Saving Bell Bowl Prairie

By Bill Kleiman

If you are from northern Illinois you have heard about Bell Bowl Prairie, a remnant prairie that sits in the way of the current design for the Rockford Airport expansion.   There is a website created for the purpose of saving this remnant, https://www.savebellbowlprairie.org/.   Perhaps the airport authority can be convinced that a rare prairie remnant can coexist within an airport’s footprint.

This is a blog site about habitat restoration.  We who work to recreate/restore grassland habitat are keenly aware of how irreplaceable remnant habitats are.  We share best practices and lessons learned. Many of us claim success when we create habitat that has enough similarity to a remnant that our goals are met, such as a certain plant diversity, a return of birds, insects, and other critters calling our restorations home.

However, we don’t want remnants destroyed with the belief that the same habitat can simply be created elsewhere. Think of an art metaphor: a Rembrandt painting is not replaced with a pretty good copy.

There have been a few times when a remnant was to be destroyed and so plants were dug up and transplanted to new areas.  This would be the Rembrandt painting cut up into pieces and moved from a museum to a warehouse.

We who create habitat appreciate remnant habitat.  

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Lisa Schulte-Moore

by Elizabeth Bach

It’s not very often that prestigious national awards recognize the hard work and positive change happening to restore grasslands in North America. Last week was one of those rare moments. Dr. Lisa Schulte-Moore was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. The MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as the “genius grant,” is awarded to individuals in recognition of exceptional creativity, promise of important future advances, and potential to facilitate on-going creative work.

Lisa Schulte-Moore

Dr. Schulte-Moore is a professor of landscape ecology at Iowa State University and the key driving force behind the Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project. The STRIPS project works with farmers to plant native prairie buffer strips within row-crop fields. Incorporating prairie plantings into 10% of a field can:

  • Increase insect taxa richness 260%
  • Increase pollinator abundance 350%
  • Increase bird species richness more than 200%, including species of greatest concern
  • Reduce water run-off 37%
  • Reduce soil erosion 95%
  • Reduce phosphorous loss by 90%
  • Reduce nitrogen loss by 85%

The STRIPS program is integrating native prairie restoration within working landscapes as a tool to improve biodiversity and environmental quality across the Midwest and downstream.

The MacArthur Fellowship brings well-deserved attention to Dr. Schulte-Moore’s work. It also provides an exceptional opportunity for her emerging work, including continued efforts to scale-up the STRIPS project and adoption on the landscape. Congratulations!

Photo above is from our 2012 GRN workshop at Neal Smith NWR. This is a flume at one of the initial STRIPS trials. Flumes capture water run-off  from a watershed catchment so they can measure soil, N, and P run-off from the whole field.

Learn more about Dr. Schulte-Moore and her work:

https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2021/lisa-schulte-moore

https://www.nrem.iastate.edu/landscape/

Schulte et al. 2017. Prairie strips improve biodiversity and the delivery of multiple ecosystem services from corn–soybean croplands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

http://www.pnas.org/lookup/doi/10.1073/pnas.1620229114

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Grazing Bison at McHenry County Conservation District- A New Venture

By Adam Rex- Restoration Ecologist, McHenry County Conservation District

Entrance gate into the new bison pasture

McHenry County Conservation District has been leasing ground at the 2080 acre Pleasant Valley Conservation Area for cattle grazing for many years. Even before the district owned Pleasant Valley the land was utilized by a large cattle operation on the north end of the property. This was an intensively managed cattle operation with concrete corrals and complex feed lots. Like so many large scale cattle grazing operations the land was overgrazed resulting in little to no ecological diversity.

After the district purchased the property they started leasing ground to local cattle farmers splitting the north side of Pleasant Valley into two grazing areas which we refer to now as the east and west pastures. The contracts that were initially agreed to definitely favored the farmers as opposed to the ecological benefits of the grasslands. When the cattle leases ended for the previous tenant on the east and west pastures MCCD started thinking of other ways to manage the grasslands with grazing. We started learning about rotational grazing, patch burn grazing and continuous grazing methods using sheep, cattle or even bison.  After a lot of research and attending a grazing workshop with Wisconsin DNR we felt that a patch burn grazing/rotational grazing method was the right direction for us. The 188-acre East pasture is now leased to a local farmer who is rotating significantly fewer cattle and sheep with great results. District staff felt the West pasture would provide a great opportunity to incorporate additional grazing on a large newly created prairie restoration.

Former cattle operation corral and feedlot buildings.

A Request for Proposal was put out to the public for a rotational grazing plan at Pleasant Valley Conservation Area with optimizing grassland bird habitat as the focal point. This proposal was to be for either cattle or bison.  

Once the proposals came in, the winning proposal was from Ruhter Bison (www.ruhterbison.com). Their plan is to graze a non-breeding herd of bison for meat production. This herd of 1 to 3 ½ year old animals will remain on the site until sold.

On the top of their priorities is the importance of using the bison to meet the ecological goals that we have for the area. It is evident by viewing their own ranch that this is something very important to them which is obviously very important to us. Educating the public on bison and the project itself is also important to both parties and will be a large part of future planning. MCCD plans on using the bison as a tool to assist us in restoring the ecological system to our prairies as well as educating the public on this iconic part of the American prairie and the part it plays.

Since we now knew there was a high likelihood of bison being on conservation district property we felt that we needed to educate ourselves on bison and bison handling. Although Ruhter Bison would ultimately be responsible for the care and control of the bison, we felt we need to be ready for whatever situation could arise. We began talking to other agencies including Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, who have both successfully reintroduced bison. We spoke with a bison professional from a Turner Bison Ranch in Nebraska, which was extremely informative. We also gathered as much knowledge from literature and lessons learned from the bison world as we could.

Finally and most importantly we visited the Ruhter family bison ranch in central IL. We observed their corral, fencing and assisted in loading two of their bison onto a trailer. It was a great time to discuss their procedures and philosophy on bison handling. They exercise a low stress method of handling, using positive reinforcement by luring them with mineral cakes, which is very effective and used by many bison managers.

Ruhter bison herd
MCCD Restoration Ecologist Chris Zeiner manning the trailer awaiting a young bison bull to load.
MCCD Restoration Ecologist John Peters using the big guns to take down an old corn crib.

As part of the lease MCCD agreed to remove all remaining cattle fence as it was inadequate to hold bison. We also needed to get rid of an old corn crib, concrete slab, and many old tires and other garbage. This part of the project took a team effort including a great volunteer group who knocked out a large chunk of the fence in one day. The natural resources crew took care of the rest, and after four large metal dumpsters and three large garbage dumpsters were filled, the first phase of the cleanup was done.

MCCD Restoration Ecologist Jeff Murray, Nathan Grah, and Paul Bruett pulling fence.
Piles and piles of old fence and posts that were not adequate for bison.
Pulling fence posts and fencing with the Terex track loader.

In early September the tenant began building the fence. The whole fence was up in about a week with a five foot woven wire fence with a three foot stand off and top electric wires. Gates were strategically placed to accommodate expansion onto an additional 80 acres that is currently corn and will be planted to tallgrass prairie this coming winter. The first phase of the project is 30 acres in size and will begin with a small number of animals increasing when the new acres of prairie are established for grazing. The final acreage that will be grazed is about 188 acres.

This is a long term project with potential to grow and we are excited to see where this partnership goes in the future. Even in the early stages this project has required and will continue to require assistance from every department at MCCD, this is definitely a district wide team effort including the support of our board. With proper management it should improve the ecological value of the site, provide great grassland bird habitat and also provide the public with an opportunity to see bison on a native landscape in McHenry County.  

Example of the bison fence showing electric wires and woven wire, bison capable fence.
Map of the total 188 acres that the bison will graze, expanding gradually over the next 3 to 5 years.

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Needle in a Haystack

By Bryon Walters

Lespedeza cuneata is a serious invasive plant. It can be very problematic and can form large colony patches if left unattended. There have been many land managers implementing different methods and trying various herbicide products in hopes of ridding this invasive. Early detection and early treatments can greatly reduce its severity. Deal with it before the white flowers produce seed. The optimal window of treatment is before it even produces a flower.

For small patches, finding Lespedeza cuneata, in a late summer prairie can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. 

Once you find one flowering plant it can be easier to find any others that may be out there. They usually grow in loosely spaced groups. If the soil is very moist you can sometimes pull a plant up and get most of its long tap root. But usually the late summer prairie soil is as hard as a rock and you will not be able to pull up the plant. The stem may break but the root remains in the ground and you just kicked the can down the road, in that the same plant will regrow there next year. 

There is a surgical approach to dealing with this invasive plant and the results appear to be a 100% kill rate.

You can purchase these nice syringes on line in 10 packs. I buy the good ones with metal needles and plastic caps that stay on securely.

Before heading into the prairie I prepare my herbicide tool. Practice drawing up and dispensing water first so you have a feel for how the syringe works. Pour a 20% solution of Triclopyr (Garlon) 4 mixed with basal oil into a small measuring cup. Draw up the herbicide half way or more if you need it.

After placing the plastic cap on the syringe, grab your favorite sharp hand clippers. I like Felco #2’s. Find and cut the Lespedeza low to the ground.

As soon as you snip it take the syringe and hold the two side tabs. Then carefully push down on the top of the syringe which expels the herbicide on the cut stem. It’s ok to let a little dribble down the side of the cut stem, but don’t overflow. 

Take the entire plant you just cut and put it where you will not lose it. Gather them all up and look back, making sure you retrieved all cut plants. You do not want to go through all this work and leave a thousand seed plant laying in the prairie.

I then take these plants and place them on the burn pile.

Heading back to the shop sink. Put a little soap in a cup and run the soapy water through the syringe a few times to clean it up good.

I squirt the soapy water into my rinseate drum, not down the drain. 

Dry it off and place the plastic cap on and it will be ready for your next needle in a haystack surgery.

The cut and syringe method is useful for small to medium sized patches. There is great satisfaction in knowing you can have zero off target damage to the neighboring native plants. In one hour I was able to cut, treat and haul away about twenty-five plants. That was all that was needed, this year. If you had quite a few more than twenty-five plants, with a helper and three hours to spend some morning, you two could remove and treat 150 or so plants. If you have more than 150 plants in your project area, you have a major infestation. Other control methods may be necessary. As a land manager, you have to make this logistical calculation. Can you spare the manpower and hours for this type of work, or is a broadcast type method more practical? Try one of the methods, as procrastinating too long sows the seeds for restoration failure.

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Basal bark G4 on Echinacea purpurea

By Bill Kleiman

Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea is a wonderful native plant, but it is out of range, out of place for Nachusa. We have the E pallida, pale purple coneflower. Years back, the nursery that sold us the invasive Lespedeza (see earlier post) also sold us the wrong Echinacea. We now rarely buy seed. Since we have the occurrences of this “exotic” in just a few small patches I continue to treat them to try to drive them to zero.

The E purpurea is above, with a can of blue tree marking paint, and a Stihl SG11 hand sprayer with a standard 20% solution of Garlon 4 in basal bark mineral oil carrier.

Above is Aeroe brand tree marking paint. Nelson brand is also fine. These paints are made to mark things. Much better than paints for metals or other things.

I spray a small amount of the basal bark mix where the plant emerges from the ground. I cut off the flower heads. I sprayed half a dozen blue to find them later to see what happened.

This photo is typical. Four weeks after treatment all plants appeared dead. Collateral damage is modest. You will recall from an earlier post that this method also worked well on birdsfoot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. I could have chosen to foliar spray, or perhaps dig them up.

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Meet Agnes and Dana, citizens creating habitat

By Bill Kleiman

These two have a lot of energy. On the left is Dana Sievertson and the right Agnes Wojnarski.

This is their back yard in Prospect Heights, a suburb of Chicago. They started growing plugs six years back. Annually, they grow about 20,000 prairie and wetland plant plugs from seed! One year they grew 35,000 plugs.

The early plants emerging in their modest green house. When the seedlings are big enough they separate them into cells, and maybe later separating them again into even more cells.

Depending on the need for the year, they grow about 40 species and have them ready for installation. They also trade plugs for seed from other organizations.

Transplanting seedlings with the help of the Poplar Creek Volunteer Stewards, a group that has been managing and restoring habitats for decades.

The plants are in their cells with space to grow out to vigorous plugs.

Flats are eventually placed outside for the season.

Looking down at many flats of plants. All the blank areas are flats that were recently installed.

Agnes and Dana are commissioners with the Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, which hosts volunteer workdays where citizens help care for and eventually install the plugs. Recently 2,000 plugs were installed in an area once dominated by cattails. They have created prairie plantings in park district lawns. They installed plugs in open water where they excluded carp. They also pick and plant seed and often add seed where they are plugging. They work carefully with neighbors to get buy in. They also burn these habitats.

Installing plugs in an area where cattail were cut and herbicided. Their volunteer base is about 40 citizens. A typical workday is a 12-15 people, but they can get a group of 40 to show up. They sometimes get help from the local schools and Eagle Scouts.

It won’t be a surprise that the front yard of Agnes and Dana is all prairie plants rather than lawn. These are seed sources for their works.

A visit often includes a sumptuous meal made by Dana who attended a culinary school, and has an art degree. Their house if full of art works, wagging dogs, and a comfort that is palpable.

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Beware what seed you buy

by Bill Kleiman

You likely don’t know invasive Lespedeza daurica. I will tell you why in a bit. But it is similar to the invasive Lespedeza cuneata, but more likely found prostrate like the specimen I put in the pot above. This was years ago, when my daughter and Jay would tell stories and laugh. They are still good buddies.

Lespedeza daurica above. We had made a purchase of a native seed mix from a seed nursery and had ordered Lespedeza virginica, slender bush clover. It appears that this nursery was wild harvesting from the only site in the state with L daurica and sold it to us by error. The occurrence of this invasive legume matches perfectly with all the places we planted that seed mix. The correct Lespedeza is nowhere to be found in those plantings. I informed the nursery once we figured this out, but the damage was done.

We kept trying to key out this Lespedeza to what we ordered, but it would not go there. Nor would it key to anything else. So we sent a specimen to the Illinois herbarium and another expert looked at a specimen. We had half a dozen top botanists view specimens. We were kindly informed that we appear to be one of the few occurrences in the state of this invasive. Such an honor.

This was back in September of 2007. We started to go after this species with vigor. Above, a young Josh Clark is cutting and barreling the plant. We applied herbicide to the cut stems. Today on cut stems we use basal bark mix or concentrated glyphosate. We hauled many barrels away. For foliar spray we use a tryclopyr. Transline does not kill Lespedeza. Plants are hard to dig up but it is possible when soils are soft.

Four of the infected plantings are still here. We dropped the occurrences to a scattering of plants but finding those needles in the prairie stack is an annual challenge. One large planting that was full of this weed we boom sprayed back then, and continue to boom spray. We do this to lower the threat of spreading. That field has been reduced to a sad collection of grass and monocots.

Fourteen years later and we are still doing our annual L daurica weed sweep. We gps locations and we keep pushing. My wife and I were just out at sunset checking a patch. We found about a dozen. Snip, spray, and bucket.

Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

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Another example of savanna from a prairie planting

This ten second video simply shows a panorama of many oaks growing in a prairie planting from what was a corn field. https://youtu.be/zeCK9dqYRZ0

This “savanna” planting, if you will allow the phrase, is another prairie planting but we did not plant any acorns as we expected the squirrels would plant them for us. There are mature oaks on both sides of this narrow planting so it was easy to envision squirrels caching acorns everywhere, which they did.

See the blue flagging on the oak on the right. That oak is starting to emerge from the “discipline” of the frequent prescribed fires we use on this unit. There are hundreds of black oak, bur oak, shagbark hickory. There are some trees we would rather not have more of, like cottonwood, and a few autumn olive which we treated. The original prairie planting took well and is quite diverse.

Above is the same savanna planting looking south instead of north. On the left is the neighbor’s old oak woods with ancient oaks and hickory but no oak recruitment due to the excessive shade from brush. Everything else on the right side of the lane is frequently burned. On the right slope is our woods which is more open and has oak recruitment. But look at all the oak recruitment in what was a corn field. There are about 5 oaks in there that are big enough to be trees.

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Weed Wiper

By Mike Saxton, Shaw Nature Reserve, Missouri Botanical Garden

Combatting woody encroachment continues to be a challenge for Midwestern land managers.  Whether it’s sumac in prairies, honeysuckle in the woodlands, or willows in our wetlands, brushy thickets drive down native biodiversity and bedevil our efforts to best manage the land.  Cutting and treating is effective but laborious, resource intensive, and often fails to meet the scale of the problem.  Foliar spraying/basal barking can be effective but collateral damage, especially in high quality areas, is often outside our range of tolerance.

Here at Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden site – 35 west of St. Louis), I have used this weed wiper / weed roller for a couple of field seasons to combat shingle oak Quercus imbricaria, border privet – Ligustrum obtusifolium and a few other randoms including sumac, autumn olive and Lonicera.

Our wiper is 10ft wide and we mount on a Ford 3930.  The tires are ~2ft wide and there is something like 3ft between the tires, leaving 18in on each side of the tires.  The glyphosate label says to use a 33% v/v solution with 10% v/v surfactant for a wiper application.  (label excerpt at bottom of post)

Roller is controlled by tractor hydraulics.  Sprayer is an electric pump with powerful magnet holding the spray button, operated from tractor cab. 

The implement is sturdy, nice welds, good construction.  If it was any wider, it’d be too wide.  I wouldn’t be able to nimbly slalom between desirable trees and other hazards.  When you go through topographic areas or ditches, you have to watch that the roller doesn’t hit the ground.  Dirt isn’t good for it and it’ll also will kill whatever vegetation it hits.  If it was any smaller…it would take forever and if it was smaller, too much of the total length would be taken up by tire width.  A challenge is that you have to go fairly slowly in order to roll enough herbicide onto the stems…so the slow speed is a challenge.

The biggest issue for us has been timing.  There seems to be a 3-4 week window in the spring where the woodies are sufficiently leafed out and when the native vegetation considerably shorter than the woodies.  You want to set the wiper height just above the native vegetation to ensure that you hit as much of the woodies as possible.

Above: shingle oaks in a prairie planting.  Treated on 5.26.21.  Picture from 6.8.21.  I flagged 4 of the browned oaks and checked 8.23.21 with no signs of life. 

The short shrubs, especially sumac, springs right back up after the tractor rolls over it, even when the tires roll over them.  The wiper makes good contact.  The taller woodies do not spring back up as well. 

The manual does recommend that you make a pass in one direction and a pass in the other direction.  I don’t always have time for a two-direction application.  The owner of Weed Works told me that when you stop turning the roller, if it drips within 2 seconds, you’re over saturated.  If it takes more than 8 seconds to start dripping, you’re not wet enough.  It usually takes me about 1.5hrs to go through 5 gallons. 

Above is a photo from 3-weeks post treatment of 6-7ft tall shingle oaks.  They are thumb size diameter.  These woodies have been mowed for decades…literally.  So I worried that they have a massive root system and I could just top killing them or not give them enough herbicide to effectively kill them.  1-year post treatment, the trees are crispy dead, no signs of resprout. 

I know that it won’t be a silver bullet for us…but coupling fire, foliar spraying, basal barking, weed wiper, mowing…I hope to turn the tide against the woodies.

Wiper Applicators and Sponge Bars

Wiper applicators are devices that physically wipe appropriate amounts of this product directly onto the weed. Equipment must be designed, maintained and operated to prevent the herbicide solution from contacting desirable vegetation. Operate this equipment at ground speeds no greater than 5 miles per hour. Performance may be improved by reducing speed in areas of heavy weed infestations to ensure adequate wiper saturation. Better results may be obtained if 2 applications are made in opposite directions. Avoid leakage or dripping onto desirable vegetation. Adjust height of applicator to ensure adequate contact with weeds. Keep wiping surfaces clean. Be aware that, on sloping ground, the herbicide solution may migrate, causing dripping on the lower end and drying of the wicks on the upper end of a wiper applicator. Do not use wiper equipment when weeds are wet. Mix only the amount of solution to be used during a 1-day period, as reduced activity may result from the use of leftover solutions. Clean wiper parts immediately after using this product by thoroughly flushing with water. Nonionic surfactant at a rate of 10 percent by volume of total herbicide solution is recommended with all wiper applications.  Solutions ranging from 33 to 75 percent of this product in water may be used.

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Planting savanna by planting prairie first

By Bill Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, TNC

The photo above shows mostly bur oaks growing in a prairie restoration. We planted the bur oaks in 2006, but first we planted prairie in 2001. This makes the start of a savanna. The 2001 prairie planting was maturing and we decided to plant some acorns into the five year old prairie where it approached the oak woods so we would not have an abrupt prairie to oak woods edge. It worked. Those shrubs are all oaks, many bur oak. I know they are from the acorns we planted because we planted bur oak acorns and the oaks near the edge are black and white and northern red oak.

We burn this unit frequently and the nearest oak shrub shows a few stems that were top killed by fire. In another place on the preserve where we have frequent fire there is one or two small tree sized oak for every 100 oak shrubs. So frequent fire supports development of savanna. I bet these open savanna were a common sight a few centuries back.

Above photo is when I turn around and shoot the opposite direction which shows the old oak woods adjacent to this planting. Shagbark hickory, white oak, northern red oak. A cup plant in the foreground. There is very little oak recruitment in this woods in spite of a frequent fire regime.

Above is seasonal crew Stephanie in 2006. She and I used dibble bars to plant oak acorns. Bernie uses a tile probe with similar effect. I remember getting blisters on my hands as the soil of the new planting was hard and dry. A study on this same field by soil scientist Mike Konen showed that the soil became less dense about ten years after planting to prairie. It took at least five years to notice any oaks emerging.

Tile probe on left, dibble bar on right

Above is a later photo from a different planting of acorns. Our dibble bars in 2006 made just a small dent in the ground. I think we scuffed in the opening with our boots.

So to restore a savanna, try planting a prairie first, and burn it frequently.

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