Botanists are NOT Ruining Prairies

Wait, what?!

More than a decade ago Prairie Ecologist asked, “Are botanists ruining prairies?” I’d met the author, worked with him to set up a portion of my dissertation research. I’d come west from Iowa in 2008 with an open mind, drawn by the larger landscape prairies in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. If anything, Prairie Ecologist was a role model, someone who had my attention, and whose career I would have been happy to mirror.

But with all the time I spent walking prairies, between the western margins of the tallgrass and its heart in Iowa, an uneasiness crept in. Then Prairie Ecologist posed the question, and I didn’t actually find the post for a while, but after I read a few paragraphs and had to step away. I put it out of my mind.

Recently the post showed up in my Google search results, so I read the whole thing. I’m thankful to my past self for sparing me the exasperation. The post is framed as lighthearted, a prod, but it’s a hot fallacious mess that reveals a lot of underlying biases and assumptions and both caricatures and minimizes the work and dedication of the people we have to thank for the prairies we still have today.

Prairie Ecologist claims that the prevailing dogma is that high quality prairies have a lot of “conservative plants,” and that these plants are defined as being rare in most prairies and…perhaps even “fragile.” FRAGILE. What follows is a free-wheeling essay on why it might not be the best thing that the botanists are so adamant about protecting small patches for Fabergé plants.

For starters, conservative plants are defined quite differently. If you are standing in the field looking at a very conservative plant, indeed, you are probably not standing on an old slag heap or in a recently fallowed field—but much more likely a remnant natural community that Europeans haven’t screwed up with novel disturbance or exclusion of essential indigenous disturbance. Are conservative species fragile if they lose ground or disappear in response to being fenced in with livestock, turned under by the plow, bulldozed? Are we really going to call any organism fragile and ignore the course of its entire evolutionary history and biogeography up to the present? Fragile? It’d be silly. Had we succeeded in eliminating the bison, would it be fragile? If ever there was a strawman put up, setting up conservative plants as fragile is one.

Four acres of fragility.

The post goes on to say “A compass plant is usually considered to be a conservative wildflower in prairies,” and “so, a prairie filled with lots of fragile plants is considered to be a high quality prairie.” A compass plant is fragile? The same compass plants that have pushed back up along county roads after multiple rounds of grading, withstood severe droughts, fires, and deep frost to live lord knows how long? Fragile, just because they’d have died if they stood on the same side of the fence as the cattle? On initial reading I was still hoping that the author wasn’t serious. …waiting for the punchline.

The post goes on to say “a prairie filled with prairie plant species that are tough and scrappy is considered to be degraded.” In another post he derides prairies packed with conservative species as “calendar prairies.” All this while every one of those calendar prairies species still has its suite of “scrappy” species—it’s black-eyed Susans, biennial evening primroses, wedgegrass, rough dropseed, and prairie thistles in addition to those “fragile,” conservative ones. Those scrappy species are not considered conservative, because they also grow in fallow fields, along roadsides…on slagheaps. It’s wonderful that they do! But crossing paths with them doesn’t tell you that you’re standing in an in an old growth prairie. It also doesn’t tell you that you’re not standing in one. …but that would be a more difficult concept to parlay into the question of whether botanists are ruining prairies. That said, I won’t dispute that the scrappies in an old-growth prairie are pushed to the margins by the “fragile” species whose resource use efficiency and complex and mutual interactions force them to the week spots in the sod—the gopher mounds and abandoned ant hills.

Leiberg’s panic grass, a conservative species sensitive to grazing and excessive litter accumulation.

Prairie Ecologist said “we tend to think about human society in much the same way…society consists of fragile people with clean fingernails and uncalloused hands who have to hire low-society people to cook, clean, garden, and take care of their fancy cars,” and “low-society people work hard to feed themselves and their families, wear functional clothes (without designer labels)….” What fresh projection is this? So the species that don’t stand and cheer after the cattle move on to the next pasture are the rich takers? Do-nothings? A Silphium stem borer or a phlox moth might beg to differ. Look at your hands. I hope they’re calloused (mine are). Phew.

Prairie ecologist further caricatures champions of “fragile” plants, “It’s certainly understandable that people who dedicate their lives to plants would be concerned about preserving those plant species that are the most difficult to preserve.” Is there a point? Perhaps unintentional, this feels like a minimization of the work of dedicated botanists, and also stewards and ecologists that see things differently. I’m often called a botanist, though my undergraduate and graduate training gave me no formal training as such. My training was a broad biological, ecological, and statistical one. But I learned long ago that the flora is a powerful lens through which to view the world, so I’ve become a passably good field botanist that can say a lot about a place based on the plants I see. There are other lenses, sure. My first biological loves were reptiles, amphibians, and fish. It’s easier to dismiss a point of view if you can claim the competing perspective is a narrower one than yours. If the botanists were out there irrationally dedicating their lives to plants, why would it even cross their minds to assign them scores that indicate affinity to old-growth natural communities?

Prairie’s gotta earn a living. “Most grasslands in today’s landscapes have to earn their keep, and are managed in ways that tend to favor species that are tough and scrappy, rather than those that are fragile.” Well, the first third is true. We continue to force the land into our Old World ways of doing things. We value hard workers. After all, they feed the world, right?

Pieris rapae? Strong as an ox. Papaipema beeriana? Soft bean counter. Prairie Ecologist would never say that. It’s preposterous. I wouldn’t either.

I will concede that in the world we live in, the only way to get more surrogate grassland on the landscape is if it somehow generates wealth. I would argue, however, that for conservation’s sake we can hold some some apart from servitude.

“The question of whether conservative plants were distributed in similar ways historically or were more widespread is a topic of much debate in prairie conservation circles.” We (Europeans who basically stepped in it upon arriving on the scene) eliminated them by the plow and with our confined pasturage of livestock. It’s true that the extent of this is hard to fathom. But it’s really quite the opposite. This is a question I’ve only heard posed from people trying to justify grazing in the context of conservation as though painting over rust fixes things. The reliability of our ability to track “fragile” species down based on how far they are from the barn, what side of the fence cattle weren’t on, and other modes of separation from livestock and the plow makes no sense if these species were not once generally the typical ones. Their persistence at all, given their life histories, wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

“Two groups of Illinois entomologists have each developed their own index of prairie quality based on “conservative” insect species,” and “both of them have found that there is often little correlation between the number of conservative insect species and the number of conservative plant species in a prairie.” Why should there be? Anyone that dabbles in floristics knows that the pitfalls are misuse and misinterpretation are rampant. It’s the worst with richness and evenness. It’s still pretty bad with FQI. Mean coefficients of conservatism far are better, and weighted coefficients perhaps better, but where prairie is degraded by a long history of mid-spring burning or broadleaf herbicide application and grasses with moderate coefficients are over-dominant, it can buffer against discernment of the real story (another chapter there). …but number of conservative species? Hmph. So let’s square the potential misinterpretation!

Prairie Ecologist writes at length about there still being a lot of Regal Fritillaries, Gorgone Checkerspots, and grassland birds on Kansas and Nebraska prairies as though that proves something. Regal fritillaries need their host violets. Their host violets avoid grazing by virtue of their low stature. Those violets remain on eastern prairies infested with “fragile” plants, and so do Regals in the rare cases that there is enough landscape. I sincerely doubt regals would fair any better on fragments of “scrappy,” “hard-working” plants in Nebraska if 99.9% of the land was turned under by the plow, taken over by thicket, and developed. But the problem is that darn, regal-killing, “fragile” plant management! We don’t have big prairies, but the small ones we still have support rich, conservative flora…so at least we maintain the possibility of expanding those prairies in all their fragile richness from the species and genes that remain. How to do this is the frontier of ecological restoration in the Upper Midwest.

Maybe easy street is still having landscapes to work with, which are part of a prevailing agricultural economy rather than the opposite.

Prairie landscapes like this still support relatively high numbers of grassland birds, including greater prairie chickens, but that’s not because they are used for pasture, it’s because they are large, open landscapes.

Let’s pause for a moment to pose two questions.

1) Does one native species have more fundamental right to exist or importance than another? If so, where does the logic extend? Once you put a price on a species, wealth can always pay to remove it. This is true even when we put the value on something with no clear economic relevance. Ecosystem services are the biggest conservation own-goal of all time…in my opinion.

2) How many of the “fragile” species that are often abundant on less abused eastern prairies find their range edges eastern Nebraska and Kansas or farther east? The answer is many. Wood betony. Compass plant. Prairie dock. Leiberg’s panic grass. Senega snakeroot. Rattlesnake master. Prairie blazingstar. Prairie coreopsis. Sky blue aster. MANY more. …and many different, more western species come onto the scene. Historical importance of bison as consumers ramps up east to west. …so maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding?

A prairie ecologist said, “High quality prairies – using the botanists’ definition – tend to be small.” What?! Attribution please! Oh yeah, we’re under cover of thought experiment. I’ve never met someone that didn’t desperately want to buffer and expand a small, high quality prairie remnant by reconstructing prairie or at least promoting maintenance of grassland around it. We (and by we I mean botanists, ecologists, stewards) dream about big prairies! We look out over the corn and see a lost landscape! Exhibit A would be the Mounds View Grassland. Those darn Midwest-easterners are just full of surprises.

Talking about prairies full of “fragile” species, Prairie Ecologist says “it’s also clear that those prairies can’t be the sole focus of conservation if we’re going to preserve the entirety of prairie species diversity.” Well clearly, but are we preserving it by minimizing elements of prairie diversity with dire conservation needs, old growth grasslands that don’t recover from disturbance on human time-scales? We can’t preserve prairie species diversity without those small, remaining prairies, and what is the entirety of prairie diversity? Prairie chicken reintroductions? Wolves? Cougars? Repatriation of land American Indian people? These things tend not enter discussions of working prairies, but ungulates sure do!

The crescendo, “If some of those prairies were managed for more heterogeneous vegetation structure they might become more valuable to many insect and wildlife species.” Is this just a case of all eastern tallgrass looking the same to someone coming from the western margin? Heterogeneity abounds. Wood betony creeps across the prairie like an amoeba, lowering the vegetation height. Gradients abound in soils and drainage with even subtle topographic undulations, but you can see them in the plants and their structure. And the prairies are calendar displays, different in every month, not just in bloom, but also form. Species relative abundances and flowering ebb and flow across years in response to fire and weather. The heterogeneity is there in space in time. It looks different. Maybe it’s just all the green out here. But Prairie Ecologist continues, “It seems to me that some of those larger prairies could accommodate some experimentation with summer fire, fire-driven grazing, and/or other less traditional management strategies by testing those strategies on a portion of each prairie.”  Why would we sacrifice something that is rare and just about as close to irreplaceable as you can get to manage for “scrappy” species in the name of heterogeneity? These are scrappy species. They are easy to establish. We could just put in prairie plantings to poke and prod at will. Why would we burn in summer or fence in large ungulates when those weren’t the driving factors behind the assembly of tallgrass prairies, and it’s not clear that anything is broken that needs fixing beyond our greed for exploiting land (other topics, but the most numerous large herbivore out this way was a familiar one, deer). Sometimes experimentation is held up as science, when it’s really implementation. And this is happening. Take the patch-burn graze debacle at Taberville Prairie in Missouri as an example. And it’s a threat, because having big ungulates on grass is truthy. People like it. Sounds right. Alan Savory gave a Ted Talk. Never mind it was bullshit (not that we’re talking about that graft here). To many laypeople, it’s all the same. Calves romping in the grass in front of the sunset on humid summer evening? It’s happy nature. It’s a win-win as far as dinner is concerned. It sells. Green is green, so never mind that we’ve lost some grasses and wildflowers.

Prairie Ecologist rightly says, “Regardless of answers to the above questions, there is one thing I feel very strongly about:  Good prairie managers consider more than just their favorite plant species as they think about how to manage their prairies.” I have never met one whose goal is prairie conservation that doesn’t. This extends beyond plants though, and plenty of mediocre managers consider a lot. Good land management more than anything comes from listening to what the land has to say.

The post ends rather magnanimously. I’m used to people talking and writing this way, having grown up in Iowa. In saying things that might offend, here making a long list of assertions and painting with a broad brush, claiming it’s in good fun and appealing for open minds are tactics to disarm and deflect those that would disagree head on. This is innate rather than intentional. I’ll consciously end more abruptly. It’s not the botanists that threaten any of the prairies I know. That prize goes to neglect, and the silver goes to the bulldozer. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Even if it’s small collection of fragile organisms.

About prairiebotanist
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3 Responses to Botanists are NOT Ruining Prairies

  1. Chris Helzer says:

    Geez, Dan. If you’re upset with me, you could just reach out and we could talk.

    This is a post I wrote more than 10 years ago. My intent at the time was to provoke discussion, especially around the idea that prairies are more than assemblages of plants and that we need to make sure we’re making management decisions based on the entire community. I would probably phrase some things differently now, but I think the points I’d make are the same. Also, while you seemed to think I was being ‘magnanimous’ and pompous (my word, not yours), if you read the post again, I repeatedly say things like “I’m not sure” and posing questions or asking about tradeoffs.

    I’m not saying the tone was perfect (the title was probably a mistake) and you’re not the only botanist to be offended, but I still stand by the questions I was posing. I continue to be concerned about the way some small isolated prairies are burned in totality on a frequent basis. That has to be negatively affecting invertebrate populations in those sites and we don’t understand what ripple effects that might have. More importantly, I think those invertebrates are every bit as core to a prairie’s identity and functions as the plants. Even with my concerns, I’m not saying that kind of burning is necessarily wrong. People have to make local decisions, many of which are really hard decisions, about how to save what they can in small isolated remnants. My hope is that I can push people to consider all the implications as they make those hard decisions.

    Be well.

  2. prairiebotanist says:

    Chris, thanks for the reply. This is a fair response to what you wrote in a public forum with a sizeable audience, and it goes far beyond the title–really, the title is the least of it. There is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to respond similarly to my much smaller audience. It may have been ten years ago, but it’s there, and as you say, you stand by it. …still shows up in a Google search too. I’m not really sure why you are bringing up refugia, particularly with me, because I’m an advocate for them (wrote it into a plan for a small remnant this morning). Just because people are thinking about plants, doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about invertebrates. Independent lines of research on regal fritillaries, for example, are screaming that we have to consider both. If you want to talk about refugia with me (and again, I’m not sure why), maybe we could continue to extend the topic to all the problems with growing season burning. But that’ll be another blog post at some point, among the low single digits I put out each year…for a few people to read.

  3. Interesting dialog. For what it’s worth, the botanists that I know, that have anything to say about prairie plants, became botanists through their ecological interests, myself included. To frame botanists as blind to anything but fragile plants is a straw man fallacy at best. That said, plants are the source of all energy in all living systems and thereby dictate how all energy flows through all living things. The degree of ecological complexity and functionality in systems is not only proportional to the degree of complexity and sensitivity of plants, but they are in fact one and the same. Generalist plants = general functions. Specialized plants = specialized functions. I don’t understand how anyone could ignore, or worse yet downplay and disparage, these facts and consider themselves an ecologist.

    All in all, because people gravitate to the perceptions that verify their biases, and because working landscapes are an easier sell to a capitalist people (the vast majority of which have no capital) than liberated landscapes (after all, we’re commanded to subjugate the earth and every being), beating prairies will win out until the full crescendo of beauty and complexity is gone and there is nothing left to mourn from a people too obstinate in their ignorance to appreciate or empathize with anything that can’t be eaten or sold by their economic overlords. You know, the fragile ones that don’t get their hands dirty.


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