With knowledge comes power—as well as responsibility. On an overcast Saturday in July 2014 several dozen people were gaining more of the former with each step they took through rolling grassland in west-central Minnesota. And as they referred to field guides and smart phone nature apps while tallying a growing list of plant and animal names, they were also getting a sense of the role human-based land use practices play in determining which species are present, and which aren’t.
“The more you know the plants and birds and species around you, the more ready you are to take care of them,” said Robin Moore, a Land Stewardship Project staffer and the coordinator of the event, called the Simon Lake BioBlitz.
A “BioBlitz” consists of volunteers working with naturalists to record as many living plant and animal species as possible within a designated area and time—usually limited to a day or 24 hours. It’s a bit of a biological scavenger hunt. Such surveys, which are done across the country by community groups in various natural areas, provide a rough snapshot of the number and types of species residing in an area, and serve as baselines for future monitoring.
In the case of the Simon Lake BioBlitz, farmers and other local residents spent a day hiking with scientists and natural resource professionals across a hilly natural area owned by the Nature Conservancy called Sheepberry Fen. Sheepberry Fen includes a mix of dry upland prairie and oak savanna and a large groundwater-fed wetland complex called a calcareous fen.
Sheepberry Fen is special, but it’s just one parcel of land in an area of the state where several remnants of highly threatened native tallgrass prairie grow. These prairie areas are controlled by a hodgepodge of landowners in an area called Simon Lake. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources manage some of these natural lands, while the Nature Conservancy owns areas like Sheepberry Fen. Other private parties have bought real estate in the area to utilize it for hunting and various recreational purposes. Finally, several farmers are producing cattle and other livestock, as well as hay, on grasslands they own and rent in the area.
That’s a diverse group of landowners with an equally diverse set of goals. But one thing many of them agree on is that grasslands in this region are threatened by invasive species such as sumac, cedar, Siberian elm and buckthorn. For the past few years, LSP has been working with landowners, government agencies, nonprofit groups and farmers in the area to develop a cooperative landscape management system that will help control invasives across public and private boundaries while providing healthy grass habitat for wildlife and livestock.
The Simon Lake area is in the eastern branch of the Chippewa River watershed, where LSP and the Chippewa River Watershed Project are working together to encourage profitable farming systems that are more reliant on grasslands and other perennial plant systems.
It’s emerged in recent years that one way to make grasslands profitable is by raising cattle and other livestock utilizing managed rotational grazing. Also called conservation grazing, this technique can help mimic the periodic, beneficial disturbance that bison once provided in the prairie ecosystem. Use of conservation grazing on wildlife refuges and other natural areas in western Minnesota has already shown promise for controlling invasives and reviving natural grasslands while providing farmers a way to give their own pastures a rest.
Moore and Andy Marcum, who is doing landowner outreach in the Simon Lake area for LSP, have been recently working with a dozen landowners in the area on removing invasive species. Now they are in the midst of helping set up long-term management plans that involve conservation grazing, among other things. It’s hoped these management systems will bring back the grasslands, and all that depend on them. But it’s a long-term process, one that requires long-term monitoring.
“A lot of farmers in the area, they’re looking at getting as much profit as they can immediately,” said Marcum during a lunch break at the BioBlitz. “With this plan, and with this approach, it’s going to be 10-15 years before we start seeing some huge changes, before the grass is really producing and being profitable the way that the landowners and the farmers want to see it.”
That’s where something like a BioBlitz comes into play as a way to get a baseline of what’s present, providing a gauge for how practices such as conservation grazing influence the health of these plants and animals in the long term. Steve Chaplin, prairie conservation coordinator with the Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota chapters of the Nature Conservancy, said such events also have a goal of connecting communities: human as well as natural.
Building community is critical because it will take private and public landowners working together to bring about an overall healthier landscape, said Chaplin. But before people can care, they need to know what they’re caring about.
“You can’t appreciate a prairie plant or animal unless you have a name for it,” he said between BioBlitz monitoring hikes. “And so in part that’s what people are allowed to do — they can walk through here, see this flower or that plant or this distinctive leaf and start putting in there minds, ‘What is this plant out there?’ So you can in your mind form an image and put a name with that image.”
And BioBlitz participants, representing a range of ages, backgrounds and ecological knowledge, were starting to make those connections on this July day. A group of 14 looking for plants started out in a “green desert” of smooth bromegrass near a dead-end gravel road. Bromegrass has been called one of the biggest invasives in the area because of its monocultural propensity for crowding out other species. But as they made their way up a draw toward a ridge made up of gravelly soil—the “glacial till” that dominates this part of the state—the landscape became more diverse and the BioBlitz list became longer: dog bane, wild rose, milkweed, sedge, yarrow, pasque flowers, prairie smoke, yellow aster, wild grape, lead plant, purple coneflower. An occasional cow pie or charred piece of wood served as reminders that this was no untouched wilderness—its habitat was being managed with the help of cattle and fire.
On the other side of the road closer to the area’s namesake fen, another group searching for animals tallied cedar waxwings, goldfinches, woodpeckers, a northern rough-winged swallow, white monarch butterflies, three swallows, a wolf spider, a queen bee residing in a den in the middle of an ant mound, a red-tailed hawk sitting on a tree, a grasshopper sparrow, killdeer, longhorn beetles, a wire tension setter on a far off fenceline mistaken for a bird, a 13-lined ground squirrel and finally, a prairie skink lurking in the crack of an “erratic”—a boulder deposited here after a glacier picked it up hundreds of miles north during a different geological era.
Names were being connected to plants and animals. But even more importantly, connections were being made between the health of these natural residents, and the overall quality of the environment.
Peg Furshong, director of operations and constituent relations for the local environmental group Clean Up the River Environment, made it clear during the BioBlitz that even connections that aren’t immediately evident are just as critical.
“We know if the soil is healthy, the water will be cleaner,” she said.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.