Endangered ecosystem: Kansas prairie

Konza Prairie. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Konza Prairie. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Along with individual species, ecosystems themselves can be at risk. One of the rarest is the prairie in Kansas.

Once it spread over 170 million acres from north into present day Canada and south into Texas and east of the Mississippi to the Rockies. 1% of that prairie is left, much of the tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills, since it was too rocky to plow under, it was protected.

It’s a uniquely North American ecosystem, and from the shortgrass prairie closer to the western edge of the state to the tallgrass prairie in the eastern edge, the prairie is home to dozens of types of grasses, hundreds of types of flowers, and these grasses once fed hundreds upon hundreds of bison, antelope, and deer.

Fire helps form the prairie by burning out the woodier vegetation, and burns were started naturally by lightning or by Native Americans. Today, conservationists still work to preserve the prairie by burning it.

One of the success stories of prairie conservation is the Kansas tallgrass prairie. 80% of the world’s remaining tallgrass prairie land is in Kansas, and the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance brings together private landowners, government agencies, and conservationists to help learn more about, protect, and expand the resource that is the prairie ecosystem.

For more information on the tallgrass prairie, visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. To check out the shortgrass prairie, visit Smoky Valley Ranch or Cimarron National Grassland in western Kansas.

Or consider making your yard into a prairie. It takes less water and it provides the natural beauty of swaying grasses and wildflowers.

A Kansas Bestiary: Book review

bestiary_cover_t180For our upcoming book, we wanted to not just give information on how to navigate the trails of Kansas, but some of the interesting pieces of natural history. In our reading and research, we came across the book A Kansas Bestiary by Jake Vail, Doug Hitt, and illustrated by Lisa Grossman.

The book was recognized as a Kansas Notable Book in 2013, and it’s a short and lovely book of fantastic facts and entertaining stories of 15 animals that make their home in Kansas with beautiful illustrations of each animal.

The bestiary is “compendium of beasts.” It’s a book style/genre that was popular in the Middle Ages and the focus was combining natural history information along with illustrations and often with a moral lesson.

The animals included in this book range from the commonplace like the grasshopper and meadowlark and bison to the more threatened, secretive, or even endangered like the black-footed ferret, prairie chicken, and badger.

The descriptions of each animal have a clear dose of scientific research and support with often fanciful and compelling writing, which makes it easy to read and unlike any other book we’ve read about Kansas’ animals. The moral lessons of bestiaries past isn’t really present like bestiaries in the past, though along with natural history, there’s often a discussion of or musings on how an animal has been represented in human history in the past and the intrinsic worth it has to its ecosystem. Here’s an example of a small part of one of the entries:

Badger  “Loose-skinned, low-slung as a surfboard, Taxidea taxus skulks the prairie waves mainly in the dark, skirting the edges of perception while looming large in the subterranean imaginations of Homo sapiens…”

If you’re looking for a uniquely Kansas book to gift to yourself or to a loved one, this should definitely be on the top of your list.

You can buy the book at a selection of local bookstores and tourist attractions around the state, or you can email: kansasbestiary [at] gmail [dot] com for information about how to pay by check or money order.

Black-footed Ferret: Once dead and gone

At the Nature Conservancy‘s Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County, you can explore the remote prairie. It’s a unique spot, not just for its Cretaceous formations, but for the wildlife that live here. It’s home to one of the state’s rarest mammals: the black-footed ferret.

Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

One of the greatest threats to a prairie dog, other than people, is the black-footed ferret, who use the prairie dog as a food source. And as prairie dogs were much more common in the prairie before the 1900s, so were black-footed ferrets. They helped keep the populations in control, and helped create balance to the prairie ecosystem.

But by 1964, with the conversion of much of the native shortgrass prairie to cropland and with the prolonged and legally required (in 1901, a law mandated townships to forcibly eradicate prairie dogs) attacks on prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret was left with little to eat, began dying out, and was placed on the federal endangered species list.

In 1979, it was declared extinct. After the discovery of a small population in 1981 in Wyoming and after years of careful monitoring and after convincing some local landowners, in 2007, ten black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to the Smoky Valley Ranch by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This rare, nocturnal mammal has made a place for itself again on the prairies of western Kansas.

It was thanks to ranchers in the county who volunteered their land as habitat for the nocturnal creatures and the Nature Conservancy land, and the released ferrets have been raising wildborn kits. And in 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service released more ferrets in Logan County to help “jumpstart” the population.

First ferret released back into Kansas. Photo by Dan Mulhern/USFWS

First ferret released back into Kansas. Photo by Dan Mulhern/USFWS


Threatened and Endangered Species Series: Who Cares?

Our task must be to free ourselves, by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature…and its beauty.

Albert Einstein

As I started reading a link from a friend’s Facebook post about how there’s a bill that passed the Kansas Senate last month that would repeal the nearly 40 year old  Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act, I choked on my coffee. Having walked mile after mile through the parks and wilderness areas of Kansas and researching for the book, I couldn’t fathom that it would become OK to not care for the threatened and endangered species that live here.

A conservation dependent species - not currently threatened, but could be without care

A conservation dependent species – not currently threatened, but could be without care

After I recovered from my choking fit, I realized that while, yes, there are economic issues at play and that farmers, ranchers, and developers have rights, there’s really no going back after a species has gone extinct. And while this current bill has thankfully been shut down in the Senate, we need to remember to care for what wilderness and wildlife we have left.

Our tallgrass prairie is 4% of what it used to be. Our herds of bison have been reduced to dozens instead of thousands. Wetlands have been drained to make farmland or paved over for roads and cities.

Balance is key. Yes, people need to make livings. Farmers, ranchers, and developers have rights, but not that trump the rights of the wild world, which doesn’t have a voice to speak for itself, and species that, without our interference, would likely be thriving instead of threatened, like the lesser prairie chicken, the whooping crane, or the black-footed ferret. With the removal of one species from an ecosystem, a disastrous domino effect may occur, and what once was, will never be regained.

The needs and wants of today should not be considered more important than the literal survival of an entire species of creature. So at KansasTrailGuide.com, we’re going to start a series of articles on some of the threatened and endangered species that make their homes in Kansas, including information on where you can see them in the wild, why you should care about their survival, and what you can do to help ensure their safety.

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.

Aldo Leopold

Great Migration Rally this Sunday at Cheyenne Bottoms

As the weather warms up, migratory birds begin making their way back to and through Kansas. The state is on the Central Flyway, a migratory route between the Gulf of Mexico and central Canada. Some great spots to check out the birds are wetland and marsh areas, like Baker Wetlands near Lawrence, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Sterling, and Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend. Year round, you can check out Baker Wetlands and QNWR on foot with trails featured in the upcoming Kansas trails guidebook, and to explore Cheyenne Bottoms, you can go on a driving tour.

And in celebration of the spring migration, on Sunday, April 13, 2014 from 2pm to 7pm, Fort Hays State University’s Kansas Wetlands Education Center is hosting the Great Migration Rally.

You can see Kansas’ one and only falconer and his rescued Golden Eagle and you can take part in what’s essentially a scavenger hunt. From their website:

Participants start off by drawing a “bird” card, worth so many points. The rarer the species, the more points it is worth.

“Each bird is a species that migrates through Cheyenne Bottoms,” Curtis Wolf, KWEC manager, said.

After beginning their “migration”, driving through Cheyenne Bottoms, participants stop at three different points, picking up situational cards that describe a positive or negative circumstance. The positive cards, such as finding a good food source, add points. The negative cards, such as losing a wetland to development, subtract points. At the migration destination, Barton Community College’s Camp Aldrich, the migrants choose one last card, points are tabulated and those with the highest points win prizes…

…There are also crafts for kids and adults, with kids making a bird feeder to take home. In addition, Bird Bingo, bird tattoos and other activities will be available.

A comfort meal of ham, macaroni and cheese, green beans and biscuits will be served, with Tumnus, a trio from Wichita, providing Celtic and folk tunes.

If you go:

Cost for the event is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children ages 5-12 and free for children under age 5. Proceeds from the event to restoring monarch butterfly habitat, another species that wings its way through Kansas.

Participants are asked to pre-register by calling the KWEC, 1-877-243-9268, or emailing lkpenner@fhsu.edu, by April 6. More information is available at wetlandscenter.fhsu.edu.

Great Migration Rally