Of Mice and A Man

January 19, 2016

It’s a foggy October morning at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, located in south central Nebraska. I’m struggling to keep up with Mike Schrad as he treks through tall, shirt-soaking grasses in search of the Sherman live traps he placed the night before.

ABOVE: Mike Schrad checks his live traps for small mammals at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. (Evan Barrientos)

Schrad picks up the first four of these small, aluminum boxes and tosses them back to the ground with a dull clunk. On the fifth, however, he places a bag over the shut door and coaxes out an adorable and surprisingly unperturbed plains pocket mouse (Perognathus flavescens).

ABOVE: A plains pocket mouse nuzzles into Schrad’s elbow after being measured. (Evan Barrientos)

After pausing to let me get my first look at this elusive prairie inhabitant, Schrad deftly weighs and scans it with a device that detects if the animal is carrying a PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag. Earlier this year he inserted PIT tags into five species of mice and voles. Now, Schard can tell if the mammals he’s catching have been tagged before, and if so, where else they’ve been caught. Gathering even basic population and location information like this about such elusive species provides invaluable management guidance to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Nebraska.

ABOVE: Schrad admires a deer mouse caught in one of his traps before releasing it. (Evan Barrientos)

For 20 years Chris Helzer has overseen management of TNC’s Platte River Prairies. As director of science for TNC in Nebraska, it’s his job to try to figure out how prairie species respond to different management techniques (i.e. grazing and prescribed fire). While Helzer is skilled at monitoring prairie vegetation, the property’s small mammal community was largely unstudied before Schrad began his research. “There’s so much we don’t know about these species,” says Helzer. “Mike’s data helps us figure out what the right questions are to ask.” Questions like, “When fire or grazing alters habitat in a way that doesn’t favor a small mammal population, do they stay and wait it out or move somewhere else? Where do they go? How far? Most importantly, how can we adapt our management to best support some of the rarer species?”

ABOVE: Chris Helzer (right) and Nelson Winkel (land manager of the Platte River Prairies, left) discuss management strategies while surveying a prairie. (Evan Barrientos)

During his first two field seasons, Schrad conducted an inventory of the species present in the Platte River Prairies. Now in his third year, he is starting to build a long-term data set that will enable TNC to track the diversity and abundance of small mammals over time and in response to different management techniques. His PIT tag data will tell TNC how far mammals need to travel to meet their needs (which may indicate habitat quality) and if they are successfully spreading from remnant prairies that have never been plowed into restorations, and hopefully even into adjacent remnants (more info on that topic here).

ABOVE: Schrad records data after sampling a mouse. (Evan Barrientos)

But what inspires me the most about this story isn’t the science; it’s the fact that Schrad is a volunteer. Schrad is a retired wildlife biologist, but his lifelong passion for small mammal conservation never ended.

“In retirement I wanted to work on something that was important to understanding Nebraska grassland ecology but was being neglected due to funding or manpower shortages,” he says, “and I wanted to do something that was fun.”

To help other Nebraskans do the same, Schrad is also chair of the Nebraska Master Naturalist Program, an initiative that provides training and opportunities for ordinary citizens to participate in research and environmental education. What Schrad and this program show is that you don’t have to be a full-time professional to play a meaningful role in conservation; anyone with motivation can use their unique skill set to help. In the face of all the challenges surrounding the Platte River Basin, I find that extremely comforting.

ABOVE: Sunrise on a foggy morning at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. (Evan Barrientos)

Evan Barrientos is a 2015-2016 Hubbard Fellow for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His job includes land stewardship and outreach, as well as lots of opportunities to meet fascinating prairie conservationists. Follow his personal blog here.

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