January 22, 2015

Yuccas will bounce back

In a recent post, I mentioned a wide-spread illness of yucca (Yucca glauca) in the Nebraska Sandhills.  The illness appeared as a yellowed leaf condition, and most individuals halted flowering at many sites that I observed, although pockets of 'normal' yuccas could be found.  The impact was felt by some UNL scientists who were trying to study yucca and pollinator interactions--it was hard to find flowering plants for their study.  That was odd and an unexpected problem.
Yucca in the north-central region of the Nebraska Sandhills
during the summer of 2014.  A yellow condition of the leaves
can be seen (photo by Larkin Powell).
Many people wondered--are we going to lose our yucca?

It appears the answer is no...they were just sick.  It has taken some time, but in December, a University plant pathologist has released a report on samples brought to the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, NE.

The report concluded that the plants from the sample provided were affected by a fungal disease called "Coniothyrium" or brown leaf spot.  A further explanation of the disease can be found, from a horticulture perspective, here.

Scientists from the UNL Center reflected that the spread of this disease was unusually widespread and severe.  As suggested previously, weather conditions and plant stress from the 2012 drought could be to blame. 

Although some plants did die, many yucca have already recovered.  Stop on the prairie next summer and take a look at the yucca you find.  Can you find new shoots or dead plants?  I'll bet if you look closely, you can find evidence of this disease.  But, it looks like yucca will be back to full strength in the Sandhills, and we can continue to appreciate them as a perching spot for grassland birds.  And, we can curse at them when we are stabbed by their leaves.

January 13, 2015

Prairie chickens in the Sandhills: information for ranchers

A chick rests in the hand of a UNL research scientist during habitat
studies in the Nebraska Sandhills.  (photo by Jess Milby)
My colleagues and I started thinking in 2008 about the need to provide ranchers in Nebraska's Sandhills with information to help them manage their pastures for prairie chickens. 

The problem is that most information that was available at that time was based on research in tall grass prairies.  Tall grass prairies receive more rain and have more grass and the vegetation is more dense.

The previous management guidelines routinely called for more grass to be left in the field than is typically found in a Sandhills pasture--so, Sandhills ranchers were faced with a dilemma: "Do I really have to abstain from grazing to provide for prairie chickens?"

The answer is no, and if you follow this link, you'll find a nice, glossy 20-page document that describes prairie chickens, their life history, their habitat needs, and how to provide for them on ranches in the Sandhills!

The Extension Circular is based on 5 years of research in the Sandhills, and the research was funded through Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  It was a huge collaborative effort, with multiple graduate students and summer technicians collecting a lot of data.  There was sweat involved.  And, a lot of love for the critter of interest.

Here's hoping that this is useful to someone.

July 16, 2014

What is happening to yucca in the Sandhills?

It is possible that yucca is the only plant, other than "grass", recognized by most people as they drive through the Nebraska Sandhills.  Yucca is the megaflora of the treeless plains.

That's right--yucca is the bison of the prairie plant world!

Yucca is pretty cool, too--it has a unique pollinator relationship with a moth.  The Sandhills species of yucca is Yucca glauca, which is also fun to say--try it 3-4 times fast.

Most of the Yucca glauca in the Nebraska Sandhills has turned
yellow this summer.  Very few are flowering.  Last year's flower
stalks are seen in this photo.   Photo by Larkin Powell 
Ranchers sometimes call it "soapweed" as the root was evidently used to make soap by pioneers.  You can try it if you want.

This summer, most of the yucca in the entire Sandhills region has turned a pale yellow.  UNL range ecologists first noticed this and have been pondering the event since May.  My colleagues informed me that a UNL plant pathologist is currently working to determine the cause, but it is believed a pathogen such as a bacteria may be responsible.

Yup--plants can get sick, too.

Plants may have gotten stressed in the 2012 drought and the severe 2013 winter.  No one yet knows if the yucca will recover, or if this will be fatal to many plants.  We do know that it is widespread--it is actually amazingly widespread.  On a recent trip to view my research projects, my colleague and I saw sickly yucca from Burwell to Ainsworth to Valentine to Thedford, and I recently saw similarly yellow yucca near Ogallala, Nebraska.  My photo here is from a ranch southwest of Valentine.

In our entire trip, we only viewed 5-6 flowering stalks as well.  Although each yucca plant does not flower every year, you would expect to see more flower stalks that we viewed--evidently the plant is saving resources to fight the pathogen.

What will this mean for the relationship with the plant's pollinators?  If yucca disappears from chunks of Sandhills grassland, how will this affect the ecosystem?  We'll save predictions until we know more about the fate of the plants, but it is clear something odd is happening to the yucca of the Sandhills this year.

And, it is another reminder that nothing ever stays the same.

June 28, 2014

Privacy issues: commercial access to public hunting and fishing license data

I was trolling through my emails on Tuesday evening, when
the following email popped up:

With the 2014 hunting season right around the corner, we are excited to share what we have to offer you at HUNTABC.com  [name changed].  We hope to make sure you have a memorable and successful season!

The State of Nebraska shared your contact information with us as someone who has hunted in the state in the past. We thought you might be interested in learning more about HUNTABC.com, and the exciting information and opportunities that we provide.

Well, that's interesting...my hunting license information was "shared" with an commercial entity?  How many of you were under the impression that your height, weight, last-4 digits of SS, address, and email, and credit card information might be considered public information to be shared with anyone who asks? 

I know that had not occurred to me.  It seemed especially odd, because I remembered (and a friend confirmed by showing me a screen-print of the hunting registration web page) that I was told that my information would NOT be shared with an outside entity when I registered to hunt.

So, on Wednesday, I wrote a constructive email to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to note my concern.  I noted that I had found a state statute that prohibited the use of election roles for commercial use, and I offered to help NGPC change the state statutes for hunting and fishing license roles in similar fashion.

NGPC responded: 

Permit information has been public for years and as you have read, by state statue, it is public information so it is supplied on request to organizations or individuals wishing to view it or use it. It is not prohibited from commercial use. The language on the permits purchase section is being corrected by the State Office of Chief Information Officer.

It wasn't exactly the type of response I had been hoping for.  No apology for the completely false picture of security they had painted on their registration web site.  Everything, apparently, was my fault for being so completely ignorant of public records policies.  Regardless, I repeated my offer to NGPC to help change state statute.

Why am I concerned about this?  Why is this a potential nightmare scenario for state agencies?

Well, state agencies across the country have been trying to lure (pun intended) fishing and hunting participants back to "the fold".  The number of anglers and hunters has seriously declined in the past decades.  Millions of dollars have been spent on this mission--urban fishing clinics, hunter education workshops, Outdoor Expos, and more. 

And, then, this out-of-state organization comes to Nebraska and asks for all of the names and emails (apparently that is all that was provided) from the hunting and fishing license roles.  By state statute, that request was approved (an internal memo at NGPC notes that no youth information was released).  Most amazingly, the company was silly enough to state that they had received my information from the state.  I guess that honesty is one saving grace...

Privacy issues are at the forefront of concerns of the American public at the moment (e.g., more are concerned about on-line privacy than terrorism).  All hunters and anglers were told, when they registered, that their information was secure and would not be released.  Will news of this breech of assumed security harm recruitment and retention issues?  I assume it will.  Will this make it harder for University researchers to conduct surveys of the public?  Sure it will--the first question we are asked during these interviews is "will my information be kept confidential?"

If NGPC was a company, I would move to a different company to get my hunting license.  But, I can't. 

The best move for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is to ask state legislators to pass a new statute that places license information in the same category as election roles.  There is no reason that hunting license information should be available for commercial use.  Period.

Image from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/251568329159389995/

June 18, 2014

Stormy weather affects wildlife as well

My state of Nebraska has seen its fair share of stormy weather recently, with 'twin twisters' this week, a large hail storm a couple weeks ago, and a variety of other weather that is common on the Great Plains.

As we think about the effects of stormy weather to crops and personal property and human life on the Plains, I thought I would post a couple videos to show the potential for weather to affect wildlife as well.

These two videos were from a project led by Josiah Dallmann, an undergraduate research student, and Lars Anderson, a graduate research associate, at the University of Nebraska during the summer of 2011.  We put videos on greater prairie-chicken nests to document nest attendance as well as nest predators.  These were taken on private ranch land south of Bassett, Nebraska.

The first video's purpose is to show you where the nest is, in the second video.  In this video, you should see a cute little clutch of light-colored eggs in the middle of the frame.  Then, at about 30 seconds, a hen returns to the nest after leaving to find food.  You'll see her come across the top of the image, and you can see the radio-collar that she is wearing--which allowed us to find her nest.  She settles on the nest and 'disappears'.


The second video shows a massive hail storm--the nest is not as easy to see, but is in the center under the taller vegetation.  During this storm, two other hens that we were monitoring died while protecting their nests.  The hen in the video survived the storm, and the video lasts until a hail stone hits the video cable and the video feed ends at that point.  You can skip towards the end of the video to see the hail...it starts with heavy rain and lightening.  Hail stones in the video are about the size of ping-pong balls!


We know that wildlife face tough conditions as they battle the elements to survive.  I have to admit that I never thought about what it might be like to sit on a nest through a large hail storm.