Boots On The Ground Conservation


  • Nachusa Grasslands annual fire report

    The 2015-2016 annual Nachusa Grasslands fire report (photos, maps and lessons learned) is now available. You can read the report here.

  • Plants On the Move

    One of our nine timelapse cameras; this one aimed straight down at one patch of prairie. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

    Most people think of plants as pretty immobile (“rooted in place”, you might say) but that is definitely not the case for many species.  Plant communities are battlefields in which various forces are always looking for new territory to conquer.  Plants use features such as seeds and rhizomes (underground stems) to travel around and establish themselves in new places.  Some plants move short distances but hold their territory tightly, while others range more widely but have less staying power.  When you stand in a prairie, you stand on top of a dynamic and complicated power struggle among plants that are anything but immobile.  Because that struggle happens in relatively slow motion (over months or years rather than minutes), timelapse photography can provide a unique opportunity to watch battles play out.


  • Illinois Fire Needs Assessment

    This is the first systematic report in Illinois documenting the number of acres being burned annually and identifying how many acres need to burn annually to maintain and restore ecosystem health. This review is a call to action for land managers, legislators and the general public.

    This Assessment Demonstrates:
    • Dramatically more acres need to be burned annually across Illinois
    • Natural areas need to be managed with prescribed fire with a much higher frequency
    • Far too many ecologically degraded acres across the state are in need of fire
    • Considerably more resources need to be allocated to prescribed fire programs

    View the report here...

  • Grassland biodiversity is about the light

    Two impacts often controlled by humans — being fertilized and being eaten — can combine to the benefit of biodiversity, according to an innovative international study led by U of M researchers Elizabeth Borer and Eric Seabloom.

    The findings, published March 9 in the online edition of Nature in advance of print publication, are important in a world where humans are changing both herbivore distribution and the supply of nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus, and where understanding the interplay among nutrients, herbivores and plant growth is critical to our capacity to feed a growing human population and protect threatened species and ecosystems.

    To conduct the study, Borer and Seabloom enlisted the help of the Nutrient Network, or NutNet, a collaborative international experiment they and a few colleagues founded in 2005 as a resource for understanding how grasslands around the world will respond to a changing environment. NutNet scientists at 40 sites on six continents set up research plots with and without added fertilizer and with and without fences to keep out the local herbivores such as deer, kangaroos, sheep or zebras. Every year since then, they have measured the amount of plant material grown, light reaching the ground, and number of species of plants growing in the plots.

    When the researchers compared data across the 40 study sites, they found that fertilizing reduced the number of plant species in the plots as species less able to tolerate a lack of light were literally overshadowed by fast-growing neighbors. On both fertilized and unfertilized plots, where removal of vegetation by herbivores increased the amount of light that struck the ground, plant species diversity increased. And these results held true whether the grassland was in Minnesota, Argentina or China, and whether the herbivores involved were rabbits, sheep, elephants or something else.

    "Biodiversity benefits humans and the environments that sustain us. Understanding how human actions control biodiversity is important for maintaining a healthy environment," says Borer. "What this suggests is that these two impacts, which are ubiquitous globally, dovetail with changes in light availability at the ground level, and that appears to be a big factor in maintaining or losing biodiversity in grasslands. In short, where we see a change in light, we see a change in diversity."

    The findings add a key piece to the puzzle of how human impacts affect prairies, savannas, alpine meadows and other grasslands. Biodiversity plays an important role in how resilient communities of plants and animals are in the face of change. By showing how fertilization, grazing, and biodiversity are linked, the research moves us one step closer to understanding what we can do to help keep grassland ecosystems and all of the services they provide healthy and thriving in a changing world.

    Read more here, here and here...

  • Nitrogen pollution leads to loss of diversity

    Rising levels of atmospheric nitrogen pollution threaten plant diversity at nearly one-quarter of sites across a widespread portion of the US, according a new study.

    An analysis of the relationship between herbaceous plant diversity and anthropogenic nitrogen deposition across the United States using a survey of over 15,000 plots indicates that around 24% of the sites examined are likely to lose species as a result of this pollution. The loss of diversity appears to be most acute in grasslands.


  • C3 or C4, that is the question.

    More rainfall during the growing season may have led to one of the most significant changes in Earth's vegetation in the distant past, and similar climate changes could affect the distribution of plants in the future as well, a new study suggests.

    Scientists have long known that some grassland species became more abundant during the latter part of the Neogene, a geologic era that includes the present. Known as C4 grasses, they use a different method of photosynthetic metabolism from most other types of vegetation, including C3 grasses. They tend to thrive under warm, moist conditions, in addition to low levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    "The point of the work was to understand what drove one of the most dramatic biological transitions in the past 65 million years, and also to better understand the past so that we can make predictions about the future," said Jennifer Cotton. "We know that the balance between C3 and C4 grasses is controlled by both atmospheric CO2 and climate, but the relative influence of each of these factors has not been clear."

    To understand what drove that transition, the researchers analyzed carbon isotopes in 632 samples of bison and mammoth tissues from across North America over the past 18,000 years, corresponding to the time between the peak of the last ice age to the present. The researchers were able to show that, over time, the animals' diets shifted toward more C4 plants and those plants gradually spread north.


  • Shifting Mosaic of Habitat

    To create a mosaic, an artist arranges many little tiles, stones, or other materials to form a pattern.  Each individual tile or stone of the mosaic is important, but mainly because of its contribution to the whole.  Looking at an aerial photo or satellite image of a landscape is much like looking at a mosaic – you can see patterns created by woodland, grassland, water, cities and other land cover types.  Even when a landscape is almost entirely grassland, there are still patterns – with “tiles” defined by the outlines of land ownership parcels and management units, and characterized by the height, composition, and density of the vegetation within each.


    In this aerial view, you can see "tiles" consisting of different management units. What most of us tend to visualize when we think of “prairie,” tall and relatively dense vegetative structure, favors some plant and animal species but not others. If a landscape looks the same every year, it would limit the diversity of species it supported.

    A shifting mosaic of habitats has important implications for both plant and animal species.  Every plant species has its own unique set of preferred growing conditions.  For example, there are plants that grow and bloom early in the growing season and others that are active late in the season. Fire or haying during the early part of the season can favor late season species, and vice versa.

    Some plants don’t compete well with dominant grasses or other plants, and so thrive only when the vigor of those competing plants is suppressed.  A shifting mosaic approach means that all plant species in a particular patch of prairie will likely get their preferred growing conditions now and then – helping to ensure their long-term survival.


  • Early Spring Offsets Higher Temperatures

    Grasslands across North America will face higher summer temperatures and widespread drought by the end of the century, according to a new study.

    But those negative effects in vegetation growth will be largely offset, the research predicts, by an earlier start to the spring growing season and warmer winter temperatures.

    The good news is that total grassland productivity is not going to decline, at least for most of the west.The bad news is that we're going to have this new seasonality that is outside of current practices for rangeland management -- and how to adapt to that is unknown.


  • Carver Prairie, an apt dedication

    Carver Prairie is a 160-acre tract in Newton County that was acquired by the Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF) in December 2015 with funding from a 2013 award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

    The tract includes 65 acres of original unplowed prairie adjacent to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Diamond Grove Prairie. The original prairie is dominated by prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), locally referred to as dropseed prairies. Carver Prairie also includes 26 acres that will be restored prairie, and 69 acres of savanna/woodland along the original, presettlement woodland-prairie interface. The prairie is named after Dr. George Washington Carver, a prominent African-American scientist whose birthplace is in the vicinity. The George Washington Carver National Monument is located 2.5 miles to the southeast.

  • Monarch Conservation Strategies

    Because monarchs can only be raised on milkweed, getting more milkweed plants in the landscape, especially within the cornbelt states, is a key part of increasing the monarch population.  It’s likely that more than a billion additional milkweed plants will be required to stabilize the monarch population.  Increasing milkweed populations to that extent will require a wide range of strategies.  In addition, protecting and restoring the wildflower-rich grasslands and other natural areas that provide food for adult monarchs, as well as for thousands of bee and other pollinator species, is also vitally important.

    Swamp milkweed

    It is critically important to increase the number of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and other milkweed species available for monarch egg-laying.

    One clear strategy is to plant more of monarchs’ favorite milkweed species in gardens, parks, roadsides, nature centers, and many other sites.  In the north-central U.S., milkweed species such as common (Asclepias syriaca), showy (A. speciosa), and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), are known to be favorites, while green antelope horn (A. asperula) is important in more southern states.  You can find sources of seeds and plants at Monarch Watch or from the Xerces Society’s Project Milkweed website.  Sites like can help with garden and landscape design ideas.