Monday, March 18, 2019

Time Out

We are temporarily withdrawing the writings from the public domain. We may or may not return, depending upon various and sundry things or this or that.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Lost Art

A baby can't draw. A child draws the human form using four straight lines and a circle. An adult art student draws the human form using an assemblage of overlapping circles or ovals; three large ovals describe the torso, four ovals describe a leg, one describes the head, and so forth. Both renditions work as approximations, but always, upon closer inspection, the renditions fail to describe what is seen. The common human head is not a circle, at least at pressures found below 40,000 feet. Besides, the drawings are two dimensional and humans are historically three dimensional and in recent years, it has been argued that we have expanded so greatly that we need to find a fourth dimension to contain us.
Canals in sugar cane fields, former sawgrass marsh
Belle Glade, FL (GoogleEarth)
Irrigation circles in former mixed-grass prairie
Kearney, NE (GoogleEarth)
Subdivision in former high desert
Las Vegas, NV (GoogleEarth)

It's a fact, humans have an affinity for simple geometric shapes. Lines, triangles, squares, cubes, spheres. It begins in childhood, with shiny silver balls, stick figures, and alphabet blocks. It continues into adulthood, the same simple shapes defining cityscapes, architecture, gardening, interior decorating, sports, prints, storage, cooking, infrastructure, spatial reference systems, raster images, packaging, modern art, it's everywhere you look. The only exception to this seems to be gerrymandered districts, which, despite origins in human geographic design and idealized political thought, exhibit a strikingly random, organic, almost serpentine shape. Of course, this was not the predicted outcome.
Spatial reference systems project grids on the surface of the earth, subdividing it into zones. In 1796, the United States passed an act that ordered the subdivision of the land surface into grids called townships, six miles on each side, containing 36 one-square-mile (640 acres) sections. This is known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). This was strictly geometric. It was superimposed on the natural landscape. The organic structure of the environment was ignored, the shapes of floodplains, streams, watersheds, divides, fire perimeters, animal herds, blowdowns, old growth, peatlands, sand barrens, savannas, badlands, and the likes, all seemingly random, irregular polygons. 
This comprehension of undeveloped land became a template for city planning, railways, agriculture, waterways, forestry, roads, and even parklands. Human geometry multiplied, like salt crystals in evaporation ponds, superimposed upon the natural environment. This has been romanticized as the taming of nature, the quaint "patchwork quilt" of agriculture, but the consequences are well known: loss of migration corridors, genetic isolation, wetland destruction, channelization, increase of edge species, invasive corridors, loss of interior species, increased blowdown, and you name it.
Henry V. Hubbard, Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University stated it this way: "The mature man who has dealt all his life with straight lines, simple surfaces, rigid materials to which he can give permanently almost any form, is likely to attempt something unfitting when dealing with undulating topography, flowing water, and growing plants" (Hubbard 1941).
Detail of anytown, USA. 
Life, July 24, 1970, photo by Michael Rougier.
Pie Goes on to Infinity
The PLSS surveyors eventually realized that land on the Mississippi Delta is different from land in the Sawtooth Mountains. If you were to purchase a section of land in the delta, it would measure about 640 acres. The topography is geographically flat. That land in the Sawtooths, it's montane, with an undulating surface. Flattening out the entire surface in the Sawtooths would result in far more than 640 acres - especially if that section of land was perfectly vertical. That's a lot of grass to mow, but it gets easier once you escape gravity and you find that your head really is a perfect sphere. It also depends upon what scale the flattening would occur. In theory, the scale descends infinitely, so the parcel could contain an infinite acreage, in which case, you have become the greatest feudal lord in the universe. Of course, the same is true for all of the earth's surface, so all landlords are suddenly superior to each other.
The same is true with pie. When it is time for dessert, children fight over the larger piece of the pie. Invariably, one slice is larger than the other, resulting in a bitter dispute. This daily inequality in family food distribution instills a compounding sense of outrage in the children. One parent solved this by having one child cut the slices for the other child. This led to a meticulous, time-consuming effort by the child to make certain the slices were equal in size. It worked. Family peace returned. 
Ah, but this is all a cynical ruse. 
Parents well know that most children are not physicists. A magnifying glass would reveal minute differences in size which would lead to more disputes, whereby the pie would cool and harden, losing its appeal. Use of a light microscope would reveal even more differences in size, resulting in more disputes and what may appear to be the spontaneous production of fruit flies. Use of an electron microscope would lead to yet more protracted disputes and shocking mold growth. And, in theory, since scale goes on to infinity, an inspection at the smallest possible level would result in starvation and death. So too, with feudal lords. If they had known about the infinite scale of detail, perhaps feudalism would have disappeared sooner than 1867.
The hungry children suffer at the hands of what are called Fractals. These are a class of non-differentiable functions that are iterated; there is no derivative; it is not possible to determine the rate at which the function is changing at any given point. Fractal Dimensions refer to an index or measure of the complexity of patterns. This is expressed as a ratio that compares the change in detail in the pattern as the scale at which it is measured changes. The slice of apple pie, for example. As one descends in detail, the irregularities in the border continue to appear. As Mandelbrot (1967) stated, "As even finer features are taken into account, the total measured length increases." The end result: The pie has an infinite outer edge.
The reason is, fractals exhibit self-similarity, that is, the whole has the same shape as the parts, into infinite detail. It is also called expanding symmetry or unfolding symmetry. This can be compared to Russian nesting dolls, a hall of mirrors, or big fish eating medium fish eating small fish. Thus, no indivisible shape exists from which a derivation can be made. 

This had applications beyond the chalkboard. Mandelbrot found that while the irregular shapes in the natural world could not be described in terms of classic Euclidian geometry - our beloved lines, triangles, squares, circles - they could be described in terms of fractal dimensions, or fractals, particularly when randomness was inserted into the function. Thus, fractal functions have been discovered that describe coastlines, clouds, mountain ranges, smoke, trees, ferns, seashells, noise, turbulence, galaxy clustering, vascular systems, river systems, the very things we bury beneath monuments to Euclidean geometry.
Middle of Nowhere.
A computer-generated fractal landscape.
A determinist view of the math behind nature would reject the notion of randomness, but at our level of cognition, unable to track all particles, motion, and force at all scales of existence, this is the best we have. That butterfly in Brazil may well cause a tornado in Texas, but we will never know.
Art Is                         
The probability of finding an adult who draws stick figures is increasing over time. This may be due to the loss of our fractal environment. This is akin to the child who is forced to watch television from birth and, as an adult, has no depth perception. We mention this because we are approaching the point where we confuse stick figures and actual, three-dimensional human beings. The stick-figure drawing will hang in the Louvre, in the spot where Michelangelo's Dying Slave used to stand.  
Beauty is a debate. Scientists have tried to define the nature of beauty, and, as one might expect, the theories focus on utility, especially as an indicator of health, advantageous genes, and fitness despite the burden of ornamentation. Others say that beauty is a product of sensory bias, that the beauty characteristics fit within the range of what the opposite sex is able to sense - light, sound, smell, taste. Others say it is a product of environmental and physiological constraints. Still others say that it is entirely accidental, that the pairing of preferences and ornamentation are arbitrary and the traits are not necessarily advantageous. This is not something you would say on a date.
Other than philosophical mutterings and the works of Shakespeare, the randomness of fractals that resulted in shapes that mimic those found in the natural environment may be one of the closest things we have to a definition of beauty.
Early in the past century, the National Park Service (NPS) developed a philosophy of landscape architecture, principles that would govern the development of parks for public access and enjoyment. Their objective was "the one dominant purpose of preserving essential esthetic qualities of their scenery unimpaired as a heritage" to generations to come, "substantially unimpaired by the intrusion of other functions" (Olmsted 1973), the "preeminence of a landscape preservation ethic in the development of natural areas of outstanding value" (McLelland 1998). Hubbard wrote, "The good landscape designer must think in terms of natural beauty and natural expression" and that roads, bridges, and houses "are not there for their own sake, and usually the less they are noticed the better...The National Park designer cannot, of course, design the mountains. But if he is from long and humble study an interpreter of natural beauty, he can present the mountains to the observer effectively." He warned, "The architect often regretfully stops his thinking with the outside of his building because he cannot govern what happens nearby." (Hubbard 1941) Principles took precedence, not prototypes. 
Floor Plan, Museum Building, Madison Junction
Yellowstone National Park

Thus, applying these principles to buildings, roads, bridges, villages, guardrails, culverts, curbs, campgrounds, signs, and trails, the NPS used native materials, plants, shapes, and colors. The structures and landscaping harmonized with the natural surroundings, matching, blending, appearing as if they grew out of the setting, as if they had been there all along. 
Now, this is art. 
An outcome of such an approach is the reduced visual impression of straight lines, triangles, squares, and circles, the dismissal of Euclid, and an increase in the impression of randomness. A closer inspection of the edge of the buildings, roads, bridges, and culverts may reveal a stochastic edge, wandering aimlessly along the line of sight, an edge that, at the moment, we could describe as a fractal, and certainly something that we may define as beautiful.
We might not know much about art, but we know what we like. 
Clearcuts up to the boundary of
Redwoods State and National Parks, CA
Limits to Human Growth
Yet, around the world, National Parks are being surrounded by human activity and development. In many places, the borders of the park are clearly defined by the contrast between development and unspoiled wilderness. The development is often visible from within the park, a visual pollution, degrading the visual resources, the viewshed. In many other places, the parks are being encroached by poachers, squatters, miners, humans seeking to convert the value of beauty into economic value. Elsewhere, the park status is rescinded, deliberately opening it to development, no longer managing for beauty, but for profit. This is a pandemic, an illness of humans sweeping the globe, one that appears when they are or believe they are threatened by economic failure. This is to say, parklands express a belief in economic security. This is not a stable relationship.
So, we return to kindergarten, drawing stick figures all over the place with grease pencils, mesmerized by silver balls, randomly stacking up alphabet blocks into senseless strings of babble. We are fighting over a piece of pie, but this one will not go on forever, despite the geometry, and any more fighting and the whole pie will rot and nobody gets to eat.

Hubbard, Henry V. 1941. The Designer in National Parks. National Park Service, 1941 Yearbook: Park and Recreation Progress.
Mandelbrot, Benoit. 1967. How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension. Science  05 May 1967: Vol. 156, Issue 3775, pp. 636-638 
McLelland, Linda Flint. 1998. Building the National Parks: Historic Landscape Design and Construction. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.Olmstead, Frederick Law. 1973. Forty years of landscape architecture: Central Park. Reprint, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Spring Ephemeral

That's large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), from the Chequamegon National Forest, in Price County, WI. Photo 5/11/07.



















One way or another, most life on earth depends upon light from the sun. Over the course of a year, a tremendous amount of solar energy reaches the earth’s atmosphere – many times the amount energy used by the human race in a year. Of that, about one-third is reflected back into space and one-half is absorbed at the earth’s surface. 
Lately, there is a lot of energy being poured into the conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. Solar panels. Their useful life is about 30 years and then they become waste. It is estimated that Japan will produce 10,000 tons of solar panel waste in the year 2020. Recently, the production of solar panels in California produced about 5,000 tons of contaminated sludge and water per year. It is estimated that the human race will produce 60-78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. Some electronic waste is burned to recover valuable minerals but the smoke is highly toxic. Most of the electronic waste in the US is stacked in garages and closets, pausing before it enters what is called the "trash stream", which, from where we stand, looks an awful lot like an actual stream with actual dead fish that is emptying into an actual dying ocean. 
Meanwhile, at the earth's surface, plants capture solar energy and, through photosynthesis, convert the light into sugar, which is then used for tissues, structure, growth, and reproduction. Solar panels. A leaf has a useful life of no more than a few years, in the case of evergreen species. Deciduous leaves are good for less than one year. Once their useful life is over, they become waste. The leaves turn shocking hues of red, orange, yellow which stun and bemaze onlookers, flutter to the ground, are dismantled cell-by-cell by trillions of unpaid organisms, and are completely reabsorbed into this thing called an ecosystem, enriching the soil, enabling growth of yet more plants. 
Light is life. Plants will orient their leaves and stems toward the light, following the sun across the sky and jockeying for patches of sunlight that have slipped through the forest canopy. In temperate latitudes, when those deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall, it exposes the forest floor to the sun’s rays. When spring returns and the sun rises higher in the sky, daylight and soil temperatures increase and snowmelt moistens the soil. Trees and shrubs break out of their winter dormancy. But before the light and temperature are sufficient for trees and shrubs to leaf out and cast shadows all over the forest floor, a special group of plants lying beneath the leaf litter reanimate and emerge, taking advantage of the open canopy and bounty of sunlight. Found in North America, Russia, and Japan, these are called spring ephemerals.
Plants are like shift workers; different species are active at different times of the year. Spring ephemerals work best in cooler temperatures, those found in the early spring. The spring shift. They photosynthesize at high rates and absorb water efficiently when the soil temperatures are low, when most deciduous trees and shrubs are just beginning to move sap and produce leaves. Thus, while many other plants take an entire growing season to produce leaves, flower, set seed and go dormant, spring ephemerals are able to accomplish this in a matter of 6 to 8 weeks.
After these weeks pass, spring ephemerals have stored enough carbohydrates for the next growing season. By then, soil temperatures have become intolerably warm for these species. This signals the end of their shift. Their flowers fade, leaves wither, nutrients are recycled from stems and leaves, and seeds are set. Just as the rest of the forest is leafing out and gearing up for a busy summer of solar alchemy, the summer shift, spring ephemerals are retiring for the season, spending the remainder of the summer in a dormant state. They disappear from view. Where there were once carpets of trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), there is a shaded forest floor beneath a dense canopy of trees and shrubs.
What a life. No punch clock. No boss. No litigation. No indentured servitude, remediation, arbitrators, hazardous materials, safety violations, labor riots, lockouts, sick leave, hostile takeovers, unfunded mandates. No maintenance schedule, failure points, recalls, noxious fumes, spaghetti code, obsolescence, incompatibility. And no patents. This technology is free for the taking.


Monday, January 01, 2018

Fires to Date

This is fire.
Photo 8/26/12 near Fairmont Hot Springs, MT. 

Probably from the Mustang Complex Fire along the Montana-Idaho border. It burned 332,000 acres or 518 square miles, about twice the size of Chicago or 2000 times bigger than Disneyland, which may have a thrilling, all-ages amusement ride involving fire and Bambi, but we are not certain. 

It is the end of the year and this is a good time to review the list of the wildfire acres in the US for the past 58 years (data from the National Interagency Fire Center).

You will note that the past year was the third worst fire season in US history. And you will note that the average acreages have about doubled since the 1960's and the top ten fire seasons have occurred since 2000. 

*** Update: Since this was posted on January 1st, the final numbers for the 2017 fire season came in and it proved to be the second-worst fire season on record, surpassing the 10 million acre mark for the second time. *** 

Plot this on a graph, describe the slope of the line, and see where it leads you in say, 20 years, at which time you may reminisce about the days when you didn't camp in fireproof tents.


Spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Photo 7/24/04, Cook County, MN
Meat tenderizer. 

















These are carnivorous plants, inhabiting fens, bogs and peatlands in the northern latitudes. Pretty as they may be, these peatlands are killing fields. Insects are attracted to a sweet mucilage secreted by the glandular hairs on the sundew leaf. The hairs are thigmonastic, that is, they move in response to touch or vibration. The hairs converge on the struggling insect. The musilage contains enzymes: chitinase, esterase, peroxidase, phosphatase, protease. The mucilage secretion is stimulated by specific molecules. A quote from Matusikova 2005: "The reaction of sundew leaves depends on the molecular nature of the inducer applied." And from Gallie 1997, regarding pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), another carnivorous plant found in fens and bogs: "Hydrolase expression is induced upon perception of the appropriate chemical signal."
This is to say, the glistening tentacles of sundew respond to touch and the chemistry of the insect that lands on them, inducing the plant to produce enzymes and to curl the tentacles around the insect. 
The purpose of all of this is to convert the insect into digestible material for the plant, enabling it to live in a nutrient-poor habitat, such as bogs are. 
Yes, like a cold fog, death creeps across the sodden moor. 
That is not all. These northern bogs have two other carnivorous plants. Pitcher plant traps insects in a leafy vase filled with rainwater and enzymes. The vase is lined with sharp spikes, like concertina wire, preventing any escape. Bladderwort (Utricularia) has a submerged bladder under negative pressure that has a trap door and a lever. A water flea or mosquito larvae that touch the lever open the trap door, sucking it into the bladder within tenths of a second. Once again, it is bathed in digestive enzymes. 
The insect dies within 15 minutes, and it is safe to say that these are the most horrifying 15 minutes of his brief, hapless life, as the powerful enzymes attack his defenseless, softening body and reduce it to a soupy meal. 
We are pleased that insects do not scream, at least in a range heard by humans.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16049675
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/…/ar…/PMC158611/pdf/1151461.pdf



Seed Bank

Death Valley 4/8/16
Flowers are desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), pebble pincushion (Chaenactis carphoclinia), golden evening primrose (Camissonia brevipes), desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), showy gilia (Gilia cana triceps) to mention a few. 
Soil seed bank, to be precise. These are flowers in Death Valley, many of which are annuals, germinating from seeds in a rare year when rains are sufficient. Look up "Superbloom." The seeds have been in the soil for years, waiting for the right rains to come. 
The Soil Seed Bank is the repository of seeds in the leaf litter, soil surface, or soil layer. They are like a bank in that they are available for germination in a landscape that has failed to produce seeds in one growing season or more. This failure can happen in times of drought, fire, landslide, floods, hail, human disturbance. The seeds in the seed bank may germinate when favorable conditions return, restoring the historic array of species. That is, as long as the seeds remain viable over the course of the unfavorable conditions.
Seed banks are found wherever plants, animals, wind or other vectors deposit seeds: in the black prairie soils, the bottom of lakes, the muck in swamps, bogs, and marshes, dunes, badland soils, and even permafrost. Some species of seed may be viable for decades, even centuries. In 2012, Russian scientists regenerated Silene stenophylla (narrow-leaved campion, a plant found in Siberia and northern Japan) from a 32,000-year-old late Pleistocene seed that had been buried in the permafrost. Although this specimen wasn't regenerated from a seed, it indicates a potential for ancient germplasm in ice-age seed repositories. 
Some of the seeds in our modern soils may have a very long viability in the seed bank. In 1879, botanist William Beal put seeds from 20 species in glass bottles and buried them 20 inches deep. Every 5, 10, or 20 years scientists have dug up a bottle of his seeds to see which ones germinate. In 1980 they were able to germinate moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and common mallow (Malva neglecta), over 100 years after their burial. 
So, the natural cycles of disturbance may play within these time limits, but we are not convinced that anthropogenic disturbances play by the rules. Like the story of the Romanov family, we have the alarming capacity to eliminate a whole lineage in one dark night.

Hell Creek Formation

Hell Creek Formation badlands below the red line, Ludlow Formation Badlands above the red line. 
Photo 10/4/06 in Corson County, SD.

Of moving-pictures fame, the Hell Creek formation is a series of greyish, mostly bedded, freshwater claystone, siltstone, mudstones, and sandstones and lesser amounts of lignite. Notice the rust-colored rocks in the foreground. In our travels, that has been a telltale marker of the HCF. It was deposited during the Cretaceous period at the end of the Mesozoic Era. It contains sedimentary features such as siderite nodules, mud cracks, raindrop impressions, ripple marks, and bird and animal tracks. It has produced many excellent and renowned dinosaur skeletons, including Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. 
The Ludlow formation is of more recent origin and lies on top of the Hell Creek formation and dates to the early Paleogene (Tertiary) period at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. Much like the Hell Creek formation, it is composed of bedded claystones, siltstones, mudstones, and sandstones interlayered with lignite. It is distinguished from the Hell Creek formation by the persistence of lignite and a brownish hue.
The fossil is likely to be a fragment of a Triceratops shield, with what appear to be the blood vessel tracks. There are innumerable Triceratops fragments scattered across the Hell Creek Formation. Ultimately, the species was the victim of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event, wherein three-quarters of the earth's plant and animal species went extinct in a very short period of time, including almost all dinosaurs, many marine invertebrates, many land animals, and many angiosperms. Current theory holds that it was caused by a celestial Doomsday Machine, a meteor that hit the Yucatan Peninsula with the force of 100 million atomic bombs, incinerating terrestrial life with an infared radiation pulse, dusting the planet in iridium, shrouding it in darkness and sulfuric acid aerosols, and plunging it into an impact winter. 
Should have sold while they had a chance.



Ground Nest

Photo 9/28/06, Corson County. SD

















This is probably a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) nest. It's made out of Artemisia cana sticks, in an isolated location, no closer than 1.43 miles from any human habitations. No bones, feathers, or other signs of activity at the time of the photo. 
No surprise. In the early 1900's, North Dakota was referred to as the "ferruginous-rough-leg state" because of the abundance of the species. At that time North Dakota had vast, unbroken prairie, ideal Ferruginous Hawk habitat. The hawk thrives in expansive, open, arid grasslands and shrub-steppe communities. 
But that was then. A century of agricultural, residential, and commercial development has degraded their habitat. Thus, their numbers have declined across their range. 
Here are some details: Ferruginous Hawks are very susceptible to agricultural or human disturbance. They will select nest sites to avoid human habitation, avoid nesting within 0.7 mile of an occupied building, and may be less productive in areas with disturbance, or may abandon nests if disturbed too often by human activity. Historically, nests were most often ground nests on grassy overlooks in native prairie, less often in trees or rocks, occasionally in peripheral, isolated trees. More recently, due to pressures from predators, their nesting preferences have become isolated trees, haystacks, and power line towers.
This preference for large, unbroken habitats suggests that Ferruginous Hawk is an interior species. Interior species are adversely affected by highly fragmented habitats and prefer the interior of large, unbroken, relatively undisturbed habitats. Here is a quote from the USDA:
"Fragmentation of a landscape reduces the area of original habitat and increases the total lineal feet of edge, favoring species that inhabit edges at the expense of interior species that require large continuous patches. Ecologists, such as Wilcox and Murphy, believe that habitat fragmentation is the most serious threat to biological diversity and is the primary cause of the present extinction crisis." 

Extinction crisis. That's for another day. Should I live to see it.
https://prod.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_015259.pdf

Bullion Butte, ND

Southwestern Billings County, ND. Photo 6/3/03; Penstemon albidus in the foreground


There be better buttes but this be a butte.

This is a 3350-foot tall butte, rising about 1000 feet above the Little Missouri River which is 1.5 miles to the northeast. The cliffs along the rim of the butte are about 120 feet high. Prairie Falcons nest in the rocky rim and the overhangs and caves have sheltered mountain lions. The winds get strong up high on the prairie, nothing holds them back.

This butte is one of several dozen prominent buttes in the western Dakotas (Thunder, Sentinel, Square, Round Top, Haystack, Castle Rock...). They are the product of differential erosion, where erosion occurs at differing rates in a unit of land due to varying hardnesses of the surface material. The harder material that remains while the rest of the softer surface material erodes away is called a caprock. The landform that is created by the caprock is called a butte, a reminder of the elevated plateau that once was.

Climbing to the summit of Bullion Butte in low hanging clouds and a cold mist, one might expect to discover a lost world of Titanotheres, Oreodonts, and Entelodonts peacefully grazing on the short grasses as a giant meteorite streaks overhead towards Chesapeake Bay. No, not today. But, these summits have some unique plant species generally not found on the surrounding plains that may be relicts of the pre-Pleistocene Ice Age landscape, the elevated plateau. One species is Phlox alyssifolia. The sideslopes, scree, and talus surrounding the butte have thousands of specimens. But it is not found on the surrounding plains. It is thought that the species had a wider distribution on the elevated landscape that was eroded away. These remaining populations are relict populations, like the buttes, reminders of what once was.



Keystone Species

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), McKenzie County, ND. Photo 8/11/15. 
Assassin.


Although widespread and numerous, their numbers are declining. They are considered rare in some western states and Canada. These birds are strongly dependent upon prairie dog town burrows.

This is the story: It is estimated that there were 1 billion prairie dogs in North America before European settlement. As a result of widespread deliberate poisoning, conversion of prairie to cropland, and the introduction of sylvatic plague, the acreage and population of prairie dogs saw a 90-98% decline from the year 1900. This eradication has had unintended and unforeseen consequences. The landscape features created by prairie dogs support a host of other species, including the Burrowing Owl. A quote from Miller, 2000:

"Nine of the species depended on prairie dogs. Abundance data for an additional 20 species indicated the opportunistic use of prairie dog colonies, and abundance data for another 117 species was lacking on or off colonies, but their life history indicated that they could potentially benefit from prairie dog activities." 


In so doing, the prairie dog is considered a keystone species. Quoting from Miller again, a keystone species "must exert an effect, the effect must be larger than predicted by their abundance, and the effects should be unique." In other words, they have an outsized influence on the species around them and an exceptional number of those species rely upon them.  




The unintended and unforeseen consequence: As prairie dogs declined, so did many of those 146 species around them. The most notable example of this was the black-footed ferret, which dines almost exclusively on prairie dogs. As prairie dogs were eradicated, the ferret followed, nearly to extinction. By 1981, only one small colony in Wyoming remained, and in 1985, it barely survived an outbreak of canine distemper, another introduced disease. Today, there are about 300 of them at captive-breeding facilities and they have been introduced into the wild at 28 locations to date. Four locations have self-sustaining populations. It is estimated that there are hundreds of ferrets in the wild today. Distemper, plague, and inbreeding threaten to usher them out of existence and into museum displays. 


At one time there were tens of thousands. 


https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2000_uresk_d003.pdf


Stone Circles


McKenzie County, ND. Photo 9/14/09

Easily overlooked, they appear as random stones to many who walk across the prairie. Circles of stone in the prairie grass, often on ridges, overlooks, four-star views, sometimes hidden by accumulations of soil and thatch. 
There is some debate about their purpose and use. The understanding in past centuries was that they were used for holding down the edges of the tipis used by plains Indians. As you pass through the northern Great Plains, you may note that the winds remind you of those found on Jupiter, especially as a low-pressure system passes through in the colder months. But today, some take issue with the term "tipi ring", believing they may be ceremonial arrangements of stones. Hence, they are no longer called "tipi rings" by some. 

In any event, the Hind Expedition of 1858 observed:
"On the banks of the valley the remains of ancient encampments in the form of rings of stones to hold down the skin tents are everywhere visible, and testify to the former numbers of the Plains Cree."
Another anthropologist stated in 1889:
"The Indians claim that the stone circles mark the places where in former times the tepees of their people were located, and that the bowlders held down the edges of the skin tents in place."
Nicollet observed in 1838:
"One mile from the Traverse des Sioux, and on the bank of the river, are the remains of an Indian camp; the circular area of which is still indicated by the heaps of stones around each lodge."
Barrow observed this firsthand in the 1880's:
"The typical tepee was a conical lodge of specially tanned elkskin stretched over a framework of perhaps twenty-five skin peeled lodge-pole pine. The bottom of the tepee was held down by stones."
And so forth.
Here is a bulletin from the Smithsonian that contains numerous testimonials:
And an 1889 report describing ceremonial stone sculptures near Watertown, SD:

Short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglassi)

Photo 7/31/08, Billings County, ND
Declining across its range, imperilled in SD and Saskatchewan, vulnerable in MT, and there was talk about tracking it or listing it on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. 
About 14 species of the lizard in the US. They are found in the western US, in hostile environments. Hot, dry, barren. In ND, they are found in the western badlands. 
This is a big monster in a little body. They do pushups and other feats of strength when approached by a human and, most alarmingly, they squirt their foul-tasting blood from the corner of their eyes for a distance of five feet, a terrifying act made possible by their ability to increase the blood pressure in their head. Currently, we are glad that they are not the size of humans.