Field of Science

Joys of Field Work - the most recent chapter

Fire is part of the ecology of grasslands although most residents of the prairie state do not know this because most of the prairie has been converted into the maize and soybean desert. For those of us who study some of the little patches of remaining prairie, fire is an important management tool because it keeps many invasive species, particularly woody plants, in check. So why the hell was my prairie not burned? The excuse was economics and personnel, not enough money, so not enough people to manage the burn. However, since the burning was scheduled the PVC posts that provide an early season marker for locating my study plots were removed leaving only an iron spike driven into the ground and an aluminum ID tag. Because of the particular experimental design these plots, 108 of them across a 6 acre area, were not laid out in a regular grid, but in random groupings of 9. Generally speaking after the fire these tags are not too difficult to find, and after locating 7 or 8 in each group, the remaining ones’ location(s) can then be triangulated. But the prairie was not burned so now all these tags are out there at ground level somewhere in a tangle of last year’s vegetation that easily reached 9-10 feet tall and this year’s new aerial shoots. Finding all the plots is proving next to impossible even with the help of a metal detector and maps of the groups. And metal detectors designed to find a cufflink on a fairway are not so easily used in the jungle of vegetation down there. Think this isn't costing some money and personnel time? Miss by an inch and you won’t see the tag. Oh, yes, the temptation to drop a match and blame it on a passing smoker was very strong.

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