By Jenn Simons
Nachusa Grasslands Science Extern
On January 10th, 2019 I made a simple phone call to Nachusa Grasslands. Four months later, I was packing up my things to spend the summer living 480 miles east of my hometown. And with that, this Nebraska native ended up in an eastern tallgrass prairie state of both mind and place.
Prior to that fateful January day, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I had narrowed down my research interests to the impact of conservation grazing on vegetation in midwestern prairies. My goal was to meet the requirements of my degree with a research project at the intersection of stewardship and applied ecology. Though the importance of disturbance to prairie management is well known, grazing on restored and remnant prairies has been a contested issue. Additional data to understand some of the trade-offs to using grazing for land management facilitate better understanding and application of the tools available in a land manager’s toolbox. The only thing that I was missing to begin my research was access to a herd of conservation grazers (nothing too significant, right?).
During my quest to connect with folks using grazing as a land management tool in prairies, I ended up on the phone with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa. As many of you know, it’s hard not to fall in love with a site as beautiful and biodiverse as Nachusa Grasslands. It’s even harder not to fall in love if that site also features a herd of grazing animals and the existing infrastructure to study their impacts. After my first conversation with Dr. Bach, I was sold. Nachusa was where I wanted to be, and the impact of their bison was what I wanted to study.
In my case, and the case of many other grad students, there’s a gap in available funding between spring and fall school semesters. Grants and assistantships don’t always pan out, and many degrees in ecology require a large amount of data collection during the summer months (something rather at odds with working full time). Fortunately, 2019 marked the first summer for a Science Extern position at Nachusa. Open to all graduate students currently or beginning to conduct research specifically at Nachusa, the externship was to be awarded as an external grant to the student’s home university and paid as a salary, allowing the student to remain enrolled and continue receiving benefits. Just as the crew of seasonal employees spends their week supporting land stewardship needs throughout the summer, the role of the science extern was to support data stewardship needs throughout the summer. This position continues Nachusa’s history of encouraging research and providing opportunities for budding conservationists.
With my fingers crossed, I submitted my application for the position and tried not to get my hopes up. I made a mental plan B (and C and D) for how I might be able to make my Nachusa research dreams come true if my application wasn’t successful. Work full time and collect data on the weekends? Take out loans? Choose a simpler research question? These are questions most grad students have had to seriously consider at some point. When sites like Nachusa are able to offer summer positions that merge science with practice, both the student and the site benefit from the results.
Much to my delight, plan A came through, and I never looked back. Since May I’ve been assisting in collection, entry, and analysis of core ecological data for Nachusa while simultaneously collecting my own data. To answer my research questions, I’m leveraging twenty-two fenced plots (10mx18m) replicated across habitat types in the 1,500 acres of bison habitat that were designed and built by Bill Kleiman, Cody Considine, TNC staff, and collaborating scientists prior to the introduction of the bison in 2014. As opposed to keeping something inside a fenced in area, these fenced plots function as “exclosures” and keep bison outside the fenced area. Building on plant community data taken in 2014-15 and 2017-18, I’m collecting additional data to compare changes in the vegetation diversity, structure, and abundance along with soil compaction between grazed and ungrazed land over time. With the mentorship of Dr. Bach and my advisor, John Harrington, these data will be analyzed and contribute to both the advancement of my degree and the understanding of how bison have impacted Nachusa’s vegetation.
In addition to the various science program tasks, opportunities abound to participate in stewardship activities and learn more about careers in ecology outside of academia. I’ve gotten to track Blanding’s turtle, set traps for small mammals, participate in evening moth surveys, observe rare plants in their natural settings, improve my R coding ability, utilize ArcGIS to create new maps, collect seeds and control weeds with the seasonal crew, and talk with highly knowledgeable volunteer land stewards. I can honestly say there’s no place I’d rather be this summer than at Nachusa Grasslands, and I’ve already become a better ecologist as a result.
By Riley Nylin
Nachusa Grasslands Restoration Technician
Spring showers have brought the May flowers, as well as very cold and damp conditions this year. With the invasive species and the native plants beginning to appear all at the same time, the 2019 crew has been quite busy. Because many plants have appeared later this year as a result of the weather conditions, the crew has had to work extra hard to ensure that each seed gets picked and each weed continues to get sprayed.
As the summer continues, the crew is hopeful for drier conditions, so that they can continue with typical restoration activities. For the remainder of June and July the crew will focus heavily on controlling invasive species through spading and spraying, so that they do not force out the beautiful native plants. The crew has already begun to tackle the sweet clover, king devil, and bird’s foot trefoil. While this is going on, seed collection has also slowly begun. Although it will not be in full swing until August, collection of plants such as pussytoes and prairie phlox is already in progress.
Once the crew has hand-picked almost 275 species of seed and placed them in barrels to dry, there will be well over two tons of seed that will need to be dried, milled, and mixed. The crew will then get the honor of producing their very own planting for the year. This year the planting is a 63-acre lot that was previously used as agricultural land. At the end of this process the 2019 crew will have covered a lot of ground in weed sweeps, seed collection, and new prairie!
Meet the Crew
By Jessica Fliginger
Today, half of the world’s freshwater turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction. Due to the alarming rate of turtle disappearance, they are now among the most threatened group of vertebrate animals on earth. Turtles play critical roles in maintaining the health of our food webs and losing them could have negative effects on our ecosystems.
In Illinois, Blanding’s turtles are listed as state endangered, making it illegal to possess or collect this species without the proper permit. Populations are in decline throughout their range, which extends from Canada and Novia Scotia, south into New England, and west through the Great Lakes to Nebraska, Iowa, and northeastern Missouri. In general, their populations are small, discontinuous, and often isolated. Blanding’s are long-lived turtles and can live up to 80 years. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until 14 to 20 years and have small clutch sizes ranging anywhere from 5 to 20 eggs. Based on this information, I’m sure you can gather that Blanding’s turtles, like most turtles, face a multitude of challenges in our human-dominated landscape where there are plenty of predators to avoid.
It’s extremely hard to have a bad day out on the prairie when I’m using radio telemetry to track Blanding’s turtles at Nachusa Grasslands. The "smile" they exude reflects their behavior; they are pleasant to handle and not at all aggressive, unlike snapping turtles I’ve encountered.
I have been fortunate to spend the past two years working as a Blanding’s turtle field technician for Professor Dr. Rich King in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University. In an effort to promote recovery of the state-endangered species, he has been using radio telemetry as a tool to better understand which areas the turtles are utilizing so they can be protected and management plans to improve their habitat can be implemented.
Additionally, radio telemetry can be used to improve Blanding’s turtle hatchling recruitment. If you’ve ever tracked any animal you understand what I mean when I say, “Easier said than done!” Finding a turtle on a mission to lay her eggs is hard enough, but trying to predict if and when she will lay her eggs seems like an impossible task. Although it’s a lot of hard work, Dr. King and I have pretty much figured it out.
After we have taken our data, the hatchlings are released back into the wetlands near their nest sites. In order to increase their chance of survival out in the wild, it has become necessary for us to assist the Blanding’s turtle population. It may take several field seasons of tracking them at Nachusa before we can get a full understanding of how they are using the area or if there are any other individuals present. For the time being, what’s important is that we are monitoring their movements, protecting critical habitat, and sparing the hatchlings the overland journey of getting to the wetlands.
Blanding’s turtle eggs are particularly vulnerable to nest predators such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, mink, and coyotes. High nest failure means low recruitment level and if juveniles are not surviving then that’s when a population begins to decline. Moreover, roads located near wetland habitat, movement corridors, and nesting areas increase risk of mortality for Blanding’s turtles.
It’s always a good idea to keep a lookout for turtles crossing the road. I know if I see a turtle in the middle of the road, given the opportunity, I will pull over and move them out of harm’s way! You never know, it could be a state-endangered Blanding’s turtle. As an undergraduate, I grew fascinated with Blanding’s turtles after seeing one for the first time on a biology field trip and I’ve always wanted to find a way to help them. Little did I know I would get to do just that!
Dr. Richard King's ongoing research on Nachusa's Blanding’s turtle management strategies is supported with a Scientific Research Grant from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands.
If you would like to play a part in helping the turtles at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Saturday Workdays or giving a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to Scientific Research Grants.
By Leah Kleiman
Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is a perennial shrub native to temperate Asia and is invasive in the Midwestern United States. It now infests many savannas and woodlands and is difficult to eradicate.
Bill and Susan Kleiman and I are co-authors of a study recently published in the journal Ecological Restoration, titled “The Successful Control of Lonicera maackii (Amur honeysuckle) with Basal Bark Herbicide” (http://er.uwpress.org/content/36/4/267.full.pdf+html). Our study looked at the efficacy of basal bark application, where a mineral oil solution of herbicide is sprayed in a 6-inch band on the bark without cutting the plant. Our study found 100% mortality with basal bark treatment.
A variety of other treatment methods are used to battle honeysuckle. Manual pulling works well on small individuals in soft ground, but becomes impossible with larger sizes. Cutting and treating the stumps with herbicide is effective, but very time-consuming. We recommend the cut-and-treat method for sensitive high-quality areas. A foliar spray of herbicide is effective and efficient, but will have much more off-target damage and can only be used in the growing season. Fire is a useful tool in keeping brush at bay, but it will only top-kill shrubs. The basal bark method is efficient, effective in all seasons, and has minimal off-target damage.
Some things to keep in mind: 1) Re-treating is important for success. One treatment is not enough. Some shrubs will inevitably be missed, and yearly recruitment will occur until the seedbank is exhausted. 2) Honeysuckle treated in the dormant season may still leaf out and die later in the growing season. So if you notice this, it does not mean that your treatment has failed, but rather that you need to check back at a later date (typically late summer/fall).
Our study concludes that basal bark treatment paired with regular fire is the optimal way to eradicate honeysuckle invasions. For more information on treating honeysuckle with basal bark, see the February 3, 2019 blog post “A Study on Controlling Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii)” by Kaleb Baker.
By Jeff Cologna and Joy McKinney
Each steward at Nachusa Grasslands has a fascinating personal tale, often involving stories of sacrifice, setbacks, and success. Together, with the resources of The Nature Conservancy, volunteers, donors, and Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, stewards work hard to ensure Illinois prairie is not merely a fading memory, but a lasting reality for all future generations. Mike Carr, one of these amazing stewards, shared a few stories from the past with us. The following paragraphs highlight those early days.
Mike’s story began as a boy whose father loved the great outdoors but "bemoaned endlessly about all the invasive plants.” His father, Francis Carr, taught him about invasive plants and how to identify trees by their bark, enabling him to identify them all year ‘round. Little did he know back then that these skills and a disdain for invasives would serve him so well at Nachusa.
In the Spring of 2010, soon after “getting away” from the city of Chicago, Mike found himself “banging on the door” of Bill Kleiman, Nachusa’s Director. Early in their discussions, Bill explained how critical fire is to restoring and maintaining healthy prairie landscapes. Experience managing fire became a top priority. Mike quickly completed a 40-hour online fire certification class leading to an absolute “love of fire” as well as the acquisition of key skills for participating in controlled burns.
Mike was then challenged by Bill Kleiman and Cody Considine, restoration ecologist at Nachusa, to take on a unit of his very own which would later be named Big Jump. We asked Mike why the 350-acre unit was given this interesting moniker. Apparently, it was the result of a naming contest among stewards. His unit is basically “a long way from the HQ.” Due to the number of high-quality remnants within its boundaries, Mike’s restoration activities have opened up the landscape, enabling unseen natives such as porcupine grass, arrow leaf violets, and blue-eyed grass to show themselves, surprising and delighting Mike. Every year he discovers new “surprises” that weren’t there before. “The whole hillside of one remnant is filled with violets in the spring and another remnant with Carolina rose, bird’s foot violet, comandra, and pussy toes.
Mike focused his efforts on a 23-acre plot within the unit which is now known as “Orland Prairie." In the beginning of restoration, Mike shared that Orland Prairie needed some kind of push to get rid of all the invasive woodies (shrubs and bushes) so the prairie could find its way. In the last 10 years, Nachusa’s Fecon mower was used to knock down the invasive woodies. Seed, collected by combine, was then spread on the area, beginning the restoration process. Unfortunately, woodies continue to dominate.
Restoration efforts continue at Orland Prairie with the help of a generous grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. The grant is being used in part to purchase herbicide for continued eradication of the highly invasive autumn olive plant and other woodies. The application of the basal bark herbicide is highly effective. “If you stand next to an autumn olive and you tell it that you’ll come back with basal bark . . . it’ll just die!” Mike quipped. Basal bark applications have been used to successfully eradicate infestations of autumn olives, which at one time stood up to 15 ft high and covered the entire 23 acres. Mike shared that the herbicide is most effective after a fire.
Mike Carr is just one of the many dedicated men and women who have committed to making Nachusa Grasslands more than just a memory. We would like to thank Mike’s dad for inspiring him to be patient and dedicated to long term goals and above all, valuing and respecting nature.
Come meet Mike on the March 2nd workday to see the Orland Prairie and experience the whimsical beauty of Nachusa Grasslands!
By Kaleb Baker
Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is an invasive shrub that flourishes along forest edges and in open woodlands such as those at Nachusa Grasslands. Amur honeysuckle shades out native flora with its early leaf-out and prolonged leaf retention, and when left uncontrolled, can produce a near monoculture, threatening biodiversity.
Land stewards everywhere have implemented a variety of different eradication methods, including hand pulling, cut-and-treat with herbicide, foliar-applied herbicide from backpacks or helicopters, basal bark herbicide treatments, and prescribed fire. Continuous treatments and monitoring are needed to eradicate Amur honeysuckle, making the cost, effort, and time requirements of controls important.
Knowing the efforts we go through to manage honeysuckle, as well as the amount of conjecture surrounding the best practices, I worked with my advisor Dr. Nick Barber to study how effective basal bark treatments and prescribed fire are at controlling honeysuckle., I decided to study how effective basal bark treatments and prescribed fire are at controlling honeysuckle. Basal bark and fire are regularly-used control methods at Nachusa. Basal bark treatments involved spraying a 20% solution of triclopyr herbicide around each plant’s base from a backpack, which was both quick and easy. In this study I included 800 individually-marked Amur honeysuckle at 5 different sites within Nachusa Grasslands and Franklin Creek State Natural Area. Basal bark treatments were applied in fall 2017, winter 2018, early spring 2018, and late spring 2018 to see if the season of application affected the mortality of honeysuckle or the extent of damage to non-target flora. Prescribed fire was administered to half of each of the 5 sites in spring 2018. I then checked mortality in the early fall of 2018 to allow the honeysuckle time to either drop its leaves and regrow them (falsely dead) or to retain its leaves for an extended period of time before dying (falsely alive).
I found that basal bark applications were equally effective at killing Amur honeysuckle, regardless of treatment timing. The combined mortality rate of herbicide treatments was 98.4% across all herbicide treatment seasons, compared to a 2.5% mortality with no basal bark treatment. Prescribed fire did not impact mortality positively or negatively.
I also placed a 1m2 quadrat around 200 Amur honeysuckle to measure off-target damage to the plant community in spring 2018, finding a decrease of living cover equating to about a 10-inch radius. The off-target “ring of death” did not differ based on fire treatment or basal bark season.
I was lucky to receive a grant from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands where I will be able to return in May 2019 to resample the off-target vegetation quadrats to evaluate how quickly the flora recover from the various treatments.
From my current results, I highly recommend using basal bark treatments to control Amur honeysuckle for all but the highest quality of areas. The speed and ease of use allow managers to cover large swaths of invaded areas across fall, winter, and spring seasons. The standing dead material from the honeysuckle can be reduced with a masticator or brush mower in the non-growing season or with regular prescribed fire, which should be implemented anyway.
Kaleb Baker is a Master's Candidate at Northern Illinois University, focused on natural areas management practices, and current Stewardship Committee Chair for Franklin Creek Conservation Association.
By Dee Hudson
What does a degraded landscape look like?
Take a good look at the image below. The two volunteer stewards can barely walk through this dense thicket of invasive bushes. The sheer number of invasives that reside here have crowded out most other species, and as a result, have limited the possible diversity. In addition, when leafed out during the summer time, the bushes block the sunlight from reaching the ground and therefore discourage native species from growth.
As Orland Prairie’s land steward, Mike Carr led the December 8 Saturday workday into this gnarly section in the attempt to eradicate the invasive brush. At the end of the day, each volunteer stewardship hour was carefully logged, because Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation has approved this particular habitat as a grant project. When 400 volunteer hours of habitat care have been recorded, Illinois Clean Energy will present $4,000 to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands.
What species are targeted for removal?
How is the brush eradicated?
On this workday the volunteers treated the brush with basal bark applications. The treatment was applied to the base of the bush with either a backpack sprayer or a hand sprayer.
What does a restored landscape look like?
This landscape is also a part of the 23-acre grant project. The area once looked very degraded, but with basal bark treatments and prescribed fire, the brush understory was removed. Then prairie seeds were planted and the photo above shows the successful restored results. This area has been given new life and is on its way to recovery.
Who restores these habitats?
Anyone who wants to make a difference can help with restoration!
Next ICE Grant Workday
Join fellow volunteers on December 22, 2018 for the next ICE Grant Saturday workday. Meet at Nachusa’s Headquarters Barn before 9 am and be ready to restore habitat. If you have any questions about the workdays, check the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands website.
Let’s make a difference together!
By Dr. Elizabeth Bach, Ecosystem Restoration Scientist
December 5 is World Soil Day, a time to recognize the vital role soils play in our ecosystems and health: growing food, filtering water, recycling air, mitigating climate change, and supporting more than 25% of all biodiversity! Soil is the foundation of prairie restoration at Nachusa Grasslands, the starting point of a prairie planting. There are many questions about how soils impact prairie restoration success and how prairie restoration affects soils. Today, we highlight a few of the soil-focused scientific studies that have been conducted at Nachusa Grasslands:
Question: Do communities of soil critters like earthworms, ants, ground beetles, centipedes, millipedes, and spiders change during prairie restoration?
Prairie restoration increases the number, abundance, and mass of soil critters like earthworms, ants, centipedes, and spiders with time since planting. Interestingly, different prairie remnants, even within the Nachusa preserve, have very different communities of soil invertebrates, and it’s difficult to know what a typical remnant invertebrate community may look like.
Wodika & Baer 2015. If we build it, will they colonize? A test of the field of dreams paradigm with soil macroinvertebrate communities. Applied Soil Ecology 91:80-89
Wodika et al. 2014. Colonization and recovery of invertebrate ecosystem engineers during prairie restoration. Restoration Ecology 22: 456-464
Ground beetles show a different pattern, with high numbers of species and abundance in young plantings. Although older plantings had lower species richness, the roles those species play in the ecosystem diverged, indicating that older plantings support stable, diverse beetle communities that fill multiple roles in the ecosystem (e.g. different sizes, active at different parts of the day/night, eating different things).
Barber et al. 2017. Species and functional trait re-assembly of ground beetle communities in restored grasslands. Biodiversity and Conservation 26:3481-3498
Question: Do soil microbial communities change during prairie restoration?
Older restorations at Nachusa host microbial communities that are distinct from younger plantings, and that more closely resemble remnant communities. A couple of the key bacterial groups distinctive of prairie remnants and older restorations are Verrucomicrobia and Acidobacteria. The next question is to learn more about what those bacteria do!
Barber et al. 2017. Soil microbial community composition in tallgrass prairie restorations converge with remnants across a 27-year chronosequence. Environmental Microbiology 19: 3118-3131
Question: How does plant diversity impact ecosystem functions like soil carbon and nitrogen cycling?
Nachusa’s high plant diversity restorations had more roots, more microbial mass (especially mycorrhizal fungi), more structured soil, and less “leaky” nitrogen compounds that can wind up in water ways compared with low plant diversity restorations in the same area. This is the first study to show that very high plant diversity restoration can lead to improved ecosystem functioning.
Klopf et al. 2017. Restoration and management for plant diversity enhances the rate of belowground ecosystem recovery. Ecological Applications 27:355-362
By Leah Kleiman
Summer is a busy time of year on the prairie with invasive weeds sprouting up and native plants going to seed. That's why every year Nachusa hires half a dozen seasonal staff to keep up with the workload from May through November. Typically the hired staff are in their twenties and going into careers in ecological restoration/conservation.
During May, June, and July we will spend the majority of our time spraying and spading invasive weeds in the hot sun to keep them from taking over the prairie plantings. Backpack sprayers are used to apply herbicide to weeds such as sweet clover and bird's foot trefoil until they start going to seed. Then we will pull them by hand. By mid-August weed season is over and it's time to focus on seed collection.
As each native plant species ripens, the crew will go out and collect them by hand in buckets and barrels. We may collect anywhere between a few ounces to several hundred pounds, depending on the species size and density. After the seed is collected it will be dried on racks in our seed barn and then milled to separate the seed from the chaff. In the late fall the crew will spread the seed we collected in brand new plantings that have not seen prairie in recent years. This year we will plant several areas with a range of habitats. For the most part the seed mixes will be spread using seeders pulled behind trucks and utility terrain vehicles. The crew of 2018 has already covered a lot of ground in weed sweeps and collected some precious prairie plants. Stay tuned for another crew report in the fall!
Meet this year's hardworkers
Nathaniel Weickert is the crew leader, and this is his second summer working at Nachusa. He is from Rockford and received his Bachelors in Biological Sciences from NIU in 2015. He hopes to acquire a Masters degree and continue working in the field of restoration and conservation. In his free time Nathaniel enjoys reading, hanging out with his friends and family, and producing art.
Avery Parmiter is from Connecticut and earned her B.S. in Environmental and Natural Resource Management from Clemson University in 2015. Avery would like to continue to be based in the field of conservation and looks forward to furthering her knowledge about restoration ecology in her second year at Nachusa. In her free time she enjoys traveling and exploring natural areas.
Kim Elsenbroek is from Kingston, Illinois and earned her B.S. in Plant Biology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 2012 and her M.S. in Evolution, Ecology and Behavioral Biology in 2015 from Indiana University at Bloomington in 2015. She was also on the crew in the fall of 2015. Kim aspires to continue working in the field of restoration and conservation as a practitioner, researcher, and/or teacher. In her free time Kim is a dancer and dance teacher/choreographer at Dance Dimensions in DeKalb.
Tyler Berndt is from Minooka Illinois. He recently graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a BS in Zoology Wildlife Biology and is currently seeking graduate level opportunities. Tyler had previously worked at Nachusa as an undergraduate ornate box turtle technician. He values learning more about the political and interpersonal deliberations needed to connect fragmented habitats and human dominated ecosystems. Tyler would like to be a consultant or coordinator for organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the USDA Forest Service. In his free time he enjoys exploring state and national parks, historical sites, and cities.
Karey O'Brien is from Minooka Illinois and graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Science from Lewis University. She recently worked at the Forest Preserve District of Will County as a Natural Resource Management Seasonal Laborer. Karey hopes to improve her plant identification skills and continue learning more about natural areas management while here at Nachusa. In her free time Karey enjoys hiking, biking, and watching movies.
Leah Kleiman is a volunteer. This is her second summer working with the crew. She grew up on Nachusa and is working on her A.S. in biology at Sauk Valley Community College. Next year Leah will be transferring to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to earn her B.S. in Plant Biology and Ecology. She plans to pursue a career in restoration/conservation. In her free time Leah enjoys sketching, hiking, swimming, and hanging out with her friends.
Bios written by the individuals.
Filling our backpack sprayers with herbicide before heading into the field.
Once in the field, we line up and walk transects across each prairie planting searching for invasive weeds to spray.
Picking violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) on a remnant knob. This little prairie flower produces a seed close to the ground so spotting it can be difficult.
I am a nature photographer, a freelance graphic designer, and Nachusa's steward of the Thelma Carpenter Prairie. I have been taking photos for Nachusa since 2012.
I have been a high school French teacher, registered piano technician, and librarian. In retirement I am a volunteer historian at Lee County Historical and Genealogical Society.