Alternative Energy

We are living in a period of unprecedented global change where even the most remote areas of the planet are influenced by the activities of man.  Modern landscapes have been highly modified to accommodate a growing human population that is forecast to peak at 9.1 billion by 2050.  Over this past century, human reliance on goods and services from ecosystems has greatly increased and sustainability of our modern and intensively managed ecosystems has been a topic of serious national and international concern.  Not surprisingly, sustainability of ecosystems has become an explicitly stated goal of many agencies and, in some cases, has been legislatively mandated to ensure the provisioning of resources for future generations.  Current efforts to reduce the human population’s impact on ecosystems and a simultaneous interest on reaching energy independence within the United States have led to an increased focus on alternative sources of energy, including wind and bio-fuels. The abundant wind resources and rich agricultural heritage of the northern Great Plains will ensure that this region is a major player in the production of alternative energies.  Habitat changes associated with the significant infrastructure needed to capture wind energy or land-use changes associated with the production of vegetative biomass needed for bio-fuels will undoubtedly have an effect on ecosystems, their ability to support wildlife populations and the provisioning of other goods and services valued by society.  In an effort to better understand the effects of these changes, we are studying alternative energy production throughout much of the northern Great Plains.




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Carbon and Greenhouse Gases

The Prairie Pothole Region in the northern Great Plains is a mosaic of millions of wetlands and small lakes embedded within prairie grasslands and croplands. Management of these land types, whether in cropland or grasslands, can have a tremendous impact on carbon and nitrogen cycling of wetland and upland areas alike. Sound agricultural practices result in optimal soil conditions, increased soil fertility, and decreased soil carbon losses, which ultimately translate to increases in crop production for food, fuel and fiber. In addition, proper land management can lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) and non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions (like methane and nitrous oxide), air pollution, and eutrophication, as well as sequester carbon from the atmosphere, improve wetland habitats for breeding birds and pollinators, and help mitigate flooding. Currently, the soil processes that lay the foundation for these agro-ecosystem goods and services are governed by a complex suit of biotic and abiotic processes that are poorly understood. Improved understanding of these underlying processes is the key information needed to support development of best management practices for local and regional economies to maximize agro-ecosystem production, while also fulfilling societal goals to maintain healthy wetlands ecosystems that have potential to offset greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. 

 




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Climate Change

Changes in weather and climate driven by rising global temperatures are impacting ecosystems around the world.  In the northern Great Plains, warming temperatures in combination with altered frequency and severity of wet and dry periods are influencing the regions terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in new and potentially unique ways. Given the valued services these ecosystems provide to society, NPWRC researchers have initiated efforts to better understand the ultimate effects of climate driven changes on the functioning of natural systems.  As changes related to climate change become increasingly pronounced in the coming decades, stresses placed on the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the northern Great Plains will increase, as will the challenges faced by society.  Knowledge gained from NPWRC research efforts focused on understanding climate change and potential effects on key ecosystems will be essential to efforts to manage these systems in a productive and sustainable fashion given an uncertain climate future.




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Cranes

Of the 15 species of cranes worldwide, two occur in North America.  The endangered whooping crane is among the most widely recognized and admired species of birds in North America, due in part to its striking plumage, large size, and widely publicized turnaround from the brink of extinction.  The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, the only wild and self-sustaining flock in existence, is often heralded as a major conservation success story having grown from a low of <20 birds in the early 1940s to >300 cranes currently.  
 
The sandhill crane, unlike its endangered larger cousin, is widely distributed across North America.  The midcontinent population is best known for the unique annual spectacle of about a half million cranes gathering in the Central Platte River Valley of south-central Nebraska in early spring to rest and store fat in preparation for migration and reproduction.  This event attracts tens of thousands of eco-tourists, providing significant economic benefits to the region.  The midcontinent population also is recognized by being the only population of cranes widely hunted.  
 
Crane research at Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center has occurred for decades, with comprehensive studies on both sandhill and whooping cranes.  Current research projects support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation partners in their efforts to manage these migratory species and the habitats that they depend on throughout the year.




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Ecosystem Services

With a focus on the prairie pothole landscape, NPWRC scientists have worked to develop, parameterize, and validate multiple ecological models needed to facilitate the quantification of a wide array of goods and services provided by naturally functioning prairie ecosystems (e.g., carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, flood water storage, water quality improvement, crop pollination). The models being used by NPWRC scientists facilitate explorations into how the provisioning of ecosystem goods and services valued by society might be influenced by future changes in climate and land-use. Much of the “Integrated Landscape Modeling” work being conducted at NPWRC has been accomplished through close collaborations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Services Agency (FSA).  Given the significant influence of these two agencies on private lands that dominate the prairie pothole landscape, providing the scientific information needed to effectively implement USDA programs affecting management of these lands is an essential component of maintaining wildlife populations and function ecosystems and therefore a major focus of past and current research at NPWRC.
 




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Grassland Birds

Grassland birds are any bird species that is adapted to or rely on grassland habitats for all or part of its life cycle, including breeding, migration, or wintering. Although the original mission of Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center focused on research related to waterfowl production and wetland ecology, the Center has had a long history of research on grassland and other birds that has encompassed multiple ecological levels (species, population, community, ecosystem) and spatial and temporal scales.  Research and scientific inquiry on resident and migratory birds informally began at Northern Prairie in the early 1960s by Robert E. Stewart, Sr., and Harold A. Kantrud.  By the time the Center officially opened its doors in 1965, Stewart and Kantrud already had spent considerable time in the field developing sampling protocols and gathering information on avian and plant species and their distribution and habitats in the PPR and the northern Great Plains. These early studies set the foundation for future studies on birds in grasslands, wetlands, agro-ecosystems, and other habitats in this region.  Through time, Center scientists built upon these formative studies on birds to address questions related to grassland bird response to disturbance (natural and human-induced), changes in land use and cover, biological invasions (e.g., leafy spurge), Farm Bill programs (e.g., Soil Bank, CRP), water development (stock dams and ponds), energy development (wind, oil and gas), changes in local and regional climate, habitat restoration, and habitat fragmentation (e.g., Grassland Bird Conservation Area concept).  Together, past and recent studies have helped to develop the knowledge base essential for ecologically sound management of habitats for grassland and other birds in this region.  Many species of grassland birds in North America have experienced population declines in recent decades.  The current scientific program and expertise at Northern Prairie is in a strong position to address emerging issues and research challenges facing management and conservation of grassland and other birds in the region.




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Honey Bees and Native Pollinators

Pollinators deliver many ecosystem services, including provisioning biodiversity, supporting ecosystem functions and pollinating agricultural crops. Recent declines in pollinator abundance over past decades are concerning and there has been considerable discussion among congressional, federal, state, university, nonprofit, and private sectors on causal factors and potential solutions. While many factors are likely involved, the focus of the pollinator research at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center is habitat. Our work is designed to improve the effectiveness of conservation restoration programs and projects by identifying specific plant species, based on their demonstrated importance to honey bees and native pollinators, that can be considered for restoration seed mixes. To facilitate rapid dissemination of our research to land managers and policy makers, we established a pollinator library where known relations between specific pollinators and the plants at specific geographic areas can be easily accessed and used to inform seed mixes and planting recommendations. 




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Invasive Species

Managing invasive species neatly fits within the rubric of a “wicked problem”, with outcomes contingent on where and when a species occurs, socioeconomic factors that vary among stakeholders, and rarely a single answer that satisfies all concerned.  Scientists at NPWRC work closely with resource managers to clarify effects invasive species have on native species and ecosystems so that managers may prioritize their efforts and focus on those invasive species posing the greatest threat.  Methods of control and their implications for non-target species are also a focus of research at NPWRC.  As invasive species increasingly fill niches and interact mutualistically with native species, for example as resources for native pollinators, their control becomes more than simply an exercise in killing the invader, but also requires extensive planning to replace functional roles they have come to fill.
 




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Land-use / Land-cover Change

Changes in land use and land cover are influencing terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems worldwide. In many regions, current rates, extents, and intensities of land-use and land-cover change are greater than at any other period in history. In the northern Great Plains of North America, changes in land use/land cover are most often associated with the production of agricultural commodities.  In an effort to quantify ecosystem effects associated with land-use/land cover change and to identify mechanisms with potential to minimize effects on ecosystems of importance or to increase the ability of these ecosystems to function within a changing set of land-scape conditions, NPWRC scientists have initiated studies exploring numerous aspects of the effects of land-use and land-cover change on naturally functioning systems.
 




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Native Plants and Restoration Ecology

“Vegetation is one of the major geographical features of almost all parts of the earth’s surface. … In major ecosystems, at least, it is an essential component, as it includes the primary production apparatus that fuels the system by capture of solar energy.  Practically every terrestrial view that man has of his environment, outside his own constructions, … is almost sure to be primarily of vegetation.  It is the most obvious surface feature of the land.  On it depends the existence of all animal life.  Most human activities deal in some respect with vegetation or its products.  In other words, vegetation is an inescapable fact of life.  As such, it is one of the most important of all subjects for investigation and study.” — F.R. Fosberg, Foreword to Mueller-Dombois and Ellenberg’s Aims and Methods of Vegetation Ecology (1974)
 
As the foundation for terrestrial life, vegetation is one of the most manipulated features in Great Plains landscapes.  North America’s Great Plains have experienced some of the most extensive loss of native vegetation in the world.  Current and potential stressors on Great Plains native plants and the communities they comprise include habitat destruction and fragmentation, invasive species, river flow management, climate change, atmospheric nutrient deposition, pollution, and altered fire and grazing regimes.  We are investigating a range of topics with the goal understanding the effects of these stressors on native plant species and communities in order to better protect and restore them.
 




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