Taking the Pulse of the Land

Keeping Tabs

An important part of restoring health to natural lands is keeping track of management progress. There are many different questions we might ask – one would be what is happening to the plant community. Plants are the foundation of a natural system, the underpinnings that provide the animal inhabitants shelter, food and a place to reproduce. Thus it is understandable that first kind of data collected is usually concerned with some measure of the plant community.

Often, the first look is a simple plant inventory – a list of the species that are present on a site. How many native species are there, and how many of those are conservative species? A conservative species can be defined as one which is intolerant of disturbance. Cream wild indigo thrives only in high quality prairies such as Somme Nature Preserve. Similarly, swamp saxifrage is only found in rare wet woods habitat, such as exists at Sauganash Prairie Grove and Harms Flatwoods. At the other extreme, a plant such as wild strawberry is not at all conservative, and will grow pretty much anywhere.

It’s also important to know what aggressive non-native species are present, as these can threaten the integrity of the whole system. While there are a large number of plant species that have been brought in from other parts of the world, only a handful have the capacity to invade and displace the native plant community. Most are well-behaved guests that live side by side with the natives.

There are standard procedures for taking data, from which numeric indicators can be derived. One such indicator is called the Floristic Quality Indicator, or FQI. By gathering data at a management site every few years, the trend in FQI can give a picture of the effectiveness of the site’s management. It has been exciting to see the upward trend in the indicators at the North Branch sites where such data are being taken. Numbers and quantities of native plants are increasing while invasives are diminishing. Native diversity is increasing.

While the science of monitoring is unquestionably important and valuable, it is the visible improvement, so apparent, that delights the regular visitor to the woodlands and prairies. Watching the land’s response to sunlight, seed and fire, it is clear just how resilient nature is, if we only return the natural conditions.