Monthly Archives: July 2016

Smoky Valley Ranch: preserving a prairie

The entrance to Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey CrawfordSmoky Valley Ranch was the place I didn’t go to see. I went to Oakley, Kansas to see Monument Rocks and Lake Scott State Park, both recommended by a man named Mike Haddock, who runs a wonderful Kansas wildflower website. Oakley is not a destination site, but there are some interesting things to see there, and when I consulted the slim brochure I got at the Kansas visitors center after driving in from Colorado, I saw the ranch on the list. All I needed to see were the words ‘shortgrass and mixed grass prairie’ and that it is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and off I went.

The roads through the farms and prairie south of Oakley are set out in the familiar grid of towns and counties that grew up in the flat grasslands, but you can’t be sure that any one road in the grid actually goes all the way through. So, I got mildly lost, but eventually found the Nature Conservancy headquarters, a metal barn at the end of a half mile driveway flanked with wildflowers.

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda)

There’s a lot of land in western Kansas, and few people and houses, leaving vast farm fields surrounding the preserve, and even tucked in among its acres. Most grow wheat and corn developed to grow in the dry climate. The rest is grazing land, and the ranch’s 16,800 acres are run as working ranch, grazing both cattle and a herd of buffalo. Having evolved with both grazers and fire, the only way the prairie can prosper is in combination with both. Without these renewing forces, the old grass stems would choke the crowns at ground level and the plants would stagnate.

The mission of Smoky Valley Ranch isn’t just to preserve that particular prairie, but also to further develop grazing and burning methods that can be used more widely to save or renew remaining prairie. The second evening I went to take pictures around the headquarters, I met Matt Bain, the project manager, who seemed happy to talk, despite the fact that it was 7 pm. He described their grazing rotation, moving the herds from pasture to pasture as the season progresses, so that no one section is grazed more than 20% of the time, and each has a chance to recover. This is why I found few wildflowers on the only public trail on the land  — that area had been an early season pasture this year.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) and friend

Kansas is the wheat capital of the United States. Corn is an industry represented by 20% of the merchandise in our local supermarkets, everything from the actual kernels themselves to corn-fed beef, to the sweetener in most processed foods, to the coating on the box of cornflakes. Farming on this massive scale involves agricultural practices that environmental advocates usually hope to change. I wondered how the local farmers felt about having the Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s premier environmental groups, in their midst. It wasn’t hard to imagine that the descendants of people who crossed an ocean and half a continent, and then slept on the ground under their wagons for their first season in the west, might not take kindly to suggestions about what to do on their land.

Clammy weed (Polanisia dodecandra) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Clammy weed (Polanisia dodecandra)

I had a chance to ask. On my last evening near the barn, a Sunday, a man drove up in his truck and then out into the preserve on an all-terrain vehicle. He came back an hour later, and stopped on his way out to make sure I was all right. A very friendly local farmer, he said he’d gone out to check the water tubs for the cattle so the ranch manager could have a day off. I asked how the neighbors felt about the preserve, and he readily admitted that several were sorry they hadn’t bought the land when it was for sale in 1999. But when I wondered if the preserve’s advocacy for certain ranching practices was an issue, he said there were some nearby ranchers who were even stricter rotational grazers than the Nature Conservancy.

‘It’s not that,’ he said, adding, much to my surprise, ’It’s prairie dogs.’ These are one-foot high, hyperactive creatures that are always poking out of their holes and disappearing into them, chittering at me when I pass their ‘towns.’ I already knew from Matt that he wanted to reintroduce prairie dogs (and prairie chickens) into the ecosystem of the ranch. He’d mentioned that they had to keep them well inside the perimeter of the preserve because neighbors didn’t like them. Kansas law allows counties to exterminate them if they’re deemed pests. Their biggest predator, the black-footed ferret, once thought to be extinct, is only now being reintroduced.

A praire dog poking his head out of his burrow in Bear Creek Greenbelt, Lakewood, Colorado by Betsey CrawfordThis last seemed like a good thing to me, but Tom said no, the local farmers weren’t happy about it. They don’t want easterners — I didn’t take this personally; I assumed he meant easterners from Washington D.C. — telling them they can’t farm a field because an endangered species is on it. There has been talk of adding the black-tailed prairie dog to the endangered species list, as well. But even ranchers in favor of working to restore prairie dog habitat are opposed to their being declared endangered, with all the restrictions that would ensue. ’Google Logan County prairie dog wars,’ he said cheerfully, before he drove off.

So I did, and unleashed an online tempest. Ranchers fear that the dogs eat crops and compete with cattle for the grasses both depend on. They also object to the formation of prairie dog towns, created by a network of underground tunnels that can stretch 50 feet in all directions, and the piles of dirt that are thrown up around the many entrances to the burrows. This creates, one farmer said, a ‘moonscape,’ with further loss of grass, and with holes that, so it is feared, could be dangerous traps for cows’  and horses’ hooves.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

There’s nothing I approve of more than matching your moth to your outfit: blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)

The wars don’t directly involve the prairie dogs on the preserve. There are two local farmers who want them on their property, and feel strongly that they not only belong on the prairie, but are an important part of the ecosystem. Which, traditionally, they have been. When they eat grass around the burrows, and snip off tall grass surrounding their town to more easily see predators, the dogs are reducing competition for other plants, especially flowers, whose seeds then feed the endangered prairie chicken and other birds. The steady clipping of plants also insures a continual crop of new shoots, which have more protein and nitrogen than mature stalks.

In this more diverse and nutritious landscape other lives prosper, as well. Some are predators, like the swift fox and the ferruginous hawk. Some coexist, like the prairie chicken and mountain plover. Some animals live in the burrows with the prairie dogs, like mice, the burrowing owl, and snakes and other reptiles. Even the black-footed ferret — the one that eats prairie dogs — lives in the burrows with them, which is a very interesting arrangement. Bison and pronghorn antelope like the higher nutrition of the new shoots. The burrows themselves bring rainfall further down into the deep root systems of the prairie plants.

Wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum)

So, from nature’s point of view, it’s a good idea to have prairie dogs, as long as  the whole predator cycle is working to keep the population within sustainable bounds. From the human point of view, it’s endlessly complicated, with cross currents of angry neighbors comparing the dogs to an infestation of rats, and local governments, based on a hundred-year-old state law, poisoning the dogs and sending owners the bill. Some federal agencies are weighing unwanted interventions, another is accused of not intervening enough. Local ranchers are adamantly opposed to anything that would limit their ability to use their land as they see fit, or threaten their investment in crops and cattle. Wildlife advocates say the poison is killing other animals, as well. And while all this is being fought, there and elsewhere, the prairie dogs have lost 95% of their habitat.

Land use issues are everywhere, and though the west is famous for them, eastern towns and cities have plenty to contend with. There are so many layers to all of these controversies: taste and preference, the common good and how that’s defined, the rights of owners, the rights of neighbors, the rights of the earth, the economic ramifications of limitations on use, the peace and prosperity of the community. And that’s just a handful of possible concerns. As I visit different prairies I have no doubt other aspects of these same tensions will show up.

A limetone outcrop in the praire at Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey CrawfordThis is all far from the calm and beauty I found wandering the ranch’s acres. Matt told me a couple of places to go to find wildflowers. Just jump over the fence, he suggested, with a young man’s wild overestimation of a 65-year-old’s jumping abilities. And then added, be careful of electric fences. But I found openings that rewarded flexibility over vaulting and spent wonderful hours wandering the prairie, sometimes climbing unexpected hills, or walking among the trees in the Smoky Hill River valley, or along an outcrop of limestone holding 250 million-year-old fossil shells, remnants of a vast inland sea. We humans will never not be contentious, and perhaps shouldn’t even bother to contemplate such a homogeneous state, though we can strive for compassion when dealing with our differences.

And we can go out into ancient landscapes, that evolved long before we did, and have wisdom we still aspire to, reminding ourselves that we are part of a long process, a tiny piece of a project billions of years old. In the prairie I am surrounded by thousands of mysteries, large and small. Birds, descendants of dinosaurs, sing from the tops of last year’s flower stalks. Grass roots reach deep into the earth under my feet, knowing how to find water. Flowers produce nutritious seed through their ephemeral beauty. Ancient sea life crunches in the dirt at my feet; thunderstorms blow wildly through; bison move in the distance. Multicolored grasshoppers leap up, buzzing, flying ahead of me as I walk through the grass. When they land again they magically turn into the color of the prairie. They know things I’ll never know. I love that idea. I’m filled with peace.

A western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) sings in the Smoky Valley Ranch prairie preserve by Betsey Crawford

A western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in full voice.

There are more pictures in the Smoky Valley Ranch gallery.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Beautiful vampires: the castilleja genus

Alaskan coastal paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis) taken in Moose Pass, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Alaskan coastal paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis) in Moose Pass, Alaska

I first saw a paintbrush, a member of the castilleja genus, in Idaho. Then again in southern California, and then northern. Then Colorado and Utah, British Columbia and Alberta, and then Alaska. I haven’t yet seen them in Wyoming, but it’s the state flower, so I know they’re there. In other words, if you’re west of the Mississippi, it’s easy to find castillejas. They grow in almost all conditions except swamps or deep woods, and are able to withstand toxic serpentine soils when they have to. There is one species in the 250-strong family that grows in the east, but I’d never seen one before coming west.

In most places they’re hard to miss: many are as vivid a red or orange as you can find, they usually stand one to two feet tall, and they grow in patches. The vivid color is not the flower, but modified leaves called bracts. These surround and protect the inconspicuous flowers, whose petals wrap around each other, forming a tube. Though the flowers are bright green, they can’t hold a candle to the brilliance around them. The colorful bracts do the job that petals normally do: lure pollinators, especially butterflies and hummingbirds.

Red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia) taken in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

Paintbrushes are also white, pink, yellow and purple. As common as they are, it’s impossible to take them for granted, because they change with the available light, so you never know what you’re going to find. On a cloudy day, high on a mountain in British Columbia, were alpine versions — one red, one magenta — that glowed in the muted gray light. The luminous yellow Alaskan native does the same thing in the long summer twilights. I found a red one on fire against the bright rock of a Utah trail, and a chrome yellow one in front of a blackened log in a burned forest. A white one shone in the shade at the edge of the woods in Waterton Lakes, and a red one, along a woodland path, glittered in a shaft of sunlight.

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) taken on Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers, British Columbia

They are everywhere, and irresistible, and interesting, because they’re parasites. They have green leaves on the stem below the bracts, and then a cluster of leaves at the base. That means they can photosynthesize, but usually they find a host to help out, often a grass or sagebrush, but it can be other flowers and shrubs, as well. They send out haustoria, specialized roots that penetrate the host’s roots, slithering between cells. There they find water and nutrients to supplement their own photosynthesizing.

They’re not alone in this. Castillejas have recently been put into the Orobanchaceae, a whole family of parasites. Some are completely parasitic;  some, like the castillejas, partially, or hemiparasitic. At first glance, it’s hard to see why evolution thought this was a good idea. It certainly benefits the parasite, and some do no discernible harm, but most affect their hosts in some way. About 10% of the 270 parasitic genera are invasive pests, causing serious problems for farmers, and capable of killing hosts in natural settings.

Coast Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) taken in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Coast Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California. You can see the spiky green flowers, protected by the bracts, as well as the fine white hairs that many castilleja share.

Castillejas don’t kill their hosts, though studies have shown that the hosts are less robust than they otherwise would be. That sounds like a negative, but one of its effects may be to allow more diversity in an area by preventing one or two species from dominating.  Castillejas are usually biennials, growing from seed one year, blooming the next and dropping their seed to germinate the following spring. Taking advantage of the mature, deep roots of the perennial plants around them means a ready source of nourishment and water, allowing them more vigorous growth in their short life. That fast cycle has another possible good effect: they quickly return nutrients to the soil through their decaying leaves.

Desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) Butler Ruins, Blanding, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) Butler Ruins, Blanding, Utah

So, while they are not symbiotic, with obvious mutual benefit to both plants, they really aren’t vampires, despite my inability to resist the title. Parasite is from the Greek for ‘next to’ (para) and food (sitos), thus giving us ‘next to the food.’ Which, while accurate, is pretty dull. And this underground search for food is anything but dull. It brings us back to the fascinating question of what plants know, and how they know it. Although roots can bump into each other, evolution wouldn’t favor their chance meeting. Are the castillejas sensing chemical signals given off by the roots of the host plant? The stems of dodder, the most famous of the invasive parasites, can ‘smell’ its highly desired tomato plant and sends its tendrils that way.  But those chemicals are airborne. Can plant ‘scents’ travel underground?

Apparently. Plants use their aromatic phenolic compounds, the same family of chemicals that give us, for example, flavonoids and other antioxidants,  to ‘talk’ to each other. In the case of root parasites, the host’s phenolic molecules move through the soil and are converted by enzymes in the parasite into ‘haustorium-inducing factors.’ The haustoria get underway, following the chemicals back to the host’s root system. There they penetrate the cell walls without destroying the cell membrane, and begin to pipe nutrients, carbon and water back to the parasitic plant.   This exchange is facilitated by the higher transpiration rate of some parasites. Evaporation is faster from castilleja leaves, which pulls water away from the more slowly transpiring host’s roots.

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispidus) growing in a burned forest along the Stanley Glacier Trail, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispidus) growing in a burned forest along the Stanley Glacier Trail, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

While we stand enchanted by their vivid and luminous beauty, castillejas are busy. The have a lot to do in the two years they live, and have to pack all the nutrition they can into their seeds. All to continue to lure hummingbirds, get pollinated, and keep the family line going. Of course, they are not ‘thinking’ about all of this, but there is an intelligence at work, and I find that profoundly moving. Though our evolutionary ways parted company two billion years ago, we share common ancestors, and still share a quarter of our genes with plants. What became our prefrontal cortex has its origins in the same rudimentary processing cells that our ancient relatives once shared.

Orange paintbrush (Castilleja integra) Green Mountain Park, Lakewood, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Orange paintbrush (Castilleja integra) Green Mountain Park, Lakewood, Colorado

In order to prosper, all living things have to be able to respond and adapt to the world around them. Some people have a hard time calling this intelligence, reserving that trait for the human mind, and perhaps for animals that show signs of operating from more than instinct. At the end of his fascinating book, What a Plant Knows, botanist Daniel Chamovitz suggests instead that we think in terms of plants being aware of the world they inhabit. But I have no trouble with the word intelligence. I like his idea that “‘human’ may be only a flavor, albeit an interesting one, of intelligence.” This concept helps open the boundaries we’ve used to set us apart from the rest of creation, a crucial step in the care and preservation of the natural world.

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) taken in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

There are more pictures in the Castilleja gallery.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Parcels of prairie: the Pawnee National Grasslands

In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey CrawfordThe Pawnee National Grasslands were born out of grief. After years of drought, farmers of northeastern Colorado, already suffering through the Great Depression, watched as their soil literally blew away. Clouds of dirt rose 20,000 feet in the air, and blew so far east that they eventually settled on boats crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Left with nothing, many farmers were happy to sell their land to the U.S. government and move elsewhere. Some people weathered the storms, and by changing the way they used the land, their descendants still own their farms, creating a patchwork of private, state and federally owned property throughout the preserve.

Map of the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado, courtesy of the US Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service map of the Pawnee Grasslands; the green squares are public land.

The Grasslands were also born out of redeemed hubris. In 1875 John Wesley Powell, explorer and director of the U.S. Geological Survey, submitted a report on the land of northeast Colorado, saying that the area was not suitable for farming. The average rainfall was 12 to 15 inches, mostly in the spring, the summers were hot, and there was a continual drying wind. It was pointless to plow with the hope of growing crops. Instead, he said, it should be left in grass, for grazing.

A pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope

For 11,000 years, until the European settlers came, the indigenous peoples had come and gone, migrating away during hot, dry eras, and returning as the weather got cooler and wetter. They hunted the large beasts that grazed the land, including mammoths and the ancestors of modern bison. By the mid-1800s, the grasslands were home to 60 million buffalo, sacred to the tribes for whom they were food, clothing, housing, and spirit.

In the 1700s the first Europeans came, explorers and fur traders. The rush didn’t come until the gold was discovered near Pikes Peak in 1858, and the first Homestead Act in 1862, which gave every man or woman 160 acres as long as 40 of those acres were plowed and planted in five years. The railroad pushed through at the same time, bringing more people, as well as the supplies to build their homes, stores and schools.

A horned lizard In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

A horned lizard blending with the soil he travels over. His round body is about 2″ across.

The buffalo were first slaughtered to feed the train crews. And then they were annihilated to kill the spirit of the native tribes, at that point Arapaho and Cheyenne, who were forced off the land they had lived on compatibly for millennia. Heedless of Powell’s warnings, the newcomers tried to farm the land. In the few years when there was enough water, that worked. But in the many years of drought, people moved on, leaving the soil weakened and exposed. The grasslands depend on the deep, wide, networking roots of native grasses, evolved to live in the arid climate, to hold the soil in place. Those grasses were plowed under to grow crops that shriveled in the recurring droughts.

A windmill draws water for cattle In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey CrawfordWhen the federal government started buying the land in the mid 1930s, it was the Soil Conservation Bureau that was in charge. The first task was to replant the bare areas with grasses, not necessarily native; anything that would grow and hold the soil in place. Almost 100 years later, the native grasses are still recovering. They had evolved together with the grazing animals: grass fed the animals, and the animals kept clipping the grass, creating both a dense mat of fresh stems that prevented the soil from drying too quickly, and the deep roots that literally held the ground in place.

So the plan was to bring the grasslands back to managed grazing, which is the dominant use today. There are some small oil and natural gas wells, and an expansive windmill farm to take advantage of the constant wind. Single windmills pump water into tubs for the grazing cattle. There is still conventional farming in the surrounding area, wherever irrigation is feasible.

Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

I heard about the Pawnee Grasslands the way I hear about a lot of things: a chance conversation. I was in Grand Junction, clear across the state, and stopped at the visitors center to get information about the nearby Grand Mesa. The friendly volunteer I talked to asked where I was heading afterwards, and I said, ‘To the prairies.’ He told me about the grasslands, even looking it up on his computer, as if to convince me to go. So, I did.

A hawk flying In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey CrawfordI spent three days wandering through the grid of dirt and gravel roads that mark off one-mile-square plots, and got a taste of what the prairie has to offer, starting with 100 degree heat the first day. That was a perfect time for birdwatching from the air conditioned cab of the truck. And there are tons of birds. Three hundred species have been identified, making the Pawnee Grasslands a world class birding site, especially during the spring and fall migrations. But even with the smaller summer crowd, it was great. Black and white lark buntings, Colorado’s state bird, were everywhere. Hawks floated overhead, and took off from fence posts. Young meadowlarks startled up from the grasses along the edge of the road as I drove slowly through, landing on wire fences, looking confused, as adolescent birds often do. A loggerhead shrike joined me on the road, too briefly for a picture.

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos)

The second day was a balmy 88 degrees, and not too windy, so that was the day for flowers. There wasn’t a great variety yet, but enough to make me very happy. There were prickly poppies, new to me, along with familiar yucca, cleome and prairie coneflower. The edges of the roads were lined with tiny morning glories. That evening I drove to the Colorado Buttes, in the northeastern corner of the grassland, in the company of several pronghorn antelope. Towering 250 feet above the prairie, the buttes show you where the ground you’re standing on once was. Five million years of erosion ago, the open prairie was level with their tops.

The Colorado Buttes in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

The Colorado Buttes, with a wind farm barely visible in the distance.

The third day blew in on a strong, non-stop wind, reminding me of the lament of prairie settlers that the constant wind drove them mad. Flowers were rocketing back and forth on their stems, so I gave up on photographing them. I walked to a clump of trees, growing out of a creek that was invisible until you were right next to it, giving the grove a mysterious presence in the middle of the waving grasses. It was exhausting to walk two miles in that wind, so I was glad to get back to the truck and enjoy the storm clouds that were rolling in. Luckily, the wind kept them to the south, a beautifully ominous background to the still sunlit grasses.

Pink cleome (Cleome serrulata) in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Pink cleome (Cleome serrulata)

The Pawnee Grasslands are short grass prairie. There’s not enough water for the taller grasses and flowers that grow farther east. Coming down from the grandeur of the neighboring Rocky Mountains, you might find these grasslands unexciting, even featureless, at first glance. As with other quiet worlds, it takes time, and presence, to get to the heart of their beauty. Three days gave only a taste of the vast sense of space, the subtly changing colors, the calls and songs of birds on the wing. The near invisibility of a tiny horned lizard against the stony soil. The sky as a presence, even a drama, in that profound expanse. A quiet so great it becomes an entity in itself. Even the wind — with no corners to howl around, and few branches of rustling leaves — is quiet. It moves steadily across the prairie with a rushing whisper, scattering the details of your life, leaving you as buoyant and receptive as the flowing grass.

In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

There are more pictures in the Pawnee National Grasslands gallery.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.