Tom's Blog

Sunday, August 30, 2015

State Natural Areas volunteer event at Pleasant Valley Conservancy

Yesterday the rains ended just in time for the Wisconsin State Natural Areas volunteers potluck lunch and tour at Pleasant Valley Conservancy.

A large turnout made the event especially nice. There were quite a few attendees from southeastern Wisconsin and from the Prairie Bluff Chapter (Green County) of the Prairie Enthusiasts.

The event was organized by DNR volunteer coordinator Jared Urban and State Natural Areas crew chief Nate Fayram. The 3-hour tour was led by Kathie and Tom Brock.

The Conservancy was looking especially nice after the 2 inch rain the night before. This time of year warm-season grasses are especially lush, making the large hill prairies look very attractive.

The tour focused especially on the major oak savanna restoration work that has been an ongoing activity at PVC for the past 20 years. The tour ended with a walk along the Diagonal Trail that crosses the middle of the bluff prairie.



Jared Urban (left) conferring the volunteer of the year award to
Tom Mitchell of Monroe, Wisconsin

Monday, August 24, 2015

What about Rudbeckia triloba?

This is the time of year when Rudbeckia triloba (brown-eyed Susanis in bloom. It is either a biennial or short-lived perennial, and apparently spreads well from seed. It is a nice plant, and blooms at a time when many prairie/savanna plants are finished flowering. Gardeners also like it and it is easy to get started in a native flower garden.


For some reason, this species has a bad reputation among Wisconsin "purists", apparently because it is often found growing in disturbed areas such as roadsides, railroad tracks, stream banks, or even urban settings such as vacant lots. Is it native or introduced? 

Per Swink and Wilhelm (Plants of the Chicago Area): "Although it appears to be native to our area, its occurrence here [disturbed areas] often suggests an escape from cultivation, or at least a history of severe disturbance---not a stable native community."

Per Antonio and Masi (The Sunflower Family in the Upper Midwest): "Brown-eyed Susan has become a late summer garden plant" and "cultivars have been selected for the horticultural trade." 

Per Cochrane and Iltis (Atlas of the Wisconsin Prairie and Savanna Flora): "Considered to be native to our region, although often inhabiting severely disturbed communities."

On the other hand (Minnesota Wildflowers): "While a Minnesota species of special concern in the wild from loss of habitat to agriculture and invasive species, brown-eyed Susan flourishes in gardens across the state."

In order to get an idea of its Wisconsin distribution, I went through the Wisconsin Herbarium website for individual records of this species, with special attention to early collections (before prairie planting came into vogue). Although many of the collections were from what could be called "disturbed" areas (railroads, roadsides, lakeshores, stream banks), on 8/15/1947 Phillip Whitford found it in a "prairie relic" by Oak Hills Cemetery, Black Earth. 

Note that there are other "native" species that are found in "disturbed" areas. For instance, spiderwort (railroad ballast), flowering spurge (roadsides), glade mallow (roadsides and stream banks), black-eyed Susan (roadsides), and prairie dock (roadsides). 

Species that grow in disturbed areas are often thought to be invasive. However, there is no evidence that Rudbeckia triloba is invasive. We first planted this as a desirable species for open oak savannas around the year 2000. It has been in our prairie/savanna species list since 2002 but has never "taken over" any area in which it is growing. It is an attractive plant that makes a nice contribution to the late summer savannas and prairies. We don't mind that it is also grown in gardens. Dozens of other prairie and savanna forbs are also grown in gardens. 




Friday, August 21, 2015

Prairie recovery after sumac eradication

In 2012 I published some photos of a well-known prairie that had become over-run with smooth and staghorn sumac (Rhus spp.). One of these photos is shown here. See this link for further details.

Sumac infestation of the prairie. Photo taken Oct. 2012.

It was unfortunate that this prairie was allowed to become invaded, but recent work shows that it was not too late to save it.

In the late fall/early winter of 2014 the large patch shown was mowed. Soon after mowing all the cut stems were treated with Garlon 4 in oil, using backpack sprayers. This major job took several days, but at least came at the time of year when no other work on this prairie was needed.

Upon returning to the prairie this year I was gratified to see how well it was recovering!
The same area in July 2015. The species diversity is quite high.



The same prairie in mid August 2015. Lots of warm-season grasses
Sumac root sucker killed by foliar spray with Garlon 3A
Although the prairie is coming back, the sumac has not been idle. This species, like many other clonal species, exhibits the phenomenon of root suckering. Dormant buds among rhizomes still alive underground are activated and send up new shoots. Early in the season, when the prairie vegetation was not too lush and would not be damaged, these root suckers were killed by foliar spray with Garlon 3A. Later in the summer, when prairie plants have occupied most of the land, it is difficult to spray sumac resprouts without damaging good plants. At that time of year, the sumac stems are killed by basal bark treatment with Garlon 4 in oil.
Where have all these prairie plants come from? The photo below shows what the land looked like in 2012. The sumac infestation was so dense that the ground underneath was almost completely barren. 

The soil under the dense sumac stand is barren; Oct 2012
The reasonable conclusion is that buried throughout were living roots and dormant buds of the prairie plants that had originally been present. As soon as the sumac was eliminated, these "good" plants were released, sent up new shoots, and recolonized the site. Note that this is not colonization from a seed bank. Although there were certainly viable seeds at the site, the plants that came up were not seedlings, but vigorous shoots from dormant buds. 

Which prairie plant species? The grasses (Indian grass, big bluestem) are certainly survivors. White wild indigo was very visible in July and obviously had not come from seed.

Unknown is how long prairie plants will remain alive buried underneath a stand of woody plants. This would seem like a good research study!




Friday, August 7, 2015

Plant species at Pleasant Valley Conservancy with high C values (Coefficient of Conservatism)

Yesterday with the interns I was discussing the concept of C values (Coefficient of Conservatism). 

C values are widely used in restoration ecology when deciding whether a site merits restoration work. Each native species is assigned a value from 0 to 10, that represents the probability that this plant species is likely to occur in landscapes relatively unaltered from those of pre-settlement times. Plant species with high C values are relatively specialized in their requirements, and thus are found in more restricted habitats. Thus, a widespread species such as Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), found in numerous habitats from roadsides to remnant prairies, is assigned a value of 1 whereas prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), found almost exclusively on high-quality remnant prairies, has a value of 10.

A set of C values for all members of the Wisconsin flora has been published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Areas. The C value for each native species is also given on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Herbarium web site and in Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, by Merel Black and Emmet J. Judziewicz, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin.


Pleasant Valley Conservancy has quite a few plant species with high C values. Some of these species were native to the site and others have been introduced and are surviving well on their own.

The table below is a list of the high C value plants (C ranging from 7 through 10) that are fairly widespread at Pleasant Valley Conservancy.


Latin
Common
C value
Comments
Sporobolus heterolepis
Prairie dropseed
10
Native
Cypripedium parviflorum
Yellow lady-slipper orchid
9
Native
Ceanothus americanus
New Jersey tea
9
Native
Eupatorium sessilifolium
Woodland boneset
9
Native
Astragalus canadensis
Canada milkvetch
8
Planted
Aureolaria grandiflora
Yellow false foxglove
8
Planted
Baptisia alba
White wild indigo
8
Native
Bromus kalmii
Prairie brome
8
Planted
Cirsium muticum
Swamp thistle
8
Native
Coreopsis palmata
Prairie tickseed
8
Planted
Dalea candida
White prairie clover
8
Planted
Eryngium yuccifolium
Rattlesnake master
8
Planted
Hasteola suaveolens
Sweet Indian plantain
8
Native
Oxalis violacea
Violet wood-sorrel
8
Native
Parthenium integrifolium
Wild quinine
8
Planted
Pedicularis canadensis
Wood betony
8
Native
Pedicularis lanceolata
Lousewort
8
Native
Silphium laciniatum
Compass plant
8
Planted
Symplocarpus foetidus
Skunk cabbage
8
Native
Actaea rubra
Red baneberry
7
Native
Allium cernuum
Nodding wild onion
7
Planted
Amorpha canescens
Lead-plant
7
Native
Asclepias exaltata
Poke milkweed
7
Native
Carex trichocarpa
Hairy-fruit sedge
7
Native
Chelone glabra
Turtlehead
7
Native
Dalea purpureum
Purple prairie clover
7
Planted
Desmodium illinoense
Illinois tick-trefoil
7
Native
Dodecatheon meadia
Shooting star
7
Native
Echinacea pallida
Pale purple coneflower
7
Planted
Gentiana alba
Cream gentian
7
Planted
Gentianella quinquefolia
Stiff gentian
7
Native
Helianthus pauciflorus
Prairie sunflower
7
Planted
Heuchera richardsonii
Prairie alum-root
7
Native
Saxifraga pensylvanica
Swamp saxifrage
7
Native
Silphium terebinthinaceum
Prairie dock
7
Planted
Sisyrinchium campestre
Blue-eyed grass
7
Native
Solidago missouriensis
Missouri goldenrod
7
Native
Taenidia integerrima
Yellow pimpernel
7
Native
Thalictrum dioicum
Early meadow-rue
7
Planted
Uvularia grandiflora
Bellwort
7
Native
Viola pedata
Bird's foot violet
7
Native
Zizia aurea
Golden Alexander
7
Native

Native = Native to the site
Most of the native species have also been planted at other areas on the Conservancy in order to extend their range.


In addition to the above species which are widespread, a few species native to the site are well-established in only a few restricted areas. These include: hoary puccoon (10), purple milkweed (9), fringed puccoon (8), and prairie turnip (8). 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

UTV pumper unit burned up during escape fire incident

The photos accompanying this report of an escape fire incident are surprising and instructive. Who knew a UTV could be so flammable?

Screen shot from the Facilitated Learning Analysis of the Cold Brook (S.D.) Escaped Prescribed Burn.
The UTV ignited within seconds of the crew escaping after it rolled.
The fire escape (which turned into a wildfire) occurred on April 13, 2015 during a 1000-acre prescribed burn within Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The details of the burn, and extensive analysis, are given in the link posted above.

The burn unit consisted of grass understory with some brushy components along with dense and open ponderosa pine stands. The area where the UTV incident occurred was almost solely grass. Although green-up had begun, it was still early in the growing season, and most of the fuel was fairly tall well-cured grass. The objective of the burn was to reduce thatch and to kill seedlings and pole size pines.

The escape occurred when sudden wind gusts accompanied by a dust devil picked up fire and carried it across Highway 385 into a large site that was not being burned, but had the same fuel character. (A video of the development of the spot fire is provided in the report.)

When the escape occurred, two UTVs were sent to control the fire. The UTV that was to come to grief crested a mild slope and was surprised to find the fire ahead of it and below. It quickly circled to get out ahead of the flame front, began a slow-motion movement along the side-slope, and tipped, coming to rest on its right side.

Both the operator and passenger quickly exited. With the UTV on its side, the pumper was no longer working. Fortunately, the crew found an escape route safely into the black. According to one crew member, the approaching fire was very hot and the "UTV torched right away".

There were some indications that the weight distribution and tank design made the UTV unsteady. In addition, the operator was unfamiliar with the power steering with which this (Polaris) UTV was equipped, and oversteered, thus causing the UTV to tip on its side.

Seat belts were present in the UTV but neither person was strapped in. It is likely that if they had been strapped in, they would have been burned up along with the vehicle.

Why did the UTV, which is mostly metal, burn up?


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Two-year spring prescribed burn summary: Pleasant Valley Conservancy

Pleasant Valley Conservancy spring burn summary: 2014 and 2015
Area burned:
2014: 82.5 acres

2015: 90.6 acres

Burn designation
Type of area burned
Date: 2014
Acres
Date: 2015
Acres
Prairie/savanna
South-facing slope; prairie and savanna remnant; several planted prairies
March 29, 2014
23
March 18, 2015
27
Savanna and prairie
Ridge-top bur oak savannas; Basin (white oak) savannas; planted prairies
April 6, 2014
56
March 20, 2015
46
Woodland/savanna/prairie
North-facing woods; white oak woods; planted and remnant prairie
with April 6, 2014

April 6, 2015
14
Wetland
Narrow strip adjacent to wet mesic prairies
April 22, 2014
3.5
April 16, 2015
3.6
Total acres

2014
82.5
2015
90.6

These were the 17th (2014) and 18th (2015) years that Pleasant Valley Conservancy has been burned. For a summary of all burn years, see this link.

A few notes:
In addition to the spring burns, a major fall burn of the complete North Woods was done on October 29, 2014. See this link for details.

These successful burns confirmed our belief in the value of doing large burns. When the weather is favorable and a good crew is available, the plan is to start as early in the day as possible and burn all day, reserving the late afternoon/early evening for mop-up. All preparation work, such as finalizing firebreaks and adjusting equipment is done on previous days. Lots of drip torch fuel and water are at hand. (Experience has shown that you can never have too much drip torch fuel or water.)

The best burn weather is in the 11 AM until 3 PM period and the crew is made to understand that time cannot be wasted during this period of the day on lunch or other “social” activities.  Crew members should carry whatever lunch items they need on their person (power bars are distributed before the burn begins). The water supply vehicle carries lots of extra drinking water, and the crew is urged to avoid dehydration.

Spring burns: In general, spring burns are relatively easy to carry out. The burn season is fairly long, and the fuel is well cured. The key is to start as early in the season as possible. The quite different starting date between 2014 and 2015 was because of weather variables.

Some issues that may arise: 1) getting DNR approval for a burn; 2) statewide burn bans; 3) lining up crew; 4) variable weather. In 2015 we employed an experienced fire weather meteorologist to provide advanced warning of when good burn weather could be anticipated.

Fall burns:  These burns are often difficult. The burn season is fairly short and the prairie fuel will not be well cured. However, fall is generally the best time for oak woods burns. A successful oak woods burn depends on leaf fall, which is somewhat variable from year to year. (In 2014 we had great leaf fall of all oak species the last three or four days of October.) DNR approval is not needed in the fall and statewide burn bans never occur. Since few fall burns are done in our area, a crew is easier to get. However, good burn weather may never develop. Daylength is shorter.

Night burns should be avoided except in unusual situations. Even in the spring, with DST and longer days, conditions at night are generally unfavorable (higher RH; unsure footing; difficult mop-up). In the fall, night burns can almost never be done.

 Prescribed burning is a seven-day-a-week job. This does not mean that burn crews must work seven days a week, but some crew members must be prepared to work on Saturday and/or Sunday instead of one or two weekdays, if necessary.