Konza Prairie trail cams collect data on visitors’ rule-breaking behavior

Trail cameras have been set up for security surveillance at the Konza Prairie. (Hannah Johlman | The Collegian)

The Konza Prairie Biological Station is closer than ever to closing its gates to visitors due to continuing violations of the rules, possibly as soon as before the end of the semester.

“I am stuck with a dilemma,” said John Briggs, Konza director and Kansas State professor of biology. “There’s only two things to do: people need to follow the rules or we are going to close down the nature trail to the public use.”

Briggs said the rules are simple and posted on both the Konza’s website and at the trailhead, adding that the rules essentially ask that the public be respectful of the research being conducted at the location.

A common misconception that might be leading to the rule-breaking, Briggs said, is some people believe the Konza is a public access area. The land is actually privately-owned by The Nature Conservancy and is operated as a field research station by the division of biology at K-State.

The Konza is home to 173 current research projects. According to the Konza’s website, about $28 million is associated with on-site research.

“I don’t think I will wait until the end of the semester to decide if we are closing to the public or not, because our research is going full steam by middle of May or June,” Briggs said, adding that he will make his decision based off hard data.

Briggs said if the trail were to close, he would not expect many problems with people disrespecting the closure of the trail.

“I wouldn’t say they would 100 percent avoid the place, but over time word would get (out) that the trail is closed and folks would go other places,” Briggs said.

An ongoing issue

The Collegian has reported on the issue going as far back as April 2015 when the Konza first brought rule-breakers to public attention. Articles published in March and April of 2016 reported that visitors were not responding to the Konza’s rules, and the area was in danger of being closed to the public.

In March of this year, the Collegian published an article stating that less rule-breaking allowed the Konza to remain open to the public. That is no longer the case.

When Briggs brought up the continuing rule-breaking along the trail in March, The Nature Conservancy suggested that Briggs set up trail cameras, commonly used for game surveillance by hunters, for security surveillance.

“The Nature Conservancy told me that we need to have some good data that people are violating the trails so that the general public will understand,” Briggs said. “We had some trouble last year with people bringing dogs and other things, being out late at night, smoking on the trail, going off the trail. We thought this kind of had gotten straightened out, but now we’re dealing with it again.”

Photographic evidence

The trail cams were set up on March 23 in conjunction with posted signs informing visitors that they were on camera. On April 11 and again on Monday, Briggs posted on the Konza Prairie Nature Trail’s Facebook page trail cam evidence that the rule-breaking had not stopped, stirring a reaction in the comment section.

“We posted those photos hoping that folks will know that cameras are out there, that we are examining them and that we are using the information collected from the cameras to determine if we can keep the trail open,” Briggs said. “Not to prosecute anybody, but to collect data.”

Briggs said there are not two sides to the argument, either those for or against the trail cams, or those for or against the closure of the trail.

“It is private land; it is set aside for research, and we let people walk on a certain part of it and ask them to follow a few simple rules,” he said.

The cameras are no different than when people go to a bank, private store or into Walmart where video surveillance is used to catch people who are acting inappropriately, Briggs said, who also said he wishes it had not escalated to this point.

“After seeing the pictures, I’m really amazed how many people are going out there at 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “The trail is closed after dusk and re-opens at dawn and being out there at that time poses safety issues. Besides, you can’t see anything.”

Simple: Follow the rules

Although K-State Police oversee patrolling of the Konza, police Lt. Bradli Millington said its distance from campus makes that difficult.

“There’s not much we can do to solve the problem,” Millington said. “If someone tells us that there are people out there breaking the rules, we will go.”

Millington added that just because something is a rule does not make it a law.

“It gets complicated,” Millington said. “There are back ways in and out of the Konza and while we would love to help, often we don’t know until after the fact, and it would be really hard to prosecute anybody. We get a call, it takes 20 minutes to get out there and a lot can happen. Likely, they’re gone by the time we get there. Besides, for criminal trespass, you have to be given notice to leave and be given the opportunity to leave before charges can be pressed.”

Millington said he hopes with the posting of the trail camera photos, people will realize the importance of following the rules. He said it comes down to common sense.

“People need to do what the rules say to do,” he said. “It’s just like everything else: obey the rules and the laws.”

Students for respect

Blake Walter, graduate student in geography, said that seeing the Facebook post of people violating rules at the Konza angered him because of the blatant disrespect he saw.

For people who need a place to run their pets or go after dark, Walter said he encourages them to check out other options in Manhattan, such as Washington Marlatt Memorial Park, which is sometimes called “The Little Konza,” or Linear Trail, which connects to most of the town.

Emily Elfers, freshman in animal sciences and industry, said she has been to the Konza and followed the rules during her visits. She said that although people might not be behaving vindictively with the intention of harming research while wandering off the trail, research could still be harmed by accident.

“I don’t get why people go out there when the hours say the trail is closed either,” Elfers said. “It’s like anywhere else you go has set hours of operations. It’s not like you go into a restaurant when the hours say they are closed and go help yourself to what is in the kitchen.”

Both Elfers and Walter said they hope the community gets the message before it is too late and the site is closed to the public.

“If the Konza must close, I think it would hurt the people who really care about it a lot more than the people who disregard the rules,” Walter said. “The people who really use it a lot and appropriately really do care about it.”

Walter is also concerned about the research that is conducted at the Konza.

“People don’t really know that it’s not just K-State who does research out there,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of universities that travel from all over the United States and the world to conduct research there. People really need to respect the signs that are posted and read the rules.”

Research in jeopardy

While there were thousands of photographs taken by the trail camera in the last three weeks, Briggs said that unfortunately it only takes a few rule-breakers to ruin weeks, months or years of research, including the research conducted by Walter Dodds, professor of biology.

Dodds said his research depends on the fact that King’s Creek is not disturbed by humans. King’s Creek is the very creek that trail camera evidence showed rule-breakers climbing out of.

“My study has to do with sampling water quality and also sampling on how the fish move in the system,” Dodds said. “So, when people get down there, they can stir up and change the water quality. They can disrupt some of our equipment, expensive equipment, down there in the stream and alter the movement of the animals.”

Dodds also said that when he hears of people brining pets to the trail, his concern is that when dogs are off-leash they commonly run to water, which could stir up his research.

Briggs said there are no procedures for how the Konza handles service dogs on the trails, as he has never been contacted on that issue specifically.

“Something that myself, as well as The Nature Conservancy, were hoping is that once the public knows there are cameras, maybe the good side of people will come out,” Briggs said. “I hope this is a flurry right now and that now people find other places to take their dogs, or they realize that they just need to abide by the rules, but the trail cams will tell sooner rather than later.”

I am a junior in agricultural communications and journalism, minoring in animal science and leadership studies. I am a transfer student from my home state of Wyoming and a third generation K-State student with a passion for agriculture and writing about agriculture.