President’s Note: Native Plants and Ecosystem Management

I recently attended the state meeting of the Oklahoma Native Plant Society in Medicine Park, Oklahoma. We heard talks on the management challenges in the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge. I spoke on native plants and native pollinators.

The most interesting part of the meeting involved a presentation and discussion about all the challenges associated with managing ecosystems in the presence of human influences. We are part of the earth’s ecosystem, so completely removing the human factor doesn’t work.

The 60,000-acre Wichita Wildlife refuge was fenced decades ago. As a result, herbivores – represented by buffalo, elk, and longhorn cattle – are present year-round. Historically this was probably not the case, since the area had no permanent water sources until man installed dams to create small lakes. The herbivores probably migrated south to the Red River or north to the Washita River during the dry seasons.

Now, grazing occurs year-round. Fire suppression has allowed scrub oak to cover areas previously consisting of grassland. The refuge is home to the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla), an endangered species which requires scrub oak at “doorknob height” to nest. It abandons habitat with tall mature trees. Some invasive non-native plants are also present.

The refuge is surrounded by Fort Sill to the south, and residential areas and private land on other sides. The lakes are used recreationally, and hikers and bikers also use the refuge. Don’t forget the variable climate of the region, with periodic droughts.

These are just a few of the issues, but it hopefully gives an idea how challenging management can be under such pressures. Do you manage for how the refuge existed prior to fencing? How do you safely reintroduce fire as a management tool? Do you manage for all wildlife equally, or focus on the endangered species? And lastly, how do all these decisions affect the native plant community? The problem is establishing what the plant community looked like hundreds of years ago. What were the dominant grasses and forbs? Do all the same species currently exist, or have some been lost?

These same challenges exist in private land management today. Depending on your goals, decisions made today have both short- and long-term impacts. The Wichita Wildlife refuge sounds huge, with 60,000 acres, but in terms of an ecosystem, it is a small area.
Private lands are much, much smaller in most cases. Think of a city lot. This is what we call a fragmented ecosystem. Populations of wildlife and plants are isolated by land use patterns. This can lead to inbred populations and the resulting weak genetics. We can have a (non-native) bermudagrass pasture for livestock and horses, but a native wildflower plot near the house.

I don’t mean this to sound negative. Everyone can still have a positive impact; just be sure your goals are realistic based on where your land is located. In some states, like Florida and Georgia, highways have been elevated to allow black bears to migrate between habitats without crossing roads. This doesn’t benefit just bears, but also other wildlife moving between areas, reconnecting a fragmented habitat.

Those owning small acreages don’t have the means to impact wildlife in the same way, but there are still practices which can help. Leaving brushpiles, planting and managing small native prairies, managing riparian zones for wildlife, and leaving den trees in woodlands, just to name a small number of possibilities.

What about urban areas? Establishing a small native plant garden, or selecting native plants for your landscape, is something everyone can do. It doesn’t just benefit pollinators, but many other types of wildlife. Just imagine if a program resulted in the planting of several small wildflower beds in several large subdivisions. If everyone planted a small 4’ x 4’ bed, 2,722 homes would result in an acre of wildflowers. It may not sound like a lot of area, but if you start with zero, it’s still an improvement. Placing a flowerbed 3 feet wide and 16 feet long (48 square feet) by the house would only require 907 homes to equal an acre. Small efforts can result in large positive impacts when it comes to urban areas.

I have barely touched on the subject of ecosystem management. Entire books have been written about it. Our website has several publications on pollinator plants and a list of resource books on plant identification. A book entitled Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas Tallamy, explains the benefits of native plants. Don’t forget state wildlife agencies as sources of information. Check your state or region for organizations like the Oklahoma Native Plant Society. They can be excellent resources to help identify native plants in your area.

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