Saturday, August 07, 2010

An Opportunity to Learn More: The North American Prairie Conference

Deciding at the last minute that I just couldn't miss it, I spent most of the last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa, attending the North American Prairie Conference. The theme this year was "Restoring Prairie." How perfect was that?! The prairie above, for example, is a restored prairie at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, located southeast of Des Moines. (I don't know if the photo begins to do it justice. It was gorgeous - full of color and bustling with life.)

The number of people doing research on restoring prairie was heartening, as was the fact that much of the research appears to be "usable" on the small scale that I'm most interested in, but research is most interesting when translated into less technical, more user-friendly language. I'll do my best to do that.

Some of the topics are worth entire blog entries on their own, so this weekend I'm going to make a big push to get those written. Meanwhile, a few observations....

The roadsides in Iowa are GORGEOUS! The state has put together a program where counties can choose to seed perennial wildflowers and native grasses back along the roadside. They mow one mower's width along the edge of the road and the rest is blooming and beautiful. It's cheaper to maintain, and they said that the plant stems which remain standing over the winter even make a sort of living snow fence.

Iowa had much less native prairie remaining than Kansas. The push for prairie restoration is very strong there (much stronger than it is here in Kansas), which goes along with my general observation that people don't seem to value what they have until it's gone. I'd love to get folks here seeing prairie and prairie plants as the tough, but beautiful, survivors that they are.... (I feel obliged to amend that statement somewhat: Prairie and prairie plants can survive almost anything except all-out human warfare against them.)

Iowa has had two 500-year floods in less than 20 years. Could that, perhaps, be indicative of something environmentally that's not working correctly?

Brown-headed cowbirds are obliged to be nest parasites. They've not only lost brooding behavior, they've even lost the brood patch on their abdomen that serves to keep the eggs warm. On average, there are 2 male brown-headed cowbirds for every female.

Trees interspersed with grasslands or right next to them are great for pheasant cover in winter, but they greatly increase predation on nests during the summer, leading to less healthy pheasant populations overall.

The biomass (weight of all living organisms) of grasshoppers on a given unit of prairie is equal to or greater than the biomass of bison. Now that most prairies don't have bison grazing them, grasshoppers are probably their primary grazer.

The biomass of ants on a prairie is equal to or greater than the biomass of bison.

Over the years I've heard a lot of derision aimed at scientific research: "Oh, yeah, they study important things like the sex life of a crayfish! Ha! Ha! Ha!" As I listened to the research presented this week, it struck me that we really don't know what's truly important until we actually study it. I mean, you could make a point for grasshoppers being as important on a prairie as bison!

Where cattle have been wormed with Ivermectin, you can see piles of manure that are 3 years old. Manure without Ivermectin in it will decompose very rapidly, in days or weeks, especially during the warmer months. Presumably, then, Ivermectin has enough activity level in the manure to kill off some of the organisms involved in decomposition. (This was an observation I heard made and widely agreed with; I did not hear any specific studies on this topic.)

Prairie vegetation adjusts its evapotranspiration rate according to whether the soil is wet or dry. In dry times it "breathes out" less water; in wet times it "breathes out" more water. Corn, the crop that was studied, does not change how much water it "breathes out" whether the soil is wet or dry.

And with that last statement, you can "breath out" a sigh of relief because I think I'll end this potentially endless list here. The other, "bigger," topics will get posts of their own.