Get to know the fire community: Chris Helzer

Chris helzer at scotts bluff national monument.

Chris helzer at scotts bluff national monument.

GPE: Your blog is titled “Prairie Ecologist”, but how do you describe your professional interests and expertise?

I do consider myself to be a prairie ecologist.  What I enjoy most is implementing a land management or restoration technique, watching the results, and then figuring out what we can learn and incorporate into our next attempt.  Over time, I’ve increased the amount of time I spend sharing what we learn with others.  I try to be a generalist in terms of how I look at and manage prairies.  My graduate work dealt with grassland birds, but I now think much more about plants and invertebrates than birds, and I try to keep learning about new species and ecological interactions each year.

GPE: Ultimately, what is your goal for the blog?

I view my blog as a more current and interactive version of my prairie management book (The Ecology and Management of Prairies).  The blog is closing in on 2000 subscribers, and attracts many other readers that visit regularly but don’t subscribe.  A large percentage of readers are prairie managers, landowners, or prairie conservationists.  I hope to provide those readers with food for thought and discussions that will help them improve the quality of the grasslands they interact with.  Other people just read the blog for the photos and because they have a broad interest in nature or conservation.  For that audience, I try to just raise awareness about the beauty and value of prairies, in the hope that I can build a bigger constituency for prairie.  The blog is one of a spectrum of outreach tools I use, including print publications, field days, presentations, and workshops.

GPE: How did you come to work in the world of grassland ecology?

I went to college planning to be a forest ranger but was introduced to prairies by a friend who convinced me that they were an underdog ecosystem that needed help.  It didn’t take long to get hooked. 

GPE: Where does fire fit in your ecological interests?

I see fire as an important tool for many things, but I don’t worry too much about applying it in any kind of historically-accurate kind of way.  Instead, I look for ways that it can help us control woody encroachment, focus grazing impacts, alter habitat structure, and suppress/stimulate various components of the prairie plant community.

GPE: Describe your land management style? How do you go about instituting adaptive management?

I like messiness.  I want every part of our prairie to experience different conditions from year to year so that no species or group becomes dominant and we maintain the highest possible diversity of species.  We make management plans year by year, rather than focusing longer term.  That lets us evaluate the weather and management impacts from the previous year and design the coming year’s management accordingly.  We have broad goals for each prairie, but annual objectives can vary quite a bit from year to year, depending upon what we see happening and want to respond to.

GPE: What are the most important questions we need to answer for grasslands today?

I think the absolute most important issue has to do with economics and policy – we need to figure out how to prevent grasslands from being converted to other land cover types that, at least in the short term, provide more income to the landowner.  Solving that issue is above my pay grade, but I try to do my part by raising awareness of the value of diverse native grasslands and helping to find ways to maintain diversity that still allow grasslands to pay their way.

Aside from that big monster, there are a lot of important questions about how degraded a prairie can become before it can recover with good management, about how to restore prairies that have passed that threshold, and about the level of species diversity (plants, invertebrates, and other) that is needed to make prairies resilient in the face of human activities and climate change.  Included within that are myriad questions that we need to answer to understand how prairies actually work; the role of species (especially those belowground) in the prairie community, and how they respond to impacts from us and their environment.

GPE: What questions are you working to answer?

I’ve spent a lot of time refining techniques for restoring cropland to high-diversity grassland.  Now we’re trying to figure out how effective we’ve been at actually defragmenting the landscape with that kind of restoration – do bees, ants, mice, plants, birds, and other taxa move into and through our restored areas?

Our work on the Platte River has really shifted recently toward increasing plant diversity in degraded prairies that have a long history of chronic overgrazing and broadcast herbicide use.  We are working on strategies for overseeding those areas and then looking both at initial establishment and long-term viability of those new plants.

The third focus of our work has been on figuring out how to manage prairies to maintain species diversity and ecological resilience.  Fire and grazing are important components of that, but we also want to find effective management strategies for managers who don’t have one or both of those tools available.  It’s important for us to come up with core principles and tactics that most private and public landowners/managers can understand and implement, so while we really like using variations on patch-burn grazing, we also want to help landowners tweak the management systems that fit their individual personalities and sites instead of trying prescribe any particular management regime for them.

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