All You See Is Grass: A Poem

DSC_4392

 

All You See Is Grass

 

The discovery, of course,

never finished:

the milkweed, the current, the glint

of red in grass

when light lengthens

over hillsides

and then, with a shudder,

goes out.

 

Here, the birdsong, There the bones—

The plow with all the rest of the rust.

 

Old hands finger threads

of memories

buried somewhere

in the grass:

This dugout, That homestead,

But all you see

is grass.

 

 

Encounter: A poem

DSC_4397

Encounter

Morning arrives

     blanketed in snow.

Unbidden, I wake to see

small clouds of breath

erupt from the nose

of a deer— I assume

his eyelashes

   are coated in ice.

We take these victories

   of life

         in stride,

             move our feet

       through the snow,

     marvel at the bulkiness

       of our tracks

compared to the sharp perfect

punctures of the deer’s

   in the new snow—

       Pour the coffee,

                       begin.


Be sure to check out Rediscover the Prairie’s latest in

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 9.26.04 AM

“Equally thrilled and terrified, we began to organize 300 pounds of gear into the four pack boxes we would live out of for the next 82 days. Armed with a tent, iodine, maps, fencing pliers, an inordinate amount of mac and cheese, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, we set out across the Northern Great Plains.”

Continue reading here.

Help us get the word out about the prairie by sharing with friends and following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Stay up to date with the project by following our blog below.

Little Bluestem Highways

IMG_0066 A few days after we turned the horses out in the pasture for a long winter’s rest, I drove to Colorado Springs to visit my family. To go entirely across a state and into another in a matter of 8 hours is a peculiar thing once you’ve taken about 3 months, or 2,016 hours, to do just that. Already it felt absolutely odd to be behind the wheel instead of in a saddle, to careen through a landscape in an enclosed vessel, cut off from the birdsong and wind. It struck me how easy it is to zone out while in a car and to count down the miles until you can get out of the car. You don’t hear one songbird. You don’t meet one rancher. You hardly notice where the sun is in relation to the horizon. Needless to say, by the time I hit Denver, I was in a strange mood.

As I made my way into the outskirts of Denver, through the suburbs and strip malls, that is to say, decidedly out of the native prairie that blankets so much of the country we had just become so intimately connected with, I had to pull over. Though it is, of course, easy to zone out in the car, to not notice anything that surrounds you except for traffic signs, I couldn’t help but notice the red glint of little bluestem in small tufts in the right of way alongside C-470.

Lest we forget, the land along Colorado’s Front Range is part of the prairie. The soil, much of it now covered by cement, was once likely covered in little bluestem, prairie june grass, and hundreds of other species of native plants. You would hardly make the connection, except for the small reminders, the remnants of prairie, that litter the landscape; the scattered stands of little bluestem in the right of way, for example. I don’t really need to paint the picture of my drive for you; you’re familiar with the urban sprawl, the strip malls, the factories, the condominiums, the apartment buildings, the sidewalks and parking lots that dominate the landscape alongside any given highway near an urban center. Depending on where you are, you’ll often see fields of wheat or corn or soy or sugar beets or alfalfa… And then sometimes you’ll see open lots. Most of them have big signs with red letters that spell out “LAND FOR SALE.” What a lot of people might miss, while driving by at 80, are the small stands of little bluestem right under these signs.

After spending what felt like an eternity, but what was really 3 months, marveling every day at the exact way little bluestem lights up when the evening light lengthens across it, I couldn’t help but notice every single stand of little bluestem in the right-of-ways and in the vacant but soon to be developed lots alongside the highway. What seemed like every day on the trail I would be filled up, awestruck, mesmerized by the delicacy of little bluestem seed heads in the wind during the half hour before the sun leaned into the horizon. During that half hour Sebastian would often get annoyed at me because I would jump off my horse and put myself belly down on the earth to try and capture the precise glean and glint of the grasses with my camera. I loved watching the horses bury their noses in big patches of it. I never was able to catch just how magical little bluestem  can be, but here are a few tries:

IMG_9997 IMG_0026 IMG_0064 IMG_0002 IMG_0068 IMG_0076 - Version 2 IMG_0092 Speeding away from a part of the country blanketed by native grasses, and into country blanketed by cement, and at such a furious speed, I headed into a breakdown alongside the highway. I pulled over and began to cry. When Sebastian asked me what was wrong, I answered him by asking “Where are all of the birds supposed to nest?”

Now, let’s be clear, I am an absolute emotional basket case and have been since I was four, people make fun of me for it all the time, but thinking of any number of the grassland birds that we saw during our trip try to make a nest in the grasses in the four feet on either side of c-470 is the most depressing thing in the world.

The thing is, when you are riding through the parts of the prairie that are still intact, you get the feeling that it is limitless. We were moving slowly enough across the landscape that it felt like it was never ending. The landscape is so immense, so very vast, filled with such grandeur, that you believe and hope it is indestructible, that it must stretch everywhere; It doesn’t. It is on the lip of disappearance, unsung and unnoticed except by few as more wheat goes in and more buildings go up. When you are riding through healthy prairie, when you are in the midst of the riot of its sounds and colors, it is difficult to imagine the edge of it; half a day’s drive will bring you to it. We talked with so many remarkable stewards of the prairie, had such heartfelt conversations about why it is important to them, that it seemed impossible that there are parts of the country where the prairie is not appreciated; but, of course, there are.

Part of our project objective revolves around the celebration of the prairie— to challenge the common narrative that surrounds the plains dominated by adjectives such as “boring,” or “flat,” a narrative that suggests the prairie contains very little of note. Not one mile of the landscape we traversed was boring, and very little of it was flat; I hope we succeeded in conveying this.

In addition to celebrating the landscape and the people that care for it, we hope to draw attention to the very real fact that little intact prairie remains. The huge swaths of native prairie we rode through, though they seemed absolutely boundless at the time, are the small remainders of an ecosystem that has all but disappeared. The meadowlarks, the ferruginous hawks, the kangaroo mice, the Sprague’s Pipits, the little bluestem, all of these trademark prairie species have greatly diminished. Their habitat has shrunk to stamp size islands increasingly isolated from the next checkerboard piece of viable habitat. I wrote a little bit about what this means for grassland birds in a previous post here.

The loss of native prairie has secured grasslands the title of one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world. The mixed grass biome that we rode through has shrunk to 29% of its historical distribution. Estimates for remaining tallgrass prairie dip to fractions of 1%. The populations of 80% of grassland bird species are in decline. 74% of the species reliant on grassland habitats in the Northern Great Plains are listed as imperiled by federal, state, and provincial governments. The fact is, the country we rode across, much of it native prairie, is some of the last remaining intact prairie left on the planet. What seemed like huge tracts of prairie while we were riding across them are really islands. They are shadows of what they once were. The tracts of prairie that took us weeks to ride through take a couple of hours to drive across. My point here is that they are treasures. They demand celebration.

Mixed into the soil of the Great Plains landscape are beauty, peril, promise, fear, rapture, and something all its own that transcends all of this. The long-term health and resilience of the prairie is not at all a given. The future presence of many of the species that now exist in its remnants is even less certain, even improbable. The populations in many of the rural towns we rode through have considerably shrunk since the 20’s. In the threads of stories woven into these grasses are countless individuals who cherish the prairie. Many of them do their part to protect it, each with a unique approach. Each approach has its limitations, no one attempt will likely result in a final solution, but the remarkable truth is that each of these efforts will have a resounding impact on the story that unfolds. It was such a joy to learn about each of the efforts made every day in the lives of so many of those that live off the land we rode through; I feel lucky to be able to share some of the stories of the people, the pipits, and the grasses we had the distinct pleasure of getting to know.

Overgrazing is Dead

IMG_9560Overgrazing is dead. At least that seems to be the case in this part of the country. I know that’s not news for some of you, but for others I bet it is. I wasn’t sure what we would find at the beginning of this ride, but so far we’ve discovered that, if anything, the ranchers in northeast Montana have gotten too good at growing grass. Or at least that’s what the ecologists are saying. “The ironic thing is that for decades everyone was telling us to reduce bare-ground, to leave more grass and leaf litter for wildlife,” said Leo Barthelmess as he drove me through rolling hills covered in thick grass and sagebrush. “And now they’re all saying we need to graze it down in some areas to make habitat for the species that need that open ground.” As we wound our way down the gravel road, we only occasionally passed patches of bare hard-pan, where the white clay earth is smooth and hard as cement. Small areas of blue grama grass, growing like the turf of some wild golf course, and thick beds of prickly pear cactus were scattered here and there amid the taller grasses and shrubs. You might wonder why any ecologist would want a rancher to graze down their grass to nearly nothing, when you’ve heard that overgrazing is such a problem.

DSC_4220Overgrazing was a serious problem in this area at one time, and a national disaster for the United States. In other regions, and certainly in other countries, overgrazing is still an issue, especially in the more arid climates of Southern WY, UT, NM, and AZ. When the Indian peoples were displaced from much of the land in this area, the settlers that moved in were largely from cool moist climates, such as Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. Raising livestock in the northern great plains, a cold high semi-desert prone to drought and severe winters, was something none of the settlers knew anything about. It might have been different had the settlers been from Kazahkstan or Mongolia, which have long histories of livestock husbandry in high steppe environments, but they weren’t. There was a steep learning curve as they figured out what the carrying capacity of this land really was, both in the average years and in the bad years.

In the days of the cattle drives up from Texas in the late 1800’s and the homesteading days of the early 1900’s this whole region was open range. There were no fences. Any land that was not claimed for a homestead, which was much of the land out here, was retained as federal land. Anyone was allowed to run their livestock on that public land, and a classic environmental problem ensued, a phenomenon known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It takes a big disaster to get Washington’s attention for any national policy change, and they didn’t realize the importance of regulating the public lands until disaster struck in the 1930’s. A combination of severe drought, overgrazing, and newly plowed up wheat fields let the dirt fly, blacken the skies, and literally coat the desks of the bureaucrats in Washington as it drifted east on the prevailing westerlies.

What’s needed to combat a tragedy of the commons is either privatization of the public resource (get rid of the commons, get rid of the problem) or some serious community organizing. This can come from the grass roots, but in this case it came from the top down with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. Taylor and a small group of men, pouring over maps and traveling the west, split up the Federal Lands into grazing allotments, giving individual ranches 10 year grazing leases for so many cattle per so many acres of public land. Now individuals had incentives to care for their portion of the range knowing that they would reap the benefits from any improvements in management, and any grass they left standing wouldn’t simply be eaten by a neighbor’s stock. The implementation of the plan took time, however, and much of the lands weren’t actually fenced into the 1950s. Just about everyone we’ve talked to around here remembers growing up without fences anywhere. Robin and I can only fantasize about not having to open 15 gates a day in 15 miles as we ride down the roads and have to get around cattle guards, dismounting at each one to pry the gate post free from the barbed wire and swing the gate around without getting our string of horses tangled. It would be nice to not have to sidetrack miles out of the way to find a gate while cutting cross country as well, but knowing how much healthier some aspects of the grassland ecosystem are for all of the fencing quiets my complaining, though they present their own problems with obstruction of wildlife migration.

Another contributing factor to the overgrazing of this area’s grasslands was feral horses. Horses were continually escaping or being turned loose onto the public lands. They were allowed to breed and when anyone needed spare horses or money they’d round up a small band, brand them, break them to ride or sell them at auction. (We’ve also been told some pretty colorful stories of this occasionally happening to the neighbor’s horses). It was a good system except that, with no one claiming the vast majority of them, their population exploded and they added to the overgrazing problem. Eventually there were government roundups and the range was cleared of the feral horses, except in designated areas reserved for the mustangs, but that is another story.

In addition to those pressures on the grasslands was the near eradication of most predators in the early 1900s. Leo Barthelmess remembers when jackrabbits and cottontails were absolutely thick, and Sage Grouse, now under consideration for listing as an endangered species, could be flushed by the hundreds. The Mule Deer and Pronghorn Antelope numbers were higher than they ever were before or since, with no predators to keep their numbers in check. Well, it may have been a hunter’s dream, but for livestock producers Leo figures that the benefits of losing a few less calves and lambs every year to predation were outweighed by the damage it did to the grass, reducing the livestock carrying capacity further. Since Coyote numbers have climbed over the past half a century, it has become extremely hard to keep sheep in this country, though some like Leo have had success with guard dogs protecting their flocks. Still, with game animal numbers very low throughout the area we’ve been riding, and Coyote numbers high, more predator control may be necessary to achieve a desirable balance of species.

Dale Veseth, who runs cattle and sheep on the land his grandparents homesteaded (not so long ago really) could explain each stage of the improvements to the range first hand, as he’s lived through them all (and he’s really not very old). It continually amazes me how recent all of this history is. There were border fences put in on property boundaries which helped people use their own land more responsibly, and kept livestock off of public land unless it was permitted to be there. Dale doesn’t remember the grizzlies being roped and shot by cowboys in the late 1800s, nor the demise of the prairie wolf and coyote from hunting, trapping, and poisoning, but he does remember the steady increase in the coyote numbers since he was a boy, and the decline of jackrabbits etc. Then there were improvements in cattle management on private ranches. In the early stages, there might have been a perimeter fence, but the cattle were largely allowed to graze through the entire ranch year round, though they were herded to areas that weren’t being used as heavily when possible. Then the seasonal pasture system came about as interior fences were put in. There were generally four or so big pastures that the cattle would be rotated through corresponding to the seasons. They would spend about three months in each pasture. Usually each pasture was used during the same season every year, which impacted some pastures much harder than others. Grass is most vulnerable during the growing season in the spring and summer, so the spring and summer pastures were usually in the worst shape. Dale explained that the next big thing was the rest-rotation system, where one pasture was entirely unused each year, a sort of fallow system. That helped improve conditions, but it took a large chunk of the ranch out of production every year and the cattle were still in each pasture for months at a time. After that, some people started experimenting with dividing up their pastures further. It seemed like the more pastures they had and the shorter the period of time cattle were in any given pasture, the better the grass did. They also figured out that if you grazed a pasture in the dormant season, it was like you had rested it for the entire year. By rotating which pastures were grazed in which season, they could largely do away with the “rest” portion of the rest-rotation system. Not all ranchers have adopted this rotational grazing system. Some still have just a few big pastures, but almost all of them have moved in that direction and implement some of those principles in one way or another. About the only pastures that are hammered down year round now tend to be the small horse pastures by the houses.

And the proof is in the pudding. The drought (pronounced “drowth” here) in the 1980’s was bad. All of the patches of bare ground expanded. The cactus grew like crazy. The cracked black clay of the adobe hills was all bare. For two nights we stayed with the Stonebergs in Valley County, sleeping in their sheep wagon and letting the horses run in their horse pasture. Rose Stoneberg fed us the most wonderful meals and gave us as much fresh milk from her two half brown swiss nurse cows as we could possibly drink. She knew it was bad living through the drought in the 80’s, but when she went back recently and looked up the weather records, she realized that the 80’s had been even drier than it had been during the Dust Bowl. And you didn’t hear about a Dust Bowl II in northeast Montana. So something had improved. The Drought that has been raging for over a decade in south eastern Colorado, north east New Mexico, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the exact same area as the heart of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, has been drier and lasted longer than the drought in the 30’s too. Yet so far the dust hasn’t made it to Washington, so something is different there too.

Now, the dust bowl didn’t result from overgrazing alone. It was largely a consequence of native grasslands being plowed up for dry land wheat fields. With the encouragement of the railroads, the homestead acts, and several good years of rain leading up to the 30’s, settlers moved into the country in droves. Sylvan Walden rode with us across her ranch in McCone County. She pointed to a small depression in the ground, a few snowberries growing inside, and told us of the dugout where a homesteader tried to “prove up.” She knew that’s what it was because it matched the government records of the homestead’s location. We never would have seen it, but the spot came alive with history after she pointed it out. It was a requirement to plant wheat if you wanted to own the land. At one time, she said, there were seventy homesteaders along this small dry creek. Now, the creek sustainably supports one family. A lot of the wheat fields were abandoned during the Dust Bowl. Some were left bare to be re-seeded by the surrounding vegetation, some were replanted to perennial grasses (sometimes native, sometimes not, usually to the introduced Crested Wheat Grass around here). The federal government reclaimed much of the abandoned ground, and private landowners did the same, turning land from crop production to permanent pasture for grazing. That in and of itself has made a huge difference in the resiliency of the plains to severe drought, though the improvement in grazing management on private and public lands alike has certainly helped too.

“What we want to manage for is heterogeneity,” explained Charlie Meserley to Robin, a group of New York City students in the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program, and me. We were taking a break after moving hay bales all morning in the heat. “Most ranchers manage their grass for a mid level height” he held his hand apart about six inches, one over the other. “They try and take about fifty percent of the grass in a pasture and move on.” Grass is most productive when you do that. It grows more grass through the season than it would if you didn’t touch it at all, or if you grazed it down more. It is basically pruning to stimulate more growth, without taking away all of the leaf area that makes photosynthesis and re-growth possible. We sat in the dim light of the old log bunkhouse where generations of cowboys rested their weary bones, and at least one was shot in the door. “For a lot of species, that’s good,” he continued, “but others prefer longer grass, and some need the short grass and bare ground.” At The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch, they use area rancher’s cattle to manage the grasslands for a range of different grass heights. “What we graze this year is creating the habitat structure for next spring, when the birds are nesting,” he explained. They aren’t destroying the vegetation in any areas, just creating different habitat structures. For a three inch long bird, six inches of grass height can make a big difference.

Sierra Holt leans back. She has to raise her voice over the whining roar of the four wheeler she, her husband Jason, Robin and I are piled onto. We’re headed between vegetation monitoring transects on their place, slowly accumulating a healthy coating of dust from head to toe. “Well, it really depends on what you mean by ‘improved’. What your values and goals are.” She points to the small patches of hardpan that remain bare. “There is more grass now, especially since the eighties, but there is less cactus and blue grama.” Living on the ranch with her parents, Rose and Ron Stoneberg, she understands that usually “improvement” of rangelands means increased carrying capacity, heightened functioning of the mineral cycle and water cycle, higher productivity etc. Being a botanist by training, with a PhD in plant taxonomy, she leans towards a wider perspective of what “health” means for grasslands. “Depending on your values, having areas of low productivity, of a stunted mineral cycle and inefficient water cycle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a good thing.” I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. “That’s why having different ranchers across the landscape is so important. Everyone will manage slightly differently, and that will create some heterogeneity across a region.”

I used to think I understood that we needed heterogeneity for a healthy environment, but I still perceived grazed down, grubbed out pastures hammered into the ground as a bad thing. Now, I’m not so sure. As we’ve ridden our horses across eastern Montana at a snail’s pace, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve been hearing from the ranchers and ecologists we’ve met. A shift is taking place inside of me. I’m starting to feel it. When we started I half-suspected we might find some terribly overgrazed pastures, and I thought that that would be a bad thing. I’ve found that there aren’t many overgrazed pastures at all, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a few of them are around. I’m not too worried about overgrazing creating another Dust Bowl, either. The vast majority of ranchers understand the limitations of the land now, after generations spent figuring it out, and they will be careful not to exceed it going into the future. Their livelihoods depend on it. If anything, the biggest problem on the public land in this part of the country may be over-rest of the grass, which is arguably just as bad for grassland productivity and biodiversity as is overgrazing on a wide scale where everything is homogenous.

What I’ve slowly been learning is that overgrazing isn’t really a useful term at all in most cases. There is heavy grazing, moderate grazing, and light grazing. None are bad or negative in and of themselves. Each is good and necessary on a certain scale, in certain areas. If your management goal for one area is to have it lightly grazed and it ends up being heavily grazed, you could say that it has been overgrazed; but you can’t look at a piece of land that has been heavily grazed and say that it is overgrazed without knowing what the management goal was for that piece of land. The same applies for “over-rested” land. The ranchers around the Charles M. Russle National Wildlife Refuge are fond of saying that the grass there is all over-rested, because of the extremely low stocking rates allowed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Riding along the shores of the Fort Peck reservoir, we saw that much of the grass is thick with old dead growth from previous years, and likely has lower productivity than if it were moderately grazed. The question is, what is the management goal for that land? Is it over-rested, or lightly grazed? Perhaps more importantly, should the entire refuge, over 1 million acres in size, all be managed for the same level of grazing, or should heterogeneity be part of the refuge’s grazing management goal?

I can’t help it, but rotational grazing still gets me excited. I still get a kick out of talking with a rancher about how to increase leaf litter, use hoof action to aerate the soil, get more water to infiltrate into the ground, and reduce bare ground. But maybe not everyone should try and do that. I no longer think it is such a bad thing if a few guys still have just a couple of big pastures, where some areas inevitably get “overgrazed” and others are “over-rested.” It depends on rancher’s goals. For some it is maximum productivity. That might mean moving cattle every day on a four wheeler through three hundred and sixty five small pastures. Others might value having large pasture free of fences, using horses to move them when necessary, and having more spare time to do other things. If different people manage for different values, it is a good thing ecologically too. We heard of one neighbor who always puts off fixing his fences. “It would cut into my riding time,” he told them. “I’d have to spend all summer fixing fence instead of riding to gather up the strays.” It is all about values, I guess.

During the environmental movement of the 1960’s and 70’s many people perceived cattle as the root of the problem. “Get rid of the cattle, get rid of the overgrazing” was the common thought among many environmentalists. Even the Nature Conservancy took that stand back then, though they’ve taken the opposite stand now. Livestock numbers were drastically reduced on public lands. In some cases environmental groups fought to end all grazing on some public lands. What wasn’t appreciated at the time is that grasses and grasslands evolved with large grazers moving across the landscape. Large grazers are needed to maintain range health, as well as something to move them across it. With the Bison and Wolves that chased them gone, you need cattle and the cowboys that chase them or the grasses and grasslands would diminish. And don’t worry, they won’t overgraze it. Besides, if a few do, thats not such a bad thing.

Healthy sage brush steppe as far as the eye can see
Healthy sage brush steppe as far as the eye can see
Dale Veseth teaching us the local grasses and talking range management.
Dale Veseth showing us the local flora of this shortgrass prairie and talking range management.
Cattle and grassland shorebirds sure can do get along.
Cattle and grassland shorebirds.
A beautiful Red Angus cow of Dale Veseth's herd
A beautiful Red Angus cow of Dale Veseth’s herd
A Willet in flight
Plenty of Grass here
Plenty of Grass here
The Sand Arroyo Badlands east of Fort Peck Lake. One place were there is still plenty of bare ground and cactus.
The Sand Arroyo Badlands east of Fort Peck Lake. One place were there is still plenty of bare ground and cactus.
A wild technicolored grasshopper. In some spots you can find at least a dozen species of grasshopper within a few yards of one another. Any entomologists out there know what this little guy is?
A wild technicolored grasshopper or cricket.  In some spots you can find at least a dozen species of grasshopper within a few yards of one another. Any entomologists out there know what this little guy is? Perhaps a mormon cricket?
IMG_9397
Raeta and Sylvan Walden. An old wheat field planted to Crested Wheatgrass, a non-native perennial grass, and some gumbo clay hills in the background.
IMG_9541
Sylvan Walden pointing the way to our next camp at the Cutting School on the horizon.
Raeta Walden and her new Pup.
Raeta Walden and her new Pup.
DSC_0673
Blue Grama Grass
DSC_0686
Needle and Thread Grass
DSC_0690
Blue Bunch Wheatgrass

DSC_0617

The Prairie in Winter

Wheat field under snow in North Eastern Wyoming
Wheat field under snow in North Eastern Wyoming

Before you get too settled into spring, I wanted to put up a few shots taken from in and around the prairie this winter. Cloaked in quiet and snow, it’s an oddly reflective time to be out there. Something about the white horizons, or maybe the way pronghorns move through the snow as if it’s their theatre (which it is) in comparison to my plodding and trompling across the winter landscape, awkwardly, in heavy boots, falling through drifts trying to keep my chin and camera above water…

Here in Bozeman Sebastian and I are digging into final preparations before our departure in June. It’s all coggins tests, throwing out backs while shoeing horses, pouring over maps, somewhat frantic emailing, and no shortage of coffee. But spring, it seems, has finally decided to come, with the first prairie buttercups (Rananculus rhomboideus) spotted last week. Here’s to a good spring.

 

All photos © Sebastian Tsocanos and/or Robin Walter

 

 

 

 

Grass, Wind, And Light

“There will be more grass, wind, and light.”

DSC_7163

This is what Sebastian told me in order to mollify any further fretting on my part over leaving our camera in the trunk of the car as we waded our way through 8 foot tall rustling tall grass prairie in Northern Oklahoma. The wind was working the whole hillside into a frenzy— a riot of autumn-cured grasses swooshed this way and that. The light caught the Little Bluestem just so, highlighting each individual blonde floret against an undulating backdrop of red all mixed up in ochre and maroon—the stalks of the taller big bluestem. Big surges of wind lifted up milkweed seeds as they were released from their shell-like pods. Gossamer strands of spider web whipped around in the wind with all the rest of it.

DSC_6923

DSC_7420

DSC_6888          DSC_7414 - Version 2DSC_7174

That phrase, “there will be more grass, wind, and light,” was stuck in my head for the remainder of our trip as we zigzagged our way across the Great Plains. We were ground checking the route we plan to traverse on horseback this summer. The success of our upcoming trip, which aims to increase public awareness of our critically threatened grasslands, relies upon the assumption that there will, indeed, be more grass, wind, and, light.

Well, wind and light, yes, I imagine there will be endless amounts of wind and light to come. Although, just 80 or so years back, during the height of the dust bowl, the sun was reported to have been blotted out by soil swept up from fields that, plowed and exposed, were left for the sweeping. One of the main catalysts for these gargantuan dust storms, coupled with drought, was the European-style farming techniques employed by pioneers that came to settle “the last great west.” Aided by legislation designed to promote western settlement and encouraged by the prospect of dirt-cheap land, settlers came to the Great Plains to capitalize on the opportunities presented by this vast frontier. The arrival of European-American settlers inaugurated a massive transformation of the Great Plains landscape. As settlers pushed west, the native prairie was plowed and broken, initiating a process that would later lead to the near elimination of North American grasslands. Deep plowing of virgin topsoil displaced native prairie grasses that traditionally trap soil and moisture in their deep root systems. The soil, thus unanchored, was swept up in clouds that literally blackened the skies.

Loss of topsoil paved the way for the ecological and economic disaster of the dust bowl. Despite widespread adoption of soil conservation practices following the “dirty thirties,” the problem of soil loss has only increased since then. Some practices such as contour plantings, strip cropping, and, recently, no-till agriculture, reduce erosion on a per acre basis, but none completely stop or reverse the loss of soil. The total amount of soil lost per year in the United States has likely increased since the ‘30’s. In his New Roots for Agriculture, Wes Jackson points out that studies indicate our annual soil loss is greater now by at least 25% than in the Dust Bowl years.[1] Under natural conditions it’s estimated to take between 300-1,000[2][3][4] years to build one inch of topsoil.[5] The majority of the cropland in the U.S. isn’t building soil, but losing it. An Iowa State University report published in 1972 study tells us that we lose over 4 billion tons of topsoil each year, or the equivalent to enough soil to load a train 633,000 miles long. That’s long enough to stretch to the moon and back and towards the moon again, or, if you prefer, to wrap around the planet 24 times.[6]  That is topsoil lost in the U.S. alone.

With the advent of synthetic fertilizers and the large-scale mechanization of farming, more land than ever before is in crop, the majority of which is planted in annual monocultures that replace the complex prairie ecosystem. As smaller fields are consolidated into larger ones the prairie remnants once protected by fence lines, right of ways, ditches, and hedgerows are plowed under. It’s easy to intimate that, on the large-scale, we haven’t exactly improved our situation since the ‘30’s; indeed, we’ve taken a turn for the worse. Last month Southeastern Colorado and the panhandle of Oklahoma saw dust storms on par with those that ravaged the country 80 years ago. It’s conceivable, if not probable, that we could go through the paces of a second dust bowl in the years to come, which would blot out the light that Sebastian was so insistent we’d see more of. But shorthand, yes, there will be more light; I’ll grant him that.

And wind. We need not look beyond the recent 22-fold increase in the U.S.’s installed wind-energy capacity since 2000 to confirm that there will be more wind.[7] Ten of the top twelve states in wind development potential are located within the Great Plains alone.[8] Hundreds of thousands of acres of land are being scouted, leased, and bought by wind-energy developers. These numbers will only increase as we continue to develop and expand alternatives to non-renewable energy.

But grass! Whether or not there will be more of that is a far more interesting question, the answer to which is less certain, less of a given. Once you start digging into that question and into the landscape that teeters on the edge of its answer, you begin to walk the fine line that exists between hard facts and hope. What I mean is, you are confronted with the statistics surrounding the decimation of the prairie and the species that were once abundant in it; on the other side of the spectrum you see its determined resilience and take heart in the teeming life it supports – its insistence upon survival despite all of the odds piled against it. When you look at this side of the argument, you develop a fragile sense of hope that the future of the prairie is not as bleak as the numbers suggest.

At one moment you’re sure there’s nothing for it, that we have done too much, dug too deep, and that the price we will pay for ‘progress’ and production is the land itself, the same land that enables these processes and has brought us such astonishing abundance. The estimates of remaining intact prairie in the U.S. range from 5 to 20%.[9] Many estimates of the remaining tallgrass prairie are fractions of 1%. You soon realize that even the remaining ‘intact’ tracts of prairie, such as the one in Oklahoma pictured above, are not intact at all, if by intact you mean whole, unbroken, or unaltered, as its definition suggests. For though these ‘intact’ remnants of prairie managed for conservation may host herds of reintroduced bison, the herds of elk that used to roam across them, with few exceptions, are gone. The Plains grizzlies and the gray wolves that hunted these herds are also gone. The black footed ferrets that used to move freely across these landscapes are headed towards the cliff of extinction. We’ve poisoned the prairie dogs that the black footed ferrets depend on, and have destroyed the vast majority of their habitat. Black-tailed prairie dogs now occupy 2% of their former range.[10] Many of the grassland birds that used to shower the prairie in song are plunging towards collapse.

The agricultural fields that border the ‘intact’ tracts of prairie render them scattered islands isolated to varying degrees from their nearest neighbors. The herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers used often disrupt the soil microbiology and cause rampant problems with the health of our water (and those that drink from it). We are draining the Ogallala aquifer at a rate far greater than its water is able to replenish. We’ve dammed or channelized nearly every single major river that runs across the Great Plains. Fifteen dams impound the main stem of the Missouri river, with hundreds more on its tributaries. This, along with siltification, has seriously compromised fish populations and has endangered at least six fish species, including the pallid sturgeon. We’ve plowed under most of the soil and are watching it wash or blow away at a rate far faster than it can regenerate. The fraction of the tracts of prairie that remain unplowed do not support the ‘intact’ ecosystems they once did. This landscape is altered.

At the exact moment you are contemplating what appears to be this full-throttle destruction of the prairie, you inevitably see a  hawk cut across its expansive skies.  So you make a bargain with hope and insist that these creatures are not on their way out. As Sebastian and I wound our way west along the back roads, it seemed like there was a bird of prey on every power line post we passed, waiting for its catch. We heard the cacophony of Canada geese honking and chattering as they migrated by starlight through the night. We heard the low hoot of owls cut across a chilly October night, and as the sun spilled into our tent in the early mornings, so too did the most clear and melodic birdsong, beckoning in the first light of day. We watched a flock of migrating American white pelicans, enormous birds with a 9-foot wingspan, rise in thermals, gaining loft as they made their way south, wings flashing silver then black as they spiraled upwards. We saw the opened beak of meadowlark after meadowlark as it called out its song from its post on barbed wire. We saw a pair of nesting bald eagles take turns showing off over Oklahoma Lake and eastern blue birds dart and surge and plunge from power lines to the tops of cottonwood trees and back. We watched coots and cormorants push their way through still waters, oblivious to the hum of the interstate alongside their ponds. We saw a loggerhead shrike, whose characteristic of piercing its prey on barbed wire, or if handy, on thorns, and then adorning it with bird bills and feathers to attract a mate, never ceases to amuse me.

DSC_7002 - Version 2Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

DSC_7081 - Version 2Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

DSC_7060Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)

DSC_7044 - Version 2Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

DSC_7272Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sp.)

DSC_7560Foreground: Red Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); Background: American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

We encountered what seemed to be this abundance, this perseverance against all the odds we’ve piled against these birds: plowing under the grasses where they nest, flooding the soil and water they depend on with fertilizers and pesticides, planting corn or soy or suburbs upon nearly every last inch of their habitat, overgrazing grasses they depend upon to feed an exploding population… Seeing this push for life, this determination and insistence upon survival, the tilt and sway of wings cut across an expansive sky, birdsong flood across the slope of hills and the endless plane of horizon—it is heartening yes. It is promising, yes. It is beautiful, yes. And also, it is heartbreaking.

Look at the plummeting number of birds that depend on the prairie, including many of those that we saw on our drive, and especially those that we didn’t see, and you’ll have reason to pause. The populations of some of the birds we saw, including the pelicans, Canada geese, and red-tail hawks, have stable or even increasing populations thanks to their adaptability, and, in part, to conservation measures taken. The majority of the birds that depend on the prairie, however, have populations that have nose-dived in the last 60 years. Today, the population of around 80 percent of all grassland birds is in decline. The eastern meadowlark’s population has plunged by 71% in the last 40 years[11] and is decreasing at a steady rate of 2% each year.[12] Loggerhead shrikes populations have declined by 72%. The Nature Conservancy lists it as being extirpated from most of the Northeast, and nearly extirpated from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.[13] Eagle populations will face additional pressure following a recent Interior Department rule that will allow 5-30-year permits for wind farms to accidentally kill or injure bald and golden eagles.

Many of the grassland birds that were once common in the plains were eerily absent from our bird count during the drive. We didn’t see any grasshopper sparrows. Bird surveys indicate their populations have declined by 65%[15] and are declining at a rate of 6% per year in parts of their range. Bobolink populations are steadily declining. They spend their non-breeding season on South American grasslands east of the Andes, and are thought to have one of the longest migrations of any New World songbird, traveling some 12,500 miles annually. Thanks to drought, inappropriate water and beach management, gas/oil industry dredging operations, and development, only 8,000 adult piping plovers remain in the wild.[16] The list of shrinking grassland bird populations goes on and on and on.

Scrolling down the population estimates of grassland birds, you realize that, like the small stands of native prairie scattered throughout the fields and rangeland, we are witnessing a remnant, a relic of species whose future is as improbable as the powerful surge of song bellowing forth from such a small body. When confronted with this, hope is a tricky force to get behind.

And yet, when you stand in the prairie that is left, give yourself to its color and sounds: the buzzing of its grasshoppers, the bright flash of wings, the chirps and melodies inundating the space between swaying grasses, and the splash of yellow on a meadowlark’s breast, it seems impossible not to place your hope in it. When you stand in a tract of tallgrass prairie, something happens. Your brooding and your worry sink into the soil and the roots that run deeper than the grasses are tall and you settle. Against all odds, you place your hope in it. And in so doing you place your hope in us. In our responsibility to see this landscape and home into future generations, though it will never again be ‘intact.’ As Michael Forsberg puts it, “Hope looks forward.” It is his hope, and mine, and that of countless others who cherish the prairie and its teeming life that “someday, future generations will thank us for the courage we had and the efforts we made, each in our own way, to preserve and restore these treasures for their future. We certainly owe it to them, we owe it to the land and its wild inhabitants, and ultimately, we owe it to ourselves.”[17]  I hope that the prairie will indeed see unending grass, wind, and light.

DSC_7168


[1] Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. 1980. New Point Press. Berkeley, California. 75.
[2] H.H. Bennett, 1939. Soil Conservation, McGraw Hill, NY.
[3] A.F. Gustafson, 1937. Conservation of the Soil, McGraw Hill, NY.
[4] O. Olivers, 1971. Natural Resource Conservation: An ecological approach, Macmillan, NY.
[5] N. Hudson, 1971. Soil Conservation, Cornell Univ. Press. Ithaca, NY.
[6] Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. 1980. New Point Press. Berkeley, California. 17.
[7] U.S. Gov. Energy Dept. “Energy Dept. Reports: U.S. Wind Energy Production and Manufacturing Reaches Record Highs.” www.energy.gov. 2013. 12/23/13.
[8]Wishart, David. “Settling an Unsettled Land.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 28.
[9] “Grassland Threats.” http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/grassland-threats. National Geographic. 2013. 2/12/2014.
[10] Wishart, David. “Settling an Unsettled Land.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 38.
[11] Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013. Population Estimates Database, version 2013. Available at http://rmbo.org/pifpopestimates. Accessed on 12/27/13.
[12] J.R. Sauer, J.E. Hines, and J. Fallon, “The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis, 1966-2005.” (Laurel USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, June 2, 2006.) http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/bbs2005.html.
[13] The Nature Conservancy. 1999. Natural Heritage Central Databases. An electronic database on plants and animals. Arlington, VA.
[14] Species factsheet: Anthus spragueii. http://www.birdlife.org. BirdLife International. 2014. 2/12/2014.
[15] Savignac, Carl; Jobin, Benoit; Falardeau, Gilles. “Status of the Grasshopper Sparrow in Quebec.” http://www.ec.gc.ca.  Environment Canada. 2011. 2/12/14.
[16]Beating the Odds: A Year in the Life of a Piping Plover.” www.Audubon.org/plover. Audubon. 2/12/14.
[17] Forsberg, Michael. “The Roots of Hope.” The Great Plains. Forsberg, Michael. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 11.