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 district’s 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 aren’t seeing many grassland birds coming back. They expected a resurgence of western meadowlarks, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows. But that’s 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 Windom WMD.


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 Service’s 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 region’s most pressing science and management needs.


We wanted to make the most of new regional inventory and monitoring funds and the National Wildlife Refuge System’s 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/ regional databases.


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 Vacek’s concern about the lack of response by grassland birds to prairie restorations. Results from our site-visit surveys showed she wasn’t 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 reconstructions.


Patricia Heglund is chief of the Service Midwest Region Division of Biological Resources.