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Jennifer Delisle tracks information on species and natural communities throughout Kansas and maintains databases containing the information to assist research and conservational planning.

Campus closeup: Preserving natural heritage

Jennifer Delisle, information manager, Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory, Kansas Biological Survey

Years at current job: almost 13

Job duties: I develop and maintain relational and spatial databases that track the relative rarity of each species and natural community in Kansas and provide information from these databases to assist in research, conservation planning and environmental review.

What’s one thing that would surprise people about your work? Our program is part of a network of 82 natural heritage programs and conservation data centers throughout the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. Network programs are united by a common mission to collect and analyze data about at-risk plants, animals and natural communities. We use a common methodology for collecting and managing data to facilitate sharing across political boundaries. Through the non-profit conservation organization Natureserve we participate in multi-jurisdictional projects that work to protect biodiversity at multiple scales.

Part of the Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory’s mission is to manage information on rare plants, animals and natural plant communities. What is a ‘natural plant community?’ Are there many such threatened natural communities in Kansas? If so, what are some examples? A natural plant community is an assemblage of native plants living in an environment not greatly altered by modern human activity or by introduced organisms. We have identified 68 natural community types in Kansas, all of which are threatened by changes in the landscape that have occurred over the last 150 or so years. Oak-Hickory Forest and Alkaline Marsh are two types of natural communities found in the state. Prairie, however, is the dominant community type. There are 22 different types of prairie in Kansas, each with its own species assemblage and underlying geology. Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie is probably the most well-known; indeed it comprises the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie anywhere in the world. East of the Flint Hills other types of prairie dominate, but these types no longer occur in the vast expanses encountered by early pioneers. In Douglas County for example, approximately 94 percent of the land area was prairie in the mid-1850s; now less than 0.5 percent of that prairie remains. I suspect that most residents of Douglas County have never walked on native prairie. I would like to encourage folks to visit the Rockefeller Prairie at the KU field station to see the beautiful grasses and wildflowers that are part of our Kansas natural heritage.

How does your research and that of your colleagues help protect natural communities that might be threatened by development or other factors? The heritage program conducts inventories to identify, evaluate and map high-quality examples of natural communities. As most of the land in Kansas is privately owned, we work with landowners to identify high-quality natural communities on their farms, ranches and acreages. Many recognize the uniqueness of their prairies and woodlands and are interested in maintaining and protecting them. We provide recommendations for management that will maintain or improve the condition of their land and can direct them toward other organizations that can provide assistance in protecting it for the long term.

We also work with city and county planners to evaluate potential impacts of land use decisions and to steer development away from sensitive environmental areas. As a non-regulatory agency we are in a unique position to provide unbiased recommendations that facilitate economic development while protecting our natural heritage.

A database you manage catalogs information on rare species and natural communities. How does this information aid research in Kansas and elsewhere? We have been developing these databases for more than 20 years and continue to add new information as it becomes available. As a result, we provide a comprehensive source of both historical and current information that is available to researchers in Kansas and throughout the heritage network. For example, our data have been used to build habitat suitability models to aid in climate change research, and to detect changes in the abundance and distribution of species over time. Researchers also contribute to the development of the heritage databases by providing data from field investigations, as well as historical data held in university collections.

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Campus closeup
Jennifer Delisle, information manager, Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory, Kansas Biological Survey
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