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Minnesota - North Dakota - South Dakota

Marissa Ahlering, Ph.D. - Prairie Ecologist

Marissa Ahlering joined the staff in January, 2010 as the chapter’s lead Prairie Ecologist. Her work focuses on enhancement and protection of the biodiversity in the grassland ecosystems across the chapter. Her work contributes to the development of conservation plans, monitoring and effectiveness measures and projects that address pressing science and research needs both within the chapter and with many other conservation partners. Interests include, grassland songbird ecology, invasive species management, population genetics, prairie butterfly ecology and impacts of climate change on grassland ecology.

For her doctorate from the University of Missouri, she studied the habitat features used by grasshopper and Baird’s sparrows to choose their breeding territories in North Dakota and Saskatchewan. After her doctorate she completed a post-doctoral project with the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Missouri, assessing community-based-conservation options for African savannah elephants. The study, in which non-invasive genetic and hormone sampling played a central role, was conducted in Kenya, where Ahlering worked directly with the Maasai. In addition, to her appointment with TNC, Dr. Ahlering is an adjunct faculty member in the Biology Department at the University of North Dakota.  

Featured Projects

Grassland Birds and Grazing

Grassland birds have suffered steeper declines than any other guild of songbird in North America. After habitat loss, habitat degradation is one of the greatest threats for these birds. The impact of grazing on grassland birds in the northern tallgrass prairies is unclear, but likely varies by species and type of grazing system and intensity. In the Sheyenne River delta, this study is evaluating the effect of grazing intensity on grassland bird density and community composition. The study is in the second of three years of data collection on TNC’s Brown Ranch preserve and the U.S. Forest Service’s Sheyenne National Grasslands. Results from this study will provide insight into how grazing intensity could be managed to enhance grassland bird populations in the landscape.  

Adaptive Management in Grasslands

What little native prairie remains across North America is continuously threatened by numerous exotic and invasive plant species, such as Kentucky Bluegrass and Smooth Brome. Conservation lands are generally managed using techniques, such as burning or grazing, to try to minimize the impact and spread of these invasive species. In 2007, a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and TNC launched a large-scale monitoring and adaptive management project to discern the effectiveness of our management techniques at controlling these invasive species in native prairies. Standard monitoring protocols were developed and are used by all agencies to monitor 1,000s of acres of grassland. The data are pooled across agencies and used in an adaptive management model that will provide information to improve our grassland management decisions.

In addition to her appointment with TNC, Dr. Ahlering is an adjunct faculty member in the Biology Department at the University of North Dakota.

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