The GRN (Grassland Restoration Network) Workshop 2019

Grassland Restoration Network (GRN) Workshop participants tour the Curtis Prairie, just outside of the UW Arboretum's Visitor Center. (image: K Moore Powell)

The Grassland Restoration Network, or GRN, is a collection of people throughout the Midwest and US Great Plains with one common interest - the preservation and restoration of grasslands. Any connected interests to prairie and grassland management are integrated into a regular blog, skillfully initiated and maintained by Bill Kleiman, Nachusa Grassland's project director. The GRN annual workshop brings all interested parties to one location to hear about grassland conservation and research and tour amazing grassland properties near the host site. This year (Aug 20-21) the GRN workshop was hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

Tuesday (Day 1) started with a few talks. Mike Hansen and Brad Herrick (UW Arboretum) reviewed a few of the restorations and studies that were conducted there at the arboretum. Of particular interest to me was the Faville prairie observations they reported. These were based on a survey of plots at the site after a large rainfall event that caused flooding. Although there were losses and gains of grasses and forbs in most plots, the species richness evened out. A few notable observations were the loss of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) grass species in all the observed plots, but tufted loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora) did very well. In addition to the plot observations, it was noted that invasion of reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) into the prairie from the adjacent stream floodplain advanced even further post flooding and was a growing concern.

Next up, Karen Oberhauser (UW) discussed the importance of habitat for the monarch butterfly. While pollinator gardens and small urban patches are helpful, she emphasized the drop in monarch populations are of enough concern that significantly more needs to occur in order to meet the challenges facing this species. Every opportunity to add larger, higher quality habitat needs to be pursued, as well as leveraging agricultural best management actions - like prairie strips.

The morning concluded with Susan Carpenter (UW Arboretum), an expert on native plant gardening, who talked about pollinator conservation. She reviewed the many, many species that act as pollinators in grasslands, but focused a good portion of the talk on bees. A surprising statistic - over 80% are solitary bees species, not living and breeding in colonies, as we might imagine. Among the recommended management strategies to foster a healthy bee community in your grassland were to avoid using systemic insecticides, including treated seeds or plants, and be mindful of insecticide drift from adjacent areas.

That afternoon we split into 3 groups and headed out to tour several prairie and grassland restorations within 50 miles of the arboretum. I was able to fulfill a long-standing dream and visit the Aldo Leopold foundation, seeing the shack and touring the property where he authored "A Sand County Almanac".

The Aldo Leopold Shack, a National Historic Landmark. (image K Moore Powell)

At the Aldo Leopold Foundation, our group toured a study that compared different restorations that featured a range of seed densities in adjacent plots. The results of the multi-year study showed that there is a maximum seed density that could be used in establishing a diverse and healthy prairie plant community, at this site anyway, beyond which more seed per acre was not cost effective for restorations.

Prairie seed density plots at the Aldo Leopold Foundation site (image: K Moore Powell)

Wednesday (Day 2) continued with amazing talks and tours. Justin Meissen from the Tallgrass Prairie center at the University of Northern Iowa discussed his study of seed mix design on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land. By assessing the ecosystem services of the resulting plant community - pollinator activity, erosion control, and weed resistance - he was able to conclude that a 1:1 ratio of grass to forb species in the seed mix was the optimal balance to achieve most of these services, and not the most costly of the seed mix options that he tested. Of course this applies to his own research site in Iowa, but it may have broader implications.

Next up was Amy Alstad from the Driftless Area Land Conservancy who talked about long term ecological change in remnant prairies in Wisconsin. Her research was centered around “legacy studies” that use historical data to document changes that can show long-term ecological trends. Using a presence/absence survey of Wisconsin remnant prairie plant communities, first conducted in 1950, then surveyed again in 1987, and finally a third time by Dr. Alstad in 2012, she was able to analyze trends in two broad time frames between the three surveys. She concluded that while there was ecological shifts through time for the entire 62 year period, the rate of plant community change seems to be accelerating for these habitats.

The final talk before lunch was given by Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska and author of a beautiful and information rich blog, The Prairie Ecologist. If you haven't visited the website, or read his book about prairie management, I highly recommend both! For the GRN workshop, Chris discussed the importance of making people care about prairies. If we don't do this one thing, nothing else we do to protect these habitats will matter.

My photo-bombing soldier beetle! (image: K Moore Powell)

He recommended telling stories and making an emotional connection in order to engage a public that looks to beaches and forests for their nature fix. He demonstrated this with dialog and images of prairie plants and animals that simply take your breath away! They also tell a compelling story, like the funny thread about photo-bombing soldier beetles, an experience I replicated in my afternoon tour. His photography and well written posts speak for themselves, so visit the site and indulge your senses!

Attending the workshop is easily one of the best things that I have done this year! Staying connected to this network is also easily one of the best things we can do to inform our restoration and resilience building actions for the prairie habitats in the Chicago Wilderness region

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