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Source: Tony Joern, 785-532-7073, ajoern@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Stephanie Jacques, 785-532-0101, sjacques@k-state.edu

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

KONZA PRAIRIE RESEARCH TO BENEFIT GRASSLANDS WORLDWIDE

MANHATTAN -- Scientists at Konza Prairie Biological Station have received major funding for research on critical questions about the underlying decisions made by grazing animals and the effects on grassland dynamics.

Konza is jointly owned by Kansas State University and The Nature Conservancy and managed by K-State's Division of Biology.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Tony Joern, university distinguished professor in biology at K-State, and collaborators John Briggs, director of Konza Prairie Biological Station; Douglas Goodin, professor of geography; Adam Skibbe, information manager in biology; and Gene Towne, research associate in biology, $750,000 to study how and why grazing animals choose certain feeding locations, and the impact of the grazing on the tallgrass prairie ecology.

"Grazing animals are a major driving force for grasslands all over the world, but how they actually use space is poorly understood," Joern said. "Understanding how bison and cattle actually select areas to graze on native grasslands will provide new management opportunities for grassland conservation efforts, as well develop alternate grazing options for grassland managers."

The group will use comparative studies by Towne on the effects of bison and cattle as background for the current study, Joern said. Towne's studies have shown that cattle and bison do not feed uniformly, so the goal is to get a better idea of the decisions the animals are making to determine where they forage. Joern said there may be several factors that influence feeding choices, such as forage nutritional quality, height of vegetation, landscape position, weather conditions and the area's level of fire frequency.

"There are a lot of data out there that suggest herbivores prefer to graze on burned areas, but within those areas how do they finally decide which clump of grass to chomp on?" Briggs said.

American bison will be used as the model species for the experiment, and they will be given access to various areas on Konza with differing forage quality, burn frequency and landscape positions, thus allowing the animals the opportunity to choose which area they prefer to feed.

"Konza Prairie is the ideal site for this type of research because it is set up in a huge watershed level experiment, where we already manipulate grazing and fire frequency," Joern said. "When you burn the prairie at different intervals you get different kinds of grassland with different forage qualities. We are layering this new grazing experiment on top of all that."

To evaluate the nutritional quality of the prairie, the group will deploy a hyper-spectral remote imaging aircraft four times a year. This methodology, under the direction of Goodin, will measure the spatial distribution of the protein content of the grassland at a two-meter scale. Spatial distributions of nutritional quality of vegetation will be compared to data on bison movement, gathered using global positioning system collars that track the animals' movement as they feed. Geographic information system modeling, done under the direction of Skibbe, will correlate these two data sets. In addition to tracking bison movement, the group will also record vegetation responses to bison grazing activity.

A special component of the project is the involvement of Drew Ising, a high school biology teacher with the Geary County School District. Ising is interested in including ecology research in his classroom, and will be using real data from the grazing study to develop lesson plans in a multitude of subjects for use by other teachers.

"Having enthusiastic teachers like Drew participate in the project to make our results available to students is really exciting, and we plan to do some pretty exciting things with this opportunity," Joern said.