Grasslands provide crucial wildlife habitat and also help protect water quality and quantity, however, they are under pressure from invasive species, altered fire regimes and conversion for other uses.
Nature.org recently interviewed Dr. Marissa Ahlering, the Conservancy's new prairie ecologist, who will work out of North Dakota.
"I like the open spaces, the feeling I get when I am on a prairie that nature could go on forever."
Dr. Marissa Ahlering
Prairie Ecologist with The Nature Conservancy
This is the first time The Nature Conservancy has hired a prairie ecologist for its work in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. What does a Prairie Ecologist do?
A lot. My office will be in Grand Forks, at the University of North Dakota, but I'll be visiting Conservancy preserves in North Dakota and South Dakota as well as Minnesota.
Those sites include tallgrass to mixed-grass prairies and are in some of the most spectacular grassland landscapes in the Great Plains including Tallgrass Aspen Parkland, the Missouri Coteau and Conata Basin.
I'll be helping with ecological monitoring of the sites for planning and management, and conducting research to guide those plans. Prairie restoration is also necessary in many areas, and there is much to learn about prairie restoration - for example, how sites change over time after their initial plantings, and how to keep invasive non-native plants out of those sites. I've always seen myself as a prairie ecologist, so I'm excited to begin this position with the Conservancy.
What is it you like about prairies?
I like the open spaces, the feeling I get when I am on a prairie that nature could go on forever. Grasslands are beautiful, and it's a subtle beauty – you have to look closely to see the small flowers and butterflies that may be close to the ground and inconspicuous.
As a result, many people don't appreciate grasslands – it’s an underdog ecosystem. I guess I like grasslands for the same reason I like the Chicago Cubs and the Kansas City Royals. I like to root for the underdogs – I guess that comes from growing up near Kansas City.
You've done interesting research in grasslands – tell me more about your work with birds.
For my doctorate, I studied the habitat features used by grasshopper and Baird's sparrows to choose their breeding territories in North Dakota and Saskatchewan. These are related species that vary in their habitat requirements – Baird's sparrows are specialists and grasshopper sparrows are generalists. So, combined they hopefully represent a range of behaviors by sparrows that occur in grasslands.
Grassland birds are declining more rapidly than other groups of songbirds, despite habitat restoration and conservation efforts. We need to understand their needs, such as what they look for when deciding where to nest, to better conserve them.
And you've also studied elephants – what’s the connection there with prairies?
That was my post-doctoral research both at the University of Missouri and with the Smithsonian Institution. I looked at the dynamics of elephant populations in East Africa outside protected areas – what parks they may have come from, the genetic relationships with other individuals in their groups, and their ability to adapt to life adjacent to croplands and alongside cattle.
The goal is to eventually create a regional plan for elephant conservation using land management. Elephants are a keystone species in savanna grasslands that are not unlike the mixed-grass prairies in North Dakota and South Dakota.
These are ecosystems where productivity is patchy and neighbors must work together to sustainably use these resources. The Maasai have been able to share their grazing areas with each other and with elephants, and that's a model that could be useful here (communal grazing alongside wildlife) – some U.S. ranchers have already visited Maasai communities to observe their methods.
What are the emerging challenges confronting our grasslands?
Grasslands are the most endangered and least protected ecosystems in the United States and the world.
Many have been converted to farmland. Emerging challenges to grasslands include green technologies and climate change. Green technologies offer both threats and opportunities – the challenge is in learning how to adopt them in ways that do not place grasslands at risk. Wind farms, for example, need to be sited carefully. And more biofuel crops, especially cultivated crops, can reduce the incentive to place lands in reserve and result in more fragmented habitats.
The impact of climate change is uncertain. Grasslands have great variability and so are adaptable ecosystems, but we do not know if the climate changes that are projected will fall within their ability to respond or push them beyond their limits.
You'll be busy. What do you do when you're not working?
I spend time outdoors, birding and hiking with my husband. I read a lot. I recently started quilting, and I see learning to cross-country ski in my future.
Bill Allen is a volunteer writer for The Nature Conservancy.