On a cool September morning, American Prairie Supervisors like Damien Austin start their day like they have done a hundred times before – venturing out across the prairie, alternating between looking down and up as folks often do in rattlesnake (and prairie dog burrow) country.
Today, however, they are joined by a gathering of enthusiastic scientists with specialties ranging from wildlife and bison to fire and streams. Each member of the group quietly saunters through the sagebrush with a unique eye for the ecosystem below, above, and in front of them.
As the group comes together at the edge of a coulee, a clipboard appears and, one-by-one, the participants share what they have observed. Today is an exercise in speaking a common language – science.
Since American Prairie's inception more than a decade ago, the research and restoration that have occurred on the land has been well executed. Some projects, like the ongoing bison reintroduction, have measurable outcomes related to population size and genetics goals.
Other areas like prairie dog town expansion and restoring streams and habitat are subject to factors like consistent funding, time commitments, and finding interested researchers. At 274,000 acres and growing, the prairie can be an intimidating laboratory for data collection.
To help organize our science and restoration priorities and build a new framework for working with collaborators, conservation biologist Dr. Curt Freese worked with colleagues Dr. Sam Fuhlendorf of Oklahoma State University and Dr. Kyran Kunkel of University of Montana to develop a new scale for grassland restoration. The idea is straightforward - land managers like American Prairie who are focused on maximizing native biodiversity will rate their property based on ten ecological concepts. Combined, the concepts comprise a fully functioning prairie ecosystem.
Each year our staff, in conjunction with a variety of partners and experts, will rate the prairie's proper-ties using the Freese Scale. Traveling by foot, horseback and vehicles, this hardy group of specialists will agree on a score for each of our management units. These ratings will be recorded and retained for annual comparisons. Armed with this information, our managers can then decide what approaches in management could lead us to an improved score for each of the units and communicate these needs to our partners.
On this fall morning, the group is giving the scale its first field test. Lively discussion, clarification, and negotiation echo across this part of the Sun Prairie unit as marks are made on the clipboard. One thing is evident as the hikers continue across the prairie: the Freese Scale presents endless opportunities to improve and preserve the biodiversity of American Prairie.
This new common language will not only align us with like-minded organizations and agencies, but it will also enable us to better demonstrate our successes to donors like you. In time, we hope that the scale will be applied to grasslands around the world.