Monitoring and Management—a sensible pairing

This article was written by Beth Goeppinger, WI DNR Naturalist at Richard Bong State Recreation Area. It demonstrates how important monitoring is to our management practices.

Richard Bong State Recreation Area is a heavily used 4,515 acre property in the Wisconsin State Park system.  It is located in western Kenosha County.  The area is oak woodland, savanna, wetland, sedge meadow, old field and restored and remnant prairie.   Surveys of many kinds and for many species are done on the property—frog and toad, drift fence, phenology, plants, ephemeral ponds,upland sandpiper, black tern, grassland and marsh birds, butterfly, small mammal, waterfowl, muskrat and wood ducks to name a few.  Moths, except for the showy and easy-to-identify species, have been ignored.

That is until volunteer moth surveyor, Steve Bransky, came onto the scene.  Steve had done a few moth and butterfly surveys here and there on the property. But that changed in 2013. Armed with mercury vapor lights, bait and a Wisconsin scientific collector’s permit, along with our permission, he began surveying in earnest.

He chose five sites in woodland, prairie and savanna habitats.  He came out many nights in the months moths might be flying.  After finding that moth populations seemed to cycle every 3-5 days, he came out more frequently.  His enthusiasm, dedication and never-ending energy have wielded some surprising results.  Those results have in turn, guided us in our habitat management practices.

Of the 2,000 moth species found in the state, Steve confirmed close to 700 on the property, and he isn’t done yet!  He found one of the biggest populations of the endangered Papaipema silphii moths (Silphium borer) in the state as well as 36 species of Catocola moths (underwings), one of the densest and most diverse populations in the state.  Six confirmed state records, over one hundred range extensions and over sixty county records make the monitoring even more impressive.

So what does all that have to do with management?   Obviously the way we have managed in the past has created appropriate habitat for these species.  Mowing and prescribed burning and invasive species removal is our management regime.  We try to burn each habitat unit on a three-year cycle but due to budgets and weather that often turned into 5-7 years which as it turns out, was beneficial to the insects.

There has long been a balance in prescribed burning, native habitat must be maintained and burning is the most efficient way to do that but you also don’t want to burn too much and negatively affect the insect life.  What the monitoring has helped us do is change and fine-tune our management strategies to better benefit the insects as well as the habitat.

We now make sure we have unburned habitat around the edges for recruitment.  We mow some of the higher quality remnants more frequently than we burn them.  We will also purposely try to leave unburned spots around host plants in places these populations are or could be.  The monitoring data has also affected our brushing decisions for instance, Catocala crataegii (Hawthorn Underwing) needs hawthorn, which is present but not in large numbers.  To that end, we are focusing on planting and keeping larger blocks of hawthorn.

They say that knowledge is power and I think that is true.  We were lucky before in our management but now that we know the amazing diversity of moths on the property, we can consciously and effectively manage for all the resources.  You have to know your site, whether it’s birds, plants, mammals or insects before you manage it, not just burn it all.  Now, I realize not everyone is lucky enough to have access to a moth expert but perhaps you could contact a local university or museum or resource expert to do some monitoring, or you could bait and take photographs for identification.    Just get out there and collect data to help guide your decision making, it makes good sense.

Note: Steve Branskey is a member of Wisconsin Entomological Society


Savanna Prairie Planting

Whew!! It’s been 2 years of preparing and planning but the last 12 acres were finally planted on Dec 13, 2014!! This is our third and last planting for the Driftless Prairies! We had hoped this one would go smoothly since the other two did not, but our record remained and we had plenty of stress!

Two years ago we began the process of creating a maintenance path around the area we would plant to prairie. With this, we ended up with space between the path and the adjacent wooded areas. We also had some neighboring land that we were allowed to remove invasives beyond our property line. We planted all this area before the actual day of the prairie planting. Since edge management is what we spend a good deal of time on, this will certainly help to expand this area and create fewer problems with the encroachment of invasive plants.

We planted a total of 144 species throughout. We’ll be mowing it a couple of times next year and if the foxtails come in as they have with the other plantings, we’ll be able to burn in the 2nd year. By the 3rd year, we hope to see more of the plants pop up and fewer weeds.

Our goal, with the restoration of this property is diversity. Everything we do is about diversity. Having a diverse assortment of native plants, native trees, and native bushes brings with it a diversity of animals, birds, and insects. The key word in that sentence is “native.” A diversity of non-native, invasive plants decreases the diversity of all other life because our native vertebrates and invertebrates haven’t evolved to use those plants.

To read more about the planning process and see pictures on the actual day of the planting click here.

Many thanks and appreciation to the many people who helped with this planting. Not just the day of the planting, but the years that led up to that event!!

Good Prairie, Bad Prairie

How does one know if an ecological restoration area is a good prairie or a bad prairie? And frankly, what is “good” and what is “bad”?

The Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA) and the Floristic Quality Index (FQI) are management tools ecological restorationists use to objectively ascertain and describe the condition of a restoration or remnant area. I thought these terms were the same and were used interchangeably. I decided it was time to figure it out. In my reading and learning, I realize that I had other aspects of this management tool mixed up as well.

The FQA is the overall name for the management tool and its components are the Coefficient of Conservatism (C) and the FQI. Each plant is given a C value and the FQI is figured based on the mean C value multiplied the square root of the total number of species. You can read more details about this calculation here.

Another aspect I struggled to understand was how species richness fit into this equation. I read about using samples and transects and thought they were the measurement of species richness. Instead these are used when the ecological area (prairie/savanna/woods) is too large to inventory; species richness is inherent in the FQI. I pondered this for awhile and it certainly makes sense.

For simplification, I’ll refer to the ecological area as the prairie. If the prairie is degraded the mean C value will be below 5, regardless of what weeds and/or invasives or how many are present. If the prairie was large enough, one could have a portion of it with a large cover of weeds/invasives and still have a high mean C. That value could increase with the removal/diminishing of those weeds/invasives should that area support higher quality (aka higher C value) plants.

When compiling the inventory of our areas, I included a list of the weeds and invasives. Since our management plan addresses these and I know our property well, I did not quantify their amounts. If I were doing the FQA for another area, I would include some guesstimation as to what percentage was which type of weed/invasive. This would be helpful to those creating the management plan and would be helpful for creating a management plan and tracking progress in the future.

Our prairies are planted but our woods are native so our FQA changes on a yearly basis, thankfully for the better! But if the land was in prairie for some years prior and an inventory list was made but no FQA was completed and there were plants that were known to be there and no longer there, it could be documented by making a note on the FQA report.

Now that I understand this better, I’ll be able to add it to my list of management tools with confidence!