November 12th 2016
Becky Emerson Carlberg
The OMN workshop was held on a bright mild day at the 39,000 acre Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska and Foraker, OK. It is the largest protected fragment of tallgrass prairie left on the earth, and the Nature Conservancy is in the process of restoring this valuable ecosystem. Our presenters included David Turner and his wife Betty, Docents at the Preserve for twenty two years and Dan Reinking, Senior Biologist at the Sutton Center.
David, a Mechanical/Environmental Engineer and his wife have been Washington County Master Gardeners for over twelve years, and both love birds and photography. David introduced the group to the prairie purchased in 1989 by the Nature Conservancy who had to borrow fifteen million dollars. TNC is a science-driven environmental group. TNC thoroughly researches each parcel of land, use a non-confrontational approach and will collaborate with anyone who will work with them. The Nature Conservancy mission: to conserve lands and waters on which all life depends.
The Tallgrass prairies formerly covered a broad expanse of alluvial soils throughout 14 states in the central US, but most have now been eliminated through uncontrolled sprawling human development or being plowed and farmed. Out of the nearly 170 million acres, only 5 million acres now remain. The area has been reduced to the Osage Hills of OK and Flint Hills of KS.
Bison are the native foragers in the prairie communities. The Nature Conservancy has 13 herds in different states. The largest conservation herd is at Yellowstone. To prepare the prairies for native grazers, the land had to undergo restoration subject to some important forces.
- Grazing pressure of bison shape the prairie. The bison herding instinct drives the family groups that are always on the move. Cows give birth to red colored calves that change to brown after the first eight weeks. In 1993, three hundred bison lived on 5000 acres in the Tallgrass prairie. By 2008 the herd had increased to 2,600 on 23,500 acres. The bison winter coat is dense and is shed as felt patches in the spring. The bison were hunted only in winter for the coats. In the mid-1800s chrome salts were found to be effective in the leather tanning process, and this indirectly encouraged hunting year round which led to the demise of the bison. Even by the 1830s the bison were gone from the Tallgrass prairie. Keep in mind thirty million bison existed prior to colonization.
- Random prairie fires assure woody plants stay in check. One third of a bison land is randomly selected and burned each year. In the late 1800’s, the hanging tree was the only tree in Kingman KS. The Ninnescah River was clear and wide. After the encroachment of woods, the river narrowed and became muddy. The three year interval for burning has been adopted.
The eastern part of the tallgrass region is part of Cross Timbers. Studying tree rings and burn history of the preserve has allowed a 160 year time line to be stitched together. Burns appeared regularly every 3.1 years with 80% during the dormant seasons. Patchwork dynamics are now in operation focused on parcels of land each a few hundred acres in size. The prescribed burns are random. Four firetrucks are on site. A wet line is set before a drip torch starts the back fire. The head fire is then lit to burn toward the back fire. The firetrucks keep the flames in check. Wildflowers and green grasses pop up within a month of a burn. The bison tend to eat 99.9% grass and ignore the flowers.
- Climate and Weather. The grass hits its zenith on Labor Day and then lays down fuel for the next fire. T- storms probably contribute to 20% of fires. Native Americans set fires to herd the bison.
The Science of the Preserve
Dr. Kerry Sublette of University of Tulsa conducted oil spill remediation research at the preserve. All mineral rights at Tallgrass are held by the Osage Tribe. TU spearheaded construction and design of the Research Building in 2003.
Most of the untilled grassland had been in cattle grazing, with burns fence to fence. The Prairie Chicken nests in the tallgrasses in spring, so if the land is burned, so go the babies and food sources. The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with Oklahoma State University to conduct experiments that involve 2, 3 and 4 year intervals between controlled burns. It is a 15 year study. It was found more sensitive native pollinators support the butterfly weeds, coneflowers, Liatris species, Sensitive briers, and Ohio Spiderwort.
Dan Reinking introduced us to the birds of Osage County. The Northern Bobwhites are year round residents and red-headed woodpeckers prefer dead trees and open woodlands. Belted Kingfishers nest in stream bank tunnels but Bell’s Vireo, a small yellowish green bird with large eyes and distinctive song, builds a hanging nest 3 feet above ground. Large flocks of blue jays migrate across the prairies, but it is the field sparrow with its ‘ping pong’ song most common in the preserve in the summer. The Upland Sandpiper, a summer visitor, overwinters in Argentina and can be identified by its wolf whistle call. The Dickcessel which looks like a mini-meadowlark, overwinters in Venezuela. The yellow-billed cuckoo and scissor-tailed flycatchers are also summer residents.
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
This is where the western plains meet the eastern forests. With over 90% prairies lost, the grassland species and birds are in steep decline across the USA. Why so important to have the prairie birds? Their presence assures the maintenance of good habitats. Henslow’s Sparrows and Meadowlarks, which used to be the ubiquitous field bird, are both now in significant decline. The effects of fire on ground, mid and high level vegetation are currently being studied. The bird habitat: tall dense grass, litter layer and stands of dense vegetation growing in large tracks. Two growing seasons are necessary to support the Henslow’s Sparrow, but it could take up to 6 years after a burn to restore the vegetation. As the climate warms, the bird ranges are shifting northward.
Grasshopper Sparrows, on the other hand, love freshly burned areas. The Nature Conservancy uses a patchwork system that benefits different species. The Greater Prairie Chicken tends to stay in unburned areas and keeps their nests from the edges where higher failures have been noted. The GP chicken avoids tall structures such as trees, windmills and other things that act as perches for raptors. Once again, diversity of habitat is critical.
Bison Facts and Overview
The bison eat old growth grass. They are managed as a wild species with no cross fences and minimal handling. Bulls are from 1600 to 2000 pounds and stand 5.5 to 6.5 feet high at the shoulder. Females weigh 900 to 1000 pounds and are 4.5 to 5.5 feet at the shoulder. Bison can jump….up to 6 feet vertically and 7 feet horizontally. The cattle guards had to be doubled in width to prevent bison escapees. Bison can run up to 35 mph and outrun a horse. They like to rub on things and far too many splice cabinets of SW Bell have been rubbed to oblivion and had to be replaced. Someone happened upon the idea of creating corrals of angle iron to put around all the telephone boxes, and it works. Bison like to wallow.
Bison occur in fragmented herds and pockets. Attempts are now being made to weed out beef genes. The TNC herd is diverse, but in 1905 the only bison, and they had come from the Wichita Mountains, were located in the Bronx Zoo. In 1888 541 bison lived in the USA. In 1905 835 wild and 256 captive were in the country. Today, 350,000 bison are now in the USA. More beef cattle are slaughtered in two days than all the bison that live in the USA.
Christina Adams opened her ranch and home for the bison herd in 1993. On the ungrazed lands the bison disappeared into the grass. Of the 300 bison, there were 125 cows, 9 bulls, 28 two year olds, 46 yearlings and 94 calves. They were TB and Brucellosis free to roam on 5000 acres. Their natural predators, the wolf and grizzly bear, were not coming back. Humans are now the first line predators.
The roundups reduce the herd size to make room for next year’s calf crop. The yearlings are weighed, have transponder chips put in their ears, each is given a number and shots continue to be maintained. The chip determines the yearling’s fate. The young bison is then released to its appropriate pen. All takes less than one minute/animal. Usually bison tails are limp and hang at an angle. If the tail is vertical, this is one angry bison.
The Tallgrass Prairie Ecosystem
Heterogeneity. Variability in vegetation and biodiversity. Once again the ecosystems are shaped by the forces of climate that drive grazing and fire. The results: what species live here? 213 species of birds, 24 species of butterflies, 250 species of moths, 23 species of fish, 20 species of reptiles/amphibians, 83 species of dragon and damselflies, 100 species of grasses including the Big 4 (Switchgrass, Indian grass, Big and Little Bluestem) and 49 species of sedges. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in species numbers. Sand Creek flows from the northwest to the southeast section of the Preserve. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is truly a National Treasure.
The Afternoon Field Trip
The OMN members divided into two groups each headed by one knowledgeable leader. We followed along the Bottomland and Study Trails through the sand hills, prairie and woods of Cross Timbers. Some cool facts: the Compass Plant has a 14 feet deep root, deer love to eat them, and the sturdy Buffalo grass roots go down 5 feet. Serecia lespedeza, a non-native legume, is one big pesky problem.
We walked past big bluestem that stood over 7 feet tall and the field sparrows dive bombed us as they chip-chiped along Sand Creek. There were Bur oaks, grasshoppers, goldenrod, buckbrush, redbuds, wild plums, Shumardi oaks, blackjack oaks, chinquapin oaks, ashes, hackberries, hickories, American elms, and dozens of black and orange Box Elder bugs having an orgy or sunning themselves on rocks along the edge of the woods. One Gaura (aka whirling butterfly plant) was in bloom all by itself in the middle of the field. Some dried Baptisia (wild blue indigo) plants were scattered in the grasses and this bold out-of-place five foot tall Bradford pear, still with thorns, was attempting to corrupt the prairie. We came to an intersection and said hello to the small bronze bison. Here most turned around to return to their cars. Another path originated from this point. The Prairie Earth Trail was 2 miles of rough walking over sand, rocks, dried grasses and leaves, carefully climbing beside a creek bank that meandered along the hillside, observing cat scat (bobcat), seeing and hearing a pileated woodpecker that darted through the trees, locating the Chapman-Barnard headquarters in the distance, watching a flock of starlings fly overhead and finding some very pretty purple Prairie Verbena in bloom.
It was an amazing OMN workshop. Everyone got a taste of not only walking through Cross Timbers but had a chance to stand in the middle of a huge rolling prairie of tall grasses with blue sky surrounding us as far as our eyes could see. So this is what the pioneers first saw. Wow.