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Preserve scientist gets students interested in nature

Staff writer

Hillsboro Elementary School first-graders learned about native Kansas prairies Thursday, as Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve biological science technician Billy Robb, of Hillsboro, told the students about his work and the preserve.

Robb’s presentation was part of Red Ribbon Week, an annual drug prevention and awareness program. He was one of several speakers who told students about their careers. School counselor Mike Moran said getting students to think about their futures helps them make better choices.

He passed around samples of grasses that dominated Kansas before settlers arrived, as well as fossilized seashells from when the Flint Hills were under water millions of years ago.

“This all used to be prairie, right where we’re standing,” Robb told the students.

He asked students whether fire was bad for the prairie and surprised them when he explained that fire actually helps prairie grasses. Robb said his job includes setting fire to the grassland at carefully chosen times and places.

Even being careful, there is a risk of getting caught in a fire, he said. In case that happens, he always carries a portable fire shelter, which looks like a tinfoil tent when unfolded. Robb demonstrated the use of a fire shelter for the students.

His other duties at the 11,000-acre preserve near Strong City include collecting seeds, planting native plants, working with researchers, and cataloging what plants are in an area.

The preserve has eight year-round workers and five to 10 seasonal employees. Robb said he is one of the seasonal workers. He previously worked as a park ranger, giving tours of the preserve. He prefers his work now, conserving and restoring the prairie.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a new kind of wildlife preserve. It is administered by the federal government’s National Park Service, but the land is owned by the Nature Conservancy, a private organization.

During the presentation, Robb took questions from students. Many asked about what animals are at the preserve. Lizards, snakes, deer, bobcats, badgers, prairie chickens, bats, coyotes, and dung beetles are all found in the preserve, as well as many others, he said.

He explained that dung beetles lay their eggs in balls of manure, to provide something for the larva to eat when they hatch. His explanation drew a collective “Eww!” from the students.

Robb said he hasn’t seen any mountain lions at the preserve.

After the presentation, students were able to take a closer look at several items he brought with him, including the fire shelter. Each student took home seeds of one of the native grasses.

HES Principal Evan Yoder said the first-graders appeared interested in the presentation and enjoyed it. He said the children always like it when speakers pass around items.

Other Red Ribbon Week activities included “crazy sock day” on Tuesday, the 14th annual Drug Free one-half-mile run on Wednesday, and a character education assembly on Friday.

Last modified Nov. 10, 2009

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