Restoring or reconstructing
prairies is a slow process that
requires substantial time, talent
and resources. Sara Vacek, a wildlife
biologist at Morris Wetland Management
District, knows that in grassland
restoration, patience is a virtue.
One day last fall, though, Vacek was
running out of patience.
I was sitting with Vacek and her Morris
WMD colleagues in the multi-purpose
room at the districts headquarters in
western Minnesota. Our conversation
had been relaxed and convivial until I
asked how their restorations were going.
Suddenly, the group became animated.
As I tried frantically to capture her
thoughts on my laptop, Vacek told me
the Morris WMD prairie vegetation
was looking good after extensive tree
removal. There is the diversity of plants
that she and her colleagues want. But
they arent seeing many grassland
birds coming back. They expected a
resurgence of western meadowlarks,
bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows. But
thats not happening yet.
As regional refuge biologist, I was at
Morris WMD to learn firsthand from
district staff members about their
information needs, science needs and
emerging management challenges. The
previous day I had been at Big Stone
National Wildlife Refuge doing the same
thing; the next day I headed to
All told, I visited 21 units. It was part of
a six-month effort in which my staff and
I in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
Midwest Region Division of Biological
Resources divided field offices among
ourselves and set a goal to visit every
refuge, wetland management district
and private lands office in the region.
From April to October last year, Pauline
Drobney, Melinda Knutson, Josh Eash or
I made it to 54 of those 55 field stations.
When possible, our zone biologists and
hydrology specialists joined us.
Five-Year Work Plan
At each station we asked a series of
questions, such as: Do you see global
climate change affecting your work?
If so, how? What kind of inventories
do you need, and how will you use that
information? What other kind of
information do you need to help you with
your management decisions?
Our goal was to synthesize the responses
and use them to develop a five-year
work plan to address our regions most
pressing science and management needs.
We wanted to make the most of new
regional inventory and monitoring
funds and the National Wildlife Refuge
Systems recently established Natural
Resource Program Center in Colorado.
By coupling that new funding with
our existing biology budget and using
resources at the center, we have been
able to add science expertise at the field
level and develop more standardized
protocols. As a result, we are better able
to coordinate activities across programs,
assist with study design and review,
provide more training and collect/
disseminate information via national/
After synthesizing the field station
responses, we saw common themes.
In the Midwest Region, stations are
concerned about water resources,
changes in species distributions
(especially invasive species), how to
respond to those changes and evaluating
outcomes of management actions.
The five-year plan is a work in progress,
but already we have learned that by
carefully coordinating surveys with
other Service programs and partners,
we stand to benefit. We can augment
the North American Breeding Bird
Survey, which has helped evaluate bird
populations at regional scales for years
but is not useful for evaluating the
relative success of specific management
practices at a station.
Take Sara Vaceks concern about the
lack of response by grassland birds to
prairie restorations. Results from our
site-visit surveys showed she wasnt
alone in her concern.
Our staff is now collaborating with
Vacek, other biologists and managers at
Refuge System field stations, migratory
bird management staff and the Midwest
Coordinated Bird Monitoring
Partnership to evaluate bird use of
grassland restorations and
Patricia Heglund is chief of the Service
Midwest Region Division of Biological