Blogs

Native Grass Gazette: A Culture of Prescribed Fire (and a Safety Note)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted to the blog. Part of the reason for that is one of the topics I am covering in this post. I apologize for being so long between posts.

Make Safety a Priority

Lucky to be alive after being hit by a falling tree. Imagine what my head would look like if I had not been wearing the helmet.

This is off topic for a grassland blog … but not entirely. However, I think it is an important message to share. When I was working as a conservation contractor, felling trees, for one reason or another, was part of that work. As a result, I established a policy related to using chainsaws. There were three simple rules: 1) always wear saw chaps; 2) if felling trees, always wear a helmet; and 3) if felling trees over 8” dbh, always have another person present.

Earlier this year I was taking out some frustration on some trees (that’s how grassland people release frustration, that or burn something) when a 20” dbh tree I was felling started to lean one direction then took an unexpected change in direction, falling back towards me. I ran, but was unable to get out of the way before it came down on top of my head. I suffered a severe concussion along with some nerve and muscular injury to my neck and back. Had it not been for rule #2 and #3, rules I still follow though not doing contracting work any longer, it is likely I would not be writing this blog.

The message I want to share: always wear your safety gear. If you don’t have it, buy it. It’s a cheap investment. In this case, the quick action of the person that was with me and a $75 helmet, I’m convinced, saved my life.

 

A Culture of Prescribed Fire

Ranchers in the Flint Hills and other areas of Kansas are well equipped for conducting prescribed burns. Many coordinate with neighbors to facilitate burning. In some areas, Prescribed Burn Associations or rural fire departments conduct or assist with burns.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is a video on prescribed fire for cattle production in rangeland. Recently I was in Kansas shooting video, upon completing shooting for the day I headed from Kingman, KS to Medicine Lodge. At one point during the drive I could see no less than a dozen smoke plumes rising into the sky. In any other part of the county there would be general alarm at such a site, but in some parts of Kansas during the spring it’s part of everyday life, the people are accustomed to it. Though seeing a dozen smoke plumes was significant enough, it wasn’t nearly as significant as where it was. Last year, the Anderson Creek wildfire, which gained the dubious distinction of being the largest wildfire in Kansas history (312,427 acres) occurred just south and west of the town of Medicine Lodge in Barber County, KS (and other counties). This year, just 30 miles west of the area impacted by the Anderson Creek wildfire, the Starbuck wildfire in Clark and surrounding counties eclipsed the previous year’s record fire consuming 502,000 acres. You would think that following two consecutive years of record breaking wildfires, ranchers and citizens would be leery of fire, but not so. The locals have learned, many passed down through generations, that fire is good for rangeland; in that part of the country ranching is the primary industry and the economy is based on the productivity of the rangeland.

I certainly don’t mean to minimize the effect of wildfires on the ranchers and homeowners who were directly affected. Losing their homes, cattle and miles upon miles of fence will certainly have its financial and emotional impact, my thoughts and prayers go out to them, as well as my respect and admiration of what they are enduring.  But if there is any silver lining in the tragedy at all, it is the fact that the rangeland will be more productive, which will translate to better cattle performance and hopefully better returns at the sale barn.

Scene from the Starbuck wildfire which burned March 6th and 7th in Clark County, KS. Rangeland wildfires fanned by high winds and low humidities are non-discriminatory, consuming everything in their path across large landscapes.

Post fire green-up in the Starbuck wildfire. As devastating as the loss of infrastructure is, the silver lining is rangeland thrives following fire. Depending upon timing, green-up can be as quick as 3-5 days. Trees, consuming up to 30 gallons per day of valuable water, killed by the fire no longer compete with grasses.

Driving back to Missouri through Kansas took me through the southern Flint Hills. Arguably, the Flint Hills are the longest, most continuously burned landscape in the US and world. Indigenous people burned this landscape to facilitate bison hunting and that legacy has continued ever since as free roaming bison herds transitioned to domestic cattle production. Burning the Flint Hills is an annual ritual and part of the culture. If you live in or around the Flint Hills, you expect a good portion of them to burn each year. In some cases, too much burns; to the detriment of wildlife through the destruction of cover over a wide range, sometimes thousands of acres in one block. But given the choice of burning or not, in this landscape, burning is better.

 

A smoky haze fills the air across the Flint Hills of Kansas during the spring time. Look closely to see the wind farm, just less than 4 miles away from the vantage point of the picture.

 

Shell’s Covert: No Wasted Words

Writing for some of us who are not gifted speakers, or ad libbers, is a way to communicate and convey our ideas and emotions. But it seems more and more if words are not written in short bursts of text, or attached to a meme, people don’t seem to have time for them these days. Thus, here is a BLOG that is mainly photos.

Smoke (from a well-planned prescribed burn), the smell of quail habitat being created in the morning, it smells like…victory.

Get serious or get lost – open those pines up for wildlife.

Have you hugged a weed today? This is what a weedy field border looks like.

This is what ragweed looks like in winter. Excellent brood rearing cover has now become excellent winter food. Studies in Virginia showed ragweed made up a huge portion of the quail diet, in November, December and even into January it still made up 10% of their food. On an ounce-by-ounce basis it is more nutritious than corn.

Thickets, thickets and more thickets – if you don’t have them, you won’t have quail for long.

This is what a quail covert looks like on the inside, open enough for them to move around and loaf, but protected from aerial predators. This is the “guts” of a plum thicket.

Shell’s Covert: Making Sense of ‘Basal Area’

Seeing the Light:  a simple way to estimate

whether your timber stand is open enough for bobwhites

 

As biologists, foresters or other resource professionals, we tend to speak a language all our own. And it’s easy to forget most people we work with don’t speak that same language. I’m reminded of this every time I make a statement to a landowner like, “Your timber basal area is too high for quail. You have about 80 square feet of basal area per acre. With this age pine, you need that basal area down to about 40 to 50 square feet per acre to benefit quail.” 

It took me a while to realize the blank stares I received back were not because of an overdose of cold medicine. In an

Open pine savanna perfect for bobwhite quail (Photo: David Bryan)

effort to make it simpler, I’d say something like, “Well, for trees of this age, a basal area of 40 to 50 square feet per acre would mean you would have about 50 to 60 trees per acre.” Huh? Thus, many a landowner has been forever lost to the babblings of a professional.

Let’s define basal area, then put it in context. Simply stated, basal area is the area in square feet of timber stumpage if you were to cut off every tree about 4 feet off the ground and measure the area of the stumps in square feet.

View through a densitometer shows where cross hairs and circle intersect there is tree limbs. This counts as canopy coverage. By running transects through a pine stand and taking periodic readings with the densitometer – you can get an accurate assessment of canopy coverage.

Envision a stand of older pine trees where each stump cut-off “at breast height” measured out at about 1 square foot of basal area. At this point in their growth, basal area and trees per acre would be exactly the same. To find the area of a circle, the equation A = π x R², or (R x R) where “R” equals the radius of the circle. If you do the math, what it boils down to is a tree that is about 13.5 inches in diameter produces 1 square foot of basal area. Let’s keep it simple and just say 14”. Thus if you had 60 trees of 14” diameter on an acre, you’d have about 60 square feet of basal area.

What a mess, eh? Clear as hot chocolate, right? My point, exactly.

But one thing should be obvious – it takes more trees per acre at smaller diameters to equal 1 square foot of basal area, and fewer larger trees. The good news is none of this math nonsense matters to a quail…what quail care about is how much sunlight reaches the forest floor at mid-day during summer. And it is not really the sunlight they care about. It is what the sunlight produces…more seed and insect-laden herbaceous growth down where they need it.

Let’s think about canopy closure, a concept I believe more people can relate to. Canopy closure ranges from 0% to 100%. A brand new cut-over has 0% canopy coverage. A triple canopy tropical rain forest has nearly 100% canopy coverage. So let’s forget about trees per acre and basal area and just keep it simple … think about sunlight reaching the forest floor. The general rule is this: “At mid-day during summer, when the sun is high in the sky, nearly directly overhead, a properly thinned stand of pines for quail will see about 60% – 65% sunlight on the forest floor at mid-day.” This translates roughly to 35% – 40% canopy coverage.

Simply put, when you stand under your thinned pine stand and look up, you should see a good bit more sky than tree crowns. This can be measured in many ways, one being with a densitometer. But understanding the concept is more important than taking exact measurements.

Most likely when you approach thinning your pines, you will work with a consulting forester. The forester will understand basal area and trees per acre. As the landowner, your job is to clearly state your goals to the forester. You need to make sure they understand you want to see your trees thinned a bit heavier than normal. The forester then translates your desires to the wood cutters.

Many cutters are accustomed to doing things a certain way. In order to communicate effectively how you want your trees thinned, it may be necessary to have a portion of the stand “marked.” The forester will use timber marking paint to mark “leave trees.” The cutter then harvests all but the un-marked trees. It costs money to have trees marked, but you do not have to have the entire stand done. For example, on our stand of loblolly pines, we had our forester mark five acres out of 65. These five acres gave the cutter a visual image of what we wanted and he took it from there. Our forester deducted the price of the marking out of our timber profits.

On most sites in Virginia loblolly pines are thinned first between the age of 15 and 20 years. We usually recommend that on a first thinning to simply go with the standard rate of thinning common in the area, or what your forester recommends. These younger trees are still relatively small in diameter and susceptible to wind and ice damage. But by the time they reach the age for a second thinning, 25 years or so, they can tolerate a real “quail thinning.” They can be managed from this point forward specifically for quail if that is your goal. While most loblolly pine stands are clear-cut for saw timber at around 35 years of age, there is no reason they cannot be managed much longer if the creation of pine savanna habitat is desired.

That’s enough for today. We’ll talk more next time about the economic pros and cons of longer term pine management, and we’ll throw in a discussion about prescribed fire to round out the discussion on what our friends at NBCI call “sunlight, fire and quail.”

Shell’s Covert: Lowbrow Bird Hunting (It Doesn’t Have to be Fancy to be Fun!)

 

Author’s note: This BLOG is dedicated to my Llewellin setter, Smudge, who drifted off into the shadows of a grouse-filled thicket in heaven last week. Until we meet again my friend.

Smudge – Nebraska 2008

What’s it take to be a “bird hunter?” I think some aspiring new hunters ask themselves this question and often give up before they get started. Many of today’s young hunters never grew up around bird hunting and their only vision of the sport is that portrayed in some of the high-brow magazines that talk more about fancy clothes, fine wines and crab dip, than bird hunting. But the bird hunters I grew up knowing might find it hard to stifle a snicker, or an outright laugh, at the tweed coated, 10 grand shotgun-toting, truffle-eating bird hunters pictured in some of today’s sporting ads.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a snifter of top-shelf bourbon and a nice plate of smoked salmon from time to time, but I am equally at home with a cold beer and a cheeseburger. And if someone gave me a vintage Parker shotgun I’d have to mortgage my house to buy, I’d take it, but I find my 1974 Remington 1100 20-banger more than adequate (and it surely does not hurt as much to miss with an inexpensive gun).

Chances are you already own a shotgun worthy of bird hunting. So I call on all you oldtimers out there to lighten up, take a young hunter out on a “lowbrow” bird hunt sometime and let them know no matter how you dress it up, it is about fun and the relationship with a dog – whether the dog be from well-heeled national championship field trial stock or from unregistered “meat dog” lineage. And being a “sporting gentleman” has more to do with your demeanor than your clothing or number of digits in your salary.

Dogs ($250.00 to $1,500): Yes, you can spend a ton on a bird dog. And while sometimes you get what you pay for, it is no guarantee of success. There are many good dogs available for reasonable rates if you look. No longer is bird hunting strictly the realm of pointers, setters and Brittanys. Many breeds make fine bird dogs, German long and short haired pointers, Vizlas, and yes, pointing labs, along with many flushing breeds like Boykins and Springer Spaniels make loyal companions. It is possible to get a good dog for less than what most folks pay for one of the four TV sets in their home. In fact, many probably carry phones in their pockets that would easily have paid for a nice dog.  My suggestion is to buy a puppy as young as you can find. It is most important that a dog bond with you. The more time you spend with the puppy, the more it will love you and be your dog. Most of us don’t hunt on horseback or off mule wagons, so a close working dog that checks back with you on its own is best.

Dog training (DIY DVDs out now – $50,  unless you want to hire a professional): Some bird hunters are only happy with dogs that hold a point, hold steady to wing and shot (don’t run when the birds flush or shots ring out until released by the owner), retrieve and back well. I admire and respect this, but it is not necessary to enjoy bird hunting. If your dog will obey basic commands like “Whoa” and “Come here,” and will hold a point (if a pointing breed, or work close if a flushing dog) and back another dog’s point, a good time can be had.

Retrieving is something that comes natural to some dogs, but can be tough for others. My best dog would only retrieve if there was another dog present trying to get the bird. I have never owned a dog that was steady to wing and shot and I don’t ever plan to. Training a bird dog can be very stressful if you approach it like you have to get it all done today. But if you take the tactic of “one step at a time” you can learn to enjoy the training (and here is a hint, if you do not learn to enjoy it, you won’t be very good at it). In terms of training for dogs or people…it is always best to end on a high note and never leave the field “mad.” There are good books available on this subject – buy one.

Dog Training Aids ($200 – $800): There are some basic necessities like a check cord, a good whistle, a bell or beeper collar, and perhaps a blank, or starter pistol (a decent cap gun can work well). As time progresses you may require an electronic stimulation training collar. This can come in handy for safety when breaking a bird dog from running deer, which increases their risk of being hit crossing a road. At some point you may want to build a quail recall pen for housing pen-raised training quail. And you might also want an electronic bird launcher. But you do not have to have all this stuff at once.

Dog Boxes: I have seen dog boxes that would have been an improvement on places I have lived myself in my younger days. My dog rides up front with me…costs me nothing but the occasional electricity required to vacuum out the dog hair.

Places to hunt: A good friend of mine took the time one day and figured up all the public land within 2 hours of us here in central Virginia, almost 200,000 acres. Does it all have upland gamebirds…yes…just about all of it. These lands contain a lot of woodcock at times, a few quail and a few grouse, not to mention doves. Is it great hunting? Not by Texas standards. Can fun be had hunting birds on it? Yes! It requires an adjustment of what you might consider good hunting – does finding 5 to 10 woodcock in a day sound good? Does finding a covey or two of quail from time-to-time sound good? Many modern hunters have lost the fine art of “scouting,” which for me is half the fun, riding around during the off season and looking for new coverts, marking places on topo maps for future looksees – it is all part of an enjoyable process.

Hunting companions: I suggest you keep in mind hunting is supposed to be fun. Several of my hunting companions and I have remarked that the older we get the more we like to be around dogs and the less we like to be around people. I do know this… the older I get the more I like to be around people who are like my dogs…they don’t judge me, they accept my short-comings and are always happy to see me (of course they don’t have to jump up on me, or roll in deer poop to qualify). So stop talking about becoming a bird hunter. Take all that money you were going to spend on an exercise bike with a video of spandex-clad personal trainer barking at you, and invest it in a way to get the best exercise one can have, out in the fresh air with a good bird dog (P.S. – I average walking about 6 miles per bird hunt over rough terrain).

Native Grass Gazette: NatiVeg – Helpful Tool or Curious Tchotchke?

I hate answers that begin with “it depends.” That usually means you are about to be inundated with tons of detailed, probably useless information which ultimately ends up with no clear answer to your question.

So, is NatiVeg a helpful tool or just a curious tchotchke? As much as it pains me to say this, it depends. How are you going to use it and what do you expect to get out of it?

First, for those not familiar, NatiVeg is a mobile website (https://www.quailcount.org/NatiVeg)  developed by NBCI to aid planners in selecting the correct native vegetation for their geographic location (limited to the 25 NBCI states) for their intended use. Released publically for comment on Nov. 16, 2016, NatiVeg can be used either as a desktop application or with a smartphone with GPS capability. An internet connection is required.

Many land planners dealing with working lands have limited knowledge of native vegetation, let alone its adaptability to a specific site or for specific purposes. NatiVeg was developed to provide planners with no or limited knowledge of native vegetation a tool for identifying native vegetation adapted to their selected location for their selected use. The target audience is persons providing technical assistance to landowners and/or landowners with the primary objective of incorporating native vegetation into their working lands.

NatiVeg uses Plant Hardiness Zones (PHZ) and Major Land Resource Areas (MLRA) as spatial components for search criteria of a database of Natural Resource Conservation Service Plant Material Center (NRCS-PMC) releases. NatiVeg returns a list of species known to be adapted to your selected geographic location. Herein lies the answer to the question of whether NatiVeg is helpful or a curious tchotchke.

Plant materials in the NRCS-PMC database have been through a process to document a variety of criteria, depending upon the intent of the release. In a majority of cases seed is commercially available or foundation seed is available for commercial increase, many of the releases have been planted in growing trials and their area of adaptation is documented, cultivars and selections have been made for desirable characteristics and there are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria. (Both of those last two attributes are either good or bad depending upon your intended use and location) However, there are some limitations to the NRCS-PMC database; there are a limited number of releases (306 in the NBCI modified database) compared to a list of species that would have historically occurred for a location and there is skewed geographic distribution of native species releases, leaving limited choices for selected areas within the NBCI states.

MLRA’s are large geographic areas that are geographically associated land resource units based upon the dominant physical characteristics using physiology, geology, climate, water, soils, biological resources and land use, and they are thousands of acres in size. Obviously, there is variability within these areas, so though you may be in an MLRA where little bluestem is adapted, your specific location may be mesic or wet mesic and not suitable for little bluestem. For that reason, it is also important to consult the “Details” section of each species in NatiVeg to determine its appropriateness for the site. Information about collection location, comments or site adaptations can provide additional information to aid in decision making. If you still have questions or would like help there is a link to the state agency to help you find local assistance.

What about our non-target audience? Since the launch of NatiVeg I have received several comments from ecologists  wishing the application were more specific in relation to local ecosystems and vegetation communities. Fair comments, though those changes wouldn’t particularly serve our target audience any better. Remember a few lines above where I was listing the attributes of using the NRCS-PMC database; “There are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria?” In some areas within the NBCI states there have been ecotype collections made and seed increases done. South Texas and Iowa/Missouri are two examples. Ecologists working in those regions will find plant materials suitable for restorations. Unfortunately, there is limited species availability and our database returns still don’t give a “big picture” list of species endemic to the location.

We are working on ideas to address this and determine if we even need to. It appears, based upon feedback, there is some need/desire for this type of product. At this point we don’t know if we will develop an entirely new product or work to expand NatiVeg, but we are examining options using NatureServe data or NRCS Ecological Site Description data. There may be others and we’ll examine all options.

Knowing some of the limitations of the database and spatial criteria, and understanding how to use additional resources to deal with those limitations, NatiVeg should be a helpful tool for our target audience … and in some instances our non-target audience. If you’re expecting a list of species endemic to your local ecosystem, then NatiVeg is probably a curious tchotchke.

To answer the question,” Is NatiVeg a helpful tool or curious tchotchke?”  It depends.