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 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!
Summer is the busiest time of year on the prairie with seeds ready to harvest and invasive weeds sprouting up. So every May Nachusa hires half a dozen seasonal staff to keep up with the workload. Typically the staff hired are in their twenties and going into careers in ecological restoration/conservation. The crew will spend most of the first half of the summer spraying and spading weeds in the hot sun, and then seeds will be collected throughout the summer and fall as they ripen. In the late summer and fall the crew will plant the seed they collected in a brand new planting that has not seen prairie in recent years. This year's planting is 84 acres! The crew of 2017 has jumped into the summer with great enthusiasm and the prairie is already much improved because of their labors.
Meet this year's seasonal staff:
Kaleb Baker — Crew Leader, on his third season he has been an incredible resource helping with many things, including the new Arc Collector Map service. Kaleb will be with us for a couple more months this summer before he attends NIU this fall to start his Masters’ Degree.
Phil Nagorny — on his second season, he started with Kaleb back in March as our Lead Restoration Technician. He brings a deep skill set and experience operating equipment that we will take advantage of while he is here. He will also be attending NIU this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.
Sebastian Schafer — who came all the way from Germany, has been interning with us since March. He is years ahead of most at his age. He is now heading back home to start his Master’s Degree.
Nathaniel Weickert — from Rockford and recently graduated from NIU. Some of you will recognize him, since he has spent many Saturdays volunteering at Nachusa.
Cody Cassidy — is from Rochelle and recently graduated from University of WI Whitewater. Cody is good with his hands, having grown up working with his dad’s heating and cooling business.
Avery Parmiter — From Connecticut and a recent graduate from Clemson University. She brings an array of recent field experiences to Nachusa.
Sandra Vaughn-Pottorff — Originally from Rockford, she recently returned from Hawaii where she studied environmental sciences. She will be enrolling in NIU to finish her undergraduate degree this upcoming school year.
Leah Kleiman — who we all have seen grow and blossom into a mature young independent woman. She recently completed the second year of her Associate’s Degree at Sauk and is eager to gain more experience working on the crew.
(Bios written by Cody Considine)
Today's blog was brought to you by Leah Kleiman
Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
With its sharp coppery–orange cone spikes and its purple–pink drooping petals, this attractive native flower is a favorite on the prairie.
Coneflowers thrive in our sandy–loam soils and are especially plentiful the summer after a prescribed fire. They can bloom within two years of planting and provide a marvelous sight while other flowers species are still maturing.
The pale purple coneflower is a very showy flower, especially when planted in mass or with other flowers of contrasting color. This view looks eastward over the Gobbler Ridge unit at Clear Creek Knolls. Volunteer stewards, Bernie & Cindy Buchholz, planted this stretch of prairie in 2011. To read more about their decade of successful restorations, scroll to page 3 in the 2015 Prairie Smoke, the annual stewardship report for Nachusa Grasslands.
After 10 years of meticulous clearing, harvesting, planting, and invasive weed control, Gobbler Ridge and the Fame Flower unit are among the preserve’s highest quality restorations.
Many wildlife species benefit from the pale purple coneflower. The nectar in the blooms attract insects, such as butterflies and many native bees, while the birds (particularly Goldfinches) enjoy the seeds in the cone.
Hiking is encouraged throughout the Gobbler Ridge unit, with access from the Clear Creek Knolls parking lot. To find the entrance, look along the east side of Lowden Road, just south of Flagg Road. Hike east along the mowed lanes or walk into the prairie off–trail. Before hiking off–trail, you may want to read “What to expect off–trail” on our Hiking Guidelines website page.
The Thelma Carpenter unit is another nice spot in the preserve to see coneflowers. This hike is best reached from the visitor kiosk by taking Lowden Road north, then Stone Barn Road east and finally south on Carthage Road. There is pull–off parking in the grass. Please do not block any gates or roads. Hike along the mowed trails or hike up the hill (no trail) from the entrance sign. Visit our Hiking Destinations website page for more information.
Enjoy this early summer native flower!
Today’s author is Dee Hudson, a photographer and volunteer for Nachusa Grasslands. To see more prairie images, visit her website at www.deehudsonphotography.com.
Every summer Nachusa hires a seasonal crew to tackle weed season. The crew will spend all day spraying, spading, and pulling invasive weeds as well as doing every other odd job. This year's six individuals have already proved themselves to be hardworking and enthusiastic. Looks like it's going to be a productive summer!
My name is Jessica Fliginger and I recently graduated from Northern Illinois University with a B.S. degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in Biology. As part of the summer crew, I want to strengthen my plant identification and restoration skill sets, gain valuable field work experience, and explore my ecological interests. Next year, I plan on applying to graduate school and I hope this helps prepare me for that.
I attended Northern Illinois University and there I joined the Committee for the Preservation of Wildlife. Then I came out here to the prairie at Nachusa and it was beautiful. Within the next couple of years I worked at Byron Forest Preserve learning more about the prairie ecosystem. I've been fascinated ever since.
I currently attend the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, majoring in Wildlife Ecology. My passion is learning more about big game animals, but I love learning about prairie restoration! The reason I am at Nachusa Grasslands is to get great on–the–job–experience for future jobs.
I am a junior at Eureka College pursuing a career in Wildlife Ecology. Nachusa Grasslands offers a great opportunity to gain knowledge and experience within the field, which will be useful for the years to come!
I am an Environmental Studies major at Northern Illinois University and plan to work on the crew for the spring, summer and fall seasons. I have been doing restoration for over three years and look forward to continuing that work here at Nachusa.
I graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology this spring and plan to begin a master's program in Ecology in 2017. At Nachusa, I wish to continue learning from the community and contributing toward their restoration projects.
Today's author is Leah Kleiman.
I am a nature photographer, a freelance graphic designer, and steward at Nachusa's Thelma Carpenter Prairie. I have taken 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.