Bee-friendly beef: rehabilitating cattle pastures to increase pollinator habitat

Dr. Parry Kietzman is a research scientist in Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. Here she describes a new experiment aimed at improving Southeastern grazing lands to improve cow health, provide habitat for pollinators, and conserve plant biodiversity. A member of the bee-friendly beef team since 2020, her work focuses on the ecology and conservation of pollinating insects.

Across the world, pastures account for over 20% of the Earth’s land surface, an area roughly the size of Africa. Many of these pastures were once species-rich meadows, prairies, and woodlands that offered abundant and diverse food resources for pollinators, but are now limited to a handful of species that provide forage for grazing livestock.

Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), a native composite sewn into an active cattle pasture near Stuart, Virginia. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Pollinating insects such as bees, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles are currently in crisis, as habitat loss from development, intensive agriculture, and other human activities have diminished the food sources and nesting sites they rely on. The conservation of pollinators native to each particular region is especially important, as many plants depend on native specialists for pollination. The widely-kept, domesticated, European honey bee (Apis mellifera L.), though of great importance to modern agriculture, is often not successful or at least not as efficient at pollinating certain plants as the bee specialists that coevolved alongside each particular species. Landscapes rich in a diversity of plant species native to that location are therefore needed to provide habitat for these native pollinators.

Some types of beetles, such as the soldier beetles (Colanoptera: Cantharidae) pictured here, also visit flowers and can provide pollination services. Soldier beetles feed on nectar and pollen and do not damage their plant hosts. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Researchers at Virginia Tech, the University of Tennessee, and Virginia Working Landscapes are currently collaborating on a multi-year rehabilitation project to plant native North American prairie grasses and wildflowers in cattle pastures in Virginia and Tennessee. The project is based on the idea that a landscape can be supportive of healthy cattle production while at the same time providing ecological niches for pollinating insects. Bringing back diverse food sources for pollinators in pastures, however, presents some significant challenges. First, the plants must not be harmful to livestock that may graze on them. Second, they must be hardy and practical to establish in new and existing pastureland. Finally, they should be native to the region in which they will be planted, as this will be most beneficial to that region’s native pollinators and help prevent the accidental introduction of invasive species.

Some of the wildflower species used in our experiment, such as this blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella), are native to North America but not naturally found in Virginia or Tennessee. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Our team is currently working to identify and successfully establish seed mixes that thrive in Virginia and Tennessee without becoming excessively weedy or crowding out grasses grazed on by cattle. Once established, pollinator diversity and abundance will be measured in plots with and without wildflowers introduced. Herds of cattle grazing in the pastures will also be monitored for health and body condition.

Bumble bees are common visitors at our wildflower-enhanced sites. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Results from this study, including critical information about best practices for establishing the seed mixes, optimal grazing regimes to promote blooms, and wildflowers as forage will be disseminated to growers and other stakeholders through extension services such as published fact sheets, protocols, and workshops. This foundational work will help inform researchers and land managers around the globe how to transform pasturelands into landscapes that can help save our pollinators.

For more information on this ongoing study, visit the team’s website: beesandbeef.spes.vt.edu.

A wildflower-enhanced pasture in southwestern Virginia in mid-summer 2021. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Healing communities by healing country: First Nations peoples are increasingly leading ecological restoration programs for Australia’s threatened and degraded landscapes

Adam Cross, Keith Bradby, and James Aronson describe and discuss some of the 120+ Indigenous Peoples-led programs in Australia that are setting a benchmark for the sustainable and ecologically-responsible management of the nation’s unique natural landscapes.

In the 233 years since 1788, when European colonisation of Australia began, catastrophic environmental and social cost has been endured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. During the same period, the ancient continent’s megadiverse native ecosystems have been transformed or replaced at almost incomprehensible scale and speed. Much of the natural landscape has been dramatically and tragically altered by activities such as the agricultural and livestock husbandry practices imported by the new settlers, rampant deforestation, mining, and urban development, as well as poor fire management coupled with weed, animal and disease invasion. For example, in Western Australia, agricultural expansion by Europeans led to 97% of native vegetation to date being cleared from much of the 155,000 km2 (60,000 mi2) Wheatbelt area surrounding Perth—a short-sighted endeavour that has altered regional climate and left vast areas desertified, unproductive, and acutely affected by dryland salinity. What’s more, this industrial-scale exploitation, transformation, and degradation of natural ecosystems has not only caused great loss of biodiversity and ecological functioning, but also damage to human health and well-being—with the costs being borne disproportionately by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Yet, tragically, it is these First Nations peoples of Australia who are the custodians of an ancient multi-millennial cultural understanding that people are a part of nature and that the health of Country (vernacular in Australia for the natural or native landscapes) and its people are intrinsically intertwined.

Ecologist Jim Underwood and Nowanup Noongar Ranger Nigel Eades establishing camera traps to monitor wildlife movements on a property owned by Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan.

In light of worldwide ecosystem degradation and decline, as well as increasing concern both in Australia and globally around the growing public costs of addressing mental and physical ill-health, there is growing awareness of the value and urgent need to link applied ecology and public health in recognition of the importance of healthy, biodiverse ecosystems to human society. 

In the terminology adopted by the EcoHealth Network, ecohealth is a concept that combines ecosystem health and public health as intertwined objectives with an emphasis on ecological restoration and allied activities (e.g., agroforestry, permaculture, regenerative urban planning and design, etc.). The science, practice, and policy of ecological restoration, when undertaken within an ecohealth approach, considers its implications for human health in a holistic way. Likewise, public health interventions imbued with an ecohealth perspective take into account the role of ecosystem health in impacting human health and reducing the risk of public health disasters. This framework differs from planetary health and One Health in that it is grounded in place-based ecological restoration of degraded ecosystems and the improvement of the human culture-nature connection. Thus, it addresses causes of ecosystem degradation and fragmentation, not just human and animal health-related symptoms and crises. The ‘ecohealth hypothesis’ posits that the restoration and rehabilitation of a degraded ecosystem will have significant health benefits for people who interact with that ecosystem, in present and future generations. However, there is nothing new in this concept for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They have known of the value of more-than-human nature and its benefits for human health for tens of thousands of years. In fact, it is this deep cultural understanding that underpins the strong imperative for ecological stewardship, vis à vis their “country”, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This foundational, and all-too-often forgotten, network of linkages between ecological and human health is captured, for example, by the cultural mindset of the Noongar and Ngadju Peoples of Western Australia, one of the oldest living cultures on Earth: “We are a people who look after country and the country looks after us” (Ngadju Elder Les Schultz).

Planting activities at the first Indigenous owned and managed native seed farm, in the Mid West region of Western Australia, aiming to generate native seeds to meet the demands of ecological restoration activities on mined lands throughout the region. Photo: Kingsley Dixon.

Healthy Country is a crucial determinant of physical, social, cultural, and spiritual well-being. There is a need to return to this and related ancestral Indigenous paradigms as we strive to live more sustainably towards a vision of a prosperous, healthier future (Bradby et al. 2021). Moreover, in practical terms, we need to find ways to create synergies between so-called Western, inductive science and ancestral Indigenous paradigms, ecological knowledge, and ways of knowing.

Nowanup Noongar rangers establishing wildlife camera traps with Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan.

The quality and integrity of the ecosystems within which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live, and of which they see themselves as an inseparable component, is central to lore and culture. “Healthy Country gives off a greater vibration, and it speaks louder. Country that isn’t healthy also speaks and sings us there, and demands that we take action to heal it, its spirit and our spirit.” (Yamatji Noongar woman Heidi Mippy). Studies show that stronger relationships with Country and greater involvement in cultural practices enhance the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that individuals from more remote regions with daily access to and contact with their Country have higher levels of well-being than individuals that have been removed or relocated from traditional lands (Schultz et al 2018).

Indigenous seed collector assessing fruit maturity on Crotalaria cunninghamii, an important nitrogen-fixing pioneer shrub in post-mining ecological restoration in the northeast Kimberley region of Western Australia. Photo: Adam Guest.

Ecological degradation not only erodes biodiversity, compromises livelihoods, reduces ecosystem services, and impacts food security and cultural resilience, but also drives numerous environmental determinants of disease including allergies, anxiety disorders, immune dysfunction, infectious and zoonotic diseases, and mental health illnesses (Romanelli et al. 2015; Bhatnagar 2017; Burbank et al. 2017). European colonization has left a legacy of depression and cultural disconnection in farming communities throughout the above-mentioned Wheatbelt, which in turn has led to higher rates of suicide and chronic disease risk (Speldewinde et al. 2015).

The Nowanup Noongar Rangers often work on major restoration projects. Here they are planting a 300 metre totem animal, the Karda (Goanna), on land near Koi Kyeunu-ruff (the Stirling Ranges). Photo: Amanda Keesing.

These public health impacts of ecological degradation are straining health care systems and causing rising public health costs in Australia, and many places around the world. This in turn highlights the urgent need for a transition to a restorative culture (Cross et al. 2019; Blignaut & Aronson 2020), and recognition that ecological restoration, i.e., the repair of ecosystems that have been damaged, degraded or destroyed (Gann et al. 2019), should be recognized as an effective and cost-efficient public health intervention (Breed et al. 2020). Ecological restoration may be the best single strategy and toolbox for addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and the poverty and misery related to ecological degradation and desertification. Ecological restoration and related activities, if undertaken in a participatory fashion, and through the pathways by which human well-being can be benefited by nature, may be effective in advancing health equity and addressing health disparities (Jelks et al 2021).

Ecological restoration is the only way by which landscapes degraded through activities such as mining (left) can be restored towards the biodiverse, ecologically functional ecosystems that were present prior to European colonisation (right), concurrently improving the physical, psychological, and cultural well-being of communities reliant upon these ecosystems.

Many of the nature exposure benefit pathways now suggested by “Western” science align well with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lore and culture regarding ethnobotany, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), and how ecological and human health intersect. For example, potential pathways identified include exposure to environmental microbiota and plant-derived volatile organic compounds, the sight and sound-scape of nature, exposure to sunlight, and increased physical activity and social interaction (Marselle et al. 2021). For example, Noongar newborns were rubbed with plant-based oils to ensure strong and healthy development, aromatic leaves were crushed and inhaled or used to make infusions or ointments, the vapours of leaves and twigs of certain plants heated over coals were inhaled, and certain soils and animal fats were used both medicinally and in maintaining good health (Hansen and Horsfall 2018). Noongar People commonly use the environment around them to enhance physical, spiritual, social and emotional well-being, even recognising that different species play different roles in this relationship: “There are certain trees that we sit under when our spirit is down, we have to sit under that tree. We don’t cut that tree down, we don’t even take a branch off it. And they say when the needles fall on us from this tree… we’re told that’s the tears of our old people healing us. And when you hear the breeze whisper through that, that’s the old people singing to us, to heal us.” (Balladong Wadjuk Yorga/woman Vivienne Hansen).

Curtin University students being formally welcomed to a Nowanup camp by Noongar Elder Eugene Eades and the then Curtin Elder in Residence Professor Simon Forrest. Photo: Belinda Gibson.

Recent years have seen increasing incidence in landcare and ecological restoration activities led and undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations. Over 120 Indigenous Ranger Programs now operate Australia, drawing from deep cultural knowledge and connection to country to protect and manage terrestrial and also near-coastal and marine ecosystems. Ranger programs, and many other Indigenous-led and managed initiatives, are now involved in environmental management ranging from feral animal and weed control to fire management, and from native seed collection to landscape-scale ecological restoration activities. In many regions these programs, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals who represent them, now lead the way and set the benchmark for sustainable and ecologically-responsible environmental management.

The re-introduction of more traditional management practices has happened rapidly in some areas. Across the ambitious Gondwana Link program in south-western Australia there are over a dozen First Nations ranger and land management teams, all of which have been established in the past fifteen years. One of these, the Ngadju Conservation Aboriginal Corporation, covers a massive 4.4 million hectares. Ngadju Conservation operate from a headquarters in the central town of Norseman, and undertake a wide range of cultural and ecological management efforts. Through agreement between the Traditional Owners of the land and the Commonwealth Government 78 dedicated Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA), covering over 74 million hectares, have been established since 1997. In these the national government provides funding to assist with land management, as set out in an agreed plan. The Ngadju IPA was formally designated in March 2021.

In Gondwana Link’s central zone, where marginal farmland is being purchased and restored ecologically, Noongar people have been welcomed back to the properties. On one of these, called Nowanup, the Noongar and settler community work together to maintain ecologically important habitats and replanted areas, as well as undertaking an ongoing series of cultural courses and camps. Since 2006 some 17,000 people have been through these camps, ranging from Noongar men at risk through to member of local community groups, school students from near and far and, more recently, groups of University students.

In recognition of the growing and leading role played by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the restoration of Australia’s degraded landscapes, major national initiatives have been proposed seeking to support Indigenous-led environmental management. One such initiative is a newly-funded research centre to be established at Western Australia’s Curtin University, which will fuse Indigenous knowledge and traditional approaches with western science to rehabilitate and restore Country. This centre, the Australian Research Council Training Centre for Healing Country, aims to develop an economy centred around Indigenous-led ecological restoration activities; an economy built from a foundation of healthy Country intended to deliver both environmental outcomes and economic opportunity by developing Indigenous land management and restoration businesses into major regional employers.

The ARC Training Centre for Healing Country aims to establish strong, complementary and intersectional research pathways in ecological restoration (practices to repair degraded landscapes), ecohealth (understanding the intersection between ecological restoration and human health), and socioeconomics (examining how ecological restoration benefits livelihoods and social-cultural resilience). The aim is to bring Indigenous knowledge and traditional approaches together with western science and create better and more diverse pathways for the training of Indigenous peoples in environmental management and ecological restoration activities. In addition, Indigenous enterprises can be strengthened, grown, and empowered, and a diversified and Indigenous-led restoration economy can be a pathway along which we all work together towards a future of healthy Country and healthier multi-cultural society in Australia.

References cited

Bhatnagar, A. 2017. Environmental determinants of cardiovascular disease. Circulation Research 121: 162-180.

Blignaut, J.N., J. Aronson 2020. Developing a restoration narrative: A pathway towards system-wide healing and a restorative culture. Ecological Economics 168: 106483.

Bradby, K., K.J. Wallace, A.T. Cross E. Flies, C. Witehira, A. Keesing, T. Dudley, M.F. Breed, G. Howling, P. Weinstein & J. Aronson 2021. The Four Islands EcoHealth Program: An Australasian regional initiative for synergistic restoration of ecosystem and human health. Restoration Ecology 29, e13382.

Breed, M.F., A.T. Cross, K. Wallace, K., Bradby, E. Flies, N. Goodwin, M. Jones, L. Orlando, C. Skelly, P. Weinstein & J. Aronson 2020. Ecosystem restoration – a public health intervention. EcoHealth. https://doi.10.1007/s10393-020-01480-1

Burbank, A.J., Sood, A.K., Kesic, M.J., Peden, D.B., Hernandez, M.L. 2017. Environmental determinants of allergy and asthma in early life. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 140, 1-12.

Cross, A.T., Neville, P.G., Dixon, K.W., Aronson, J. 2019. Time for a paradigm shift towards a restorative culture. Restoration Ecology 27: 924-928.

Gann, G.D., McDonald, T., Walder, B., Aronson, J., Nelson, C.R., Jonson, J., Hallett, J.G., Eisenberg, C., Guariguata, M.R., Liu, J., Hua, F. 2019. International principles and standards for the practice of ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology 27: S1-S46.

Jelks, N.T.O., Jennings, V. and Rigolon, A. 2021. Green gentrification and health: A scoping review. International journal of environmental research and public health 18: 907.

Marselle, M.R., Hartig, T., Cox, D.T., de Bell, S., Knapp, S., Lindley, S., Triguero-Mas, M., Böhning-Gaese, K., Braubach, M., Cook, P.A., de Vries, S. 2021. Pathways linking biodiversity to human health: A conceptual framework. Environment International 150: 106420.

Romanelli, C., Cooper, D., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Maiero, M., Karesh, W.B., Hunter, D. and Golden, C.D., 2015. Connecting global priorities: biodiversity and human health: a state of knowledge review. World Health Organistion/Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Speldewinde, P.C., Slaney, D., Weinstein, P. 2015. Is restoring an ecosystem good for your health?. Science of the Total Environment 502: 276-279.

Schultz, R., Abbott, T., Yamaguchi, J., Cairney, S. 2019. Australian Indigenous Land Management, Ecological Knowledge and Languages for Conservation. EcoHealth 16: 171-176.

The importance of knowledge of cultural values for dryland ecological restoration: Lessons from Argentine Patagonia

Fernando Farinaccio, Eliane Ceccon and Daniel Pérez, describe the importance of documenting cultural values, in the use of native flora, as a contribution to the restoration of drylands. Fernando is a researcher at the Laboratory for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Arid and Semi-arid Ecosystems (LARREA), Argentina. Eliane is a researcher at the Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Mexico, and Daniel is the scientific director of LARREA.

NB. LARREA belongs to the Faculty of Environmental and Health Sciences of the National University of Comahue, Argentina, where sixteen researchers and collaborators study selection of species for the recovery of sites with severe disturbance, seed-based restoration, interactions between exotic and native species, agroecological systems, and restoration-based education.

The extreme socio-ecological transformation and degradation of vast areas of arid Argentinean Patagonia has its origin in the 1880s when the Argentine government carried out an official program of extermination of all Indigenous Peoples (ignominiously called the “Desert campaign”). The goal was to consolidate political dominance over the coveted territories and to expand livestock production.

As elsewhere, this genocide led to a tragic loss of human lives and the uprooting and dispossession of native inhabitants who had lived in and managed this country for millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans – most of whom had little or no understanding of the natural dynamics of this arid and semiarid territory or in the lives and cultures of the peoples who lived there.

Aguada San Roque, an isolated rural settlement of 160 inhabitants, extends over an area of 142,000 hectares in an arid basin called “Añelo basin” in northern Patagonia. It is characterized by high altitude variability, from 223 to 2258 meters above sea level, over a linear distance of 50 km. This town is in one of the most arid ecosystems of Argentina called ‘Monte’ (Busso and Fernández 2017). This ecosystem covers 20% (approximately 50 million hectares) of Argentina. The Monte has an annual average temperature of 12°C, with a high thermal amplitude and an annual temperature range from 40°C to −13°C (Coronato et al. 2017). The relationship between precipitation and potential evapotranspiration ranges from 0.05 to 0.5, indicating a strong water deficit.

“Jarillas” (Larrea spp.; Zygophyllaceae; creosote bush, in English) are the shrub species that give the typical appearance of most natural environments of Aguada San Roque. The dominant species of jarilla (L. divaricata, L. cuneifolia, and L. nitida) can reach approximately 2 meters in height when mature. For the attentive eye, it is probable that hybridizations between them have occurred and generated, among others, the striking “dwarf jarilla”(Larrea ameghinoi), that only reaches 20 to 30 cm in height.

Photo 1. Larrea divaricata. Typical of the natural environment around Aguada San Roque, Patagonia Argentina. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 2. “Dwarf Jarilla“ (Larrea ameghinoi).A species present in some areas of the Añelo basin. Its biology and reproduction  are very poorly known, but like all Creosote bush species in southern South America and the arid regions of North America, they have enormous influence on ecosystem functioning. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

Despite the aridity of the Añelo Basin, where it rains only 150 mm (6 inches) a year on average, with some years of only 50 mm, the beauty of nature is starkly visible to those who pay attention to details, and its mystery is slowly being revealed through scientific studies of the surprising and wonderful  strategies of plant and animal adaptations to aridity and drought. For example, Grindelia chiloensis (Asteraceae) known as “yellow love” or “honey-eyed” surprises and intrigues with its sticky stems, leaves, and flowers, all bearing so much resin that it is perceptible to the slightest touch. This trait is the result of biochemical efforts to manufacture organic compounds to avoid water loss. Fully 1/3 of the dry weight biomass of individual Grindelia shrubs is made up of these dense resins that allow it to adapt and thrive under the most arid and – importantly – degraded environments.

Photo 3. Detail of the flower of Grindelia chiloensis. Credit: Paul Alvarez.

A species that has probably been benefiting from the advance of wind deposits that multiply due to overgrazing is the “Patagonian lily” (Habranthus jamesonii; Amaryllidaceae). This plant is only noticeably visible in spring, as it develops from bulbs that remain under the sand during periods of unfavorable weather.

Photo 4. Habranthus jamesonii plant and flower in a sandy environment near Aguada San Roque. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

A plant that is almost white in color due to saline exudates is Atriplex lampa; Chenopodiaceae; a member of the widespread arid lands Saltbush genus that rewards the watchful eyes of the desert dwellers (Photo 5). This species has a profuse annual production of fruits with two small bracts that act as ‘wings’(Photo 6).

Photo 5: Atriplex lampa, typical of Monte desert landscapes, with fruits (almost yellow) in spring. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 6: Fruits of Atriplex lampa. Two bracts act as wings, facilitating their flight and dispersal by the wind. Credit: Paul Alvarez.

In very saline and clayey soils of our region, Halophytum ameghinoi (Halophytaceae) is very common. This species accumulates water in its stems and leaves as a strategy to withstand droughts. Their colors vary from intensely red to green tones during the juvenile and adult growth phases (Photo 7).

Photo 7: Juvenile individual of Halophytum ameghinoi. The increase in salty soils due to degradation will probably increase the amount of natural habitat for this species. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

Sadly, Aguada San Roque, like all the neighboring settlements, is seriously affected by long-standing desertification and degradation processes. Recently, the exploitation of large deposits of shale gas and oil, using fracking technology in the geological formation called “Vaca Muerta”, has revitalized economic activity, but also has induced a new and severe wave of environmental damage both underground and on the surface.

Photo 8: The preparation of land for the extraction of hydrocarbons entails a tremendously brutal action that spells disaster for biodiversity, ecosystem ‘health’ and, ultimately, human health and wellbeing. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 9: The action of the goats is not perceived with the same sensation of negative impact as that of the heavy machines engaged in fracking. However, overstocking of domestic livestock also causes irreversible damage. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 10: Frequent dust storms are one of the consequences of overstocking livestock. Aguada San Roque. Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.
Photo 11: A barchan dune, an example of the intense erosive processes in the vicinity of the Aguada San Roque settlement. These natural processes are exacerbated by overgrazing and intense hydrocarbon extraction activity. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Therefore, in this region, it is essential to plan and carry out ecological restoration and rehabilitation projects and programs that take into account the harsh socioeconomic conditions of the local population and include them in the process from the beginning. Fully 24% of the inhabitants – all of whom are of “criollo” origin – live in stark poverty, and more than 30% are illiterate. Life for these people is truly precarious, with little or no easy access to potable water and gas, and only 15% have electricity in their homes. Despite these conditions, the families that live there show an admirable desire to find ways of life that will allow them to continue inhabiting these arid lands.

Photo 12: Irma and Adalberto are owners of more than 9000 hectares of arid lands dedicated to raising goats in the Aguada San Roque area. They were unable to finish their basic studies in school and they have very limited income from the goats that they sell in informal markets. They are typical puesteros, or small scale farmers, of the region. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.
Photo 13: Irma roams the arid lands trying to prevent predators such as pumas (Felis concolor) and foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus) from attacking her goats, while directing and herding them to the few locations that can provide intermittent supplies of forage and water. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Therefore, due to the dire socioeconomic conditions mentioned above, it is necessary to conceive and launch sustainable restoration and rehabilitation projects that in addition to recovering ecological processes and functioning must also offer tangible goods and services to the local human population. In this sense, what we call “productive restoration” may be the most appropriate strategy, since it aims to recover soil productivity and offer products for the local population, along with some of the elements of the structure and function of the pre-disturbance ecosystem. (This is comparable to ecological rehabilitation as the term is used in the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer; SER 2004).

As mentioned, a critical key to successfully developing productive restoration projects in San Roque and other settlements in Argentinean Patagonia is to know and understand the socio-ecological context of the local population, in cultural, educational, health, and socio-economic terms, and also the values that local people assign to native plant species. We carried out surveys and interviews among the local inhabitants and visits to each of their landholdings, which allowed us to evaluate the knowledge and the value that they gave to the local flora, and their interest in cultivating native (and introduced) species in future restoration projects. The ecological attributes of selected species, and their importance for the productive restoration were obtained through a literature review. This review arises as part of Fernando Farinaccio’s PhD work. For more details and information, read his open access paper in Ecosystems and People.

Photo 14: Sometimes family settlements are located in places where there is an outcrop with easy access to groundwater (for example, a natural spring).This settlement recently benefited from government subsidies to improve water storage, allowing them to purchase and install the two water tanks shown here. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Local knowledge and use value of the native flora

Puesteros that we interviewed identified a total of 44 multipurpose species, of which 38 were native. Among the most frequently mentioned native species, Prosopis flexuosa var. depressa, Atriplex lampa, and Larrea spp., were considered by puesteros to have the highest potential and promise to restore and rehabilitate their fields and landholdings. The main reasons were not only ecological, but also the multiple uses of the plants, such as providing high quality fodder for livestock, and firewood for heating and cooking.

Photo 15: A portion of a plantation of Atriplex lampa (a nutritious and palatable native shrub) carried out in 2012 in a degraded area near Aguada San Roque. A recent study has proposed this species as a “framework species” for dryland ecological restoration (Pérez et al. 2019). Credit: Laboratory for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Arid and Semi-arid Ecosystems, National University of Comahue, Argentina.

Ecological attributes for the reintroduction and reinforcement of populations of the plant species most valued by puesteros

According to studies carried out locally, the most valued species show high and easy germination (with rates of >60%) and are relatively easy to propagate in plant nurseries (see Farinaccio et al. 2021). In addition, some of them have shown high success in terms of survival and growth in field experiments (>70%) (see Pérez et al. 2019; 2020). These species are attractive because they are food sources for vertebrates and invertebrates, and also offer thermal refuge and nest sites for seed dispersers (Farinaccio et al. 2021).

Characteristics of puesteros‘ home gardens

Home gardens are traditional agroforestry systems supporting subsistence of poor rural families, and they are usually located near people’s homes. These home garden shave also been the cradle for selection, domestication, diversification, and conservation of elements of flora and fauna, and the preservation of cultural values. In the puestero’s home gardens, a total of 44 species were identified, of which 85% were exotic, and used to obtain forest products (from afforestation), 47% for shade and other amenities, and only 40% to obtain forage, food, and medicine.

Photo 16. Puesteros often use exotic trees in their home gardens. The most frequently used species are Eucalyptus spp., Populus spp., and Tamarix ramosissima, all of which are used for shade and wind breaks. Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.
Photo 17. In some home gardens, small areas marked off with wooden or iron fences are used for the production of fruit trees, medicinal species, and forage (A). The cultivation of species for food consumption is also carried out (B), and in some cases, these species are protected from inclement weather (e.g., intense winds, and extreme low and high temperatures), through the construction of small greenhouses (C). Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.

Conclusions

The socio-ecological, economic, and cultural contexts of the Aguada San Roque community showed an unfavorable well-being panorama. Likewise, the extensive livestock production system, on which all puesteros’ depend for their subsistence, added to the intense hydrocarbon activity (fracking), have triggered an irreversible desertification process. In this context, local people recognize a low percentage of useful native species and prefer to use a large proportion of exotic species.Similar results have been documented in other studies in drylands of Argentina and the world. The low results regarding the use of native species by the local inhabitants, and the preference in the use of exotic species, show a loss of traditional ecological knowledge, which could be a consequence of the above-mentioned historical occupation of arid Argentinean Patagonia. However, they expressed motivation and interest in sharing their historical practices with restoration actions with multipurpose native species. Beyond this unfavorable panorama, the puesteros expressed motivation and interest in carrying out restoration and rehabilitation actions with multipurpose native species. The three species most frequently mentioned by the puesteros (Prosopis flexuosa var. depressa, Atriplex lampa, and Larrea spp.), were all successfully established in ongoing restoration pilot studies.

This study proposes that the interpretation of the historical, social, cultural, and ecological reality of local people is fundamental before undertaking ecological restoration and rehabilitation programs. “Top down” programs may not be successful if the local inhabitants’ needs, desires, and proposals are not taken into account. A restoration-based education program can help implement these projects successfully. The program may promote the strengthening of local capacities and the rescue of traditional knowledge; increase collective learning, to ultimately restore the historical links between local people and the native, natural ecosystem.

References cited and additional reading

Busso, C.A., O.A. Fernández. 2017. Arid and semi-arid rangelands of Argentina. In: Gaur, M.K., V.R. Squires, editors. Climate variability impacts on land use and livelihoods in drylands. New York: Springer InternationalPublishing; p. 261–291.

Coronato, A., E. Mazzoni, M. Vázquez, F. Coronato. 2017. Patagonia: una síntesis de su geografía física. Santa Cruz (Argentina): Editorial de la Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral. ISBN 978-987-3714-40-5.

Farinaccio, F.M., E. Ceccon, D.R. Pérez. 2021. Starting points for the restoration of desertified drylands: puesteros’ cultural values in the use of native flora. J Ecosystem & People. 17:476-490. https://doi.org/10.1080/26395916.2021.1968035

Pérez, D.R., F.M. Farinaccio, J. Aronson. 2019. Towards a Dryland Framework Species Approach. Research in progress in the Monte Austral of Argentina. J. Arid Environments 161:1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2018.09.001.

Pérez, D.R., C. Pilustrelli, F.M. Farinaccio, G. Sabino, J. Aronson. 2020. Evaluating success of various restorative interventions through drone- and field-collected data, using six putative framework species in Argentinian Patagonia. Restoration Ecology. 28:44-53. https:// doi: 10.1111/rec.13025.

SER (Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group). 2004. The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration.https://www.ser-rrc.org/resource/the-ser-international-primer-on/.

In search of a lost natural community: the Ozark savanna edition

Calvin Maginel is the Ecological Resource Scientist at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri.

Anyone hoping to join the articulate stream of Missouri articles about natural communities ought to lovingly reference Paul Nelson’s “The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri” (2010). In that vein, we will start our journey with page 233, the Savanna.

Paul differentiates savannas largely by overstory, topography, and light level characteristics. Primarily, savannas are grasslands that happen to hold little pockets, family clusters, of trees, that mosey through the swaying grass like the slowest of turtles. The natural history of these clusters is as such: a mature parent hosts numerous offspring around her perimeter that shelter her from the repeated onslaughts of prairie fires, while she in turn nurtures offspring on the lee side which will eventually replace her. They are separate from woodlands in that savannas exhibit a tree canopy of less than 30%, while woodlands can range from 30% to 90% canopy. Paul further describes the ground flora layer of savannas as being highly indicative of a prairie, holding the majority of a site’s diversity, and being strongly adapted to frequent fire.

Of the six savanna communities Paul describes, as nostalgia blurs the typeset, two are considered S1 (critically imperiled) and four are SH, or state historic. A glass of cold water to the face: no known examples remain when something is classified as state historic. To put numbers on this, an estimated 6.5 million acres of savanna in Missouri are now represented by <1,000 recognized acres. Robin Wall Kimmerer aptly wrote: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

Stylized drawings of the prairie-forest continuum, borrowed from The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook by Packard and Mutel.

Recognizing a savanna

As nice as it is to reminisce about and romanticize processes long devastated by European colonizers, if there are (nearly) no savannas left, then why does it matter? Well, there still is hope! While Missouri has a fair percentage of public land (11.2%), most of which has received extensive visits by ecologists throughout the years, the other 88.8% of private lands in Missouri often harbor as-yet-undescribed natural communities that may classify as savanna. In an effort to heighten awareness of these potential gems in the fire-starved hills, I offer a photo tour of a private site in southwest Washington County, near the town of Courtois, that could be described as a savanna. A few points about this site: it is currently being managed for its ground flora character, with repeated fire and herbicide, specifically to the detriment of encroaching cedars and woody re-sprouts. For 25 years prior to the current ownership, it received two fires and periodic mowing to maintain its relatively shrub-free character. Prior to that, it is assumed that this was a hay meadow, cut annually for livestock that were grazed in the valley nearby but not itself grazed. There is a rusty but strong sickle-bar mower still parked in the grass that is set up for a mule to pull, with patent dates from the 1920s.

Since Paul begins with the overstory, so too will this tour. Anecdotal descriptions of certain areas in the Ozarks by foresters refer to “wolf trees”, trees with spreading branches that were removed from the woodlot since those individuals were considered to be exhausting resources around themselves, much as wolves were believed to be harmful predators that exhausted prey species. An example of this can be found in Photo 1, where a large white oak shows the breadth of branches characteristic of an “undesirable” wolf tree. As mentioned in the caption, the health of the lowest branches can tell something about a site’s history. Overgrazing by cattle or other domestic animals often defoliates these branches until the tree sheds them entirely, so an observation of a tree similar to this one might mean that this site was hayed but not grazed intensively.

Now that photos have been mentioned, we’ll begin the photo tour in earnest. All photos are from August 22nd, 2021, unless otherwise stated. To the right side of Photos 1, 2, and 3, you will notice a young shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) with a wolfish future, and in Photos 2 and 3, there is a distinctive Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) that seems to have lost half its top. All other photos will contain at least a blurry version of those two distinctive trees, in an effort to maintain scale. Speaking of scale, the distance between the white oak wolf tree and the red cedar is a little over 250 feet (76 meters). Photos 2 and 3, of almost the same area at different phenologies, hold the first real hope of a savanna classification. The structure is distinctively grass- and forb-dominated. While clearly the floral display is greater during June, this is not unexpected in an intact prairie system where suitable micro-habitats are dominated by the best-adapted competitors for those micro-habitats. For example, the glade coneflower in Photo 3 is distributed between the foreground of the photo and the base of the pine tree, but seems to decrease in abundance towards the red cedar in the upper left of the photo. Presumably, soil or other characteristics make the former area highly suitable for glade coneflower, despite the fact that no bedrock or other glade indicators occur in those areas. That said, it stands to reason that glade coneflower, currently relatively restricted to glade communities, must have had a mechanism to lay claim to those communities. Possibly this species was historically as ubiquitous in Ozark savannas and prairies as it currently is in glades.

Photo 1. Forgive the valiantly bolting hickory grubs and mowed path, but this white oak (Quercus alba) exemplifies the spreading nature of a relatively open-grown specimen. Note how the lower branches actually touch the warm season grasses: despite 5 recent years of annual dormant season fire, they are not set back. In fact, one telltale of current or historical colonizer-style grazing is that these perpetually-stretching side limbs are defoliated until they succumb and die. Trees with this character can tell a lot about a site’s history.
Photo 2. With the same white oak as in Photo 1 to the left of the frame, this photo shows the vegetative structure of the site. You will notice a handful of woody re-sprout clumps, but this area is largely dominated by warm season grasses and prairie forbs.
Photo 3. June 14, 2016 is the date on this photo. Note the profusion of wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and glade coneflower (Echinacea simulata), the latter of which is commonly identified by its yellow pollen. The more westerly species with white pollen, E. pallida, does not occur on this site.

In addition to the striking summer floral display in Photo 3, there are distinct waves of blooms throughout the season. Each species, present in profusion in its preferred micro-habitat and scattered elsewhere, blooms en masse and then fades into the background, letting another take the stage like a carefully-choreographed dance.

At this point, you may be noticing that the common names for many of the plants listed in the photo captions refer to a habitat (eg “glade” coneflower, “upland” white goldenrod, “prairie” coreopsis). This name-relation to a community can serve to help with identifying that community, but the overall assemblage of species tells a stronger story. When you consistently encounter species that occur within multiple habitats (Ozark woodlands, glades, and/or prairies), which is true for most of the species shown in these photos, it may be a telltale sign of the missing connection between all of those communities. Similar to the previously mentioned glade coneflower, both downy gentian and the upland white goldenrod are commonly found in glades and open woodlands. They tend to fall out in areas with >60% shade. Almost all of these species are considered highly conservative; species that we expect to maintain high fidelity to intact ecosystems. Missouri is one of the states that maintains a coefficient of conservatism list, with values ranging from 0 to 10, where 9-10s are virtually only found in the highest quality habitats. For example, the downy gentian, white upland goldenrod, savanna blazing star, and southern prairie aster are all c=9 species. Most of the grasses are 4 or 5, as well as the prairie dock, prairie blazing star, and Canada lousewort. When visiting a natural community, generally the more intact, remnant sites boast a bell curve of c-values, with the peak being a good diversity of c = 4-6 species. The distinctive composition at this site, with conservative prairie and glade species present (yet located deep in the Ozarks in an area not considered historic prairie), triggers the savanna vibe.

Photo 4. Savanna blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. nieuwlandii), wild quinine, big bluestem, and ashy sunflower. Savanna blazing star is currently listed as a species of conservation concern in Missouri.
Photo 5. Southern prairie aster (Eurybia hemispherica, old name Aster paludosus), forms a colony with leaves reminiscent of a graminoid until it blooms with striking purple discs.

An additional, striking character of this site is the height of the vegetation (Photos 6 and 7). In particular, Photo 6 includes a species called ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis). Various botanists and restorationists have used disparaging terms for this species, even the socially problematic term “thuggish,” since this species tends to form thick 2-4 foot tall monocultures to the detriment of other species. Surprisingly, the ashy sunflower at this site is a whopping 0.5 – 1 foot high and comfortably interwoven with other species. The matrix grasses, consisting of mostly of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are consistently knee-high or shorter, barring their flowering stems of around 5 feet. In many prairie reconstructions, the big bluestem and Indian grass commonly attain heights of more than 9 feet and encountering each clump of bunchgrass is like climbing up a small mima mound. Here, the grass ramets have presumably reached old age and no longer exhibit the mounding character. Many ecologists attribute the presence of hemi-parasitic species like Canada lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis), scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), or blue hearts (c=10!, Buchnera americana) to decreased robustness of warm season grasses. All three of these hemiparasitic species are present at this site, yet the truth is that the science of ecology is still learning about what actually makes remnant sites look consistently different than reconstructed sites. Is it nutrient limitation, due to all niches being occupied in remnants? Maybe it’s mycorrhizal associations determining community composition and structure, since Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi have been shown to strongly affect plant communities. What about beneficial or pathogenic bacteria, or soil structure, maybe parent material, or surely it’s the site’s aspect and moisture profiles? The obvious answer is that it’s a combination, and that we have much to learn about our natural communities. The quote by J. K. Rowling, “Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery,” might as easily have been about natural communities as it was directed at Harry Potter’s life.

Photo 6. Upland white goldenrod/prairie goldenrod (Oligoneuron album) blooms amongst two Silphium species, prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), and well-mannered ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) stems. Rarely is the term well-mannered used in conjunction with ashy sunflower.
Photo 7. Downy gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) looking disheveled prior to its glorious frost-triggered blooms, amidst prairie dock, prairie blazing star, and a grass/sedge matrix. A dominant sedge species here is few-flowered nut rush (Scleria pauciflora).

The last point regarding vegetative species groups are those considered woodland species. Just like in prairies and glades, there are a handful of woodland indicator species that assist with identification of the natural community we call a woodland in Missouri. As a reminder, woodlands have a canopy cover of >30%, all the way up to 90% cover, yet have an open mid-story maintained most commonly with frequent fire. Some characteristic species present at this site that are considered common woodland indicators include deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum), Samson’s snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), and stiff aster (Ionactis lineariifolia). The last species is especially striking, as botanists and plant geeks commonly observe it in acidic, poor-nutrient woodlands or power line rights-of-way. Yet keep in mind that glade coneflower, a known calciphile, is hanging out with the stiff aster. Whatever processes are allowing this site to host such a mish-mash of Ozark woodland, glade, and prairie flora, it seems to support the understudied idea that there really was a thriving prairie-forest ecotone amongst these aged hills.

Photo 8. Prairie willow in the foreground left (Salix humilis), vying for growing space with prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), tall tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris), little-leaf tick trefoil (Desmodium ciliare), and others.

Wrapping Up

As outlined above, there are few to no known savannas left in Missouri. While many agencies are trying valiantly to re-create open or closed woodlands, the sawdust of Missouri’s logging culture weighs heavily on our boots and generally there are fewer restoration practitioners aiming for savannas and their lack of timber products. The Nature Conservancy comes to mind, but the majority of their sites classify as true prairie, except maybe Bennett Spring Savanna. That site, like Ha Ha Tonka State Park, tends to maintain characteristics more similar to open woodland, but has lovely intact ground flora with a solid assemblage of prairie species. The critical missing piece is that for most natural community restorations, we have a goal in mind, dictated and informed by multiple examples of that community. With savannas and the lack of high-quality examples, we are left with a great deal more speculation. The hope mentioned in the beginning comes into play with each of you. There is a plethora of private lands that are largely inaccessible to state and federal biologists. If you get a chance to visit a friend’s farm, do so with a thought to some of the characteristics described above. Citizen science really does work, and maybe the next branch of citizen science is natural community identification! As Rachel Carson said, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Virginia’s Piedmont grasslands: floristics and restoration

Jordan Coscia is a PhD student in the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech and a graduate fellow at Virginia Working Landscapes, a program of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She describes her research goals and includes a preliminary species list for natural and semi-natural grasslands on the northern Virginia Piedmont.

You may have heard the legend that before European colonization, a squirrel could get from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi by hopping from tree to tree. While the pre-European landscape of the eastern United States was indeed quite different from what we see today, the idea of a vast, all-encompassing forest is misleading. Particularly in the Southeast, open, grassy habitats such as meadows, pine and oak savannas, glades, and barrens were interspersed with hardwood forests. This mosaic of forests and open savannas was maintained by grazing elk and bison, variation in soil types and depth, and regular fires set by both lightning strikes and Indigenous peoples. All of these grassland-maintaining processes were disrupted by the introduction of European development and agricultural practices.

As a PhD student in the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech and a graduate research fellow with the Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes program, I am researching native warm-season grasslands in Virginia. I have three main goals:

(1) To describe the plant species that characterize native warm-season grassland communities on the Virginia Piedmont;

(2) To determine which ecological processes and environmental conditions allow these grasslands to thrive and persist in tandem with forests; and

(3) To determine the best methods to restore and reconstruct these communities where they have been lost.

I am accomplishing the first of these goals, the description of Virginia’s Piedmont grassland communities, by surveying the plant species found in existing Virginia grasslands. Today, most high-quality grassland sites in Virginia are in areas where routine maintenance prevents the growth of shrubs and trees and keeps the habitat open for the sun-loving grassland plants. Many highly diverse sites, for example, are found in powerline rights-of-ways that are maintained by annual mowing.

Jordan Coscia surveys grassland plant vegetation in an experimental restoration in northern Virginia. Photo credit: Charlotte Lorick.

By surveying native grassland fragments such as those found in rights-of-ways, we can determine the plant species that are characteristic of these habitats. We can then include these species in planted grasslands and native grassland seed mixes to create more ecologically accurate restorations. In the summer of 2020, the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech partnered with the Clifton Institute and Virginia Working Landscapes to identify and survey remnant and semi-natural grassland plant communities across northern Virginia. The results of these surveys will inform future grassland restoration projects in the area, including my own grassland restoration experiment that will test the effectiveness of different grassland installation and management techniques. While a full report of the survey results will be available in a future publication, you can find a sneak peak of the full list of the species recorded in our 2020 surveys below.

A semi-natural grassland bursting with scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa) blooms in a powerline right-of-way in Fluvanna County, Virginia. Photo credit: Jordan Coscia.

Across 34 sites, we identified 354 taxa (including subspecies and varieties), with an additional 53 groups only identifiable to genus or family. Of those identified to genus level or better, 330 (81%) are considered native, 41 (10%) are introduced, 11 (3%) are invasive, and 25 (6%) are of uncertain status in northern Virginia. The three most commonly recorded species were little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), narrowleaf mountainmint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), and tapered rosette grass (Dichanthelium acuminatum).

Our species list is available for download below.

The final column is a count of occurrence, or how many sites a plant was recorded in, with a maximum possible value of 34. Plants are listed alphabetically by Latin species name in descending order of occurrence.

We are continuing this work in 2021 through a collaborative effort with the Center for Urban Habitats. This year, we have expanded our grassland discovery and characterization to an eight-county area centered on the city of Charlottesville in the central Piedmont. With a larger team and a refined protocol, we have already discovered more than 300 remnant grassland fragments this growing season. Both the 2020 and 2021 surveys are generously supported by research grants from the Virginia Native Plant Society.

Note: Part of this work represents a USDA NIFA Hatch project.

A prairie resurgence?

James Faupel is the urban ecology restoration supervisor at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a suburban outdoor education site managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. The property is a mix of reconstructed bottomland prairie and restored riparian woodlands in St. Louis County, Missouri.  

North American prairie remnants are invaluable pieces of a once vast grassland ecosystem, critical for the survival of so many plants and animals. Prairies are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, removed from existence by our agricultural development for crop production. According to the National Park Service, less than 1% of original prairies now remain in North America. The Missouri Prairie Foundation states that less than half of 1% of pre-settlement prairie is left here in my home state. These few remaining North American prairie remnants are vital seed banks for local ecotypes of thousands of native plant species, such as the federally endangered Mead’s milkweed (Asclepias meadii), and they are home to many species of animals that just cannot be found in any other type of habitat. Most prairie specialist species cannot survive once a fragmented prairie has been plowed or bulldozed under. Species such as the regal fritillary butterfly (Argynnis idalia) only occur on remnant prairies in Missouri and have not appeared in our human-made prairie reconstructions.

A now rare, prairie horizon view. This one is visible at the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas. Photo Credit: James Faupel.

Undiscovered remnant prairies are generally only spared thanks to practices such as consistent haying or grazing, and have sometimes been found protected in unused areas of historical sites, such as old cemeteries. Unfortunately, remnant prairies are now mostly found in rural settings far from the eyes of our growing urban populations. These sometimes small patches of prairie habitat do not have large dramatic features, such as mountains or canyons that draw vacationers’ attention from states away. Most remaining prairies are also no longer large enough to host their once charismatic herds of grazing megafauna, the American bison. The amazing views of these smaller, modern-day prairies must be experienced up close and personal. This is a problem if you want to educate the public on the importance of protecting these fragile habitats, that are now fragmented and spread far from each other across such a vast continent.

Middle school children getting to know prairies up close and personal, at a prairie managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo credit: James Faupel.

My home city of St. Louis was once 61% prairie pre-European settlement. The only remnant prairie still existing here is a small plot at Calvary Cemetery, which has had to have extensive restoration work done to remove trees, shrubs, and exotic invasive plants from smothering it out of existence.

The prairie remnant at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis City looking very open after some much needed restoration work, consisting of tree and shrub removal. Photo credit: James Faupel.

Many organizations in St. Louis have begun to reconstruct prairies here over the years, to help regain this lost habitat for local wildlife and to be able to get these valuable grasslands back in view of the public. Some of the earliest prairie reconstructions in the Greater St. Louis Region started in the 1970s and 80s. Specifically within St. Louis City & County, this practice didn’t begin until the 80s. I have the pleasure of working on one of those prairies reconstructed in the 1980’s, at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a prairie started and managed by Missouri Botanical Garden staff. The ecology center is a private education site dedicated to working with K-12 teachers, to improve upon their ability to engage their students in place-based education, using our local ecology as the framework.

Recent work at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center suggests that St. Louis prairies are making a comeback. Our 2021 spring intern, Lydia Soifer, began work on an independent research project looking at prairie habitat connectivity within St. Louis City & County. Through this project Lydia and I generated a count of 58 small-scale, urban prairie reconstructions managed by various entities within this highly populated area. There are also many more prairie reconstructions in the 7 surrounding counties within Missouri and Illinois.  

With an increase of 58 small prairies slowly over 40 years, this may seem like a time to celebrate, but this prairie resurgence should not be taken lightly. Some of these new prairies are now at risk of failure. Prairie reconstructions cannot be left to their own devices in our modern, highly human influenced world. Investment in both ongoing habitat maintenance and the continued education of staff is a necessity, or these prairie reconstructions can quickly turn into fields of exotic invasive weeds or full of aggressive trees and shrubby growth. Even at 32 years old, the urban prairie I work at still needs continued maintenance to keep it a “native prairie”.

Challenges facing urban prairie stewards range from intense seed pressure from surrounding invasive plants, severe runoff and volatile urban waterways, minimal funding and educational resources, fire & smoke restrictions that limit the chance of using prescribed fire, and heavy browsing from oversized whitetail deer populations. Many businesses and organizations outsource with private contractors for their prairie maintenance, which can have some beneficial and detrimental outcomes. There is not a constant visual presence overseeing the land they hold, but it can be much more affordable than permanent staff. Sometimes the only maintenance is periodic visits from dedicated volunteers. The decision to reconstruct a prairie should be well thought out and planned for optimal long-term care. Placement should be targeted for areas where a new prairie could help connect existing fragmented habitats to improve urban wildlife corridors.

A prairie planting reclaims some space previously occupied by turf grass on a steep hillside at Bellerive Park, a St. Louis City Park. Photo credit: James Faupel.

Are these human-made prairies working?

So, it appears prairie reconstructions are gaining some ground within St. Louis and surrounding areas of the Midwest. How do we know if these reconstructions are being successful? What is success? Data collection of any kind is minimal to non-existent across these local sites, so assigning a value to these lands could be considered speculative at best.  

When I transferred to the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in 2018, I took notice of data previously collected there relating to pollinators (I have a passion for animal associations with native flora.). There were collection records from around the year 2000, of the now federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), the endangered (IUCN Red List) Southern plains bumble bee (Bombus fraternus), and the vulnerable (IUCN Red List) American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus). This is the only confirmed record of the rusty patched bumble bee in St. Louis, and its range has now shrunk considerably in recent times and can only be found much farther to our northeast. After surveying the reconstructed prairies at my work, I was able to find these two latter bumble bee species of concern. I was curious. Could more of the prairies around St. Louis be supporting the potentially declining populations of Southern plains and American bumble bees?  

Left image – A Southern plains bumble bee queen nectaring on spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis). Right image – An American bumble bee worker visiting great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Photo credits: James Faupel.

Previously, not much was known specifically about the rare Southern plains bumble bee in the St. Louis region. According to the Checklist of the Bees of St. Louis, MO (Camilo et al. 2017) only two records within the city had been collected, in addition to the collection I mentioned earlier from the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in St. Louis County. According to many local bee specialists, the American bumblebee used to be commonly seen all around St. Louis, but the Checklist notes only 3 sites that it was recorded at during their recent surveys. After spending a lot of my free time surveying St. Louis prairies, woodlands, and gardens over the last three years, I have found very promising results in the prairies.  

Six of the larger and older prairie reconstructions in St. Louis City and County, with moderately rich species lists of native plants, were found to contain and support the Southern plains bumble bee, sometimes two to three years in a row. Many more of the prairies I visited supported the American bumblebee. Shutterbee, a local citizen science project I partner with, has recorded 3 Southern plains bumble bees and over a hundred American bumble bees from bi-weekly bee surveys in private home gardens in St. Louis City and County over the last two years. This shows there may be increased value in native plant gardens placed near prairies, for enlarging the foraging areas of bumble bees. 

I am also beginning to see a trend with these two species’ floral choices. These two species of conservation concern seem much more reliant on native prairie plants than some of their more common bumble bee counterparts, that are flexible enough in their diets to visit many more exotic flowers. For the moment, this is just observational data, but at least it is showing that there is value in the hard work being done bringing these grasslands back to urban spaces. There are many other ways we could begin to assign value to man-made prairies, but more data collection needs to be done across the board on urban prairies. 

All of these same prairie reconstructions containing milkweeds, blazing stars, sunflowers, asters, or goldenrods have also been recorded to attract in the majestic, migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Last December, the monarch was nearly put on the U.S. endangered species list. The US Fish and Wildlife Service put off this decision for a few years and will revisit it. If the well-known monarch butterfly does indeed get listed as endangered in the near future, will there be a vast new interest in prairie reconstruction? Will there be more investment in prairie protection and reconstruction from municipalities, utilities, corporations and other large land holders? If a quick surge of interest arises, education about these unique ecosystems and their management will be needed more than ever. 

There are current opportunities to capitalize on the revitalized interest in the outdoors that the pandemic brought about, and with urban populations projected to outpace their rural counterparts in the future, native ecosystems will need to be brought to the people, to spark their curiosity and passion with nature. Without urban prairie reconstructions, we won’t be able to inspire the future volunteers, donors, conservation voters, and land stewards needed to care for and protect remnant lands. Urban prairie reconstructions are therefore integral in the process of preserving our rural remnant prairies, while also being ecologically biodiverse and important in their own right. We need more prairie reintroduced into North America and we need continued investment in their long-term care and monitoring. We aren’t just hoping to save endangered species, we are also hoping to save our continent’s most endangered ecosystem.

A monarch butterfly visiting New England aster (Symphyotrichum nova-angliae) at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center’s 5-year-old prairie reconstruction. Photo credit: James Faupel.

The Eco-index research programme: Aotearoa New Zealand’s answer for effective investment in biodiversity restoration

Catherine Kirby is the Communication & Relationships Manager for the Eco-index research programme as well as Programme Manager for the People, Cities & Nature research programme, part of the Four Islands EcoHealth Network. Here Catherine explains the novel approach of the Eco-index Programme and how it is focussed on reversing biodiversity decline on the islands of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s biodiversity has a unique story

Indigenous biodiversity in Aotearoa New Zealand is in dangerous decline – this is not a unique situation on the world stage. However, the story of how we got to this point and our planned approach towards recovery could be perceived as rather novel.

Kea (Nestor notabilis) – endemic to New Zealand and the world’s only alpine parrot. Credit: BioHeritage Challenge.

Our biogeographical story

The fascinating islands of Aotearoa New Zealand have been isolated in the Pacific Ocean for up to 80 million years. The islands are long and narrow, straddling latitudes from 34° to 47° south and encountering climates from subtropical in the north to subantarctic in far south. The country experiences a highly changeable climate that is coupled with wildly variable geographic features. In Te Ika a Māui – the North Island, landscapes range from white sandy beaches to active volcanoes and rugged western coast lines. While in Te Wai Pounamu – the South Island, you can encounter temperate rainforests, dramatic glacial fjords, dry open plains as well as the rugged Southern Alps.

This isolation, habitat and climatic variability in an island context has influenced the evolution of unique indigenous flora and fauna with a high degree of endemism (100% of frogs and reptiles, 90% of insects and approximately 80% of vascular plants) and a particular fragility and vulnerability to predation and competition from invasive non-native plants and animals.

Delicate flowers of the New Zealand endemic Pittosporum cornifolium. Credit: Catherine Kirby.

New Zealand’s National Science Challenges

Despite extensive reporting on biodiversity decline in Aotearoa New Zealand, an effective approach for reversing the loss of our special indigenous species has not been identified. This is where the National Science Challenges come in.

Established in 2014 by the New Zealand government, the 11 cross-disciplinary, mission-led National Science Challenges are working to address science-based wicked problems that researchers and residents are most concerned about. The Science Challenges focus on many aspects of society, the natural environment, the urban environment and economic development. They involve collaboration between universities, other academic institutions, crown research institutes, businesses and non-government organisations. Together, the Challenges will receive NZ$680 million (US$491.5 million) of government funding over ten years.

Biodiversity and biosecurity are central for New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge | Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho (or, ‘BioHeritage Challenge’ for short). The BioHeritage Challenge is focussed on discovering the most effective means of protecting and managing native biodiversity, improving biosecurity and enhancing resilience to harmful organisms. This work is centred on three core goals and is grounded in strong values that embrace partnerships with Māori (indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand):

The three core goals of the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge | Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho.
Values of the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge | Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho.

Introducing the Eco-index programme

The Eco-index programme is one of 14 research teams in the BioHeritage Challenge. With a focus on the Whakamana (Empower) goal, the Eco-index team is thinking outside the square to measure and direct land managers’ investment in ecological restoration.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a significant evidence base that biodiversity decline is occurring, but an effective countrywide approach to reverse this trend has not eventuated. A team of national and international experts from many different fields spent 6 months developing our novel Eco-index approach to address this issue and specified a starting with the formation of a long-term biodiversity vision, followed by a means of accomplishing the vision.

Kiwi (Apteryx australis) – flightless, nocturnal, and endemic to New Zealand. Credit: BioHeritage Challenge.

Eco-index 100-year national vision for biodiversity restoration

To guide long-term change, the Eco-index programme has developed a 100-year national vision that is informed by the targets, perspectives and strategies of biodiversity stakeholders across our nation, including iwi (Māori tribal groups), businesses, communities, NGOs, primary industries and governmental organisations.

The resulting shared vision for Aotearoa New Zealand is based on thriving, ecologically robust corridors of indigenous landcover that stretch from mountains to the sea. These biodiverse corridors will link our conservation estate with private and production landscapes and contribute to 15% of original ecosystem extent being restored, protected and connected in every catchment.

To contribute to methods for development of national restoration visions internationally, we are in the process of publishing our vision creation methodology in the primary literature.

Achieving the vision: linking biodiversity investment with impact

The Eco-index programme is utilising existing big data to quantify investment that land managers of all types are making to benefit indigenous biodiversity. These investments include restoration practices like native plantings, control of non-native invasive mammals (e.g., rats and stoats), protection of indigenous ecosystems, and planning work that goes into all of these. We are then linking this investment with big data indicating the impact these investments have on biodiversity. These data include indigenous species increases or decreases, especially those of importance to Māori, indigenous landcover, and human-nature connectedness. These links will be made at national, regional, iwi (Māori tribal groups) and industry scales and will provide:

  1. an overall score of Aotearoa New Zealand’s biodiversity status updated regularly and shown at different scales, therefore showing trends over time;
  2. biodiversity impact comparisons between industries and trends over time;
  3. determine overall investments needed for effective biodiversity restoration by key land managers (e.g., government, industries, iwi, NGOS);
  4. determine correlations between levels of investment in biodiversity restoration and levels of impact on biodiversity status nationally, regionally, and across industries;
  5. identify best or most effective biodiversity protection and restoration investments by major region and industry.
Children planting indigenous trees to benefit local biodiversity. Credit Catherine Kirby.

How is the Eco-index approach novel?

Our point of difference is that we are co-designing with key land managers across the country to understand what will help them most. A large proportion of indigenous ecosystems in Aotearoa New Zealand is on privately-owned agricultural land and many land managers are passionate about protecting and enhancing indigenous biodiversity but need to know best actions to take. Our programme will identify the most effective incremental investments that land managers (including iwi), as well as investors and communities, can make to generate the cumulative intergenerational impact needed to reverse decline. Creating and tracking this change using the Eco-index outputs will enable an effective, collective journey. 

In time, the Eco-index will indicate our Aotearoa New Zealand’s biodiversity performance, much like GDP indicates economic performance.

Current Eco-index focus – June 2021

The Eco-index programme runs from 2020 to 2024. We are building relationships with key land managers and data owners to co-design our approach and discover efficient ways to work together for the benefit of indigenous biodiversity. We are also developing methodology for gathering and analysing relevant biodiversity investment and impact data. The application of fast-evolving artificial intelligence and machine learning technology may be the key for cost-effective analysis of existing big data and satellite imagery across Aotearoa New Zealand.

About our team

We have expertise in Aotearoa New Zealand ecology, economics, sustainable development, land management systems and ecological restoration. The Eco-index team is led by Dr. John Reid (Ngāti Pikiao, Tainui, JD Reid Ltd.) and Dr. Kiri Joy Wallace (Te Pūtahi Rangahau Taiao – Environmental Research Institute, University of Waikato).

Keep up to date!

Interested in the Eco-index programme? See more at www.eco-index.nz and like/follow us on Facebook and Twitter to be updated on our progress and discoveries:

Conserving and restoring Missouri bladderpod, a US Midwestern endemic

Matthew Albrecht is a Scientist in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development at Missouri Botanical Garden. Here he describes a recent fieldtrip to the Ouchita Mountains to study outlying populations of the federally threatened Missouri bladderpod, Physaria filiformis.

Situated between Rocky Mountains to the west and the Appalachians to the east lies the often overlooked Ouachita (pronounced WAH-shi-tah) Mountains of central and western Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma. Unlike the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, the Ouachitas are a relatively small mountain chain that trends primarily east-west. Despite occupying a relatively small area, the Ouachitas harbor a large proportion of the region’s plant diversity and represent a remarkable center for endemism including many rare plants species with extremely narrow distributions.

On a recent spring afternoon, Christy Edwards and I had the opportunity to visit the relatively rare and poorly studied shale outcroppings of the Ouachitas with botanists Brent Baker and Diana Soteropoulos of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. In the Ouachitas, shale formations outcrop on gentle to steep south- or west-facing slopes and occasionally on gently sloping drainages. Upon first glance, these outcroppings with exposed fragments of thin, black shale and patches of sparse vegetation cover appear somewhat other worldly. Upon closer inspection, one finds tucked between shale fragments a number of xeric-adapted herbaceous species capable of surviving in this harsh environment, where the dark, sun-scorched shale at the surface creates extreme ecological conditions.

Ouachita shale glade and barrens. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.
Xeric-adapted species specialize on the thinnest soil portions of shale outcrops. Photo by Christy Edwards.

Shale barrens and glades are mosaic plant communities consisting of a remarkable number of endemic, rare, and narrowly-distributed species. According to NatureServe, 36 plant species of state conservation concern and more than 20 globally critically imperiled, imperiled, or vulnerable species occur in this system. New species are still occasionally discovered and a few species remain undescribed in the Ouachita shale barrens. For example, we saw a striking purple-flowered undescribed species of wild hyacinth (Camassia sp. nova) during our visit.

An undescribed wild hyacinth (Camassia sp. nova) growing in a shale glade and barren complex owned and managed by the Ross Foundation. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

The star of the show that day and the focus of our research expedition to the Ouachitas was the federally threatened Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis).  Many members of the genus Physaria – commonly known as bladderpods due to their inflated seed pods – are recognized for their narrow distributions and edaphic endemism, or restriction to unusual soils. As a small-statured winter annual, Missouri bladderpod showcases brilliant yellow flowers in early spring and specializes on thin-soiled calcareous (dolomite and limestone) outcrops in northern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. However, at its southern range limit in the Ouachitas, Missouri bladderpod is known from just a few isolated shale glades and barrens.

A profusion of flowering Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis). Photo by Christy Edwards.
Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis) displaying inflated fruits on a shale outcropping. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

Prior to visiting the Ouachitas I wondered how a presumed calciphile like Missouri bladderpod existed on shale formations, which typically produce acidic soils. Perhaps like a few other species of rocky outcrops in the region – such as Sedum pulchelum (widow’s cross), and Mononeuria patula (lime-barren sandwort) which occur on both acidic and calcareous substrates – I surmised MO bladderpod may also tolerate a broader range of edaphic conditions than previously thought. However, I soon learned the shale outcroppings we visited were interbedded with limestone and supported other calciphilic indicator species such as Ophioglossum engelmannii.

A case of cryptic speciation in the Ouachitas

Once known only from limestone glades in southwestern Missouri, botanists over the years have discovered populations of Missouri bladderpod on limestone, dolomite, and shale outcroppings in scattered locations throughout Arkansas, denying Missouri’s claim of its only endemic species. A recent study led by Christy Edwards at the Missouri Botanical Garden examined range-wide (Arkansas and Missouri) genetic variation in Missouri bladderpod and the degree of genetic differentiation among populations on limestone, dolomite, and shale. Interestingly, genetic data showed isolation by distance – meaning that as geographic distance increased among populations so too did genetic differentiation. Most strikingly, the geographically isolated shale populations in the Ouachitas were highly genetically divergent from dolomite and limestone glade populations further north in Arkansas and Missouri. This strong pattern of genetic differentiation points to a possible cryptic speciation event in the Ouachitas and a previously unrecognized extremely rare species. On one hand, the genetic data was somewhat surprising given there are no obvious morphological differences among Ouachita shale populations and P. filiformis. Conversely, the data do support the remarkable pattern of narrow-endemism observed throughout the Ouachita Mountains. 

As we trekked across Arkansas for a few days – along with Brent and Diana who generously shared their time and expertise – collecting fresh material of Missouri bladderpod for a deeper research dive into whether morphological traits differentiate this previously unrecognized cryptic species in the Ouachitas, the need to conserve and restore glade habitat became ever clearer. At present, there are only three known Ouachita populations, making this cryptic species extremely rare and vulnerable to extinction. Many shale glade and barrens systems are now severely damaged or have been destroyed by mining activities. Fortunately, the largest population we visited consisted of thousands of plants scattered across a shale glade and barrens complex that has been restored and managed with fire and woody thinning by the Ross Foundation. In the absence of periodic, appropriately-timed prescribed burning, glades and barrens slowly become encroached with woody species that eventually choke-out sun-loving plants like Missouri bladderpod.

A large, restored shale glade and barrens complex in the Ouachita Mountains.

Other populations of Missouri bladderpod eek out an existence on small stretches of outcrops on roadsides or private property maintained as cattle pasture. These sites prove challenging to conserve and restore. Sadly, we did visit some sites where populations were barely surviving due to degraded habitat conditions. However, two sites we visited gave us a glimmer of hope that Missouri bladderpod will continue to survive and thrive. First was a newly discovered dolomite glade population on private property in north-central Arkansas. The property owners recently thinned woody vegetation and began prescribed burning to restore their glade and woodland ecosystem. When we visited, Missouri bladderpod was thriving after a recent prescribed burn. Similarly, the second site we visited on public property had been thinned and burned in recent years, resulting in a diverse plant community and flourishing Missouri bladderpod population. These success stories illustrate the importance of restoring degraded habitat to conserve our rarest components of biodiversity.

Population of Missouri bladderpod growing on a roadside dolomite outcropping and pasture in north-central Arkansas.
A degraded site with woody encroachment and a small, declining population of Missouri bladderpod.
A restored hillside glade with a thriving population of Missouri bladderpod.

To learn more about the Missouri bladderpod, read the new, open access paper by Christy Edwards, Matthew Albrecht and others.

30 dump truck loads of coffee pulp help restore a Costa Rican rainforest

Rakan “Zak” Zahawi is the executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation in Galápagos, Ecuador. He and his collaborator, Rebecca Cole, partnered with a coffee processing plant to repurpose farm waste and help restore a rainforest. Read more about the project in an open access article in Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

From the very first time I saw the results of the orange peel project on the ground back in 2004 I was sold! What a brilliant idea I thought – use the waste products generated from the production of orange juice (and any related citrus products) to regenerate degraded habitats where expansive dry forests were once found. The idea was Dan Janzen’s, an ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked in northern Costa Rica for the better part of 50 years. At the time I was working for the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and given that I work as an ecologist in forest restoration, a colleague thought I might be interested.

One of thirty dump truck loads of coffee pulp, locally called brosa, spread on former farmland to restore rainforest in southern Costa Rica. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.

The idea is simple, take truckloads of agricultural waste (in this case orange peels) and spread them in a layer ~0.5 m thick across hectares of extremely degraded land dominated by forage grasses. Under the tropical sun this layer generates an enormous amount of heat, and in the process of ‘cooking’ down it asphyxiates and kills the forage grass that is notoriously difficult to eradicate. At the same time, birds and other seed dispersers visit the site, attracted by the abundant larvae helping to decompose the material. The net result is a lot of organic material and nutrients and many seeds dispersed combining to help jump-start the recovery of a degraded habitat and return it to a forested state.

I never forgot that visit and over the years that I worked in southern Costa Rica as Director of the Las Cruces Biological Station (a field station run by OTS) I always thought of trying the study there. The difference was that there was no orange production in the region but another agricultural byproduct was widely available – coffee pulp waste! I wondered – could the results of the orange project be replicated with another agricultural waste product? While the idea was always on my mind, it took more than a decade for me to actually test it after Rebecca Cole, a long-term research colleague who was based at the University of Hawaii expressed interest in collaborating.

Before: a former cattle pasture in southern Costa Rica. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.
During: coffee pulp piled half a meter high over the experimental plot. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.
After: the area piled high with coffee pulp rapidly grew into a secondary forest (left) while the control area remained covered in pasture grass, as it has been for decades (right). Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.

With funds secured from the March Conservation Fund, we setup a modest pilot study with a 35 × 45 m plot buried half a meter deep. That’s 30 dump trucks – or 360 m3 of material! As with the orange peel study, this land was primarily degraded pasture and would have been slow to recover on its own. We monitored this and an adjacent similar-sized plot for 2 years and the results were nothing short of spectacular. While the control treatment languished with overgrown grasses with a few shrubs, the coffee waste plot was completely transformed. The grass was smothered and in its place a patch of young trees. All species were pioneers but they are nonetheless critical to the recovery process – and the fact that they dominated the entire plot was really promising. With time it is hoped that more mature forest species will come into this system and establish – and with a young canopy of pioneers providing a little shade, the conditions are perfect for this to happen!

Drone image showing the area where coffee pulp was dumped (left) and the control plot (right) after two years. Photo credit: Rakan Zahawi.

This study is a small pilot project, but the results speak for themselves. So does the coffee industry! Every year, millions of tons of coffee pulp waste are generated and finding a way to not only dispose of this waste in an ecologically sound manner, but also use it for habitat recovery is a win-win for everybody. It is exceedingly rare for industry to be able to pair up so seamlessly with conservation and restoration that it is hard to believe. Of course, there are hurdles – such as governmental regulations that manage such waste products, but the potential here is enormous.  And the next challenge before us is to see if we can bring this idea to scale and test the methodology across big areas of degraded habitat in the tropics. We will keep you posted!

Read more about this project in a recent open-access article published in Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

Translocating a threatened totem: The impacts of mining on a culturally-significant species

Holly Bradley, Bill Bateman, and Adam Cross (Curtin University) describe the natural history and conservation of the Western Spiny-tailed Skink, an Australian lizard with a mixed history of translocation success. For more information, read their 2020 review on migration translocations in Conservation Biology.

Australia harbors approximately 10% of the Earth’s reptile species, and over 96% of all lizards and snakes occurring there are found nowhere else in the world. However, this incredible and irreplaceable biodiversity is under threat. Australia is one of the highest contributors to species losses globally, with over 1700 species and ecological communities threatened with extinction. In the last 20 years alone the number of threatened reptiles has nearly doubled, with 61 species now federally listed.

The Western Spiny-tailed Skink (Egernia stokesii badia) is just one example of a unique, endemic reptile threatened with extinction in Australia. Continued habitat degradation from practices such as grazing and mineral extraction (largely iron ore) are some of the major contributors to population decline.

The Western Spiny-tailed Skink (Egernia stokesii badia), an endangered Australian reptile threatened by habitat loss and disturbance from mining and farming activities. Photo: Holly Bradley

Western Spiny-tailed Skinks are one of the most social of all snake and lizard species – an uncommon trait among reptiles. Colonies of the skinks reside together in log ‘castles’, consisting of hollow logs and fallen branches. These natural structures provide a year-round residence for the skinks, who create latrine piles in select areas outside of the logs in order to keep the hollows clean.

Cultural significance

As well as being an ecologically unique threatened subspecies, with distinct spined scales particularly on their tails, and occurring only in a small region of Western Australia, spiny-tailed skinks are also culturally significant. PhD researcher Holly Bradley met with Badimia elder Darryl Fogarty to discuss the cultural significance of the skinks in her study area, the southern region of the Mid West. Elder Darryl Fogarty informed the local name of the skinks to be meelyu, and for some members of the regional community they represent a sacred totem. Totemic animals are common for many Indigenous groups across Australia and are linked with the worldview that people are an integral part of nature, belonging to a network of spiritual and physical entities.

Often, a totem will represent one’s connection with one’s nation, clan or family group. With a preordained totem comes a spiritual responsibility, where a person is accountable for the stewardship of their totem, meaning it is protected and passed down to the next generation. For many groups, this means that a person cannot eat the animal totem. Before Europeans colonized Australia, this traditional practice contributed to maintaining biodiversity and ensuring an abundance of food supplies; part of ‘caring for country,’ or maintaining ecosystem health.

The reverence with which totemic species were regarded helped to prevent significant declines in certain animal population numbers in the past. However, after the imposition of European land management into Western Australia, changes have occurred to the ecosystem balance. For example, large areas of native vegetation have been cleared, largely for urban development and agriculture, and the introduction of hoofed livestock has degraded and compacted soils. Introduction of domestic animals has also led to feral cat invasion across over 99.8% of the Australian land mass, which has led to wildlife devastation. For the skink, these changes have meant significant population declines throughout its Mid West range.

Example of in-tact open Eucalypt woodland (skink habitat) at risk of continued degradation from grazing and mining practices in the Mid West region of Western Australia. Photo: Holly Bradley.

Translocation requirements

In the face of continued transformation, habitat loss, and landscape-scale degradation, one of the ways in which Australia is trying to combat biodiversity loss is by relocating wildlife away from areas where they are likely to be (or definitely will be) impacted by these threats. Under Commonwealth regulation, if a proposed action by a mining company, such clearing of native vegetation, causes significant impact to a threatened species, approval may be conditional upon mitigation or offset measures, such as the translocation of individuals away from the threat. However, translocation is rarely a condition included as part of a decision notice without a high degree of certainty of success.

For non-threatened species, there are no Commonwealth laws which require a standard for translocations, and decisions are made on an ad hoc basis, generally with assisted relocation of larger charismatic mammals such as kangaroos and quenda, allowing local cities or councils a social license to continue urban development, without providing ongoing funding to monitor the long-term success of these translocations. After analyzing the outcomes of hundreds of translocation efforts around the world, we (Bradley et al. 2020) urge all land managers to shift their thinking away from what appears to be a poorly effective strategy. Although removing animals from areas destined for clearing might appear a simple resolution to the threats posed by activities such as urban sprawl or mining, it does not actually guarantee the survival of the individuals that are ‘saved’.  In fact, our review of this practice indicates that there is little follow-up on the success of translocation and many translocations may result in the eventual death of the translocated individuals.

To be successful, translocations need to ensure not only that relocated individuals survive but also that they contribute to the long-term persistence of a self-sustaining, reproducing population. Many mitigation-motivated translocations, i.e., relocations that respond to an immediate threat to individuals, have only the single goal of moving an individual or population away from the immediate danger. However, for these animals to actually survive and persist, it is critical that the design of translocation efforts be informed by sound science and an understanding of the complex ecology of the different species targeted for “saving”. Crucially, it is essential to monitor the translocated animals to understand their behaviour in the new location, estimate likely population viability in that location, and better understand and communicate how translocation efforts might be improved in the future.

We have just entered the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which represents a growing global commitment towards preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems. However, for there to be the restoration and protection of fully functioning, healthy ecosystems, it is important for translocations to target a suite of ecologically significant species, rather than just the larger, charismatic mammals. Current biases generally exclude consideration of reptiles within assessments of mine site restoration success, despite their particularly high diversity and abundance within the arid mining regions of Australia, and their occupation of important ecological niches. The well-known ‘Field of Dreams’ idea, presented as one of the abiding myths of restoration ecology, assumes native animals will return on their own after revegetation of a site but, in practice, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Example of a naturally occurring log pile surrounded by everlastings (Rhodanthe collina) and red soil typical of the Mid West region of Western Australia. Log piles typically consist of a single fallen Eucalyptus tree log, overlapped by a number of branches. Photo: Holly Bradley.

Translocation case study: spiny-tailed skinks

As iron ore extraction continues in Western Spiny-tailed Skink’s habitat throughout the Mid West region, future translocations of colonies of this endangered reptile are likely. Understanding the basic requirements for establishment and persistence is crucial, and gathering this knowledge requires significant investment in research and monitoring. For example, detailed studies are required of the diet and habitat log pile characteristics needed for colonies to thrive. As these skinks are shy and observational records are difficult to obtain, this means other research methods are required, such as collecting scats for visual and genetic analysis of the invertebrate and plant contents of their diet. A more informed understanding of diet can help improve translocation site selection, as it is important to know what plant and animal species are important food sources that must be present or else be planted or reintroduced in restoration sites for successful recolonization.

An adult and juvenile spiny-tailed skink (Egernia stokesii badia) sharing a log pile as their permanent residence. Photo: Holly Bradley.

Another example of critical information to promote successful translocations is understanding the key predation threats to the Western Spiny-tailed Skink. Despite the protection of their unique spined tails which allow them to lodge tightly into crevices and act as a defensive mechanism against attack, they are still at risk of decline from predation. One method to understand the key predators of skinks within the Mid West has been to place camera traps at active colony sites. Below is an example of an image captured of a feral cat with an adult skink in its mouth, indicating that control of feral predators, particularly cats, is likely to be critical in ensuring the initial survival of relocated skink individuals.

Feral cat with an adult spiny-tailed skink within its mouth, at a log pile site within the Mid West. Footage captured using a motion-activated camera. Photo: Holly Bradley.

It is also important to understand how translocated individuals integrate within the recipient ecosystem, and that they do not introduce any non-native parasites, or outcompete any native species for food resources. Research by Bradley et al. (2020) shows that those who undertake mitigation translocations rarely consider the long-term impacts of how translocated animals affect the recipient ecosystem, and if the carrying capacity of the translocation site has space for the introduction of new individuals.

Translocation can be expensive (for example, the relocation of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in Namibia cost about $2800 USD per individual), and the continued funding and implementation of ad hoc species relocations to justify continued habitat loss may be both wrong-headed and a waste of limited conservation dollars. Translocation is also a highly stressful practice for the animals, and it is counter-productive to go through such efforts if there are no territories or food resources available for their survival.

To improve the outcome of future translocations of the Western Spiny-tailed Skink, it is also important to understand the complexity of the recipient ecosystem and how best to help translocated individuals assimilate there. Detailed habitat assessment and locating appropriate log pile structures can determine if the recipient site is appropriate for the skinks, and targeted surveys can determine if skinks are already present within the area. Selection of translocation sites as close as possible to the source location will prevent the co-introduction of non-native parasites or diseases.

An adult Western Spiny-tailed Skink sunbathing on a log pile. Photo: Holly Bradley

The way forward

Less than half of all published studies undertaking translocations compared or tested different techniques (Bradley et al. 2020). Without a comparison of different techniques, such as whether supplementary feeding during an ‘acclimation’ phase at the translocation site or if the establishment of temporary fencing might help population establishment compared with simply releasing animals into new habitat, it will be very difficult to improve translocation practices for the future. Given current success rates are less than 25% for mitigation translocations around the world (i.e., the number resulting in self-sustaining populations), there is huge room for improvement. A holistic approach to land management considering both ecological and cultural significance can both protect and restore community wellbeing, as well as promote the return of functional, self-sustaining ecosystems in restoration practice.

For more information, read our 2020 review of migration translocation success in Conservation Biology: Bradley H, Tomlinson S, Craig M, Cross AT, Bateman B. 2020. Mitigation translocation as a management tool. Conservation Biology https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13667.