Author Archives: Greg Peters

LPCI focal areas

Latest LPCI “Score Card” Highlights NRCS Investments and Outcomes

Check out the latest Lesser Prairie-Chicken Scorecard which details NRCS investments and conservation milestones in the southern Plains states for fiscal year 2021 and the past five years.


Cover image of 2021 LPCI scorecard

Click to download the latest LPCI scorecard.


For a more comprehensive look at LPCI’s efforts, check out the May 2020 Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Outcomes in Conservation Report.

Learn more about what we’re doing to advance rangeland conservation across the entire Great Plains region in our Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome.

Ask an Expert | Dr. Dirac Twidwell: Saving the Last Grasslands

Nebraska’s Sandhills, one of the largest intact grassland regions on the planet, according to research from Dr. Dirac Twidwell. Photo: Dillon Fogarty


In this Ask an Expert, Dr. Dirac Twidwell, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) Science Advisor and Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska, outlines how to protect and conserve grasslands through conservation.

Dr. Twidwell is responsible for conserving grasslands on the Great Plains through science-backed efforts that span ownership boundaries. His research and publications have identified the largest remaining continuous grasslands in the United States and have outlined a ‘call to action’ to protect and preserve these invaluable biomes. Dr. Twidwell also runs the Large-Scale Rangeland Conservation Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which focuses on providing a framework for ecosystem management across multiple states.


You recently co-authored a research paper called “The last continuous grasslands on Earth: Identification and conservation importance. What inspired you to identify the largest intact grasslands on the planet?

When Rheinhardt Scholtz, the paper’s co-author, and I first came up with the idea for this project, we were driving through the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills, discussing the unbroken horizon of prairie, and wondering how many other grassland regions in the world were still as intact as the Sandhills.

In the U.S., we are largely unaware of the large grasslands that persist today. It was rewarding to see the Nebraska Sandhills prairie and Wyoming Basin sagebrush-steppe emerge as two of the most intact and continuous grassland regions remaining on the planet.

Since the paper came out, I’ve heard from so many different people in both Nebraska and Wyoming who have shared their pride in these grasslands of global importance. That’s been pretty cool.

Tell us more about these two regions in the U.S. – what do they have in common and what makes them special?

Grasslands are the most converted, most threatened, and least protected of the world’s major vegetation types. To have two of this size in the U.S. is really special. It’s important to realize that only a few large and intact grassland regions remain anywhere on Earth.

Global grasslands of importance. Figure 2 from Twidwell’s recent paper.

 

Beyond that, they both host amazing wildlife populations. Wyoming sagebrush-steppe has the largest pronghorn migrations in the world, and the state hosts the U.S.’s largest population of sage grouse. Nebraska’s Sandhills are a critical migratory stopover for sandhill cranes and other birds. It’s awesome that these landscapes still support such large-scale animal migrations.

Finally, the people who live in these regions have played a big role in keeping them intact and productive for wildlife and humans. Grazing is the common thread that has helped keep these regions intact. The people who live in these regions recognize and value the wide-reaching benefits that large and intact grasslands provide, and they have worked together to perpetuate them. Conserving these lands benefits everything that grasslands support, from ranching cultures to some of the largest animal migrations on the planet, and these communities understand the importance of doing so.

What are the biggest threats facing these grasslands?

Land use conversion and woody encroachment are the two primary drivers of native grassland loss in the U.S. Image: NRCS/WLFW

The two biggest threats facing grasslands globally are industrialization, coupled with commercial row-crop agriculture, and afforestation (planting trees in treeless ecosystems, which leads to woody encroachment). These threats are primarily responsible for global grassland losses this past century. These two regions, however, have escaped the major threats responsible for global grassland losses, thanks, largely, to local communities who support grassland culture.

Unfortunately, in the Great Plains, woody encroachment and land use conversion are now occurring at the same rate, so it will be important to prioritize conservation investments in these two regions, prevent land use conversion and woody encroachment, and avoid the collapses that have been observed elsewhere.

In addition to the “Last continuous grasslands on Earth” paper, you also recently co-authored a paper expanding on a rangeland conservation strategy called “Defend the Core.” Explain what “Defend the Core” means?

At its most basic, the Defend the Core strategy shifts rangeland management from reactive, piecemeal efforts to proactive and preventative efforts. For example, instead of focusing our time and limited conservation dollars on treating areas that have already transitioned to a woodland state, we focus on preventing treeless cores from being taken over by trees in the first place. It’s more economical and effective to prevent trees from establishing than it is to remove them once they’re present. New spatial technology allows us to “see” these cores and prioritize them for management in ways we’ve never been able to do before.

Importantly, Defend the Core is a three-part strategy. First, we “Defend the Core,” then we “Grow the Core,” and then we “Mitigate Impacts” in places that have already transitioned. By incorporating all three elements into our work, we can keep intact cores healthy and tree-free, expand the size of those cores, and help communities and wildlife adapt to areas that have been impacted by trees.

The “Defend the core, Grow the core, and Mitigate impacts” strategy focuses on preserving intact cores of native range before they’re lost to woody encroachment or other threats. Once protected, those cores can be expanded. Impacts from already-degraded areas can be managed and mitigated as part of the strategy. Image credit: NRCS/WLFW

 

How is the “Defend the Core” strategy being applied in the Great Plains?

The Defend the Core strategy is helping refocus the vision for conservation in the Great Plains. For decades, grassland conservation has been reactive and has failed to prevent large-scale collapse. That said, there are still large, intact grassland cores like the Nebraska Sandhills that should be preserved throughout the Great Plains. Doing so requires re-orienting how we defend some of our iconic grassland regions from 21st century global change pressures, and while that re-orientation is happening, it needs to be accelerated. So, right now, I would say the strategy is being applied as “Defend the Core – lite.”

With your leadership, the University of Nebraska partnered with several public universities and other groups to produce a new guide for addressing woody species expansion in the Great Plains called:  “Reducing Woody Encroachment in Grasslands: A Guide to Understanding Risk and Vulnerability”. How would you summarize the approach outlined in the guide?

Twidell played a major role in developing this guide for reducing woody encroachment in grasslands, leveraging the best science, practices, and new spatial technology to craft a 21st century approach to preventing grasslands from converting to woodlands. Click image to read the Guide.

Our past approaches to conserving grasslands in the face of woody expansion have put land managers, producers, and anyone involved in rangeland management in a no-win situation. Because we focused almost exclusively on clearing trees and brush, we never addressed the underlying ecological processes that drive expansion – seeds. Simply clearing trees without also eliminating the seed source just meant that trees regrew in the same places we removed them.

The guide does a few things differently. First, it provides a holistic strategy that focuses on vulnerable grasslands by cutting off the biological mechanism that allows trees to expand – seeds. It focuses on managing the ecology of the problem and not just the problem itself.

Second, it recognizes the scale of this problem and provides solutions to work at that scale. For too long, we’ve focused on a single ranch or landowner, which is unfair and does little to prevent a biome-scale collapse. Woody encroachment isn’t just a local problem, it’s a biome-wide problem that requires a biome-wide approach. The guide was co-produced through partnerships with producers and landowner networks that are working at large scales (100,000 acres and more) and leverages what we’re learning from these efforts – what worked well and what didn’t meet our desired outcomes.

Finally, it shows what we can do to save our grasslands. By combining a strategy to cut off the underlying ecological process of woody expansion with good planning, informed by new spatial technologies, we can prevent a biome-wide collapse of grasslands.

Producing it was a major effort that brought in a lot of different partners – including federal agencies, university extension groups, producers, and landowner groups – all who all wanted it broadly distributed. At their request, we printed and distributed 19,000 copies of the guide to a diverse group of people engaged in grassland management. It is meant to be used, and we’re proud to have it in the hands of so many people.

You serve as a science advisor to the USDA-NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) efforts in the Great Plains. Recently, Kansas and Nebraska have launched the Great Plains Grassland Initiative and South Dakota and Oklahoma will be launching their state-based Great Plains Grassland Initiatives soon. How do these efforts fit into the big picture of WLFW’s vision for conservation solutions that benefit wildlife and landowners?

Simply put, these state efforts are absolutely critical. Working Lands for Wildlife is an approach to conservation that identifies key threats, produces science on how to address those threats, and promotes voluntary conservation solutions that benefit landowners and wildlife, but it doesn’t provide funding directly. Through the Great Plains Grassland Initiative, states are stepping up, adopting WLFW’s approach, and providing funding and resources for landowners to do work on the ground. The state-led Great Plains Grassland Initiatives are incorporating WLFW’s approach, leveraging WLFW’s science, and directly helping landowners and wildlife.

Not only do these initiatives align with the WLFW-produced Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains, they also align with the approach outlined in the guide, and with the broader Defend the Core strategy.

Importantly, there are a lot of other partners beyond USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service involved in the state-led Great Plains Grassland Initiatives. These state-level initiatives are part of broader efforts to conserve grasslands. For example, these efforts serve as the NRCS’s contribution to the Central Grasslands Roadmap, a broad collaborative effort to conserve grasslands from Mexico to Canada.

How important are working lands in the Great Plains, and by extension, to the state-led efforts to conserve healthy, resilient grasslands throughout this vast region?

Working rangelands in the Great Plains are North America’s contribution to global grassland conservation efforts. More than 90 percent of the Great Plains are privately owned, so working lands epitomize the region. There’s just no way we can conserve North America’s grasslands without working on private land.

If we fail to pull together and conserve the remaining grassland cores here in the U.S., we will likely lose the entire biome. That will cause a cascade of effects: collapsed rangeland production that will impact livestock and wildlife; reduced water supplies for people, industries, and agriculture; increased wildfire risk that will threaten people and property; increased threat of diseases like West Nile Virus and other insect-borne diseases; and reduced funding for social programs like school funding. I hate to be alarmist, but if we lose productive grasslands, we lose a lot of other benefits we’ve come to take for granted.

When grasslands transition to woodlands, a cascade of negative impacts affects plant, wildlife and human communities. Photo: Christine Bielski.

 

Given the importance of working lands to communities in the Plains and to global grassland conservation, are you seeing the rangeland profession in the U.S. stepping up to meet the challenge of conserving the Great Plains grasslands?

Yes! For the first time in my career, every group with a focus on grasslands is now scaling up the mission relative to what threatens the last big grassland regions. We’re seeing it from industry, wildlife groups, special interest groups, and the people who live and work in these regions. I feel like people are realizing grasslands are cool, which is a big shift from past attitudes. So, there’s a lot of attention focused on grassland conservation, and especially on large, intact grasslands, right now.

But a big question remains: Can we put all the other pieces of the conservation puzzle together and effectively conserve these large, intact grasslands before they transition to woodlands or crop agriculture? The type of attention and planning that is occurring now is just the first step. Collaboratives like the Central Grasslands Roadmap and federal agencies like the USDA’s NRCS are highlighting risks to grasslands and offering strategies for addressing them at scale. That’s huge. I do think that with these broad collaboratives, we’ll be able to conserve at least some of these large grasslands. I didn’t think that a few years ago. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m more hopeful now than I’ve ever been.

Loess Canyons, Nebraska

Healthy, resilient, treeless grasslands like these in Nebraska’s Loess Canyons, are possible if we pull together and address threats at landscape scales.


More Resources

Read the full Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grassland Biome here.

Download “Reducing Woody Encroachment in Grasslands: A Guide to Understanding Risk and Vulnerability” here.

Learn more about the Nebraska Great Plains Grassland Initiative here.

Learn more about the Kansas Great Plains Grassland Initiative here.

Read more about the Defend the Core strategy in the Great Plains.

Read about a broad effort in Nebraska’s Loess Canyons using prescribed fire to halt woodland transition and reclaim healthy native grasslands.

Learn more about the impacts of eastern redcedar on grasslands.

Loess Canyons, Nebraska

Publication Alert: The Last Continuous Grasslands on Earth

Graph of the most intact grasslands on Earth. Click image to read the paper.


New study identifies the largest and most intact grasslands on each continent

>>READ THE PAPER<<

Dismissed by many as flyover country, grasslands are the most threatened and least protected biome in the world. Numerous studies have focused on documenting declines in grassland ecosystems, but until now, no study has measured where the last continuous grasslands remain on our planet. Spoiler alert, new findings emphasize the role of U.S. Great Plains grasslands and western sagebrush steppe to global conservation.

Newly released research by Rheinhardt Scholtz and Dirac Twidwell, both with the University of Nebraska, detailed and ranked the world’s most continuous and intact grassland ecosystems remaining. The research was supported by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the USDA Wildlife Conservation Effects Assessment Program.

Researchers first analyzed satellite vegetation data from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program and then used World Wildlife Fund and International Union for Conservation of Nature classifications to measure the degree of intactness remaining for the world’s grassland ecoregions. Grasslands were split between temperate-tropical and desert environments.

Scholtz and Twidwell found few regional grassland ecosystems remain relatively intact, and they discuss the importance of seven remaining grassland regions in the world to large scale conservation. These seven grasslands have persisted over the last several decades in the face of large-scale threats, including land conversion, expansion of woody species and plant invasions.

Two of those regions are found in the United States. The Sandhills of Nebraska ranked as the most intact grassland remaining of the world’s temperate and tropical grasslands at 80 percent intact, and second in overall rankings only to the Altai steppe in Kazakhstan and China. The sagebrush steppe in Wyoming’s Central Basin ranked as the third-most intact arid grassland-shrub steppes and the fourth largest overall at 71 percent intact.

Both ecoregions are critically important targets for conservation work. The Sandhills provide habitat for species like the greater prairie-chicken and serve as a key stopover for the mass migration of avian species along North America’s Central Flyway. Wyoming’s Central Basin hosts the largest population of both pronghorn and sage grouse and provides habitat for some of the world’s longest grassland-dependent ungulate migrations.

The study also demonstrated how the most intact grasslands remaining in the world share common environmental and cultural benefits, which are unique to these systems. In many parts of the globe, sustaining Aboriginal communities and nomadic herders is essential for keeping these grasslands intact globally. Here at home in the U.S. that means supporting sustainable grazing by livestock on working rangelands.

Grasslands across the United States provide healthy air, clean water, and recreational and cultural benefits. Grasslands produce food and fiber, host a dizzying array of wildlife, and filter and store abundant water supplies above and below ground. Underneath grasslands, an upside-down forest of roots and healthy soil play a critical role in capturing and storing carbon. Globally, rangelands contain 12 percent of terrestrial carbon stocks, with 87 percent locked away deep in the soil.

Large and intact landscapes are better able to withstand ecological change, provide more and better wildlife habitat, and are more capable of buffering the effects of global climate change. Additionally, conserving large, intact grasslands is more cost-effective and efficient than restoring them once they become degraded.

The global scarcity of large, intact grasslands is an urgent call to action for the conservation community, and the response should be similar to international attention and efforts related to old growth forests, coral reefs, and rainforests.

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is part of this effort, working through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Working Lands For Wildlife (WLFW) effort to protect these core areas from threats, including woodland expansion, land use conversion, exotic annual grass invasion, and riparian and wet meadow degradation. By marshaling the power of the Farm Bill, WLFW is committed to conserving more than 10 million acres across America’s iconic Great Plains and sagebrush country – including both Nebraska’s Sandhills and Wyoming’s Central Basin – through the science-based Frameworks for Conservation Action.

All of us need to protect these grasslands. Working together, we can help keep the last remaining continuous grasslands productive, intact, and resilient.

>>READ THE PAPER<<


Map of the most intact grasslands on Earth. Click image to read the paper.


Title of Paper: The last continuous grasslands on Earth: Identification and conservation importance

Abstract: This analysis revealed three findings of critical conservation importance. First, only a few large, intact grasslands remain. Second, every continent with a grassland ecoregion considered in this study contains at least one relatively intact grassland ecoregion. Third, the largest remaining continuous grasslands identified in this analysis have persisted despite last centuries’ anthropogenic pressures and have the best chance to withstand 21st-century pressures of global change.

We discuss how these regions are of critical conservation importance to global grassland conservation efforts under anthropogenically driven global change. They provide essential ecosystem services, play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change, serve as critical repositories for grassland biodiversity, are foundational for continental migration pathways, hold unique cultural heritage, and people’s livelihoods depend upon their persistence.

Citation: Scholtz, R., & Twidwell, D. (2022). The last continuous grasslands on Earth: Identification and conservation importance. Conservation Science and Practice, e626.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.626


 

“Defend the Core” — Fighting back against woody invaders on the Great Plains

Defending intact grassland cores from woody species is more effective, cost-efficient and produces better results for grassland conservation.


NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife is investing in big-picture, proactive ways to keep from losing healthy grasslands to woody infestations

By Brianna Randall

Envision driving across the prairie with the windows down. Little bluestem and switchgrasses wave in the wind. Cone flowers, milkweed, and black-eyed susans peek above the sea of green, surrounded by butterflies, birds, and bumblebees. This is what we call the intact core—vast swaths of healthy, thriving native grassland.

But as you drive farther, you start to notice invading woody species like eastern redcedar, mesquite, or Siberian elm. Prairie chickens, pronghorn, and other grassland-dependent wildlife are less abundant. Drive even further from the core, and the once-productive prairie has turned into a shrub-like forest. Once grasslands are infested with trees, they are much less productive for ranchers and wildlife—and extremely difficult to restore.

Loess Canyons, Nebraska

How Nebraska’s Loess Canyons, and the rest of the Great Plains, are supposed to look.

Across the Great Plains, invading trees are taking grasslands out of agricultural production and away from wildlife. Denser stands of eastern redcedar trees also increase the transmission of insect-borne diseases like Lyme’s and West Nile virus and fuel more intense wildfires that are expensive and dangerous to control.

Luckily, people who depend on and care about America’s valuable grasslands are banding together to fight back against unwanted invaders like redcedar. Through Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is investing in a new, proactive strategy to reduce woody encroachment: First, defend the core. Second, grow the core. Third, mitigate impacts in heavily infested areas.

Prevent seeds from taking root

If it sounds like battle tactics, that’s because Great Plains landowners are indeed engaged in a war on woody species. A shift in strategy is overdue since the status quo—reactive, piecemeal treatments once trees are already established—hasn’t worked.

Instead of chasing the invasion by triaging already-invaded areas, WLFW is flipping the script to prioritize preventative care for the best remaining intact grasslands in order to keep them productive and expand them.

“It’s much more economical and effective to prevent encroachment and stop seedlings from taking root in core areas rather than attempting to bring grasslands back from the brink after heavy infestations occur,” said Dirac Twidwell, a rangeland ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a science advisor for WLFW.

Land managers have long known that it’s far more cost-effective and efficient to treat invasive species early, before they spread seeds and expand into new environments. However, on grasslands, this knowledge was never applied to woody encroachment.

Twidwell calls it “Invasion 101”: the best way to stop prairies from turning into woodlands is to stop seeds from spreading, germinating, and becoming parent trees. A recent study from Twidwell’s lab showed 95 percent of encroaching seedlings grew within two football fields of a parental seed source, which means this is where we should focus prevention efforts.

But until recently, conservation practitioners lacked the big-picture technology to see where large tracts of intact grasslands remain, as well as where they are at risk from seed sources. They also lacked access to science-based management strategies for ways to most effectively address woody encroachment.

“We were managing the issue blindfolded,” explained Twidwell. “That’s why we’re losing the biome. Now we have the technology to pinpoint the problem, and the guidance to place the right practices in the right place to tackle it.”

Heavily infested areas like this are expensive and difficult to restore. The Defend the Core strategy focuses on protecting intact cores from turning into woodlands which is more cost-effective and produces better conservation results. Photo: Christine Bielski.

 

Defend the core, grow the core

WLFW is partnering with local, state, and federal managers to produce statewide vegetation maps using the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) and prioritize where to take action to manage woody expansion onto grasslands. Those maps are being paired with this new science-based guide on best management practices for reducing woody encroachment on rangelands, produced in partnership with several universities and extension faculty. Combined, these two resources are the basis of WLFW’s “Defend the Core” approach to conserving Great Plains grasslands.

“Our top priority is to secure core areas by keeping out seeds and young saplings,” Twidwell said. “Then we can grow and expand the core through strategic restoration.”

He points to Nebraska as an example: RAP data shows that seven million of 21 million intact grassland areas in the state are either at risk or already experiencing early signs of woody encroachment.

“Now that we know where at-risk grasslands are, we can apply the ‘Defend the Core’ approach, and coordinate management actions across property boundaries to prevent the continued expansion of woody plants,” Twidwell explained.

WLFW’s preventive approach for conserving grasslands includes these three tenets:

Defend the Core: Prevent seeds from becoming trees by using prescribed fire and eliminating seedlings with targeted herbicide use. Ensure “no new seed-bearing tree” and employ an “early detection-rapid response” strategy.

Grow the Core: Increase distance from the core to seed sources through prescribed fire, cutting trees, and/or using herbicides. Ensure that “no tree is left behind” and monitor to prevent future re-invasion.

Mitigate Impacts: Mitigate the most severe impacts within heavily infested areas. For example, protect houses and communities in heavily invaded areas from the more intense wildfires fueled by volatile woody species, like eastern redcedar.

Woody species map

This image shows the extent that woody species, led by eastern redcedars, have expanded throughout the Great Plains from 2000-2018. Defending intact cores will help slow the spread of woody species and perserve the millions of acres of productive rangeland that exist in the Great Plains. Image courtesy of UNL.

 

Twidwell cautions that implementing management practices is not the goal, it’s simply the means to an end.

“The goal is to sustain grassland ecosystems for the long-term, which requires an integrated, collaborative approach, as well as consistent monitoring to ensure trees don’t contaminate core areas,” he said.

Hope in action

WLFW’s “Defend the Core” approach is already being deployed in Great Plains states beleaguered by invading trees. The Great Plains Grasslands Initiative (GPGI) is being implemented in multiple states to strategically reduce woody encroachment in prairie core areas by helping ranchers re-create “tree free, seed free” landscapes.

Kansas NRCS committed $3.9 million in 2021 — the first year that GPGI was launched — to help 63 landowners protect and expand native prairie across 100,000 acres. Nebraska and Oklahoma also launched GPGI efforts within the past year, applying similar locally-led strategies through GPGI to reduce woody invasion and conserve core grasslands. South Dakota is following suit and plans to release its version of GPGI in 2023.

WLFW is poised to help more states develop strategies to “Defend the Core”, guided by its framework for conservation action in the framework for conservation action in the grassland biome. In addition, WLFW is investing Farm Bill conservation dollars on thousands of acres of private agricultural land each year to encourage sustainable agricultural practices that help maintain grasslands and fight back against woody expansion.

“Our ‘Defend the Core’ approach is a proactive new business model for tackling one of the biggest threats to Great Plains grasslands,” said Twidwell. “By working collaboratively across large landscapes, producers can minimize risk, reduce the costs of managing woody encroachment, and better sustain prairies for generations to come.”

* This common strategy to protect—and grow—the best rangelands is also benefiting people and wildlife in sagebrush country, where the “Defend the Core” approach is keeping annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass at bay. Read more here.


 

Publication Alert: Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness

 

Prescribed fire is one of the best tools for maintaining native grasslands free from encroaching woody species. In the Loess Canyons, a unique, community-led partnership has used prescribed fire to restore grasslands experiencing woody species encroachment, with benefits to grassland-dependent birds. Photo: Dillon Fogarty.


>>READ THE STUDY<<

In the Loess Canyons of Nebraska, landowners have used prescribed burning for nearly two decades to address the greatest threat to their working grasslands – woody encroachment. New research from the University of Nebraska, funded by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, demonstrates how these fire treatments have not only restored productivity on privately owned rangelands but also increased the number of grassland bird species found across most of this ecoregion.

Science documenting increases in bird populations or diversity of species in specific areas due to conservation efforts is extraordinarily rare. Over 700 million birds have been lost from grasslands and 74 percent of grassland bird species are in decline in the Great Plains – the highest of any region in North America. Addressing large-scale threats, like woody encroachment, and building from measurable outcomes of success, like increasing numbers of bird species on landscapes, is a top priority to address the alarming trend of grassland bird declines.

This new research–funded by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and led by Caleb Roberts, now a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit–shows this decline does not have to be permanent and grasslands and species richness can be recovered through concerted, landscape-scale action.

Roberts and his coauthors used 14 years of fire treatment data, six years of grassland bird monitoring data, and remotely sensed tree cover data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) across more than 330,000 acres of privately owned grasslands to observe how grassland-dependent birds responded to landscapes restored by prescribed burning.

The team found that the number of grassland bird species increased across 65 percent (~222,000 acres) of the Loess Canyons, and woody plant cover decreased up to 55 percent across 25 percent of all fire-treated areas.

This is the first study showing how strategic, long-term human management at the ecoregion scale can reverse the impacts that woody species have on grasslands and on the richness of bird species that depend on intact, resilient, and tree-free grasslands. Combined with other findings from scientific research in the Loess Canyons, this work will continue to inform future conservation projects addressing the woody encroachment threat.

Grassland bird conservation is a key priority of a new Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grassland Biome developed by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW). When coupled with a new science guide that provides the first-ever framework for addressing woody encroachment at large scales, conservationists and land managers have the tools they need to defend core grassland habitats and protect wildlife strongholds being threatened by woody encroachment in the Great Plains.

Funding for this study was provided by Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, with additional support from the National Science Foundation, University of Nebraska, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the USDA-NRCS and Working Lands for Wildlife.



STUDY TITLE, ABSTRACT, CITATION, AND PERMANENT LINK

Title: Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness on private lands

Abstract: Of all terrestrial biomes, grasslands are losing the most biodiversity the most rapidly, so there is a critical need to document and learn from large-scale restoration successes. In the Loess Canyons ecoregion of the Great Plains, USA, an association of private ranchers and natural resource agencies has led a multi-decadal, ecoregion-scale initiative to combat the continued loss of grasslands to woody plant encroachment by restoring large-scale fire regimes.

Here, we use 14 years of fire treatment history with 6 years of grassland bird monitoring and remotely sensed tree cover data across 136,767 hectares of privately-owned grassland to quantify outcomes of large-scale grassland restoration efforts. Grassland bird richness increased across 65% (90,032 ha) of the Loess Canyons, and woody plant cover decreased up to 55% across 25% (7,408 ha) of all fire-treated areas.

This was accomplished with extreme fire treatments that killed mature trees, were large (mean annual area burned was 3,100 ha), spatially clustered, and straddled boundaries between invasive woodlands and remaining grasslands—not heavily-infested woodlands. Findings from this study provide the first evidence of human management reversing the impacts of woody encroachment on grassland birds at an ecoregion scale.

Citation: Roberts, C. P., Scholtz, R., Fogarty, D. T., Twidwell, D., & Walker, T. L. (2022). Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness for a private lands’ ecoregion. Ecological Solutions and Evidence, 3, e12119. https://doi.org/10.1002/2688-8319.12119

Permanent URL: https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2688-8319.12119


 

Ask an Expert: Early Warning Signals and Grassland Bird Richness

Greater prairie-chickens depend on tree-free grasslands. New science provides early warnings of where grasslands are starting to transition to woodlands, which helps prioritize proactive restoration that protects grasslands from woody species encroachment.


The iconic imagery of the Great Plains evokes sweeping expanses of treeless grasslands stretching from horizon to horizon. While some parts of the Great Plains still look this way, millions of acres no longer do. Instead, woody plants like eastern redcedar and mesquite have replaced swaying prairie grasses, negatively impacting wildlife species and ranchers alike. New research illustrates how spatial technology can help turn the tide against woody encroachment and how wildlife positively responds to these efforts.

Woody encroachment is a substantial driver of grassland loss throughout the Great Plains, jeopardizing wildlife populations, native ecosystems, and rural and urban communities. When woody plants move in, grassland-dependent birds like songbirds and lesser and greater prairie-chickens move out or die; water supplies are reduced; vegetation diversity decreases; and forage for livestock no longer grows as abundantly.

This is what Nebraska’s Loess Canyons, and the rest of the Great Plains, should look like. Prescribed fire is one of the best tools for maintaining native grasslands free from encroaching woody species. Doing so helps Nebraska’s Loess Canyons and the rest of the Great Plains look like this  Photo: Dillon Fogarty.

 

Fortunately, new technologies are helping scientists, land managers, and producers strategically tackle this challenge and monitor how effective their efforts are for wildlife and grassland ecosystems.

Caleb Roberts, lead author of the papers, conducted his research while at the University of Nebraska. He is now a research ecologist for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) at the Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit. Roberts’ research highlights how the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) not only informs on-the-ground conservation but also demonstrates how this work benefits wildlife in two new WLFW-supported papers.

Roberts’ first paper, “Tracking spatial regimes as an early warning for a species of conservation concern” (Ecological Applications, Nov. 2021) demonstrates the utility of new maps showing early warning signals of woody encroachment in grasslands. Derived from advancements in resilience theory, these maps give warning signals of where grassland ecosystems are starting to transition to woody-dominated ecosystems – well before traditional monitoring would reveal a resource concern for land managers. With this information, managers can target conservation investments where they will benefit prairie-chickens and prevent population losses that occur if actions wait until traditional monitoring alerts managers to a woody encroachment problem.

This research focuses on Fort Riley, a five-square-mile Army base in the Flint Hills of Kansas. In addition to the Army’s First Infantry Division, Fort Riley hosts a population of greater prairie-chickens, which, like other grassland-obligate species, thrive in treeless grasslands. This new information, when combined with a new science strategy for addressing woody encroachment, can be used to safeguard critical lek locations that become abandoned when pressured by woody expansion.

Historic Fort Riley, long before encroaching woody species began moving into native grasslands. Photo from Fort Riley website.

 

Roberts’ second paper, “Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness on private lands” centers on Nebraska’s Loess Canyons region, where landowners have re-built a culture of fire over the last two decades by using prescribed fire to halt the transition of grasslands to eastern redcedar woodlands.

Roberts’ research combined 14 years of fire treatment data, six years of grassland bird monitoring data, and remotely sensed tree cover data from the RAP to observe how grassland birds responded to landscapes restored by prescribed burning across more than 330,000 acres of privately owned grasslands. His findings show a rare outcome: an increase in the number of grassland bird species across 65 percent of the Loess Canyons region treated by fire.

In this Ask an Expert, Roberts discusses these two papers and how the RAP helps produce practical, outcome-based science.

An Army base seems like an interesting place to study bird conservation. Why did you conduct your study at Fort Riley?

We did the study at Fort Riley for two reasons. First, we were being funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop methods to rapidly monitor ecological change on their bases and especially to detect early warnings of ecological regime shifts. For Fort Riley specifically, the DoD wants to keep it a grassland because grasslands are critical for their infantry training.

Second, Fort Riley is a great place to test our early warning detection methods. This is because much of the base is a large, remnant tallgrass prairie. Many grassland species like greater prairie-chickens persist there, but like much of Great Plains, Fort Riley is also experiencing woody encroachment. So all the ingredients were there.

Will you explain what you mean by “regime shift” and “state transition”? Why are they so catastrophic for wildlife?

The terms ‘regime shift’ and ‘state transition’ refer to the same thing: when one ecosystem changes into a completely different ecosystem. For example, woody encroachment causes grasslands to experience a ‘regime shift’ and change into a woodland. Or cheatgrass invasion can lead to sagebrush steppe becoming an annual grassland. These changes are often very difficult and costly to reverse—especially at the scale of states or entire regions like the Great Plains. This means species that require a particular ecosystem, like how greater prairie-chickens need grasslands and can’t tolerate even a few trees per acre, cannot survive after a regime shift.

Your research focuses on the boundaries between grassland- and woodland-dominated areas. Why are these boundaries so important to study?

Okay, imagine a clean piece of paper, and then imagine spilling a bit of water with dye on it. You will see the dye staining the clean paper: that is, the boundary between the dyed paper and the clean paper will move outward and across the paper. And if you know where the boundary between dyed paper and clean paper is early on, you have a good chance of knowing where it will be in a few seconds or even minutes.

This is a lot like how regime shifts work across large swathes of land. In terms of grasslands experiencing wood encroachment, the woody plants are like the stain, and the grasslands are like the clean paper. Without something like fire to regularly remove woody plant seedlings, woodlands spread outward from these boundaries, invade grasslands, and literally push out grassland species like greater prairie-chickens.

So in summary, during a regime shift, the boundaries are where the ‘action’ happens, and if we can quickly find and track boundaries, we can predict where and when regime shifts will happen in the future.

What did you find?

We found greater prairie-chicken leks simply did not occur anywhere near boundaries between grasslands and woodlands. The amount of area leks could and did occupy visibly shrank across Fort Riley. If you look at the maps in our paper, it looks like a noose is tightening around the grasslands. And this didn’t take centuries. It happened in about 25 years.

But critically, tracking the boundaries between grasslands and woodlands gave us an early warning of these losses. This means the ‘tracking spatial regimes’ method can be a tool to prevent habitat loss before it occurs.

Trend in the amount of area exhibiting early warning signals of a state transition to woody dominance for Fort Riley, KS. Since 1994, greater area is trending toward “unsafe operating space” for the Greater Prairie-Chicken, and corresponding spatial maps showing the leading edge of these transitions is allowing managers to get ahead of woody transitions and protect critical lekking habitat for this iconic grassland bird.

How important was the vegetation cover data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform to this work?

Oh, the Rangeland Analysis Platform data was absolutely critical. We were able to use it to get a bird’s eye view of the grassland-woodland boundaries and track them year-by-year, pixel-by-pixel.

Shifting to your paper focused on the Loess Canyons in Nebraska; will you tell us a bit about the history of this region and what makes it so compelling to research?

The Loess Canyons is definitely an interesting and inspiring place. The Loess Canyons is a 330,000-acre region that was historically dominated by mixed-grass prairie. Woodlands were rare. But like much of the Great Plains, fire suppression and tree planting became dominant practices in the Loess Canyons. Consequently, between 2000 and 2010, woodlands increased from three percent to 10 percent of the area of the Loess Canyons.

But then in 2002, a collaboration between private landowners, natural resource agencies, and universities formed the Loess Canyons Experimental Fire Landscape to combat the woody encroachment. These folks have worked incredibly hard to apply large-scale fire treatments nearly every year. In 2016 alone, they burned more than 12,300 acres of the Loess Canyons. And importantly, these fires were hot enough to kill even 30-foot tall eastern redcedar trees. That means every acre of trees burned was an acre of grassland reclaimed, and our paper shows that the grassland birds were pretty happy about this.

Prescribed fire burn crew

Well-organized, community-led groups comprised of local landowners, fire professionals, and land management agencies is a key aspect of safely conducting prescribed burning in the Loess Canyons. Photo: Christine Bielski.

Your research showed that grassland bird richness increased across 65 percent of the Loess Canyons (more than 220,000 acres). Will you explain what that means to those of us who aren’t wildlife biologists?

Sure—and this is one of our most exciting findings. What it means is the number of grassland bird species increased across nearly two-thirds of the Loess Canyons. In grasslands, such a large positive response across such a large area is unheard of. Put another way, grassland birds have declined more than any other bird group in North America, but the Loess Canyons are bucking that trend. Our paper gives clear evidence that it was the large-scale fire treatments that drove this huge conservation success.

Maps show change in (A) tree cover and (B) number of grassland bird species between 2010 and 2016 in the Loess Canyons, Nebraska, USA. Locations of fire treatments are indicated by black outlines.

Landowners in this region have really learned how to use fire strategically; you explicitly note in the paper that the fire treatments were intense, large, clustered, and straddled boundaries between woodlands and grasslands. What makes these characteristics important to the conservation outcomes you found?

Given how successful the Loess Canyons have been, we hoped we could glean some overall strategies for combating woody encroachment and restoring grasslands at large scales. And those descriptions you mentioned—intense, large, and clustered fire treatments that straddled grassland-woodland boundaries—distinguished the Loess Canyon strategy from others. Lots of grassland restoration efforts use fire treatments, but few do it like that, let alone at the scale the Loess Canyons people do. And considering what we learned about how woody encroachment and grassland-woodland boundaries behave in our Fort Riley paper, you’re just going to get more bang from your buck and have longer-lasting results if you chip away at the oncoming woody encroachment rather than wasting time in areas already heavily infested with trees.

This research involved a lot of complex wildlife modeling. The RAP focuses on vegetation, so how did this data help your wildlife-focused research?

The wildlife data and modeling allowed us to tell the amazing response of grassland birds to fire treatments, but the RAP tree cover data allowed us to round out the story and show exactly what fire treatments did and how that drove the bird response. If you look at some of our maps in the paper, you’ll see that where fires killed trees, grassland birds came back. That wouldn’t have been possible without the RAP.

Both studies focus on woody species encroachment in the Great Plains, and both suggest that scientifically informed, strategic, and coordinated human intervention can provide lasting benefits to grassland-dependent birds. How can we – as humans – save this biome and the species that depend on treeless grasslands?

This is an enormous problem, but the good news is we now have amazing tools to help us. And we also have some strategies, like those the Loess Canyons groups are using, that have a winning track record. If we put these tools and the strategies together, we will be able to think and act on restoration beyond individual pastures, properties, counties, or states. We can identify core grassland strongholds with the RAP and use fire to prevent woody encroachment. We can track where woody boundaries are invading grasslands, and we can work with our neighboring families, communities, and states to plan restoration actions.

Then we can use the full range of our tools—like how the Loess Canyons folks use intense, large fires—to work across properties, kill trees, and push those woody boundaries backwards. So, if enough of us can muster the willpower, the science shows we have the means to save the grassland biome and the species that depend on it.

Meet the Expert

You now work for the USGS in Arkansas. What is your role there? Are you still doing

Caleb Roberts in the Loess Canyons of Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Caleb Roberts.

research?

I am a USGS research ecologist at the Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit. My role at the Unit is to lead research that fills our cooperators’ needs and to mentor graduate students. Our main cooperators are Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the University of Arkansas, and the Wildlife Management Institute. Currently, my students and are I researching impacts of invasive waterfowl on wildlife and investigating the status of two threatened species in Arkansas—the Eastern Spotted Skunk and the King Rail. I’m also continuing my collaborations with Working Lands for Wildlife researchers, which still includes the RAP products and more bird work.

What’s your favorite bird species?

Growing up around the wetlands of western Kentucky, my favorite bird is the Prothonotary Warbler. I love its iridescent yellow color. But if we’re talking about grasslands, my favorite bird is definitely the Bobolink. I like their fun name and fun song.

If you could play one instrument you currently don’t know how to play, which would it be?

I’m a bluegrass fan, so it would the mandolin. Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, and Bill Monroe are some of my favorite mandolin players.


>>Read more about the impacts of woody species on grasslands birds<<

>>Read more about the unique collaboration in the Loess Canyons and other science that has been produced from this experimental landscape<<

Greater prairie-chicken photo

Publication Alert: Spatial Technology Reveals Early Warning Signs of Large-Scale Woody Encroachment Threat to Greater Prairie-Chickens

Greater prairie-chicken photo

Greater prairie-chickens, like this one, abandon habitat when just one or two trees per acre are present. New research provides an early warning signal to land managers that grasslands are on the verge of transitioning to woodlands, providing opportunities to maintain grasslands before they transition to woodlands and impact grassland-dependent birds.


>>READ THE STUDY<<

Nestled in the upper Flint Hills in Kansas, Fort Riley is home to the Big Red One – the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division – as well as a population of greater prairie-chickens. Like the related lesser prairie-chicken and all other grassland-dependent species in the central Great Plains, their habitat is under threat by woody encroachment, which displaces the birds and reduces productivity of these rangelands.

New research supported by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) is capitalizing on innovative spatial mapping technology to monitor this transition from grass to woodland, helping land managers on Fort Riley and throughout the Great Plains better manage this landscape and protect important wildlife habitat.

Greater prairie-chickens, like other upland grouse species, depend on treeless rangelands. Decades of previous research showed when trees encroach on these grasslands, prairie-chicken populations decrease as the birds move out of formerly suitable areas.

Managing core areas for wildlife like prairie-chickens, however, is a challenge for conservationists as wildlife monitoring data are often limited in scope and scale. Fortunately, new innovations in spatial mapping technologies make it easier to monitor ecosystem transitions. This capacity helps managers track not only where these transitions have already occurred, but also where they are just starting to impact the landscape – even when wildlife monitoring data are lacking.

For species like greater prairie-chickens, which avoid habitats with just a few trees per acre, the ability to track such transitions provides an early warning signal of pending habitat loss, as documented through new work led by WLFW-affiliated research from the University of Nebraska and the postdoctoral research of lead author Caleb Roberts (now a research ecologist with the USGS, Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit). This helps managers get ahead of woody expansion, better defend core grassland habitat, and prevent declines in wildlife populations.

This research reaffirms WLFW’s approach for tackling woody encroachment and its reliance on spatial technologies to identify large intact core areas, defend them from woody expansion, and to strategically grow those cores through targeted restoration tactics. This is a key priority of WLFW’s Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grassland Biome and the new Kansas Great Plains Grasslands Initiative. When coupled with a new science guide that provides the first-ever framework for addressing woody encroachment at large scales, conservationists and land managers have the tools they need to defend core grassland habitats and protect wildlife strongholds being threatened by woody encroachment in the Great Plains.



STUDY TITLE, ABSTRACT, CITATION AND PERMANENT LINK

Article name: TRACKING SPATIAL REGIMES AS AN EARLY WARNING FOR A SPECIES OF CONSERVATION CONCERN

Abstract: In this era of global environmental change and rapid regime shifts, managing core areas that species require to survive and persist is a grand challenge for conservation. Wildlife monitoring data are often limited or local in scale. The emerging ability to map and track spatial regimes (i.e., the spatial manifestation of state transitions) using advanced geospatial vegetation data has the potential to provide earlier warnings of habitat loss because many species of conservation concern strongly avoid spatial regime boundaries. Using 23 yr of data for the lek locations of Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido; GPC) in a remnant grassland ecosystem, we demonstrate how mapping changes in the boundaries between grassland and woodland spatial regimes provide a spatially explicit early warning signal for habitat loss for an iconic and vulnerable grassland-obligate known to be highly sensitive to woody plant encroachment. We tested whether a newly proposed metric for the quantification of spatial regimes captured well-known responses of GPC to woody plant expansion into grasslands.

Resource selection functions showed that the grass:woody spatial regime boundary strength explained the probability of 80% of relative lek occurrence, and GPC strongly avoided grass: woody spatial regime boundaries at broad scales. Both findings are consistent with well-known expectations derived from GPC ecology. These results provide strong evidence for vegetation-derived delineations of spatial regimes to serve as generalized signals of early warning for state transitions that have major consequences to biodiversity conservation. Mapping spatial regime boundaries over time provided interpretable early warnings of habitat loss. Woody plant regimes displaced grassland regimes starting from the edges of the study area and constricting inward. Correspondingly, the relative probability of lek occurrence constricted in space. Similarly, the temporal trajectory of spatial regime boundary strength increased over time, moved closer to the observed limit of GPC lek site usage relative to grass:woody boundary strength.

These novel spatial metrics allow managers to rapidly screen for early warning signals of spatial regime shifts and adapt management practices to defend and grow habitat cores at broad scales.

Citation: Roberts, C. P., D. R. Uden, S. M. Cady, B. Allred, S. Fuhlendorf, M. O. Jones, J. D. Maestas, D. Naugle, A. C. Olsen, J. Smith, J. Tack, and D. Twidwell. 2021. Tracking spatial regimes as an early warning for a species of conservation concern. Ecological Applications 00(00):e02480. 10.1002/eap.2480

Permanent URL: https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eap.2480

Prescribed fire burn crew

The Story of Saving the Loess Canyons

Loess Canyons, NebraskaLandscapes like this treeless expanse of the Loess Canyons in Nebraska require regular, proactive fire management to remove both encroaching trees like eastern redcedar and their seeds. Photo: Dillon Fogarty.


This story originally appeared in the Loess Canyons Experimental Landscape Science Report, a publication of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln produced with support from Working Lands for Wildlife (published October 2021). Find the full report here.


By Brianna Randall

When Mark Alberts’ dad and grandparents used to go in search of their family Christmas tree, it often took hours to hunt down a lone redcedar in southwestern Nebraska. Unfortunately, redcedars have since taken over much of America’s fertile prairie. The rangelands south of the Platte River valley are now one the most tree-infested areas in Nebraska.

The rapid invasion of eastern redcedar across America’s Great Plains spells bad news for landowners and communities that rely on grass. These trees replace native grasses, which means less food for livestock and less revenue for ranchers.

“It’s called the ‘green glacier’ since the trees are invasive and grow so fast,” said Alberts, a 63-year-old farmer and rancher who has lived in Nebraska’s Loess Canyons his whole life. “The problem keeps compounding. Grandpa and Dad used to run 80 calf-cow pairs on a section of grass. But when that section is half covered by trees, it can’t feed as many cattle.”

This is not how the grasslands of the Great Plains are supposed to look. Encroachment like this is extremely difficult to reverse and requires experienced and well-coordinated prescribed fire management. Photo: Christine Bielski.

 

Not only do the invading trees cut into ranchers’ productivity, but they also displace grassland wildlife, like bobwhite quail and prairie chickens. Plus, redcedars steal precious water from streams and aquifers—each tree can consume up to 40 gallons per day. Denser trees also cause hotter, more intense wildfires that threaten property and people.

FIGHTING TREES WITH FIRE

Over two decades ago, Alberts and some of his neighbors decided to take action to save the grassland and their livelihoods. Some tried cutting redcedar with chainsaws or other machines, but it barely made a dent in the thicket. Instead, they turned to prescribed fire.

Grasslands evolved with frequent fires, which help recharge soil nutrients and spur new plants to grow. Historically, Nebraska’s prairies burned every few years due to lightning strikes or Indigenous communities who lit fires to lure in bison and other game with fresh, green, post-burn grass. Without flames to relegate trees to wet or rocky areas, redcedars have inexorably marched across grasslands over the past 150 years.

Prescribed Fire in Loess Canyons

Prescribed fires, like this one, not only remove encroaching eastern redcedar trees, they also restore nutrients to the soil, benefiting native grasses, wildlife, and ranchers who rely on healthy, productive rangelands. Photo: Andy Moore.

 

Other landowners in the Great Plains were already using prescribed burns to prevent small saplings from becoming seed-dispersing trees. But the landowners in the Loess Canyons took it a step further—they decided to see if fire could restore rangeland after redcedars had already matured and spread.

Mark Alberts, the “guinea pig,” and a leader in the Loess Canyons. Photo courtesy of Mark Alberts.

Mark Alberts was the guinea pig. In 2000, a handful of other landowners and representatives from the NRCS helped him burn 300 acres. It worked like a charm, killing the trees and opening up his pasture. Alberts was able to run 10- 15% more cattle when the grass grew back the following year.

But Alberts says that most of his neighbors “watched with clenched teeth,” including his uncle who lived across the fence. They were afraid the fire would get out of control and doubted its ability to help rather than harm the land.

“What’s amazing is how nearly every one of those neighbors has come around,” Alberts said. “Even my uncle burned one of his pastures after seeing that the trees didn’t come back on my flats.”

LOCAL LEADERS ARE KEY TO SUCCESS

Doug Whisenhunt, then a district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helped orchestrate that first burn. A few years later, he helped Alberts and a dozen other landowners form the Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance (LCRA), a group dedicated to using fire as a land management tool.

The LCRA now includes nearly 100 members who share equipment, time, and expertise to burn grasslands and keep trees at bay. Whisenhunt said a major turning point for motivating more interest in prescribed fire was when Scott Stout, then in his mid-30s, took over as the burn boss and president of the LCRA.

“As a local rancher and social leader, he was the right guy to make it successful,” added Wisenhunt. “If your burn boss isn’t local, no one follows them—and you can’t be a leader if no one follows you.”

Participation and interest in prescribed fire grew so much that landowners formed a second burn group in 2008, the Central Platte Rangelands Alliance. Collectively, landowners in both groups have burned 135,000 acres in the Loess Canyons, which represents one-third of the total landscape.

“We’re all on the same page, trying to regain what we have lost. We trade labor and equipment back and forth, just like at a branding,” said Scott Stout, who is now president of the Nebraska Prescribed Fire Council. “It’s really brought back a sense of camaraderie among neighbors.”

Alberts reflected that “neighboring together better” is just one of the many benefits that came about as a result of reinstating fire.

PARTNERS PONY UP TO SUPPORT LANDOWNERS

The nutritious new grasses that come in after a prescribed burn are also a boon to wildlife like songbirds, turkey, and deer. T.J. Walker is a wildlife biologist with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission who has worked with the Loess Canyons burn groups for over two decades. He stresses the importance of supporting landowner-led conservation since 97 percent of Nebraska is privately owned.

“We want to help the ranchers help themselves because their land provides a lot of great wildlife habitat,” said Walker. “If we aren’t managing the cedars, they’re going to take over those grasslands and drastically reduce biodiversity across the board.”

Walker credited the landowners and their commitment to each other as the main reason the Loess Canyons still have healthy, intact grasslands. But another not-so-secret ingredient to their success is strong partnerships between state and federal agencies and non-profits that provided landowners with financial and technical support.

The Nebraska Environmental Trust helped the LCRA purchase water tanks, drip torches, and all-terrain vehicles with sprayers. NRCS provides cost-share for landowners to defer grazing on the pastures they plan to burn. Pheasants Forever, USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife, and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission also contribute funds to help landowners prepare burn units, which includes cutting isolated redcedars beforehand and “stuffing” them under dense cedar patches to provide fires with extra fuel for killing more mature trees. Using fire after cutting larger trees ensures that any seeds or small seedlings hidden in the grass are burned, which prevents a new generation of trees from rapidly re-encroaching.

Cutting and stuffing eastern redcedar

Cutting some eastern redcedar trees and “stuffing” them under thick stands helps fires burn hotter, killing mature trees and the seeds lying on the ground. Photo: Christine Bielski

 

Through good communication and the willingness to work together, these partners merged their efforts into one collective vision: restore healthy rangelands by removing invading eastern redcedar with prescribed fire.

SCIENCE THAT’S PART OF THE FAMILY

The unique collaborative conservation work in the Loess Canyons drew the attention of Dirac Twidwell, a rangeland ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Most research is done on small experimental plots,” he said. “I was searching for examples of landowners using fire across properties and managing at larger scales to address woody encroachment.”

In 2014, Twidwell met with 20 ranchers at a steakhouse in Curtis, Nebraska, to see how researchers and landowners might learn from each other in the Loess Canyons. Landowners were so hungry for information that they talked with Twidwell for hours that night.

Following the meeting, Twidwell and the landowner group agreed to establish a private lands experimental landscape in the Loess Canyons covering approximately 180,000 acres.

“It’s one of the largest experimental landscapes in Great Plains grasslands and one of the only ones owned entirely by private landowners,” Twidwell explained.

Twidwell immediately took advantage of long-term monitoring data collected by NGPC and partners and implemented new field studies with graduate students. Since 2015, over a dozen students have collected data in the Loess Canyons Experimental Landscape. As evidence of the trust between scientists and ranchers, landowners even let students stay in their spare rooms or basements while they’re conducting research over the summer.

“We often talk about scientific co-production or use-inspired science,” said Twidwell. “This is a preeminent model of how to successfully work with landowners at large scales. It meets the land-grant mission of the University of Nebraska in the truest sense. We feel part of the family and the community. It’s not just scientific conclusions. The science supports the cultural fabric of the region and goes way beyond science produced solely from an ivory tower.”

Co-producing science in the Loess Canyons

The co-production of science in the Loess Canyons is providing key insights into how prescribed fire benefits grasslands and is only possible through the continued partnerships of landowners, universities, and groups like Working Lands for Wildlife. Photo courtesy of Christine Bielski.

 

IGNITING INTEREST WORLDWIDE

The community-based, co-production of science in the Loess Canyons includes the input and participation of groups like the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“We don’t want to do research in a vacuum, we want to do it in tandem with partners to give people the information they need to help manage the resource,” said Walker.

Walker and his colleagues are now using models created by Twidwell’s lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to target grasslands conservation across the state. For instance, they can identify areas most at risk from encroaching redcedar, as well as where to invest money to protect core habitat that is treeless.

Now that story is spreading far beyond Nebraska. Twidwell, Walker, and local landowners are mentoring resource managers who are struggling to contain trees taking over grasslands.

“This problem is worldwide,” said Alberts. “People in Spain, Portugal, South Africa, they all want to know how we do it. They want us to teach them how to do prescribed burning safely to get back their grass, and also to minimize the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

The science from the Loess Canyons also informed the first-ever, biome-scale framework for conservation action in the Great Plains, recently released by NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife. The aim is to clone the model of collaborative success in the Loess Canyons to help other landowners address threats in their region.

Meanwhile, Alberts, Stout, and hundreds of other landowners in the Loess Canyons—from great-grandparents down to young children—will continue to work side-by-side to use fire as a tool to improve their rangelands.

“I don’t want my kids or grandkids to say, ‘Why didn’t Dad take care of those when he could?’” Stout said. “The time to get them is now.”

Prescribed fire burn crew

Well-organized, community-led groups comprised of local landowners, fire professionals, and land management agencies is a key aspect of safely conducting prescribed burning in the Loess Canyons. Photo: Twidwell Lab.

>>Read the Loess Canyons Experimental Landscape Science Report<<


More resources:

Explore the recently published “Reducing Woody Encroachment in Grasslands: A Guide for Understanding Risk and Vulnerability” to learn more about woody encroachment in the Great Plains.

Learn more about how WLFW is helping landowners retain and restore grasslands across the Great Plains in the Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome.

Photo of lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background, photo credit: Laura Erickson

Ask an Expert | Keeping it Grass: How the NRCS Helps Landowners Maintain Grasslands When CRP Contracts Expire

Photo of lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background, photo credit: Laura Erickson

Working rangelands provide critical habitat for grassland-dependent birds and other ecosystem services that croplands just can not provide. In this photo, lesser prairie-chickens are on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background. Laura Erickson photo.


One of the largest voluntary private-lands conservation programs in the U.S. celebrated its 35th anniversary this past December. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) helps landowners and operators conserve grassland. When landowners enroll ground in the CRP, they voluntarily agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. The ground is then maintained as grassland for the length of the contract, generally 10 or 15 years.

The CRP benefits landowners, wildlife, and surrounding communities. Producers receive annual payments that help offset the cost of maintaining the land as a set-aside, rather than actively grazing or cultivating the ground. Beyond the operation, keeping these lands in grass also contributes positively to the economy, provides biodiversity of plant and animal populations, and improves environmental quality by reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and locking carbon in the soil.

A study released in 2021 demonstrated that ranches in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas that had ground enrolled in CRP, or in prescribed grazing practices, helped conserve habitat for 4.5 million grassland-dependent songbirds. Importantly, CRP-enrolled lands comprised the majority of the lands in the study. This benefit extended to some of the most imperiled grassland species, including lesser prairie-chickens, grasshopper sparrow, Cassin’s sparrow, and lark bunting. Further, these lands helped boost songbird populations by 1.8 million birds.

The CRP is helping address one of the most significant challenges to America’s grasslands – land use conversion. The majority of the most productive soils in the Great Plains have already been cultivated, but more than one million acres of grasslands are lost annually across the U.S – largely due to continued conversion to cropland. This conversion includes less-productive soils, which has a high cost to wildlife, water quality, soil health, and carbon capture. Furthermore, 70 percent of these new croplands have a yield deficit of -6.5 percent compared to the national average.

The most productive soils in the Great Plains have already been converted to cropland. With help from the NRCS, landowners can maintain expired CRP lands as working rangelands. Figure: NRCS-WLFW, Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome.

 

The CRP helps restore and maintain grasslands, but the program is highly competitive. While demand is high, more than half of willing participants were unable to re-enroll expiring CRP lands in recent years due to acreage limitations nationally. Despite this disappointment, a study released in 2021 demonstrated 58 percent of CRP contracts – on average across six states – that expired in 2007 remained in grass for the next 10 years. The highest retention rates were in less productive landscapes where grazing cultures persist. In contrast, the most productive soils often returned to cropland when contracts expired.

While the CRP is managed by the FSA, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps landowners with expiring contracts turn CRP acres into productive grazing lands through technical and financial assistance after CRP contracts expire.

Watch this video featuring Kansas rancher, Dwight Abel, who worked with the NRCS to turn expired CRP ground into productive and profitable grazing lands.

The NRCS is uniquely positioned to help producers retain grassland exiting the CRP by replacing lost annual set-aside payments with revenues from livestock grazing. Helping the ranching community piece back together lower-productivity landscapes that are better suited for grazing than farming has the potential to restore whole watersheds at unprecedented scales. Maintaining expired CRP lands as working rangelands can stitch together intact grasslands that support grassland-dependent wildlife while helping producers remain profitable and productive.

We sat down with Andy Burr, the state biologist with the NRCS in Kansas, to talk about the CRP and how the NRCS helps producers retain expired CRP lands as working rangelands.

How popular is the CRP among landowners in the Great Plains? 

It is a very popular program in Kansas.  More popular when commodity prices are low or growing conditions are tough like during a drought.

How are applications for the CRP evaluated?

FSA ranks the applications based on the estimated environmental benefits and cost to implement the vegetative cover on the offered acreage.

How does the FSA determine which applications would be most beneficial to wildlife or ecosystem services like soil erosion and water quality?

FSA determines which applications would be most beneficial through use their Environmental Benefits Index.  It considers the wildlife habitat cover benefits, water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff, and leaching, enduring benefits, and air quality benefits.

A recent study showed that nearly 60% of expired CRP contracts were maintained as grasslands for 10 years after the CRP contract expired. How have you seen this trend play out over your career?

Many of these lower-productivity landscapes present an opportunity to restore large and intact grazing lands. I think this comes down the dominant land use in the area.  If the expiring CRP is in an area dominated by rangeland there is a good chance the field will remain in grass.

What are some of the benefits of turning expired CRP lands into working rangelands?

The benefits include; adding more forage to the ranching operation, grazing will create a patchwork of different cover types to meet important habitat components like nesting and brood rearing cover, and grazing can provide disturbance to help maintain a diversity of grasses and forbs. Maintaining the grass will continue to protect the soil from wind and water erosion and will store carbon below the soil surface within the root systems of the prairie plants.

Are there specific places or types of land where transitioning expired CRP lands to grazing lands makes more sense?

It makes more sense where the cropland productivity is low and/or there are a lot of livestock producers.

How does the NRCS help focus resources on those areas?

NRCS focuses resources with the help of our great partners, especially like the soil and water conservation districts.  Kansas NRCS prioritizes expiring CRP through Environmental Quality Incentives Program for producers interested in converting the CRP to working rangelands that then become a valuable part of their grazing operation.

If a landowner wants to maintain expired CRP ground as grazing land, what assistance can the NRCS provide?

NRCS can provide technical and financial assistance to those that qualify for developing watering facilities, building fence, and establishing stocking rates. All a producer has to do is call or visit with conservation staff at their local USDA Service Center.

What else would you like our readers to know about the CRP and the NRCS’s capacity to help landowners keep these important habitats as grasslands through grazing?

Management is critical to maintain grasslands whether they are CRP or native rangeland.  Prescribed grazing with appropriate stocking rates is needed to maintain healthy forage plants.  Grazing can be a great tool to develop wildlife habitat.

Meet the Expert

What is your favorite grassland bird?

Bobolinks. They are a very showy bird with an unmistakable trill for a call.

Describe your perfect weekend day. 

My best days are spent hunting or fishing with the kids.

Andy Burr and friends hunting in a CRP field in KS.

Andy Burr, third from left, with friends after a successful pheasant hunt.

 


>> Learn more about how WLFW is addressing land use conversion across the Great Plains in our Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome. <<

>> See where the cultivation risk is highest for grasslands <<

Turning former cropland into green grass — and green cash

A lesser prairie-chicken on intact grasslands in Kansas with cattle grazing in the background. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media


By Brianna Randall

Rex Schmidt grew up on his family farm near Greensburg, Kansas. He and his wife have run their agricultural operation for 35 years, grazing cattle where the hills break into prairie. Lesser prairie-chicken and pheasants are abundant in their green pastures.

Here in Kansas, as in much of the western United States, producers like Schmidt continuously have to make a choice – keep these wide-open grazing lands intact or plow up the prairie to plant crops. When native grassland or sagebrush-steppe is converted to cropland, however, it diminishes the soil health, water quality, and carbon storage potential of these productive rangelands. Wildlife also suffer as their habitat disappears.

Across the Plains, nearly all of the most productive soil has already been converted to crops. Further conversion of less productive soil fragments important wildlife habitat. Graphic from the Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Biome / WLFW. Click image to see the Framework.

 

One tool that encourages producers to choose grass instead of row crops is the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In return for yearly rental payments, farmers take cropland out of production and plant specific species that are better for wildlife, water, and soil.

Schmidt signed CRP contracts for a few pastures on his farm over the years, replanting 1,280 acres of wheat, milo, and cattle feed back into grass.

“A lot of this land never should’ve been farmed anyway due to the poor soil and erosion,” Schmidt said.

After his CRP contracts expired, Schmidt wanted to keep the land in grass. So, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped Schmidt turn his replanted grasslands into profitable grazing lands. The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative and other NRCS programs offer landowners free technical support and financial assistance to build pasture fences, develop livestock watering systems, and create prescribed grazing plans. NRCS helps producers find the conservation plan that makes the most sense for them and their land.

Transitioning CRP payments to profitable livestock grazing

Schmidt took advantage of conservation programs from NRCS and Kansas Wildlife and Parks to build pasture fences and solar-powered watering facilities to expand his cattle operation. He and his wife now spend less time and money on these pastures, and also need less equipment to make a profit.

Cattle grazing grass in KS

Grazing offers an alternative to replanting expired CRP lands as crops while also maintaining important grassland habitat. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

 

“It’s been a good deal, and it’s a lot less work than farming,” Schmidt said. “We can run more cattle now. And we have more control of how we use the land.”

Schmidt likes that keeping his land working as grazing pastures also circulates money locally.

“When I’m running cattle, I buy feed, fuel, salt, and other supplies, which supports more people in my community who can make money off the land, too.”

NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife recently released two frameworks for conservation action in the Great Plains Grasslands and Sagebrush biomes that prioritize incentives for landowners to maintain or restore America’s productive rangelands. This includes resources to help more landowners transition expiring CRP acres into profitable grazing land.

The USDA also updated its CRP Grasslands program this year, with the goal of enrolling more acres to mitigate climate change. Landowners receive a minimum rental rate of $15 per acre to plant and maintain healthy grasses. Participants retain the right to graze livestock, produce hay, or harvest to produce seeds (depending on bird species’ nesting seasons), conduct prescribed burns, and build firebreaks and fences.

Grazing herds can be good for birds

Maintaining healthy, diverse perennial plants not only benefits producers and local communities, but also provides much-needed habitat for wildlife — especially grassland songbirds, which have shown the steepest decline of any birds over the past 50 years.

Birds like the threatened lesser prairie-chickens require healthy grasslands for nesting and brood-rearing. Livestock grazing that maintains diverse grasses and shrubs provides greater resilience to drought, which helps wildlife and producers weather dry years. And a recent study in the southern Great Plains found that private lands enrolled in either CRP or NRCS grazing conservation programs increased the abundance of prairie-chickens and dozens of other grassland songbirds.

Estimated overall (a) population size for land enrolled in conservation practices and (b) population change from treatment effects relative to reference strata for grassland birds by grassland specialization and Partners in Flight breeding-season vulnerability in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, 2016 (error bars, SE). Image courtesy of David Pavlacky. Click image to see full study.

 

“We’ve lost about 70 percent of grasslands throughout the Great Plains over the last 100 years, which is problematic for wildlife,” said Daniel Sullins, an assistant professor of wildlife management at Kansas State University.

To investigate how much of the land expiring from CRP contracts stayed in grass, Sullins and colleagues with Kansas State University, Oregon State University, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and Working Lands for Wildlife analyzed more than 10,000 expiring fields in the central and southern Great Plains with remote sensing. The study, published in May 2021 in Biological Conservation, found that 58 percent of the CRP fields remained in grasslands 10 years after the contracts expired (varying from 36-76 percent by state).

This research shows that the CRP can have durable impacts on the landscape even after the contracts expire. Plus, areas with lower-quality conditions for growing crops — like Schmidt’s land in Kansas — were four times more likely to remain in grass.

“Often times grazing can be a better alternative for producers, especially on land that’s less profitable for farming,” Sullins said. “Turning expiring fields into grazing lands is a big opportunity for conservation. It shows a lot of promise in terms of providing habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife.”

Lesser prairie-chickens have established a lek (courtship and breeding ground) on this CRP field in Oklahoma, which is being grazed as a part of mid-contract management. Photo: Dwayne Elmore.

 


>> Learn more about the Conservation Reserve Program  <<

>> See where the cultivation risk is highest for grasslands <<

>> Read the new conservation frameworks for the Sagebrush or Great Plains Grassland biomes <<