Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dr. Clair Kucera: 1922-2013

From the Columbian Missourian...
COLUMBIA — Throughout the 58 years of his professional career, Clair Leonard Kucera earned many titles, including professor, ecologist, author and conservationist. Above all, though, he was known as a passionate environmental advocate and the driving force behind MU’s Tucker Prairie. Dr. Kucera never failed to speak up for the issues he felt deeply about, and when he spoke, people listened. Likewise, when the prairie spoke, Dr. Kucera listened. “He was just a person who was way ahead of his time,” said Barb Sonderman, a close friend of Kucera’s and the Tucker Greenhouse coordinator. “If there were more people like Clair, the world would be a better place.” Dr. Kucera died Saturday, July 27, 2013, at Lenoir Woods Senior Living Community. He was 91. He was best known for his influence in securing and maintaining 160 acres of untouched native land known as Tucker Prairie. Dr. Kucera was born April 30, 1922, in Tama County, Iowa, but he later moved to a farm in Parnell, Iowa, at age 8. He was the oldest of seven children born to Emma Krafka Kucera and Charles Kucera. After graduating high school in 1940, Kucera’s father sent him to Iowa State Agricultural College — now Iowa State University — to earn a degree that would lead to an easier career than the harsh farm life his parents experienced. Dr. Kucera met his wife, Elizabeth Tremmel, at a mixer there, but World War II pulled him away from her and his studies. In 1943, Dr. Kucera enlisted in the Army and attended officer training school in Oklahoma. He entered active duty in Europe, where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant attached to the 660th field artillery as a forward observer. He spent a year in England after V-E day until his discharge in 1946, when he returned to Iowa State on the G.I. Bill and married Tremmel. In 1947, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forestry. He went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate from Iowa State in plant ecology. Dr. Kucera became MU's first ecology professor in 1950. He taught a variety of courses during his 37 years at MU, including ecology, plant geography, plant taxonomy and basic environmental studies. He was well-liked by his students, who ranged from freshmen to graduate students, because of his broad knowledge of plants and passion for learning. “He had very high academic standards for his students, but he was very encouraging and helpful,” said Robin Kennedy, who earned her doctorate under Dr. Kucera as a graduate student and is currently curator of the MU Herbarium. "When he realized a student didn’t fully understand something, he would patiently go over it again and make sure the student looked at the issue from all different angles,” Kennedy said. It was during his first few years at MU that Dr. Kucera first heard about Tucker Prairie from his colleagues. The parcel of land, about 20 miles east of Columbia, is a fragment of the 15 million acres of prairie in Missouri tread on by European settlers in the early 1800s and developed ever since. It gained its name from the Tucker family of Fulton, who purchased a large grassland area in 1851 that included Tucker Prairie. For several years, Tucker Prairie served as an outdoor classroom for students and teachers like Dr. Kucera. When the Tucker family announced they would sell their land in 1955, Dr. Kucera recognized it as an opportunity that could not be overlooked. It was the only large tract of native prairie remaining in Missouri north of the Missouri River. He promptly approached Elmer Ellis, then MU president, and encouraged him to buy the prairie. At the time, MU was allowed to bring classes to Tucker Prairie, but did not have full access to the property. Ellis was enthusiastic about acquiring the land for student and faculty research. Dr. Kucera began to single-handedly raise the money for MU to buy the prairie land. He wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation, which, when awarded to him in 1958, provided the bulk of the money for the land’s purchase and the development of research facilities there. The remainder of the funds were secured through private donations and from MU. On Sept. 13, 1958, Dr. Kucera gave donors, scientists and university representatives a tour of Tucker Prairie in celebration of its purchase by MU. For 30 years, he continued to lead researchers to Tucker Prairie for several different projects, including the practice of burning land to enrich soil, which was controversial at the time. “He was a pioneer in fire ecology when ecologists were just figuring out that fire was required for prairie systems to survive,” said John Faaborg, an avian ecology professor at MU. Dr. Kucera experimented with fire burning for 25 years to see what annual burn frequency worked best. One of his burn plots continues to serve as a teaching tool for MU students, Faaborg said. Dr. Kucera retired from MU in 1987 and went on to pursue his interests in ecology through research. He published more than 60 journal articles in fields like plant ecology and plant systematics. He also published four books, including “The Grasses of Missouri,” which has become a foundational taxonomic account of the state, and “The Challenge of Ecology,” published in English and Spanish and used as an introductory ecology textbook in many countries. After Dr. Kucera retired, Faaborg was appointed director of Tucker Prairie the same year. The prairie is not used as much as a research center anymore, he said, but Dr. Kucera’s dedication to the land lives on in other ways. “Tucker Prairie is such a wonderful place because it allows us to see what the natural soil of a tallgrass prairie looks like before humans take over,” Faaborg said. “It kind of serves as a benchmark.” He added that seed from Tucker Prairie is presently being used to restore other prairies, such as Prairie Fork Conservation Area in Williamsburg. More than 200 acres have been seeded there, and 80 percent of that seed comes from Tucker Prairie. But Dr. Kucera's studies did not end with plants and ecology. A consummate student, he read widely and broadly. "I was surprised to learn that after he retired, he began reading books of all kinds," said Ron Kucera, Dr. Kucera's son. "He would read a book a day, and not just science books. It could be a detective novel, a western, a history book — it didn't matter to him, because he just loved to learn." As an international expert on the ecology of tallgrass prairies, Dr. Kucera traveled the globe to speak and serve as a consultant, visiting countries from England and Wales to Kenya and Tanzania. In 1990, he was honored as one of only 10 MU Sesquicentennial Emeritus Professors for contributions to his profession and the university. Dr. Kucera is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; his children, Ron, Kim, Carol and Gary; his grandchildren, Christina, Matthew and Megan; his brother, Bob; and his sisters, Dorothy, Mary and Elaine. A funeral will be at 3 p.m. Sept. 8, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2615 Shepard Blvd. Memorial contributions can be made to the Missouri Prairie Foundation, online or c/o Martinburg Bank, PO Box 856, Mexico, MO 65265.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cloudy Day at the Fen

High temperatures on Friday hovered around 70 with a thick cloud cover and a threat of rain. We spent the day sampling deer exclosures, being consumed by a multitude of ticks, and hiking through thick vegetation made possible by all the moisture the Ozarks received in the spring. This year's sampling event marked the sixth year in a row for these plots in recent history, with the plots located in the area's primary natural communities: a prairie fen, a dolomite glade, and a dry mesic woodland. The fen, a designated natural area, possesses the more uncommon vegetation for the region including Grass Pink orchids and Queen of the Prairie. Unfortunately, the burgeoning deer herds seem to congregate in high numbers here, which means the browse impacts on quality fen vegetation are significant.

It seems that I'm simply writing testimony by continuing to collect data in this area. Every year, I've made notes of the browse impacts outside the exclosure, the changes in vegetation outside the exclosure compared to the protected interior, and which species seem to be preferred by the browsing ungulates. Last year, I took a series of photos of Eupatorium perfoliatum, Aster azureus, Senecio aureus, and Rudbeckia fulgida that had been browsed so severely that they could not flower, the flowering heads snipped off and all the leaves and stalks browsed to a nub. It was difficult to even identify these species. The deer browse pressure has been too great for too long on the fen forbs; this year, the forbs were notably absent from the transects outside the exclosure.

Similarly at the glade exclosure, the protected interior harbored significantly more species, and less ruderal species, than outside. Silphium integrifolium dominated outside the exclosure with a thick mat of Croton monanthogynus beneath. In two quadrats, even the less palatable Silphium had been browsed out of desperation. Other deer browse increasers like Geum canadense dominated the sampling sheets.

At the end of the day, over 100 ticks later, I can confidently proclaim that we have a serious deer problem, a pronouncement with data to back it up.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Accrual through Fire

In January, 2012, following a 1,082 acre prescribed fire in November 2011, we set out across the blackened landscape to find rebar, stakes in the ground indicating research plots. Much research was conducted in this area long before GPS units, and, because the area has been treated with prescribed fire for 30 years (and regular wildfires upon settlement), researchers have descended on the site and marked their point count survey circles, their vegetation plots, their small mammal tracking locations, and so forth, but never coughed up the locations so we could relocate them in the future. So, we went out that week in January and flagged rebar. Tons and tons of rebar, some of the stakes were spraypainted blue, some white, some chest high, most of them pounded into the ground to leave only a few inches above ground. Together, with our combined knowledge of research taking place, my colleague and I were able to determine the owner of many of the plots, but after our combined 20 year knowledge of research plots, and after the 200th stake of rebar was discovered, we just flagged them because they were there.

I'm sort of a data hoarder. I love combing over historical vegetation data, relocating the plots, and then sampling in the mid-2000s to see how these areas have changed vegetatively. In 1995, when my supervisor was in my position, he initiated a vegetation sampling exercise in the 1,082 ac. burn unit, at that time following three rx fire events, to determine if successive fires and soil buildup through the development of thatch would allow for species richness to increase. He spent many days and nights at his plots in these dry chert woods, working through the legumes and Panicum keys. He collected great data in 1995 and again in 1998, but he hasn't been back to his plots. So we set out to find them with his hand drawn topo map, his triangulations ("320 degrees, 41 steps from plot 16..." etc. His long legged one step is two of my steps, I figured out quickly.) Thankfully for us and our flagging exercise, his rebar, unlike the other thousands of pieces of rebar in the ground there, possess a little curl at the top so we could find all four corners of each plot.

In preparation for this fun resampling exercise, I combed through his data sheets, made certain I was familiar with all of the plants he recorded. I spent a lot of time in the herbarium, made crude little drawings of the multiple lespedezas and desmodiums, notes on sterile sedges (knowing I probably wouldn't reach these plots until after my glade plots so the perigynia are blasted out), really studied the woodland Panicums, and so forth. Botany is hard work, which is why I admire the great botanist we have in Missouri today.

We set out today for the first of my woodland sampling to visit his 16 large plots and discovered that another researcher decided to use the area for their own research and in so doing, they removed our flagging tape because it was the same color as theirs. After relocating the plots for the second time (a two hour exercise), and this time through rich, thick woodland vegetation and not blackened earth, I finally threw down my quadrat. In one small quadrat, I had six species of legumes (three desmodiums and three lespedezas, and only half of them the commonly encountered ones here), four species of Panicums, and a suite of plants I could easily identify. I flipped through my homemade guide with all my notes, I referred to my boss' data, went to Steyermark, and spent 7 hours on 36 woodland quadrats. I have about 84 more to go.

It was a hot day rich with seed ticks. I thought that it would be prudent to finish my (open sun) glade plots in June to repair to the woods in July. The woods here are so open that after thirty years of rx fire, closed canopy shade and cool conditions don't really exist in the white oak-black oak-post oak woods on this ridgetop. What did exist, however, was several new plants in my boss' plots.

In 2003, I joined my colleagues in an effort to characterize the natural communities here by conducting general surveys of the flora throughout the area. We carved up the dominant dry chert woods into little units based on slope, topography, aspect, walked through the area to make plant lists and then assigned general cover values to each plant--this was not true science, of course, and not exhaustive. But from the exercise, we generated plant lists for small areas including the one my boss' plots are in. My colleague brought those plant lists along, too, for reference. In the 36 quadrats we completed today, we found a number of species that were not listed on either list, including the very commonly encountered Scleria pauciflora. Maybe the wet year is favoring Scleria? Or maybe it's just taken its time to come back, that it required that formation of thatch buildup that supports soil damaged by grazing. Maybe the drought-wet cycle triggered it to come up? Also in the woodland plots today and absent from the 1995, 1998 and 2003 lists was Viola pedata, normally encountered on glades in the Western Ozarks. I recognize that in the Eastern Ozarks, this is a woodland plant. Perhaps it is in my neck of the woods, too, but in my years of botanizing high quality Western Ozark landscapes, I've never seen it in the woods. The openness of the dry, rocky chert woodlands, formed through the years from a long fire history, may now be allowing some of these deep rooted perennial glade plants to express in the woods. We also found three new desmodiums, Festuca paradoxa, and several new grasses. I still have many more plots to finish.

Cover values are also markedly different from the 1995 plots and today. Warm season grasses in the 1990s accounted for very low cover percentages, with bare soil garnering 30-40% of some of the quadrats. Today, thick stands of grasses provided the matrix for legumes and other forbs that dominated the site. I have a long way to go to finish these plots, many more seed ticks to encounter and several more meetings with keys. I look forward to analyzing the successive years of data to see the changes through time, and to thank my boss for being such a great ecologist who valued data collection as much as I do.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Fireworks

This year's growing season is turning out as one of the most enjoyable for botanists. The plants that survived last year's drought have literally exploded under this season's wet weather and clement temperatures. It has been fascinating from an anecdotal standpoint to discover that certain vascular plants like Gaura biennis and Sabatia campestre seemed to thrive during last year's drought, but have not responded to this year's favorable climate. Even as early as March, before spring really set in, it was evident that diminuitive lawn weeds had taken advantage of the lack of competition from turf grass with annuals like little bluets carpeting vast stretches of yards in the Ozarks.

But it's not just the annual weeds that the drought and ample moisture cycle have favored, but even the long-lived perennial forbs have come back this year more robust. While I don't know if anyone is formally measuring the effects of these two vastly different growing seasons, I plan to revisit my woodland plots this week to recollect the data I tried to collect last July. Last year, the plots in this high quality, frequently burned woodland possessed much more bare ground compared to this year where cover values of grasses, sedges, and forbs tend more towards 90% total cover. so, I have last year's data, will have this year's data, and they will be vastly different not only in species composition with only early spring plants in last year's plots as the drought set in during May which stunted even little bluestem. I suspect this is all part of that "natural range of variability."

While most casual nature observers visit quality sites in early spring for the explosion of wildflowers, late June and early July are equally rewarding times to take a hike for stunning wildflower displays.

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