Konza Prairie research program prepares to enter 40th year

Debbie Sumerour (right), research technician, moves her head away from the flames as Greg Zolnerowich, professor of entomology, finishes the burn line of a watershed on the Konza Prairie on July 26, 2016. (Archive photo by Evert Nelson | The Collegian)

Many know the Konza Prairie for its various nature trails and scenic overlooks, but its basis is in research.

The Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research program strives to conduct ecological research to enrich community and educate the public. The National Science Foundation dedicated funding to the program’s inception in 1980.

Most of the program’s research takes place at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, a native tallgrass prairie preserve owned and kept by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State. The K-State Division of Biology also conducts field research on the Konza.

“I love being able to work out on the prairie,” Konza researcher Pam Blackmore said. “The plant community at Konza is dynamic and changes weekly. There’s a variety of wildlife. The landscape is expansive and peaceful, and I relish the days when I’m away from my desk.”

Research conducted in the LTER program varies widely. Its five-person staff each have different specializations — from water, to fire, to bison.

Researcher Courtney Tobler’s specialization is aquatic ecology.

“Every month we collect samples on well water out there, as well as every time it rains or snows,” Tobler said. “We have collectors out there and we will go and collect those waters and bring them back into the lab.”

Tobler said they can collect stream samples as often as three times a week.

“My job is to analyze those samples for different water nutrients such as ammonium, and inorganic phosphorus, nitrate, and more,” Tobler said.

Tobler’s research is uploaded to a database that other researchers may use as a reference for questions about the Konza’s aquatic ecology. Her research can also be used to compare the water at historically agricultural sites versus tall grass prairie sites.

Greg Zolnerowich, professor in entomology, emerges with a waterhose from the smoke on a burn of a watershed on the Konza Prairie on July 26, 2016. The Konza Prairie Biological Station performed the burn as research into different burning times and the effect it has on the ecosystem of the Konza Prairie. (Evert Nelson | The Collegian)

Blackmore oversees all of the program’s spatial data.

“I gather spatial data in the field with a GPS, add metadata to it and make it available to the public,” Blackmore said. “I also use it to make maps and online applications, and I analyze the data.”

Blackmore hopes to identify and understand some of the spatial patterns in tallgrass prairie and use a drone to look at the entire research station. Blackmore said she would analyze changes in the plant community, how effective burns are, bison wallows and more.