my soul.” – connection.

   “Rapid grassland conversion in the Western Corn Belt” by Chris Wright

Landscape changes are threatening wetlands and prairies. – Land being converted to crops and the proximity of this conversion to wetlands is a great threat to the integrity of the land. Wright asked, “Are we setting ourselves up for another dustbowl?”

  “What’s happening in Washington: Federal Policy and Grasslands” by Julie Sibbing

“Grasslands don’t register in Washington.” The rate of loss of grasslands is greater than that for rainforests and potentially more critical. There is great concern for grassland birds, many of whom are migratory species relying on several different prairie systems. “Protect our Prairies Act.” Wind development fragments grassland habitat. EPA has an interesting, and irresponsible, interpretation of the renewable fuel standards (RFS) which defeats the purpose of the standards. Issue with crop insurance: wetlands would be drained if not tied to crop insurance – decoupled in 1996. Understanding easements.

“The drought in the southern prairies” by Chuck Kowaleski, Texas Parks and Wildlife

There has been drought in the Great Plains for 3 years. This could be the result in a climate shift. There has been a shift from desert grasslands to desert scrub in New Mexico. Drought monitoring shows region effected has expanded but not as severe and yet there are extensive effects of the drought, including the die off of drought resistant species in Texas (species of Junipers), catastrophic fires with other changes. We are set up for another dust bowl. Wind and too much bare ground (2011 dust storm in Lubbock) have serious repercussions for cattle, processing plants, rivers and reservoirs drying up, water release suits etc. Sandy soils recover more easily since sand allows water penetration (Here’s where ants nesting in sandy soils can help!) while clayey soils become compacted as they dry and resist water penetration.

And in case you thought Chuck’s comments might be exaggerated, take a look at this — Texas gone dry.

First Break Out Session: Track One, Landscape planning and management for grassland conservation

   “Preserving Our Prairies” by Randy Renner, Ducks Unlimited

Land conversion is the big issue. Interest in this exceeds the funding available.

  “The Implementation of the MN Prairie Plan” by Marybeth Block, MN Department of Natural Resources

Landscape approach – 20 years of background assessment; importance of cooperation

The Plan: core areas (aim for 40% grassland and 20% wetland); corridors; Ag. Matrix

Permanent protection of quality prairies; restoration of native grasslands; maintenance and improvement; community base/investment needed (perhaps a connection to natural history interest)

“Using focal songbird species to target landscape conservation in the northern Great Plains” by Marisa Lipsey, University of Montana

Choice of songbird species covers the bases: umbrella species, charismatic species, keystone species, indicator species, high-powered trend detectors – with lots of data and abundance

Songbirds are tied to grassland structure. Lipsey used a spatially hierarchical approach – considered spatial scale and used occurrence data: probabilities of occurrence at different scales given environmental variables (also measured at different scales)

Second Break Out Session

    “Conservation of North America’s grassland birds in the Chihuahuan Desert” by Arvind Panjabi, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory

Bird migrations and importance of non-breeding season – survival of adults in non-breeding season, wintering in desert or migrating through

Same threats are seen here and in Northern Mexico: 5 – 10 % grasslands remain in Chihuahuan Desert. Birds need the right kind of cover – tallgrass (30 cm) not scrub.

  “Shifting population dynamics of the grassland bird community at the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve as a result of habitat changes” by Christie Borkowsky

Species in a community. Bird banding project in Manitoba using mist net capture.

Third Break Out Session

“Bison (Bison bison) as a force promoting climate change adaptation in grasslands” by K. Ellison, Wildlife Conservation Society

Grazing effect on habitat structure – producing different microhabitats. Effects on birds (and ants). Bison have behavioral differences from cattle. For instance, creation of wallows produced microclimate effects – what species might benefit?

“Ecotypic variation in drought tolerance and genetic diversity of the ecologically dominant grass big bluestem (Andropogon geraldi) across the Great Plains precipitation gradient” by Loretta Johnson, Kansas State University

There is a sharp precipitation gradient east to west across the Great Plains. Discernment of ecotypes of bluestem in response to this gradient in terms of drought survival. Genetic basis – when grow in different areas phenological differences remain. Implications for restoration and maintenance.

“Responses of a grassland spider community to disturbance from fire and bison grazing” by Jesus Gomez, Kansas State University

Spiders at family levels partition habitat at small scales vertically.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Plenary Session: Ranchers and Other Conservationists, Lessons Learned and Challenges Met

Panelist and Comments: Bill Sproul, Mike Kelly, Doug Sieck, and Travis Maddock

Land uses and need for education on prairie – on-going for researchers and others

Ranchers as conservationists

The restoration of a meandering creek – that is, back to its meandering – restored the water table and native grasses.

Connecting globally – grasslands international: Maddock talked about connecting with grassland issues in Kazakhstan, Russia.

Mistake to take some grasslands and use as croplands – need to restore such marginal lands back to grasslands: how? Hilltops don’t have much topsoil. The old form of land use, farm and fallow, adds to erosion and soil blows away.

Importance of knowing the carbon cycle.

Absentee landowners and economics – economic reality (when we let banks dictate it).

Grass and run cattle vs. rent and grow crops – land use chosen on immediate economics and convenience

Need to highlight conservation benefits (long term) and how this produces economic benefits.

Concerns about wind energy – Is it sustainable? Adverse effects on birds and ecology.  The grasslands and deserts are not empty.

Timely income – grass doesn’t bring in income as quickly as crops – for larger benefits, it is hard to run ranching like a business. – business of returning carbon to the soil hard to sell because of lack of immediate payoff

Loss of diversity

Farming is run by others who tell the farmer what and how for a quick profit (by banks) – individual thinking not needed, just do what you’re told

Means that farmers are no longer living on and with the land – no discernment of nature or ecology; lack of knowledge of place

Wind energy and sod busting are threats to grasslands

Some memorable comments from Bill Sproul:

He was a talker and a character. He and his wife had been ranching with conservation in mind for years and had won the 2009 Excellence in Rangeland Management Award from the Society of Range Management and the 2010 Regional Environmental Stewardship Award representing Region VII of the National Cattlemen’s  Beef Association.

Sproul told this story which I paraphrase here with some near quotes:

“They gave me this book – never heard of – by this Aldo Leopold guy. I knew I was doing something right but didn’t know what. I’d like to meet this Leopold guy sometime wherever he is. Doing something because its right and good; not because you pay me. I know how to make money. The commodity driven side makes people dependent versus the community side based conservation. One day on the ranch, I picked up this bud light can. I don’t know how it got there but I picked it up. I can get so much for all the aluminum cans I pick up but that’s not why I picked it up. It’s the right thing to do. I manage for grass, not for cattle, not commodity driven.”

Here’s my take with a lot of inspiration from Sproul (and a hint of Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry):

Sproul’s sense of an economic community basis raises more questions about our economic culture which is “banking” dominated. Put your savings in the  “bank:” in the ground (in reality) not the financial industry. There’s a reason wealth began as spices, wood, etc. – directly linked to the land and its production. We need to recover a passion for grasslands and not be seduced by the Emerald City. We need our independence and to be thinking, feeling, living with the land, on the land,  part of the land.

Fourth Break Out Session: Track 2, Status, trends, and conservation of grassland-dependent wildlife

“Ants in the Grassland: their importance and potential as indicators of ecosystem health” (my presentation)

Ants are abundant and diverse in terrestrial ecosystems. Their diverse ecological roles and ease of collection make them candidates for indicators. My project assessing 17 sites in the Fort Worth Nature Center weakly supports this use. Sites and species grouped into Aquilla sandy prairies, Aquilla woodland, and other prairies based on soil type and ecological unit (Natural Resources Conservation Service). There were two possible indicators: two species of Camponotus for woodland habitats and Pogonomyrmex comanche for Aquilla sandy prairies. While there are issues using Andersen’s functional groups (Andersen 1997), this characterization did show a structure of the assemblages across the sites. More work needs to be done in this area, especially describing species specific ecology and defining more appropriate functional groups.

   “Ecological roles and conservation challenges of social burrowing, herbivorous mammals in the world’s grasslands” by Ana Davidson

Social, biodiversity, herbivorous roles

similar trophic and engineering effects (compared to ants) — burrowing: escape from heat, protection – easy den, nest building: similar solutions to similar problems

putting effects together: clipping grass, burrows, mounds, etc. — engineering habitat and influencing other organisms – increasing and supporting diversity

habitat loss in conversion: 80% of grasslands lost

concern for plague and other disease spread – due to land use changes

climate change issue

        “Evolving management strategies for shortgrass prairie, Black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets: adaptive management in a sea of controversy” by Rob Manes, Nature Conservancy of Kansas, and Charles Lee, Kansas State University Extension Wildlife Service

long term study

issues of control of expansion and removal of problem colonies