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A natural beauty
Tue, October 11, 2016
Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources
Osage County’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Ask anyone who has visited the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County about their experience, and they almost certainly will say they were struck by the beautiful landscape, unparalleled views of native wildlife and stunning sunsets.
Resting on nearly 40,000 acres, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy. The Preserve protects and maintains native biological diversity by restoring a functional tallgrass prairie landscape, and its rolling hills draw in approximately 20,000 visitors each year.
Places like this do not just happen by chance. The massive area of native land serves as a laboratory for researchers from Oklahoma State University who are instrumental in the Preserve’s conservation efforts.
“OSU’s scientific expertise makes for a great partner,” said Bob Hamilton, Preserve director. “OSU is our primary ecological research partner at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. The cutting-edge and high-quality research that they produce is absolutely critical to our conservation mission. Their expertise in Extension and applied research also makes for a wonderful partnership.”
An area full of native biodiversity is increasingly uncommon throughout the world, and OSU’s research is helping open the door for possibilities not seen before.
“This area, especially when combined with neighboring ranches, is one of the most unique landscapes in North America,” said Sam Fuhlendorf, Regents professor and Groendyke Chair in Wildlife Conservation in OSU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “The prairies are extremely productive for livestock and provide habitat to some of the world’s most unique species.”
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve researchers are able to study a diverse array of wildlife species who call this area home. This includes bison, greater prairie-chickens, coyotes, raptors and deer, among others.
“We are able to conduct experiments at a level that is actually meaningful to land managers,” said Dwayne Elmore, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service wildlife specialist. “Results of research on the Preserve have been applied to over 200,000 acres of private land in the Flint Hills, helping landowners conserve greater prairie-chickens while maintaining ranching profitability.”
Beyond wildlife, researchers at the Preserve investigate watersheds, grasslands, trees, termite ecology, invasive serecia lespedeza, grazing and more. Prescribed fire is of particular interest. It is not uncommon to see smoke on the horizon in Osage County, and fire, whether prescribed or natural, suppresses invasive plant species, reignites native populations and creates suitable habitats for wildlife.
“Native prairies, shrublands and forests supply the majority of livestock forage and wildlife habitat in Oklahoma,” said John Weir, NREM research associate. “Without fire, native plant communities become dysfunctional and unproductive.”
Since 2011, Elmore has been examining greater prairie-chicken habitat selection related to fire and grazing management. A large, long-term decline of greater prairie-chickens in the Flint Hills, thought to be mostly related to annual burning, brought Elmore and his team to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve to investigate.
“This is the iconic tallgrass bird,” Elmore said. “It has many social and economic benefits to the Flint Hills. It’s also a good indicator species of how well the tallgrass prairie is functioning.”
While the Flint Hills is one of the few remaining landscapes with sustainable populations of greater prairie-chickens, areas of the Preserve are used for different purposes. For example, the birds tend to avoid tree cover and use more open areas of grassland for nesting.
“They also select for areas that have not been burned for a couple of years to place their nests,” Elmore said. “Nest success is higher in areas not recently burned.”
The research found nest success is directly related to the temperature at the nest site, with cooler locations having higher success. When a fire comes through, there is little vegetation cover to keep the nest sites cool. The longer a patch goes unburned, the cooler the temperature will be for a nest.
In general, nesting greater prairie-chickens do poorly under hot conditions. However, that story changes once the chicks hatch. Mature chickens tend to mate in very recently burned areas.
“So, fire is important, but if the entire landscape is burned, nest success suffers,” Elmore said. “Minor modifications to burn regimes, such as shifting to a three-year fire return would greatly benefit the greater prairie-chicken and other grassland birds.”
Patch burning has been the recommended practice on the Tallgrass Prairie for many years. The process uses prescribed burning on roughly one-third of the area, leaving the remainder undisturbed by fire. Research by OSU indicates this approach offers huge rewards for biodiversity.
The Preserve sees about three dozen prescribed burns conducted each year on 15,000-20,000 acres. Since 1991, more than 680 prescribed burns have been conducted on more than 340,000 acres at the Preserve.
“These large areas are rare all over the world. Grasslands in general are considered by many to be the most imperiled ecosystem type in the world,” Fuhlendorf said. “The grasslands of Osage County demonstrate ranching and conservation can coexist and even thrive in these grasslands.”
Much of the patch burning work has been done with the 2,700-strong bison herd, examining how closely they follow the recently burned patches. However, they are not the only species on the prairie researchers monitor.
“We are trying to find out how coyotes use tallgrass prairie landscapes and how they respond to energy development and prescribed fire,” Fuhlendorf said. “Coyotes are one of the top predators in our current Oklahoma landscape, so it’s important that we understand their behavior for wildlife and livestock management.”
Not even a year into the coyote project, Fuhlendorf and his graduate student, Shelby Fraser, have trapped 10 coyotes and attached GPS collars to them. Fraser is hoping the study will allow The Nature Conservancy to track the movements of these animals and answer some of the questions about where the coyotes go and why.
“We started this project because some of the area landowners were interested in their effects on wildlife populations,” Fuhlendorf said. “One went north about 60 miles to west of Wichita. In general, they seem to be demonstrating patterns similar to other coyotes, with distinct home ranges with minimal overlap, except for a few males and females.”
As the top predators of the Preserve, coyotes play an important role in keeping the food chain in order. This is only one example of how the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve showcases nature at it’s finest and allows scientists to understand it, Hamilton said.
“The Nature Conservancy is a science-driven organization,” Hamilton said. “Science determines what species and ecosystems are most imperiled, where the best examples are located, strategies to protect biological diversity and how effective our conservation efforts are. We are both working to address conservation issues across our native Great Plains grasslands, and it is very exciting to see OSU’s research at the Tallgrass being applied at a grand scale.”
By Sean Hubbard