On my recent week-long collecting trip, the first three days were spent at Four Canyon Preserve in far northwestern Oklahoma. This nearly 4,000-acre preserve features a stunning landscape of rugged, wooded canyons dissecting ridges of mixed-grass prairie which provide critical habitat for several rare plants and animals. Despite years of overgrazing, fire suppression, and invasion by exotic plants, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recognized the restoration potential of this landscape and began management practices to restore its ecological function and integrity after acquiring it in 2004. The land was rested until April 2008, at which time a wildfire swept through the area and burned approximately 90% of the property. This event was actually welcomed by TNC, who was already in the process of initiating a prescribed burn – they simply pulled back and let it rip! The burn, combined with mechanical removal of eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) that had invaded many areas of the preserve, did much to confine woody growth to the canyons proper, and good rains during the past two springs following that burn have resulted in a lush, green, diverse landscape brimming with prairie wildflowers. The vivid contrast between the green vegetation and the red clay canyons with their white gypsum exposures has created spectacular vistas of a rugged landscape. This year, cattle have been reintroduced at low levels to simulate the irregular, patchy disturbance experienced in pre-settlement times when native grazers (bison and elk) dotted the landscape.
The flora (Hoagland and Buthod 2007) and avifauna (Patten et al. 2006) of the preserve are well characterized, but (as nearly always seems the case) arthropod and other micro faunas need much additional study. My hymenopterist colleagues and I were welcomed enthusiastically by TNC staff, who are anxious to incorporate the results of our insect surveys into an overall fauna. Apoid hymenopterans appear to have benefited greatly from the recent rejuvenation of the preserve’s floral character. Results for the beetle populations that I encountered, however, were more mixed. Certain groups, such as scarabaeine dung beetles, were quite abundant and diverse (due to the reintroduction of cattle), but others, including the tiger beetles, jewel beetles, and longhorned beetles that I was most interested in finding, existed at rather low and not very diverse levels. I had hoped to find the very rare Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) running amongst the clumps of vegetation on the preserve’s red clay exposures but instead saw only the ubiquitous Cicindela punctulata (punctured tiger beetle), and the few jewel beetles that I managed to beat off the lower branches of hackberry (Celtis laevigata) and soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii) trees were found only in the small parts of the preserve that escaped last year’s burn. This seems fairly typical – I generally don’t find many insects in these groups whenever I survey areas that have experienced a significant amount of recent burning. Some ecologists might take exception to this statement, and they would have little difficulty citing studies that show rapid recolonization of prairies by a majority of prairie insect specialists within two years after a prescribed burn. Nevertheless, the impact of prescribed burning on invertebrate populations and its potential for causing local extirpations has become a contentious issue among ecologists and entomologists in recent years. While my experience hardly passes for rigorous investigation, I am becoming increasingly convinced that a certain amount of caution is warranted when designing burn management plans for prairie relicts.
I’ll discuss more about the beetles and other insects (and even some vertebrates) that I saw during my three-day visit to Four Canyon Preserve in future posts. In the meantime, I share with you some of my photos of this spectacularly beautiful landscape (note the abundance of woody cadavers from last year’s burn in some of the photos).
Hoagland, B. W., and A. K. Buthod. 2007. Vascular flora of the Four Canyons Preserve, Ellis County, Oklahoma. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 1(1):655–664.
Patten, M. A., D. L. Reinking, and D. H. Wolfe. 2006. Avifauna of the Four Canyon Preserve, Ellis County, Oklahoma. Publications of the Oklahoma Biological Survey (2nd Series) 7:11-20.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009
13 thoughts on “Four Canyon Preserve, Oklahoma”
Looks like a very beautiful place out there. The big dilemma, do we manage for one group or do we manage for an ecosystem? Critters need a home. And the home needs the critters. Everyone has their points. I was just reading about the historical use of fire in New England, which at this point I wonder how anything would burn after our wet June.
I’m looking forward to the rest or your post.
Good question, and I don’t know the answer. In the historical landscape, vastly larger scale and lack of fragmentation accomodated a variety of disturbance levels – from slowly creeping smolders to wildly destructive conflagrations – in a patchy mosaic that recolonized from surrounding areas no matter how large an area was affected. This diversity of size and scale is difficult to recreate in our relatively small and sometimes highly isolated relicts, and recolonization from adjacent areas is made even more difficult for flightless species (such as Cylindera celeripes) by the “hostile” habitats (e.g., hiways, wheat fields, etc.) that we’ve placed in between these relicts.
What a beautiful spot!
Did anyone find any ants?
Hi James, I believe Mike picked up some ants for you. I was far too fixated on looking for tigers to let myself get distracted with them – although for some reason I always enjoy kicking dirt over entrances and scraping my boot across scent trails once in awhile to watch the ensuing chaos and gradual return to order.
Now that’s just mean, Ted. You know how sensitive I am about the disruption of the peaceful existence of ants.
But seriously, I should just get over there myself, eh?
Ha – peaceful existence? Ants perfected warfare long before our puny attempts at it!
Seriously – yes, you need to get over there yourself. My photos don’t do justice to its spectacularity.
I am of the opinion that the TNC and heritage programs total focus on plant communities, and their reliance upon fire to “manage” them, is often deleterious to many animals living in those communities, especially arthropods. It may have made sense when these communities were much larger than they are now, but burning remnant patches without understanding the invertebrate component is a recipe for extirpation at best and disaster at worst!
Thanks Art – it’s a fine line, both scientifically and politically. There is no denying that prairie relicts become floristically gorgeous once fire is returned to the landscape. But how sustainable is it if you eliminate a significant portion of the invertebrate fauna? How many of the plants rely on those invertebrates in some way to maintain populations over the long term. There is such a need for more research, yet the opportunities for doing so are rapidly disappearing – large, intact landscapes are almost nonexistent, and most of the smaller relicts have already had the heck burned out of them. Ecologists keep telling entomologists to “show them the data,” but it’s almost impossible to conduct objective evaluations on the impact of different management techniques when most of the existing relicts have already been so altered.
You know, it does make you wonder how populations were before we came along and rocked the boat. With native Americans practicing burning , and how the historical landscaped was, makes me wish I could have had a look at things back then.
You actually hit on an interesting point – the activities of Native Americans, while not nearly as impactful as ours, nevertheless altered the landscape. Thus, even presettlement North America can be considered an anthropogenic landscape. It’s interesting to try to imagine what the landscape would have been like without even the Native American impacts – how different things might be had the megafaunal extinctions not taken place.
Unfortunately eastern red cedar, when left unchecked, suffocates an entire ecosystem. There are huge swaths of prairie throughout Oklahoma that are nothing but thick cedar forests as far as the eye can see (endemic tree loss happens as well) – and those forests represent a huge loss of prairie plant and animal diversity. One of the leading culprits of the near extinction of lesser prairie chickens is the eastern red cedar. I suppose they could be bulldozed……
We have the same problem here in Missouri, where red-cedar has eliminated all but the largest of our limestone/dolomite glades. Land managers in conservation areas are increasingly making use of chainsaws and frequent burns to battle them back, but the fires have (in my opinion) suppressed insect diversity (short term or long term I don’t know). The soils are too fragile to use bulldozers, but in some areas that’s what it would take.
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