place in history, jessica baldwin, al jazeera, amsterdam. you can find more information on everything we are covering right here, the address for that is al jazeera.com. this is techknow, a show about innovations that can change lives. >> the science of fighting a wild fire. we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity and we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science by scientists. tonight: technkow in search of the great american prarie. >> we're in the prarie state yet ironically, we have such little of it left. >> farming and overdevelopment killed it, now get ready for this... an explosition of color and the return of these native animals.
>> how many plant speices do you have in here? >> but volunteers trying to bring back one of the planets most complex ecosystems ran into trouble. >> we just needed something to help level the playing field. >> why a certain animal from america's past was needed to pull off the impossible. >> we've just arrived at the nachusa grassland and i'm seeing these bisson for the first time. >> marita davison is an environmental biologist. tonight, a trip to the heartland. >> oh, there's a baby! >> cara santa maria is a neuroscientist. i'm phill torrez. i'm an entomologist. >> the epic drought of 2015 takes a hidden toll. from above these trees may look green and healthy, they are not. >> here we see somthing that's dramatically different. >> now the technology that can see what we can't. >> that's our team... >> i'm a prarie barber. >> ... now let's do some science.
hey guys welcome to techknow. i'm phil torres joined by cara santa maria and marita davison. and today we are going to talk two environmental stories and to start off the great american prairie. to me it's one of those iconic images of what the u.s. used to be. unfortunately, now it's almost entirely just a part of our history. >> yeah, there's been a lot of over development of farming, and the suburban explosion that's really taken a toll on a lot of prairie ecosystems. illinois has been extremely hard hit. it's changing but there's been a big change in the landscape there. yeah and this is happening across the u.s. but i gotta say what i really love about this story is there's a bit of a twist. >> so, there is. i don't want to give anything away so lets go about 90 miles outside of chicago where they are bringing back a little piece of history. >> it's kind of a big piece of history. >> ok a big piece of history. >> it's a good one.
>> you are looking at a 35-hundred acre experiment in a growing field known as "restoration ecology." this is the nachusa grasslands preserve in franklin grove, illinois, 90 miles west of chicago, where the nature conservancy is rolling back time, 200 years, to restore a tall grass prairie that was almost extinct. >> we are in the prairie state yet ironically we have such little of it left. at the time of european settlement about 2-thirds of the state, some 20-25 million acres of the state was tall grass prairie. we have less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the native prairie that is still intact. >> the mission is being overseen by 3 illinois natives -- jeff walk, director of science for the nature conservancy, project
director bill kleiman and restoration ecologist cody considine. >> it was a vast landscape dominated by those grasses but the real diversity of the prairie was in the wild flowers the forbs the broad leaf plants and thousands of species of insects that dozens of birds and mammals and reptiles that called the prairie home, along with animals like the bison. what was once this vast landscape across much of illinois has been virtually eliminated and turned into the corn belt. >> but illinois isn't alone. since the late 1800's prairie grasslands across the united states have been steadily vanishing. >> i have heard grasslands in general referred to as the unheralded counterparts of the rain forest and grasslands have a critical role in terms of climate change as well? >> in a prairie most of that carbon is stored in the soil, so it's very secure for very long term storage as soil organic matter. >> in essence, the plants of the
tall grass prairie absorb carbon dioxide, trapping it in the deep roots. the restoration began in 1986 growing from a small plot of remnant prairie, land that had never been farmed, >> don't worry keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. >> and starting with fire the process hasn't changed much in 30 years. >> it's completely fire dependent, without fire we could not have prairie. the vegetation grows more vigorously most species of plants have a season of more intense blooming right after the first year and second years after a fire. >> no one knows that transition better than restoration ecologist cody considine. >> cody we're standing in what looks to me, at least, two very different types of areas. what happened here? so yeah so we're right on the line of two different prairie restorations. the one right here was planted 2 years ago, and the one behind was planted 3 years ago.
so what we're seeing, as these prairie restorations get older, more plants emerge, they get more mature, they're flowering, so they're quite dynamic. >> how many plant species do you have in here? >> for this particular planting i believe we have 130 species, ranging from here's a native western sunflower. this is a clonal species. we have rattle snack master here, we have grass leaf goldenrod here, an echinacea here, a pale purple cone flower. it's already flowered. >> all those bloomers started here. >> alright so, this is the seed room. >> project director, bill kleiman. >> well you might think that the prairie seed would find its way out into these former cornfields but it doesn't walk very fast. so we would have to wait millennia. whereas we can collect a seed from the remnant prairies bring it out to a cornfield that we're retiring, plant it, and it'll grow in that year. >> do you have a sense of how many seeds you and the
volunteers here have planted over the years? >> about 250 species a year so it's millions and millions of seeds. >> conventional wisdom was to plant ten pounds of seeds per acre. but, bill ordered 50 pounds, and the fields blossomed, none of it would be possible without a corps of volunteers, like jay stacy. >> so what are you cutting today? >> this particular forb is called prairie coreopsis, scientific name corpeopsis palmata. >> how long have you been doing this? >> i've been doing this, this is my 21st year. >> i'm a prairie barber! >> all the tall grass planting was a little too successful. >> we just needed something to level the playing field. >> what they needed was something to thin out the grass,
like an enormous vacuum. the solution? not a dyson, but a herd of bison. a posse of 800-pound grazing machines. >> we've just arrived at the nachusa grasslands and i am seeing these bison for the first time and i feel like i have been transported back 150-200 years. its pretty remarkable to see these enormous animals that were almost wiped out from north america. oh there's a baby, there's a little one. oh, a couple of them. bison have been part of the vision of the project since the very beginning, but it has taken us close to 30 years to be able to put together enough of a landscape where it was a practical consideration for us. it's the nachusa herds first mating season. and coming up on techknow, the arduous journey they took to get here.
nature conservancy. >> would you say that they have been a game changing factor here? >> oh yeah, these animals are going to make a difference on the prairie. >> i hitched a ride with nachusa project director bill kleiman and restoration ecologist cody considine to track down the bison in their 500 acre grazing area. >> why are the bison so important to the restoration process? >> bison eat grass and the disturbances they are creating puts diversity on the landscape. as they graze the nutrients are going in one end and its coming out the back end and you are getting a very quick nutrient cycling on the prairie. >> those bison "patties" are spreading seeds and fertilizing the soil. >> what's the average weight of a full sized bison? >> the cows can range from
800-1100 pounds and the bulls as they mature, the can get up to 2,000 pounds. >> so how many bison do we have on the reserve? >> 30 adults, and 16 calves. a calf was just born last week, a little tiny one you could easily pick it up. >> it's pretty exciting to think about a calf being born on the illinois prairie that hasn't happened for probably 200 years. >> what happened to bison here? >> there was a tremendous slaughter of bison in the 1870s and 1880s. >> jeff walk is the chief scientist for the illinois chapter of the nature conservancy. >> it's estimated by the turn of the 1900s there were 400 to 1000 animals that had persisted out of that massive herd of 30 to 60 million. >> that's close to extinction. >> it's absolutely close to extinction. >>there was definitely a market for the hides, for the meats. also part of it, it was encouraged by the us government as a strategy to help reduce the food supply for the native
americans in the conflict with the native american peoples. it's estimated there are about 400,000 bison now in north america. >> but most of those bison were bred with cattle for meat production. only about 20,000 are pure american bison. >> that genetic line dates back to 1913, when 14 bison from the bronx zoo were trucked to wind cave national park in south dakota at the behest of teddy roosevelt. so when it was time to bring bison to nachusa, they looked for a posse with a wind cave lineage. >> we went to broken kettle grassland another nature conservancy preserve in northwestern iowa in october of 2014 and brought back 20 animals with us. we essentially separated off the animals that we were going to bring back to illinois . make sure they had a clean bill
of health. 7 of the females we strapped gps collars onto. so we could get real time movements of the animals. >> tracking those movements with the gps collars is julia brockman a bison researcher at southern illinois university. >> what kind of data are you receiving? >> so we're getting location information, a gps point on a map every hour, 24 hours a day. >> so can you show me what you've been seeing? >> sure. these are the bison locations for yesterday they seemed to be spending a lot of time along their corral and trap pasture. and i can corroborate that because we were there and i saw them there. >> and what would you say is the ultimate goal of your study? >> having that amount of data really changes how we look at their movements and their selection. it helps to understand what type of habitat they'll like for reintroductions in the future.
>> among the 2 dozen scientists doing research at nachusa, is doctor holly jones, a conservation biologist at northern illinois university. with her team, she's trapping and tagging small mammals to assess the impact of the big bison. >> so its completely a restoration ecologists playground. i get so excited about this field site. let's see if someone is in there. there is! small mammals are food for aerial predators, things like hawks, things like owls and so it's really important to know how they're doing to be able to say how the prairie is doing as a whole. >> and that's because, if the small mammals are tasty enough to become good prey, they are feasting on a healthy environment of insects and plants. >> what are you seeing? >> since bison have been introduced we've had 13 lying ground squirrels which was very surprising. the line of evidence is pointing towards a shift in community composition. >> there are different plots of land that are being restored at different times from all the way
back 20 years ago we can look at a plot of land like this that was restored four years ago and look at a plot of land over there that was restored six years ago and in one season look at how restoration progresses. now we thank him for his science and send him on his way. go head buddy, go on your way. >> less than a year since the bison's arrival the environmental impact is subtle. some changes to plant growth and small animal populations. but the biggest change may be on humans. >> people are very connected to this herd and they still feel that these are their bison's. that this is such a cool thing that we've returned this iconic mammal to illinois. it's exciting. >> i gotta say i love when you guys bring back things from the fields, especially from somewhere as iconic as tall grass prairies so marita, what did you bring us.
>> all right phil, first you've got to stand up. >> ok. >> tell me how tall you are? >> i'm about 6'2. >> ok, so here is a tall grass from the tall grass prairie. >> that is some tall grass. >> it's tall. i mean i was literally swimming in this stuff, you know. >> this is amazing. >> this is part of the vegetation we are talking about. >> and this is what the bison munch on. >> that's exactly what they munch on. this is what the bison were brought in to help control. >> i could use some of this. >> now, these are little seed pods. they look like musical instruments but they are seed pods of some of the vegetation on the prairie. >> they've got a nice little ring to them. i like it. >> and this is what they've been using to re-plant native vegetation. >> and lastly... >> and the last piece of the puzzle, this is bison fur. >> wow. >> oh, it's surprisingly soft. >> and you can see there's stuff in there. >> there's a lot of stuff in here. >> so you can see really easily how bison could be dispersing, these large seed dispersers across the prairie.
this is even kind of shaped like a bison, i like the thing. >> when i was looking at that footage, i was blown away by the color in the prairie. the biodiversity, the flowering plants, and i wonder if a lot of people have that preconceived notion that nothing grows out there. >> if i told you cara, that along with tropical rainforests, prairie lands and other grasslands are the most biodiverse complex ecosystems in the world, would you believe me? >> i mean i believe you because you are an expert. >> it's totally true. >> but it just blows my mind. you know i thought it was so important to learn about how important the prairie land is here in america for you know this big climate change problem that we are all facing. these grasses and these types of plant actually act as sort of a carbon sync don't they? >> they really do. the bulk of the plants in the prairie are not above ground. they're underground because that's how they survive fire. they actually are a big factor in storing carbon. >> yeah and that really does
feed into the very next story. marita and phil you both tag teamed a little right, both from the sky and from the ground. >> yeah, i got to see california forests from an airplane like no other. >> and while you were in your flying laboratory i was on the ground, seeing the reality of trees and what's taking them down. >> we're coming back right here on techknow.
capitol hill, because the republicans and there are a lot of catholic republicans, have suddenly gotten very up set on the pope's position on the environment. they want him to go in front of the congress and sort of hellfire and damnation on abortion, but i think he's going to focus on issues like the environment, which the republicans aren't strong on. >> this pope seems to be going in a different direction. >> absolutely. he agrees with his predecessors, but he doesn't go out of his way to say so. one of the things pope francis says, i'm a son of the church. we know what that means for his positions, but when he talks, he talks about poverty. he talks about economic justice. he talks about the environment. that may be why so many americans actually think he's more liberal than perhaps he is. >> all right. who is going to greet the pope ate joint base andrews. >> it's a huge honor.
president obama and first lady michelle obama meet the plane directly along with vice president joe biden and dr. biden, his wife. it's the second time only that the president has gone to meet a pope directly at andrews. what normally happens when a dignitary comes to town, he or she is met by the secretary of state and another high official and don't meet the president until they come to the white house. this is a major sign of enthusiasm and support by the president for the papal visit. irng they agree on more things than they disagree on. the white house went out of its way this last week to emphasize how much the president's agenda and pope's agenda line up with each other. >> sally, i want to go back to concerns republicans have about what the pope might say. he's going to meet with john boehner, the speaker of the house. he was invited to speak to a joint session of congress. will republican cabinets speak out and denounce some of the things that the pope says?
>> well, i mean, they already have. they've been very antagonistic about his views on the environment, and also his views on capitalism, which the pope has called the devil's dung. i don't think that has gone over too well with the republicans. i think somebody said the pope is more in line with bernie sanders than he is with john boehner. the pope really seems -- his position is a truly franciscan one, which is more socialist than anything else. he seems to be a socialist and against capitalism. >> you keep a close eye on hot tickets in washington, d.c. are people trying to get close to the pope this visit? >> nobody i know even thinks that they have a chance, so i don't know anyone who has been elbowing to try to get in there. it's a very tightly controlled situation.
very few people have been invited to meet the pope. i know people are trying to get in capitol hill, but they only have a certain number of tickets. i gather that even former members are not allowed because there just isn't room. so i don't think this is one of those things that people are jostling to get into. i think, you know -- there will be plenty of people out on the streets, so as far as social washington is concerned, i think this is something they'll all watch on television. >> and we will as well, but you look at this jet that has been lent to the pope for this visit. how significant is this visit by this pope at this time? >> it's a fascinating thing, john, because this pope is with the world since they kept track.
he might brings bring disaffected catholics back to the church. the u.s. is one of the richest countries with a large catholic population. a lot of catholics in this country make donations to support works all around the world. at the same time u.s. cat licks are as divided on the issues as most u.s. people are. >> as we listen to the crowds cheering as the pope pulls up, sal where i, what impact has this pope had on bringing catholics back to the church, in your opinion? >> i think he's had a huge impact. for one thing, people are interested in him, and so being a catholic is not boring and it's not something that's alienating. so many people were alienated from the church after the child sexual abuse scandal they didn't want to acknowledge they were catholics. i think the way he's handled that has been terrific, and that's made people proud again to be catholic.
i think he's loosening his position on divorce and gays. he said about gays who am i to judge? on abortion now he says that women should be absolved of their sin if they ask for forgiveness having had an abortion. he's working on allowing divorced people to be able to accept communion. these are all issues that were really driving a lot of american catholics away from the church. so i think that he's reaching out to a lot of people. >> he's reaching out to a lot of people. has he alienated a lot of conservative catholics? >> certainly conservative catholics are not huge fans of this pope. we've seen conserve tif bishops say things about him that more progressive bishops wouldn't have said about john paul ii and pope benedict xvi. a lot of people's views on the church are more positive, but we haven't seen numbers showing people are actually going back to the church. we're in a world where more americans than ever call
themselves spiritual but not religious. francis' task is going to be to convert so many positive feelings, those cheers right now into people coming to church and giving him the collection plate at a time when catholics are leaving the church in big numbers. >> what do you think this trip means to the obama administration, sally? are there things president obama would like the pope to say? >> well, i think that obama and the pope are much more in communion than the pipe is with the republicans at this point. so my feeling is that this is a huge pr plus for obama simply to be with the pope, simply to greet him at the airport, have him in the white house. the pope is going to say things that obama agrees with like about taking care of the poor and what obama talks about all the time, the least of these, and about the environment and
economic disparity. all of those are issues that are dear to obama's heart. so i don't think he needs to do anything except step back and sort of be part of the scene. >> mike viqueira is in washington. what can we expect in the coming days from the pope and the president? >> well, i think that we have it about right. i mean, there are many issues on which these two men, president obama and the pope, agree. they discussed many of them when the president visited the vatican with michelle obama last march, march 2014. little did we know at the time also on the table the historic meeting between cuba and the united states that pope francis helped to broker. something that came to light after the fact. the issues they have in common and what the white house is stressing on immigration and climate change and on cuba, on income inequality. some of the more contentious issues they don't agree. this is all behind close