Date of this Version
Natural Resource Report NPS/TAPR/NRR 2019/2043 / NPS 031/165682, November 2019: xxix, 318 pages
Published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, Fort Collins, Colorado
Also available at: https://www.nps.gov/im/htln/index.htm
Please cite this publication as:
Jones, D. S., R. Cook, J. Sovell, C. Herron, J. Benner, K. Decker, A. Beavers, J. Beebee, D. Weinzimmer, and R. Schorr. 2019. Natural resource condition assessment: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Natural Resource Report NPS/TAPR/NRR—2019/2043. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
The National Park Service (NPS) Natural Resource Condition Assessment (NRCA) Program administered by the NPS Water Resources Division evaluates current conditions for important natural resources and resource indicators using primarily existing information and data. NRCAs also report on trends in resource condition when possible, identify critical data gaps, and characterize a general level of confidence for study findings. This NRCA complements historic resource assessments, is multi-disciplinary in scope, employs a hierarchical indicator framework, identifies and develops reference conditions/values for comparison against current conditions, and emphasizes spatial evaluation of conditions and GIS products.
Created in 1996, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (TAPR) is a unique and highly successful partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. The purpose of TAPR is to preserve, protect, and interpret for the public, an example of a tallgrass prairie ecosystem; to preserve and protect the cultural resources found within the preserve; and to interpret for the public, the cultural resources and the social and cultural values represented within the preserve. The combination of historic elements and high-quality tallgrass prairie is unparalleled within the NPS. The rural nature of the surrounding area, expansive views and lack of wind energy development creates scenery with high natural and cultural quality. Preserve managers and NPS initiatives have made great strides since the preserve was created in 1996 and an active monitoring program supports preserve management. Introduction of bison in 2009 presented challenges to the preserve but the herd is thriving and multiple ecosystem and visitation benefits are occurring as a result of their presence.
The NRCA for Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas began in 2012. This study employed a scoping process involving Colorado State University, preserve and NPS staff to discuss the NRCA framework, identify important preserve resources, and gather existing information and data. Indicators and measures for each resource were then identified and evaluated. Data and information were analyzed and synthesized to provide summaries and address condition, trend and confidence using a standardized but flexible framework.
A total of 19 focal resources were examined: six addressing landscape context – system and human dimensions, three addressing chemical and physical attributes, and ten addressing biological attributes. Landscape context – system and human dimensions included land cover and land use, night sky, soundscape, scenery, climate change and fire disturbance regime. Climate change and land cover/land use were not assigned a condition or trend—they provide important context to the preserve and many natural resources, and can be a source of stress and management concern. Some of the land cover and land use-related stressors at TAPR and in the larger region are related to the development of rural agricultural land and increases in population/housing over time. The trend in land development, coupled with a lack of significantly-sized and linked protected areas in the region, presents challenges and risks to the conservation of preserve natural resources, including dark night skies, natural sounds, scenery and air and water quality. There are opportunities to mitigate the effects of some local stressors through planning, management and mitigation. Stressors driven by more distant factors such as light pollution generated by urban centers, and increase in regional transportation volumes affecting sights and sounds, and air quality issues in distant urban centers affecting prescribed burning are more difficult to mitigate. Collectively, this context supports resource planning and management within the preserve, and provides a foundation for collaborative conservation with other landowners in the surrounding area.
The supporting chemical and physical environment at the preserve includes its air quality, water quality and stream hydrology/geomorphology. The condition of these resources can a affect human dimensions of the preserve such as visibility and scenery as well as biological components such as stream biota. Air a quality warranted significant concern, while water quality and stream hydrology/geomorphology warranted moderate concern. Air quality and water quality in Fox Creek are significantly impacted by land uses outside the preserve boundary. Water quality in most streams evaluated have all or most of their watersheds within the preserve boundary. Both stream geomorphology and water quality appear to be significantly impacted by cattle grazing. Although trampling from cattle grazing appears to have a significant negative impact on the streams within the preserve, it is difficult to attribute stream bank and incision problems to current grazing management vs. historic overgrazing as recent as 2005.
The floral biological components examined included prairie vegetation and invasive exotic plants. The preserve is an excellent example of tallgrass prairie and one of the largest protected parcels in the historic range of the community. In some areas, enhanced management of prescribed fire and cattle grazing (especially since grazing rights were acquired), bison introduction, and prairie restoration projects in the Fox Creek bottomlands are likely increasing the heterogeneity of vegetation and overall habitat quality. However, challenges related to invasive plant management and fire regime contribute to moderate ratings and some declining trends.
The faunal biological components examined included aquatic macroinvertebrates, birds, bison, butterflies, fish, greater prairie-chicken, herptiles and the Topeka shiner. Half of the resources examined were found to be in good condition with an unchanging trend or no trend. Of the remaining four resources that warranted moderate concern, three are aquatic fauna that are being impacted by poor water quality, altered stream flows/hydrology and introduced warm-water species of fish. The bison reintroduction effort has been extremely successful. Although the herd is limited to occupying no more than 10% of the preserve, managers are hoping to use bison to achieve ecological restoration objectives as well as objectives related to bison herd health and genetics, herd size and demographics, and visitor experience.
The identification of data gaps during the course of the assessment is an important outcome of the NRCA. In some cases significant data gaps contributed to low confidence in the condition or trend assigned to a resource. Primary data gaps and uncertainties encountered were lack of recent survey data; uncertainties regarding reference conditions; availability of consistent, long-term data; and incomplete understanding of the ecology of rare resources. Findings from the NRCA will help preserve managers to develop near-term management priorities, engage in watershed or landscape-scale collaboration and education efforts, conduct preserve planning, and report program performance.
Ecosystem stressors impacting preserve resources and their management exist both inside and outside preserve boundaries. Altered disturbance regimes such as fire and flooding, conversion and fragmentation of natural habitats, spread of invasive exotic plants and animal species that threaten regional biological diversity, altered hydrology and channel degradation of streams, and water pollution appear to be significant stressors of biological resources. Other resources related to human dimensions and visitation appeared to be stressed or directly affected by changes in land uses and land cover, population and housing densities, and traffic. Climate change is estimated to contribute to the vulnerability of the Topeka shiner at the preserve. Many of the resources were found to have interrelated stressors, the most common being invasive plants and increased development and damage to streams and water quality by agricultural practices and grazing.
Regional and preserve-specific mitigation and adaptation strategies are needed to maintain or improve the condition of some resources over time. Success will require acknowledging a “dynamic change context” that manages widespread and volatile problems while confronting uncertainties, managing natural and cultural resources simultaneously and interdependently, developing broad disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge, and establishing connectivity across broad landscapes beyond preserve borders.
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