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Restoration ecology projects provide research options

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Three Bethel biology majors spent the summer on the prairie – that is, working on the restoration prairie and woodland project with Jon Piper, professor of biology.

Junior Chelsea Robertson, Leavenworth, Wash., has been involved since the project’s beginning two years ago. “The first thing I did during my freshman year was to weigh and sort seeds to be planted in each of the 25 plots,” she says. Since then, she has helped measure out research plots, plant, mow and collect and analyze data.

Blaire Mayhue, junior from North Newton, and Rebecca Claassen, senior from Moses Lake, Wash., also worked with the restoration project this summer. Mayhue, who helped out as a field assistant, feels a personal connection to the restoration work. “I grew up in Kansas and learned about the prairie in classes,” she says, “but rarely actually saw one.”

This summer the students did more than just see the prairie as they got to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to their research.

“I worked with collecting data on the oak saplings for the woodland restoration part of the project and on the prairie plots,” explains Robertson. “We took 12 random square-meter samples from each of the 25 prairie plots. We identified every species in our sample frames and estimated their percent cover. It took over a week of hot, sunny and bug-filled work out in the prairie to gather all the data.”

With the data collected, the researchers began the process of analyzing. “We’re looking at different plots that each have different numbers of native species planted in them and looking at how well these different numbers and combinations of native species out-compete weed species,” says Robertson.

Claassen’s research focused on documenting the animal life through a small-mammal survey in the oak woodland restoration plots. “I set out live traps once a month – June through September – for three nights in a row,” she explains. “Each morning, I checked the traps and recorded what species was found and in which plot and trap it was located, then released the animal.”

Claassen is looking at how changing plant life affects animal life as tall weeds give way to native oak trees. Her research will be used to develop her senior seminar this year.

While the three have been able to collect a lot of data, the research on the prairie and woodland restoration project has just begun. It will take several more years of data collection and analysis before student researchers will be able to draw definite conclusions.

“My hope for this study is that in the years to come, other students will repeat my [small mammal] survey so data can be collected over many years as these trees mature and the plots change,” says Claassen.

Robertson enjoyed the opportunity to do this kind of research but feels the work has a larger impact. “I have a great interest in conservation biology and in finding ways to help protect and restore the environment,” she says. Claassen adds that the research will give insight that can “help us improve our management practices by helping us to know how things are affected when certain things happen in the plant/animal community.”

Much of the work on the prairie and woodland restoration project has been made possible through a series of grants from the Kingsbury Family Foundation. Piper wrote his third consecutive successful proposal for 2008-09.

“I greatly appreciate the vision of the Kingsbury Family Foundation in its commitment to support these studies over several growing seasons,” Piper says.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see

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