Named after J.E. Weaver, a grassland biologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Weaver Grants Program at The Nature Conservancy was started in 1995 with a very special donation. "My wife Judy gave this program to me as a wedding present. She visited with Al Steuter and Vince Shay about something she could do for me to celebrate our marriage. Because of my love of the prairie and the Niobrara Valley Preserve, they came up with the J.E. Weaver project," said Ron Parks.
The Parks, long-time supporters of the Conservancy and its mission, wanted to provide grants to encourage graduate students whose research focuses on Great Plains ecosystems and their conservation. They encouraged others to donate to the fund as well, and grew the endowment. “In our fundraising efforts we met and corresponded with many of Dr. Weaver’s former students. It is a real eye-opener to learn how much his work affected the contemporary understanding of the prairie ecosystem,” said Ron.
The Weaver Program was also initially funded with a grant from Archer Daniels Midlands, and the Nebraska chapter matched funding to help grow the endowment to a sustainable level that provides up to five grants a year. “We especially appreciate the Nebraska Chapter's interest in developing the Weaver Program, because it recognizes that the future of conservation is in the hands of our young scientists-in-training,” said Judy.
The Weaver program has helped to fund 64 projects. From 29 proposals, five were selected for $1,000 awards in 2011:
Kody Unstad, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Diversity and abundance of ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) in a fragmented tallgrass prairie ecosystem
Chris Helzer, Eastern Nebraska Program Director, is coordinating the larger research effort this project fits within – investigating the impacts of habitat fragmentation to prairies in Southeast Nebraska. “Kody’s work should help us better understand how a couple of important taxa are affected by habitat fragmentation and/or other factors. We know so little about insects in prairies that almost anything he learns would be useful, but he took pains to pick two insect types that are also important to ecological function so that impacts to them will be important to other species as well,” said Helzer.
Basil Iannone, University of Illinois at Chicago, Identifying the belowground causes and consequences of Rhamnus cathartica (European buckthorn) invasions in remnant woodlands
“Essentially Iannone has found, through an impressive set of plots and analysis, that buckthorn tends to favor shady moist areas for invasion, and then increases those same conditions to favor its continued presence. He’s also looking at belowground nutrients to see whether or not they contribute to (and/or are caused) by invasion,” said Helzer. Iannone will use the funding to examine soil calcium. The outcome of this effort could be extremely important, because buckthorn is a very aggressive invader of woodlands.
Elizabeth Hill, The University of South Dakota, Mapping and characterization of plant and rare butterfly communities of Calcareous Fens in eastern South Dakota
This is essentially an inventory project that will search for occurrences of calcareous fens (a rare wetland type that tends to contain rare species of plants and insects) and some rare butterflies. Rather than just searching on the ground in likely-seeming places, Hill is proposing to narrow the scope dramatically by using various layers of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to build maps that show the most likely locations of fens. Once she identifies possible locations, she’ll go see if fens are actually present and inventory both the plants and butterflies she finds there. “This will be a valuable project because it will help locate examples of rare plant and insect species and communities, and knowing those locations and species occurrences will also help groups like TNC who are trying to do conservation planning. If we know the location of the rare communities, we can better plan to ensure their future conservation,” said Helzer.
Graham Tuttle, Colorado State University, Effects of Elaeagnus angustifolia on vegetation community structure and nitrogen and light availability along the South Fork of the Republican River in eastern Colorado
Tuttle is looking at areas invaded by Russian olives vs. nearby uninvaded plots to find differences and then is looking at changes that occur after tree clearing (on a subset of his plots). He’s looking at the plant community and also belowground nutrient levels and changes. “There are numerous places around the Great Plains where Russian olive trees are being removed, so this project will be valuable because it will help us see how those ecosystems will recover, and help us plan how to help that recovery,” said Helzer.
Zakary J. Ratajczak, Kansas State University, A model for halting encroachment and maximizing diversity in tallgrass prairie: local and global management
This project is essentially trying to predict the threshold beyond which tree invasion can no longer be stopped with fire and/or grazing. Beyond this unknown threshold, the wooded area no longer carries fire that is significant enough to kill trees – and likely doesn’t get grazed much either. “Figuring out how many trees, and of what size, are needed to cross this point could give managers and landowners a good idea of when it’s critical to get serious about stopping tree invasion before it becomes unstoppable,” said Helzer. “It could also help agencies that provide financial assistance to landowners make better decisions about who to help, and when that help would be the most effective.”