My Project: Soapstone Prairie Natural Area: The Ecological Composition of a Shortgrass Prairie Ecosystem

I participated in a long-term bison reintroduction project in northern Colorado. Bison have been over-hunted and removed from their native habitats across the western United States, but research suggests that cattle do not fulfill the same ecological role as bison on the shortgrass prairie. Therefore, reintroduction initiatives are taking place on shortgrass prairie ecosystems in the western United States to restore the presence of bison.

Through collaboration between the city of Fort Collins, Colo., Larimer County, Colo., Colorado State University, and the Denver Zoo, 10 bison were reintroduced to 800 acres of land within the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in northern Colorado this past November.

My Inspiration

As an environmental studies major, I wanted an ecological fieldwork experience during my time as an undergraduate. Since I have family in northern Colorado, I have a special place in my heart for this area of the western United States.

My Process

Prior to the presence of the bison, we collected baseline data and observations about the ecosystem health and function that will allow the research team from  Colorado State University to compare data collected after the reintroduction of bison. The goal of the project is to determine if bison and cattle do fill the same ecological niche and how bison impact species diversity and interactions on the prairie. My part of the project focused solely on the species composition of birds across the three test sites: the cattle site, the bison site, and an un-grazed site.

My Results

Through my research, I was looking to determine how bird species inhabited the shortgrass prairie: Did certain species prefer freshly grazed short grass? Did other species prefer trees and mountainous terrain? The answers to these questions would impact the overarching project, as we expect bison to significantly impact the composition and height of grasses and shrubs due to their grazing and wallowing habits. I wanted to know where different bird species lived across the shortgrass prairie in order to see how this changes when the bison are present.

While the results — specifically the comparison of data before and after bison — have not yet been fully established, I did determine the species diversity and composition on each of the three sites (cattle, bison, and un-grazed). I found that the Western Meadowlark was the most abundant species on each site, and it dominated habitat use across the prairie. After the Western Meadowlark, the Lark Bunting was the second most abundant species detected on the bison site. This was an expected conclusion, because Western Meadowlarks and Lark Buntings generally prefer varying grasses. Since the bison site has not been grazed in a few years, we would expect this site to have the most variation in grass length. Additionally, we expected the Horned Lark to be most abundant on the cattle site, which should have the shortest grasses due to recent grazing, but the Western Meadowlark and Vesper Sparrow were detected the most.

My Mentor

Dr. Jory Brinkerhoff was my University of Richmond mentor, and he was incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the process. Since I was halfway across the country for my entire fellowship, it would have been easy for Dr. Brinkerhoff to assume I was doing fine and not stay in communication with me. However, we met before I went to Colorado, we emailed regularly during my time there, and we followed up when I returned. He always provided me with intelligent and thoughtful suggestions or solutions to any challenges and he encouraged me when I felt unprepared or confused.

Additionally, Kate Wilkins, my research supervisor and mentor in Colorado, was wonderful. She took me under her wing and embraced my enthusiasm for learning new terminology and new research methods. She was reasonable in her expectations for me, yet she challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. She respected my past experiences while pushing me further than I thought I could go. She continues to support me and encourage me, even though we live thousands of miles apart from each other.

My Experience

My research experience was extremely challenging, as I had never taken a course in ecology or practiced ecological fieldwork methods prior to arriving in Colorado last May. I woke up at 3 a.m. Monday through Friday for six weeks to collect data on the birds. We worked through extremely cold and extremely hot conditions, and the Super El Nino presented additional challenges. There were a few days that we drove to the site just to drive back home due to the heavy fog or rain. We got caught in many intense thunderstorms and encountered some wildlife, including a coyote and a rattlesnake. Since I had no previous experience doing this kind of work, I learned as much as a could along the way, thanks to my amazing research partners. Through all the challenges and learning curves, my experience was extremely influential in shaping my undergraduate experience and hopes for the future.