Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Rumble becomes a Roar

Stepping out of the car into a beautiful woodland on a clement 70 degree day, I could hear the calls of the yellow-billed cuckoo and Eastern wood pewee loud and clear. They were directly above me, along with the summer tanagers setting up their breeding spots and the red-headed woodpeckers chattering among the post oak snags. Large, contiguous, high quality forested blocks of uneven aged mixed white oak-post oak-black oak woodlands with a well-developed understory are becoming increasingly rare in the Missouri Ozark Highlands, and this White River Hills area, nestled just west of Cassville, represents one of the best examples of this natural landscape. After thirty years of carefully applied prescribed fire in the dolomite glade-woodland complex I visited, few can argue that the wildlife and herbaceous response to this management has not been beneficial: plants rare in Missouri have a stronghold in the region, including American beakgrass, Liatris mucronata, Callirhoe bushii. Greater roadrunners, wild turkey, black vultures are common inhabitants here, and Bear #1, the first recorded black bear in Missouri's modern era, was documented from this area, a region that certainly supplies enough food, wild land, and denning areas to support a teeming population of this incredible mammal.

Unfortunately, the outreach and education aspect of prescribed fire management has not trickled down through the generations. Today, longtime practitioners of prescribed fire in Missouri take it for granted that they've passed that political hurdle, that surely everyone has read the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri(Nelson, 2005, 2010), as well as all of the supporting literature that reiterates the importance of prescribed fire for our once pyrrhic landscapes--academic papers that support fire for the benefit of wildlife, oak and pine regeneration, and rare plants. So, today, resentment and anger is mounting in this fire-mediated landscape, with outcry against prescribed fire, perhaps because of misapplication of this management tool, but outcry against all such management. Serious criticism and a misunderstanding of the benefits of low intensity prescribed fires for wildlife and endemic flora is evident in a mounting campaign, complete with yard signs.

It's a shame, really, that I don't live closer or that I can't get involved in politics because I would like to explain that properly applied prescribed fire is beneficial, that Eastern red cedar is only in the area because of a long history of overgrazing, and once you get rid of it and apply fire, a suite of indigenous plants and animals will rebound. The White River Hills Important Bird Area, a designation from the National Audubon Society, has been elevated to a Globally Significant IBA because of the high level of endemism, all the rare plants and birds and functioning ecological systems. Without fire, all of the rare elements that make this such a special place in the Ozarks will disappear. Unfortunately, and conversely, with improperly applied fire, all of these assets will disappear. Ecosystem management and restoration should be accomplished carefully, and it has been on thousands of acres in the region. Sadly, the results of a couple of situations in recent history have unleashed a firestorm of criticism.

I don't know the outcome of all the politics and I can't get involved, but I hope that the lovely woodlands and glades, rich with such an incredible diversity of flora and fauna rare in Missouri because most of the state does not see fire, will persist. Fire remains the primary management tool to restore healthy ecosystems in Missouri. I'm sad that it has been misapplied, and hope for the future management that prescription parameters including humidity, wind, date of green-up, and fuel loading will be taken into account before causing another firestorm.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


May's warm rains have accelerated vegetation growth this spring with legumes already reaching their late summer height. The ragworts and Indian paintbrush are starting to go to seed, flowers fading quickly in the fens and glades of the Western Ozarks. The well-developed canopy makes evident the scattered dead white oaks that didn't make it through the drought year. It wasn't the 2012 drought alone that likely impacted the white oaks at a certain elevation, but the late spring frost earlier that year probably stressed them as well; together, these extreme weather events have proven a little too much for some white oaks. Breaks in the canopy, woodland openings, peeling white oak bark that makes for good bat roost sites, nice woodpecker trees. In resilient systems like the one I visited this week, the natural world can still sort itself out.

Birdsong erupted at 5:30 that morning, with a Kentucky warbler in the lead. A veery chimed in with that haunting circular call and then the Eastern phoebes and the rest of the bird world came alive, the best morning alarm. It's always fun to see ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting flowers on the landscape. There was no shortage of wild bergamot this week, so the sugar water feeders at the building were not surprisingly hosting only a few of these amazing creatures. The hummingbirds were in the woods feeding on the multitude of invertebrates and nectar from all the wildflowers.

We visited an Ozark fen that had been used in the 1970s as a recreational mud pit for trucks. The deep muck almost swallowed my colleague as he sank to his knees in beautiful black fen soil. He came out with a monster-sized devil crawfish whose turrets and tunnels coursed through the fen. This fen is dominated by uncommon sedges and ragworts today, but I wonder what we lost during the 1970s.

It's so much fun to visit high quality ecosystems to see how natural systems respond to fire, to hear all the birds who depend on the intricate food webs that these places support and after a long winter it's nothing short of wonderful to hear the leaves rustling in the trees.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The New Nature

Recently, there has been a surge in literature throughout the conservation community highlighting the importance of native plant gardening for the sustainability of wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation writes that chickadees, for example, require 5,000 insects from native plants to successfully rear a clutch. I trust them, just as I do Doug Tallamy's fantastic book that highlights the importance of converting landscapes from turf to native flora to benefit wildlife. These and a myriad of other articles have positively impacted many communities now embracing native plantings in urban areas; they have reinvigorated Wild Ones chapters, native plant enthusiasts, and wildlife advocates. Add to the resurgence in growing natives are the reports of impacts to non-target wildlife from the widespread broadcasting of glyphosate and other herbicides in an effort for a "weed-free" lawn, and so forth. The assault on wildlife and the natural world is pervasive with sprawling development, wanton abuse of chemicals, regular thumbing of the nose to regulatory agencies and procedures that were put into place in the 1970s during the heyday of the environmental movement.

Yes, I'm familiar with all of this. And yes, my urban lot, located close to a thriving downtown of brewpubs and farmer's markets, is chocked full of native flora. I do not have a lawn, I do not apply chemicals to my yard, and hopefully one day I can afford to buy this old Craftsman bungalow with no attic fan or air conditioning to protect the yard's 400 year old witness tree, a fire-scarred chinquapin oak. Lots of birds, snakes and invertebrates use my yard because of its native quality and active management regime.

So when well-minded individuals seek to convert an old hay pasture or lawn into a native grassland to support wildlife, it's an easy project to support. However, when the old pasture is nestled in an intact landscape of woodlands and glades with their own suite of native plants, I tend to be a little concerned. Where are the seeds coming from? Native to Missouri, yes, but what region? What is the criteria for introducing plants to a certain area if they were not known to exist there historically? Creating wildlife habitat with native plants is good mission in areas that are already destroyed, areas without existing native plants. But compromising the integrity of native systems by adding native plants that may have never been there to begin with is dicey, and is cause for concern. Native plants thrive in native environments because they are suited to the soils, climate, and so forth. So if someone broadcasts a big bag of prairie seeds gathered in the Osage Plains (or even in Kansas) on a field on the Central Plateau in the Ozarks, many of those prairie seeds will germinate. If that field is surrounded by glades, woodlands, fens, or other intact systems, those prairie plant seeds through time may end up in these native systems where they don't belong. Miscanthus, bush honeysuckle, privet, all of these exotics that were planted in yards are now showing up in native systems far removed from where they were originally planted. No one will argue that they compromise an area's naturalness, but so, too, do native plants that are introduced from another locality.

I understand the drive to plant pollinator gardens. I had a great one when I lived in the bootheel where I was surrounded by corn fields. I understand the value of little patches of native flora in a sea of destroyed nature. But when plants of unknown genetics are introduced to native ecosystems, the scientific value and preciousness and fragility of the existing plant life is compromised. Eventually, with the surge in interest in native plantings, we may not be able to visit landscapes with all the rare and original elements in place. Baptisia australis? It's a beautiful plant in the White River Hills, but when it shows up in a seed mix on a sandstone prairie, it's woefully out of range and out of context. Sadly, this mixed up, seed mix-driven ecosystem creation may represent what future generations will know as Nature. It's a sad day when planting milkweeds is vital to the future of the monarch. Glades, woodlands, prairies, fens, they all have milkweeds and many other plants vital to the life history of suites of insects. Protect the nature where it exists, where the ancient genetic memory of intact systems serves entire systems, not just bees and butterflies.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Into the Elk River Hills

The longer daylengths have allowed for so much more exploration during the day, providing the ability to pull into a parking lot at 6 p.m. and explore the landscape well until 8:30 when the light shuts down and the robins start their calling at sunset. But this rugged landscape, all dissected and cut up with cherty slopes and that strange shale layer (not a glade producer) allows for great hiking and curious plants, uncommon in Missouri. And don't forget all the birds that inhabit the woods in the Elk River Hills, the chats, the prairie warblers, the blue-winged warblers, all of these birds that depend on a fire mediated system for sustenance. They were all there this week, in spades.

Down in that deep McDonald County country one encounters a limestone layer that supports a suite of rare-in-Missouri plants like Draba aprica and other spring forbs including green trillium, which expressed itself as though it was on steroids, a massive plant blooming all along the bottomlands.

There's an uncommon spiderwort there, too, which was blooming its ever-loving head off while I was there in late April.

But it's the landscape, the large, contiguous landscape uninterrupted by campgrounds, roads, towns and highways that makes this area so fantastic from a natural history perspective; this 3,000+ acres of contiguous burned woodlands, areas managed with prescribed fire since 1994, possess some of the richest resources of this area which is a scary stone's throw from sprawling metropolitan areas. What to do? Natural areas exist near the sprawling metroplexes of Arkansas and Southwest Missouri, how do you protect them? How do you keep the deer from moving in, how do you continue the fire regime that made it so exemplary to begin with? Bentonville is encroaching rapidly. Enjoy these wild places while they're still wild with bears and songbird populations no longer found in the area. Communities must embrace a wildness to protect it, and I'm not too certain this one will.