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WATCH NOW – Working Lands for Wildlife Presentations from Society for Range Management’s 2019 Conference

Working Lands for Wildlife video presentations from the 2019 Society for Range Management Conference now available for viewing

Did you miss the Society for Range Management’s 2019 Conference in Minneapolis this past February? Even if you were able to attend, you may not have caught all the different presentations during the packed few days.SRM 2019 Logo

Fortunately, we recorded the presentations that Working Lands for Wildlife sponsored under the “Harnessing Technology to Improve Conservation Effectiveness on Western Working Lands” symposium.

These nine presentations detail new technological innovations that are revolutionizing how managers, ranchers, and others can monitor, study, evaluate threats, and improve working rangelands across the West. Each presentation features the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative and Sage Grouse Initiative-affiliated researchers who helped develop these technologies for Great Plains and sagebrush ecosystems.

Through these informative and engaging presentations, range management professionals and producers can learn how to apply these innovations to their respective ranges.

All nine presentations are collected in one place on Sage Grouse Initiative’s YouTube channel and are are available for viewing at your leisure. Each presentation is roughly 20 minutes long and includes clear audio and clear images from each presenter’s slides.

Read the full list of presentation titles, what you’ll learn from each presentation, and the presenter below or visit the playlist on SGI’s YouTube channel. While you’re there, check out the other videos we have, including prior SRM Conference symposium presentations.


Video One

PRESENTATION TITLE: Rangeland Analysis Platform: New Technology Revolutionizes Rangeland Monitoring

IN THIS VIDEO: See why the Rangeland Analysis Platform was created with a sneak peek into its future utilities

PRESENTER: Brady Allred – University of Montana


Video Two

PRESENTATION TITLE: AIM and Shoot: Delivering and Sharing Range Data Quickly

IN THIS VIDEO: Learn about the BLM’s new online app for faster processing and use of monitoring data

PRESENTER: Colin M. Dovichin – Bureau of Land Management


Video Three

PRESENTATION TITLE: Optimizing Productivity Models for Enhanced Rangeland Monitoring

IN THIS VIDEO: Hear how plant productivity is being remotely mapped to enhance conservation planning

PRESENTER: Nathaniel Robinson – University of Montana


Video Four

PRESENTATION TITLE: Mapping Riparian Sensitivity to Drought Stress: An Index for Evaluating, Targeting, and Monitoring Restoration

IN THIS VIDEO: View new remotely-sensed maps that can help managers improve riparian drought resiliency

PRESENTER: Nick Silverman –University of Montana


Video Five

PRESENTATION TITLE: Large Scale Rangeland Resilience Planning

IN THIS VIDEO: Get the latest on incorporating resiliency as an emerging theme in rangelands

PRESENTER: Dirac Twidwell – University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Video Six

PRESENTATION TITLE: Mapping Cross-scale Transitions in Rangelands

IN THIS VIDEO: Learn how technology is enabling early screening for undesirable vegetation transitions

PRESENTER: Dan Uden – University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Video Seven

PRESENTATION TITLE: Synchronizing Conservation to Seasonal Wetland Hydrology and Waterbird Migration in Semi-Arid Landscapes

IN THIS VIDEO: Understand the benefits of timing irrigation to aid in waterfowl migration

PRESENTER: Jason Tack – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (on behalf of Patrick Donnelly – USFWS)


Video Eight

PRESENTATION TITLE: Conifer Management in Context: Prioritizing Tree Removal Projects for Sagebrush and Woodland Obligates

IN THIS VIDEO: Learn how to incorporate spatial tools for songbirds into conifer management

PRESENTER: Jason Tack – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Video Nine

PRESENTATION TITLE: Quantifying Restoration Across the Sage Steppe: Mapping Conifer Cover, Removal Efforts, and Fire

IN THIS VIDEO: See how remote sensing is being used to track progress in conifer management

PRESENTER: Jason Reinhardt – University of Minnesota-Minneapolis


Video recordings are courtesy of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Sage Grouse Initiative and the Bureau of Land Management

Patterns in Rangeland Productivity and Land Ownership and What They Mean for Conservation

Ask An Expert: Dr. Brady Allred, Associate Professor of Rangeland Ecology, University of Montana


Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest. ~ Aldo Leopold, Conservation Economics, 1934 essay from The River of the Mother of God: and other Essays by Aldo Leopold


Let’s start with a really basic question. What are rangelands?

Rangelands are non-forested, uncultivated lands that are mostly made up of grasses, forbs, and shrubs.

Where are most of the rangelands in the U.S.?  

Rangelands make up approximately one-third of the lower 48 states. Nearly all of that is in the western half of the nation, spanning the Great Plains to the Pacific coast.

Why are these landscapes so important?

In the continental U.S., rangelands comprise about 35% of the landscape. On a global scale, rangelands make up nearly 40% of the Earth’s ice-free surface. So, scale is one reason. More importantly, they provide numerous ecosystem services, which are benefits that humans gain from ecosystems, including forage and fiber like meat and wool, livelihoods like ranching, and recreation activities like hunting and bird watching.

What is vegetation productivity and specifically, net primary productivity, as it relates to rangelands in the conterminous U.S.?

Ecologically, vegetation production is the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Plants use that energy for their own metabolic processes and also to grow. Net primary production is the amount of energy that accumulates as plant biomass. Productivity is the rate of production over a given time period. Net primary productivity (NPP) is the rate of increase in plant biomass.

Now, that is the scientist in me speaking. When people think of rangeland productivity, they often think of how much grass or forage is produced during a single growing season or year. This is commonly measured locally by clipping and weighing vegetation and then expressed in pounds per acre (lbs/acre). Nearly everyone who has worked in rangelands is familiar with this, and it is fundamentally the same thing as net primary productivity.

Why focus on net primary productivity? In other words, why is quantifying NPP helpful in advancing our understanding of rangeland conservation in the U.S.?

Two specific reasons: 1) there are well established methods to measure productivity across broad geographies using satellite remote sensing, which removes the need to go out and clip plants on every acre of rangeland; and 2) it is an ecological building block, a measure of the ultimate source of energy for all terrestrial species, and it is a “supporting ecosystem service.” A supporting ecosystem service is one that other ecosystem services depend upon.  Measuring net primary productivity gives a little broader perspective than just forage available for grazing animals.

Ecosystem Services Graphic

Ecosystem service categories as specified by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Examples provided are relevant to rangelands and primary productivity, showing how primary productivity, as a supporting ecosystem service, is foundational for the provisional, regulating, and cultural services on rangelands.

Vegetation production is one of the greatest natural assets we have. Being able to quantify rangeland production across space and through time allows us to assess that resource directly. We can evaluate the impact of our management actions on productivity, to see if those actions are helpful or harmful. We can see how productivity is changing in response to conservation practices, drought, or other factors and then plan appropriately. At broad geographies, we can understand the patterns and trends of productivity and develop local, regional, or national conservation strategies to sustainably manage this asset.

 

Your study looked at the comparative levels of NPP across public lands (federal, state and local), tribal lands, and private lands. What did you find?

Across the Lower 48, we found that the productivity of privately owned rangelands more than doubled that of public and tribal rangelands. We also found that over the last 25 years, there are no meaningful trends in the change of productivity, regardless of ownership, indicating that rangeland productivity has been stable through the years.

Your results match what a lot of people have assumed over the years – that private rangelands are more productive (as a measure of NPP) than public rangelands. Does this mean that private rangelands are better managed than public ones?  

Rangeland_OwnershipAndProductivity_US

The distribution for rangelands across the coterminous United States (CONUS) showing the spatial patterns of (a) annual productivity and (b) land ownership. The heavy lines indicate the delineation of western states, Great Plains states, and eastern states.

No, absolutely not. This work does not evaluate the management in any sort of way; it simply looks at the rangeland resource available. Those resources are influenced by a myriad of factors, including precipitation and soil. The patterns of productivity are also a function of how the western U.S. was settled: the more productive lands of the Great Plains were largely privatized, while much of the less productive land in the West incorporated into the federal estate or became tribal lands.

How does knowing the NPP levels for different ownership regimes and geographies help land managers (public or private) better manage rangeland in the U.S.?

Separating out the ownership and geographies really enables us to better understand and execute cross-boundary conservation and management strategies. Knowing that the majority of rangeland productivity is owned and managed privately–by normal, everyday people just like you and me–can help us structure regional and national priorities to implement the right management, in the right place, with the right resources.

And of course, this will vary with location. In regions where public rangeland is dominant and interspersed with private or tribal holdings (e.g., the Intermountain West), cooperation will need to exist to conserve the vast acreage of public rangeland, and the higher productivity of private and tribal rangelands. In other areas where public land is largely absent (e.g., the Great Plains), it will be necessary to focus efforts entirely on private rangeland conservation.

Your team analyzed a huge amount of data about rangeland productivity in the US. Did you find any trends?

Trends_Rangeland_Productivity

a) Total production and (b) average productivity for rangelands across CONUS, 1993–2017. Total production and average productivity are consistently higher on private lands than public and tribal lands. Dashed lines represent mean values through time. Despite noticeable interannual variability, there are no significant temporal trends at the CONUS scale.

The droughts of 2011 and 2012 really stood out. Because the drought was largely in the Great Plains, the productivity of private rangelands took a very noticeable drop compared to public and tribal rangelands. It was fascinating to see it bounce right back though, regardless of ownership, indicating a very resilient system. By analyzing such a large amount of data over such a long time frame, our methods allowed us to easily quantify and illustrate this.

There were also no meaningful trends–up or down–of rangeland productivity over the last 25 years. At this scale, rangeland productivity has been largely stable. There are ups and downs, due to better- or worse-than-average climate years, but things have stayed relatively the same.

 

Your study points out that maintaining rangeland productivity is about more than simply conserving acreage. Can you explain what you mean?

Conserving large tracts of rangeland is absolutely critical for conservation. That conservation can occur individually with one owner (private, public, or tribal) or through a collection of owners working together. But what our findings show is that acreage alone just doesn’t cut it. The quality of rangeland, not just the size, is equally important. In this case, the quality of rangeland is being assessed through productivity, and size or acreage doesn’t necessarily lead to productivity. It is important that our conservation strategies look at the system as a whole, and that we work cooperatively to conserve the high-quality rangeland.

What does all this mean for public and private land managers and for agencies like the NRCS that can tap into technical and financial resources that help conserve and improve rangeland?

I think it really highlights the importance of partnerships and cross-boundary conservation. That is, we want to work together to conserve the best of what we have, regardless of ownership. The degree of these partnerships will vary based on location. The NRCS works cooperatively with private landowners, public land agencies, and other conservation groups to put the best conservation practices in place.

I think it also highlights the critical aspect of privately owned, working lands conservation. Rangeland productivity is a primary driving force for all the ecosystem services that rangelands provide. The vast majority of that productivity occurs on privately owned rangelands, predominantly in the Great Plains. If we want to maintain those ecosystem services, we need to work directly with landowners to do so.

What is next for the datasets your team created and analyzed through this study?

We are currently putting the final touches on this dataset and plan to make it easily accessible through the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) (https://rangelands.app/). Landowners, managers, and practitioners will be able to use it along with our other datasets to plan and evaluate their management actions. Basically, RAP will provide access to vegetation cover data, productivity data, and more. These datasets will make it more efficient and easier to design and implement projects and to monitor what those projects mean on the ground.

Meet the Expert

How did you get into a career studying rangeland ecology? What drew you to this field of study?

Whew, lots of different things. I really enjoy learning about rangeland dynamics at big, broad scales. I also like that this type of work can be used to improve things on the ground.

Allred

Dr. Brady Allred

Why is analyzing huge datasets across time and space so important to advancing the science of rangeland ecology?

I think it is really important to “pick our heads up” and look out across the landscape. It allows us to see and understand things that we commonly miss or look past. When we combine that with the finer scale knowledge we have, we are in a really good position to do the best management and conservation we can.

What do you like to do when you’re not “out on the range?”

I just love spending time with my wife and our four children. That can be exploring Montana, helping a neighbor, running, or eating ice cream together.


You can read the original paper, “Patterns of Rangeland Productivity and Land Ownership: Implications for Conservation and Management” in Ecological Applications here.  Authors: Nathaniel P. Robinson, Brady W. Allred, David E. Naugle, Matthew O. Jones


This work was made possible by the NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife effort in support of sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken conservation and the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Program.

Pheasants Forever Provides Critical Support for Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sage Grouse Efforts

Simply put, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) efforts would be far less effective without our network of partners. In the Great Plains and West in particular, the the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI) and the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) benefit immensely from these partnerships.

Few WLFW partners have been as important as Pheasants Forever, particularly for LPCI and SGI. Pheasants Forever recently highlighted its cross-species work in two articles in the Spring 2019 Pheasants Forever Journal of Upland Conservation magazine.


Download and read this article to learn how Pheasants Forever works through partnerships like LPCI and SGI.


While it may seem counterintuitive that a group with “pheasants” in its name would work on sage grouse and lesser prairie-chickens, Ron Leathers, PF’s public finance director, explains the group’s motivation:

“We want to be true to our core, but our mission says ‘and other wildlife,’ and we’re thrilled to help other upland gamebirds when we can benefit pheasants and quail too. Our work on prairie chickens and sage grouse creates a lot of crossover that benefits pheasants and quail too.”

One specific example of how Pheasants Forever supports WLFW’s efforts is through the SGI Field Capacity Coordinator position, staffed by Michael Brown. Funding for the position comes from SGI, but Pheasants Forever is Brown’s employer.

In his role, Brown coordinates on-the-ground conservation through a network of staff who work directly with ranchers and producers to implement projects. This can help build trust with producers who may not want to work directly with the federal government by allowing them to work with an NGO to access resources and assistance provided by NRCS. Brown explains the benefits:

“If producers don’t want to work with the federal government, for whatever reason, they don’t have to. In my experience, we’ve found that people are more willing to work with Pheasants Forever at the beginning because we’re not the government, even though the work might be funded by federal dollars. Then they choose to work with us on subsequent phases of a project because they see that we get work done efficiently and comprehensively.”


Download and read this article to learn more about how Pheasants Forever is helping numerous upland gamebirds, including lesser prairie-chickens.


This approach is precisely why SGI and LPCI have been able to work with thousands of producers to benefit millions of acres of habitat for lesser prairie-chickens, sage grouse, and other wildlife.

Download the stories to read more about how Pheasants Forever plays a key role in benefiting working lands for ranchers, communities, and wildlife. Be sure to check out Pheasants Forever’s website to learn more about this key WLFW partner.

WEBINAR: Mapping Cross-Scale Transitions in Rangelands

UPCOMING WEBINAR | FEBRUARY 26, 2019 | 2 PM EASTERN TIME

Mapping Cross-Scale Transitions in Rangelands

LEARN MORE HERE  >

Join NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Montana for this webinar. Learn how new technological innovations in rangeland monitoring are allowing unprecedented tracking of vegetation response to wildfires, brush management, and drought.

This hour-long webinar is focused utilizing the powerful new Rangeland Analysis Platform in the Great Plains ecosystem to improve rangeland management.

The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) is a new mapping technology that allows for the tracking of vegetation change at unprecedented scales in both space (United States rangelands from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean at a 30-m resolution) and time (annually from 1984–present). The RAP is free, readily available online, and developed for use by landowners and natural resource managers to track vegetation through time and plan actions to improve America’s grazing lands.

The RAP can be used to inform strategies to improve productivity of grazing lands, manage weeds, mitigate impacts of wildfire and drought, and benefit wildlife habitats. Powered by Google Earth Engine, RAP merges machine learning and cloud-based computing with remote sensing and field data to provide the first-ever annual cover maps of rangeland vegetation. This new platform, when combined with local knowledge, allows users to better understand vegetation change through time and to aid in conservation planning and outcome evaluation. This webinar provides an overview of the innovative breakthrough in the monitoring of rangeland vegetation and examples of how the technology is being applied to advance key missions of existing science-agency-landowner partnerships in the Great Plains.

LEARN MORE HERE >

(No pre-registration required)


Presenters:

  • Dr. Dirac Twidwell, Associate Professor of Rangeland Ecology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE.
  • Dr. Brady Allred, Associate Professor, Rangeland Ecologist, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
  • Dr. Matthew Jones, Research Scientist, University of Montana, Missoula, MT

CEU Credits / Certifications offered:

  • Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) – 1 hour SER-CERP Credit   [credits applied for]
  • Society for Range Management (SRM) – 1 hour SRM Credit   [credits applied for]
  • Certified Crop Advisors (CCA) – 1 hour CCA – CM Credit
  • Certificate of Participation

Meet the “New” West Working Lands for Wildlife communications team: Brianna Randall and Greg Peters

Without Telling Our Story, It’s Just a Bunch of Work


This post is from Tim Griffiths, West Working Lands for Wildlife Coordinator. Tim wanted to take a moment to formally introduce Brianna Randall and Greg M. Peters, two members of the Working Lands for Wildlife team focused on communications.


The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife conservation effort focuses on getting strategically targeted conservation on the ground, working directly with private landowners to make lands and habitats more productive across the country. In the West, much of our work focuses on conserving the working sagebrush rangelands of the Intermountain West and the productive prairies of the southern Great Plains. Although sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken benefit greatly from this work, so do hundreds of other species, including people.

We are proud of the landscape-scale conservation work accomplished in these landscapes over the past decade, work that’s good for the bird and good for the herd. Can you believe that these Working Lands for Wildlife partnerships (through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI)) have teamed up with more than 2,650 ranches to conserve 8.6 million acres? That’s simply incredible! Perhaps even more impressive however are the personal and unique stories behind those statistics.

The NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife effort focuses on many wildlife species, including lesser prairie-chicken and sage grouse.

Without a solid communications program that captures and shares these amazing success stories, the numbers are just that – numbers. We need to continually share the personal side of these win-win stories and highlight the innovative new science that’s helping us be both more efficient and effective at delivering conservation. Through this sustained outreach, we’ll continually increase conservation of working western landscapes.

Over the years, we’ve had a few different folks helping our Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs professionals with communications for both SGI and LPCI.

This year, we’re excited to introduce a team of communicators who will help take Working Lands for Wildlife, and especially LPCI and SGI, communications to a new level.


Brianna Randall may be familiar to folks who have followed SGI over the past several years. She’s been the communications coordinator for SGI since 2015. In that time, she’s helped highlight our successful science-based conservation work in sagebrush country by writing and publishing stories about incredible ranchers and partnerships who have stepped up to make a difference for working lands and wildlife. She’s also helped capture and share the resulting benefits for the wildlife.

Brianna Randall behind the camera at the 2017 Sage Grouse Initiative Workshop in Gunnison, CO.

Fortunately, Brianna is continuing to work on with the Working Lands for Wildlife team as a writer, producing the same compelling content she’s been generating for years. Only now, her geography has expanded to include the landscapes of the southern Great Plains. We’re thrilled to have Brianna continue writing about proactive conservation on western rangelands.


We’re equally excited to introduce a new addition to the team. Please help us in welcoming Greg M. Peters as our new Working Lands for Wildlife communications coordinator. Greg will be taking over much of the day-to-day communications for SGI and LPCI and will manage our website, social media accounts, and develop content in coordination with Brianna and all our excellent NRCS public affairs leads. Greg will be re-energizing our communications as well by developing and sharing new stories. Stay tuned for more content in the coming weeks as Greg gets fully up to speed.

Greg Peters is the new WLFW communications coordinator focused on LPCI and SGI.

Please join us in welcoming Greg and Brianna in their new roles. They are both excited to continue sharing news about the partners, landowners, and science-based conservation practices that are helping improve the Great Plains and sagebrush country. If you have ideas or opportunities, please let us know!

You can reach Brianna Randall at Brianna.Randall@sagegrouseinitiative.com.

You can reach Greg Peters at Greg.Peters@sagegrouseinitiative.com.

Research Says, Adjusting Grazing Practices Can Improve Prairie-Chicken Habitat

When it comes to creating the diverse grassland structure that lesser prairie-chickens need, prescribed burning–and particularly patch-burn grazing–is a go-to, cost-efficient management strategy. But weather conditions in the semi-arid southern Great Plains can stand in the way of implementing prescribed fire plans. That’s why range managers need a variety of conservation practices in their toolbox to create and maintain the mosaic of grassland habitat that lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife species depend on.

A new study by researchers at Kansas State University identifies specific grazing practices—targeted forage utilization goals, decreased stocking density, and larger pastures—that create the varied grassland habitat structure that lesser prairie-chickens need. The latest Science to Solutions report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative describes the research and what it means for on-the-ground management strategies.

Read the Science to Solutions report, “Grazing Practices Foster Diverse Grassland Habitat.”

What the Study Found

Past research has shown that intensive grazing management (standardized forage utilization goals, smaller pastures, and short-duration grazing periods) can harm grassland ecosystem function, and that producers can increase grassland structural diversity by properly adjusting forage utilization goals, decreasing stocking density, and increasing pasture pasture size.

The recently released study, led by John Kraft, is the first to assess whether these structural diversity-producing grazing strategies have a significant effect on lesser prairie-chicken habitat selection.

The new research shows that  non-breeding lesser prairie-chickens preferred grasslands with 35-45% forage utilization and that use steadily declined when forage utilization topped 50%. Breeding females placed all nests in pastures with less than 40% forage utilization, and the greatest number of nests were placed on sites with forage utilization between 0 and 20%. As grazing pressure increased, daily nest survival fell.

Using computer modeling, researchers then investigated how lesser prairie-chickens utilize grasslands managed with grazing strategies known to increase structural diversity. They found that, regardless of the forage utilization value, lesser prairie-chicken habitat use increased significantly with lower stocking densities, and that larger pasture size increased habitat use. Their findings have important implications for range management within the lesser prairie-chicken’s active range in the southern Great Plains.

What it Means for Range Management

Female prairie-chickens nest in habitat with tall, dense vegetation, then move their broods to habitat with more insect-rich forbs and more bare ground, which allows for greater mobility for chicks. When range management does not create adequate grassland structural variety to meet changing seasonal needs, lesser prairie-chicken populations decline. (Photo: David Haukos)

Stocking density is a crucial indicator for maintaining or improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Many ranchers have adopted intensive grazing management practices in which pastures are subdivided into smaller paddocks. This increases stocking density and reduces the quality of the resulting habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. Range managers can reduce stocking density by selectively removing cross fencing to make pasture areas bigger, shifting toward a continuous grazing system. While there is much debate on the merits of rotational and continuous grazing systems, the superiority of one system over another in terms of livestock production and ecosystem health is not widely accepted among professionals.

In rangelands that already have the diverse vegetative structure that lesser prairie-chickens require, range managers can maintain large-scale (i.e., across pastures) heterogeneity through a mix of low-to-moderate forage utilization goals between pastures. Small-scale heterogeneity (i.e., within pasture) can be maintained by implementing low stocking densities, greater pasture areas, and shorter deferment periods.

In rangelands where vegetative structure suitable for nesting is limited, or where the most important grass species for nesting are also among the most palatable, longer deferment and rest-rotation may be needed to restore or create advantageous vegetative structure. Further, periodic, year-long deferment is likely essential to maintain the integrity of grazed lands regardless of plant community composition.

The Science to Solutions report identifies specific management practices to improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat–Read them on page 4 of the report.

The bottom line? While the combined effects of prescribed fire and grazing (patch-burn grazing) offer an exceptional tool for optimizing lesser prairie-chicken habitat and livestock production, a particular assemblage of vegetative diversity-promoting grazing practices can help maintain and improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat when range conditions preclude the use of fire.

Patch-Burn Grazing Fires Up Prairie-Chicken Habitat

For lesser prairie-chickens, good habitat is a complex thing. Structural diversity is key, because a prairie-chicken’s habitat needs change with the seasons. While courtship sites (leks) tend toward short-statured vegetation, females prefer to nest in tall, dense grassland vegetation, then move their chicks to more open, forb-dominated, insect-rich habitat.

New research shows that patch-burn grazing creates the mosaic of grassland habitat structure that prairie-chickens depend on. A new Science to Solutions paper from the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) describes the research and its implications for range management.

Read the Science to Solutions story

The research team, led by Jonathan Lautenbach of Kansas State University, addressed two central questions: How does patch-burn grazing influence grassland composition and structure? How do lesser prairie-chickens use the mosaic that patch-burn grazing creates?

Lautenbach found that, throughout the year, females chose vegetation patches where the combined effects of fire and grazing produced vegetation characteristics that matched their changing seasonal needs. Specifically, females selected greater time-since-fire patches (>2-years post-fire) for nesting, 2-year post-fire patches during the spring lekking season, 1- and 2-year post-fire patches during the summer brooding period, and 1-year post-fire units during the nonbreeding season.

Researchers have also found that patch-burn grazing yields good livestock performance by stabilizing weight gain in the face of rainfall fluctuations. That means patch-burn grazing offers a successful strategy to significantly improve both lesser prairie-chicken habitat and livestock production.

Historic Forces: The Dynamic Duo of Fire and Grazing

Historically, fire and grazing acted together to shape prairie vegetation. Ignited by Plains Indians and lightning, fire killed encroaching woody plants and prompted the vigorous re-sprouting and germination of prairie vegetation. This succulent new growth of grasses and forbs attracted herds of large herbivores, which selectively grazed the recently burned area. The resulting landscape was a mosaic of burned areas scattered among grassland patches of varied ages since burning.

Most current range management in the Great Plains decouples fire and grazing. When fire is over-applied (for example, by burning entire pastures), livestock don’t have the choice between burned and unburned prairie, and a uniform grassland structure results. On the other end of
the management spectrum, fire suppression also reduces grassland structural and species diversity.

Grassland uniformity reduces drought resiliency, which decreases livestock productivity. Uniformity also negatively impacts grassland wildlife, particularly grassland birds, since some species require varying vegetation structure across the landscape to complete their life cycles.

Further, without regularly occurring fires, fire-intolerant woody plants encroach, significantly reducing both livestock forage and grassland wildlife habitat (see LPCI’s Science to Solutions #1 on redcedar encroachment and Science to Solutions #3 on mesquite encroachment).

Male lesser prairie-chicken on a lek (mating display area) within the patch-burn grazing study area. The lek site had been burned just three days earlier. Photo: Jonathan Lautenbach.

What the Science Means for Management

The Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to voluntarily improve habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. Lautenbach’s study, funded in part by LPCI, helps identify which range management strategies are most effective in benefitting bird and herd.

Patch-burned pasture within Lautenbach’s study site on the Hashknife Ranch in south-central Kansas.

Past research has shown the clear benefits of patch-burn grazing on livestock productivity. Specifically, cattle in pastures with two or more patches gained weight independent of rainfall, indicating that patch-burn grazing helps buffer climatic variation and stabilizes livestock productivity—a critically important attribute in the drought- prone southern Great Plains.

Also, research shows that, while both conventional prescribed burning and patch burning reduce wildfire fuels and redcedar encroachment, patch-burning does so while maintaining habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife.

Lautenbach’s study adds to evidence of the win-win nature of patch-burn grazing for livestock and wildlife, specifically showing that lesser prairie-chickens use the diverse patchwork to meet their needs for nesting, brood- rearing, and over-wintering.

The findings show that the scale and configuration of prescribed burns really matter. During the study, no females were observed nesting in year-of-fire patches, which lack thermal and hiding cover. Creating a mosaic of grassland patches of varied age-since-fire (rather than conventional whole-pasture burning) is a crucial part of the conservation equation.

To achieve the combined conservation strategies of removing redcedar and increasing grassland heterogeneity, Lautenbach’s research team recommends implementing prescribed fire in a patch-burn grazing system with a 4-6 year burn interval for any given patch.

The researchers note that their study was conducted in the eastern portion of the lesser prairie-chicken’s distribution. Regional differences in rainfall, soil types, and vegetation, create four different eco-regions, across the lesser prairie- chicken’s occupied distribution in the southern Great Plains. Within these ecoregions the recommended fire return interval will change, with areas receiving less rainfall having a greater fire-return interval (e.g. 7-10 years for any given patch).

Check out all of LPCI’s Science to Solutions papers on LPCI’s Resources page.

Seeing the Prairie From a Coyote’s Eye View

by Marina Osier

The NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative partners with Pheasants Forever and other organizations to fund field staff positions in communities within the lesser prairie-chicken’s active range. LPCI field staff work one-on-one with landowners, offering technical assistance that helps landowners take part in voluntary conservation assistance programs that benefit lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Marina Osier is an LPCI range conservationist based in Lamar, Colorado.

 

Coyote, southeastern Colorado. Photo: Marvin Watson, NRCS

I recently saw a coyote running through a field with what looked suspiciously like a pheasant in its mouth, and it struck me that good grassland habitat is a matter of perspective.

When biologists go out to assess wildlife habitat, it’s easy to look at it from the perspective of who we are – humans. We may look out across the rangeland and see what we think looks like good cover for grassland birds. But if we get down on hands and knees and look at that same habitat, things can look a lot different. We might see that there’s actually excessive bare ground that isn’t the best cover after all. That difference in perspective begs the question – why do birds such as lesser prairie-chickens, pheasants, and quail need a certain type of cover to begin with? Who are they hiding from?

There are many factors that influence grassland bird survival, but one important factor is predators. Who preys on these birds? For one, coyotes. And coyotes have a different perspective on the prairie than we do. They don’t stand 5-6 feet tall and look out over the grassland to the horizon. No, they work their way through the grass and search on a much closer scale. And that’s why, when we monitor vegetation on land enrolled in the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) or the Western Association of Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Range Wide Plan (RWP), we include an assessment that looks at the habitat from a coyote’s eye.

Range conservationists in New Mexico use a Robel pole during vegetation monitoring. Photo: Jake Swafford

This assessment is called the Visual Obstruction Reading (VOR), and is measured with a Robel pole. To measure VOR, I stand 6.5 feet from the Robel pole and crouch down until my eye is 1.5 feet above the ground. Then I look at the striped pole and record how much of the pole is obstructed by vegetation.

By doing that at regular intervals along a transect line, range conservationists can get a sense of the hiding cover available to lesser prairie-chicken and can recommend conservation practices that optimize that cover.

Research shows that lesser prairie-chickens tend to select nest sites in grasslands with high VOR readings. Once the eggs hatch, females guide chicks to areas with a more bare ground and more insect-attracting forbs (where chicks can move about more freely and eat nutrient-rich bugs), though still with enough cover to elude predators.

Looking at the prairie from a coyote’s eye view helps land managers help lesser prairie-chickens. Keeping a broad perspective is an important part of managing habitat for healthy grassland bird populations.

A Tale of Two Fires: Prescribed Fire Thwarts Wildfire on the New Mexico Prairie

Two lightning-caused wildfires on the same site in eastern New Mexico yielded profoundly different results. Why? Prescribed fire played a key role.

On June 10, 2009, lightning sparked a fire in remote grasslands some 30 miles east of Roswell, New Mexico. Strong winds whipped the flames, stoking a plume-dominated wildfire—the term for fire so hot it creates its own weather and wild, unpredictable winds. By the time firefighters fully contained the Cato Fire three days later, more than 55,000 acres—86 square miles—had burned.

Fast forward eight years to July 2017. Lightning again ignited a wildfire in the same area as the 2009 fire. But this one, called the East Cato Fire, burned just 372 acres before dying out for lack of fuel. Why the profoundly different outcomes from two lightning-caused wildfires in the same location? Prescribed fire played a critical role.

About two-thirds of the acreage that burned in the 2009 wildfire lies within the boundaries of Sand Ranch, a 58,600-acre federally owned parcel 35 miles east of Roswell. It’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, an imperiled species of prairie grouse that inhabits the southern Great Plains.

BLM wildlife biologist Randy Howard lights a prescribed fire on the Sand Ranch in eastern New Mexico. Prescribed fires reduced fuel loads on the land, which in turn reduced the spread of the East Cato wildfire in July 2017.

Sand Ranch encompasses a big swath of potential lesser prairie-chicken habitat, but there’s a whole lot more to good habitat than sheer acreage. Like many other grassland birds, prairie-chickens need diverse grassland structure—a mosaic of grassland patches with varied structure that meets their particular needs throughout the year.

Historically, a closely entwined duo of natural forces—fire and fire-influenced grazing by bison and other large herbivores—created that essential patchwork of grassland habitat. Decades of fire suppression and altered grazing patterns shifted that dynamic, reducing both the structural and species diversity of prairie grasslands.

Because of this, the BLM made careful plans to reintroduce fire to Sand Ranch through prescribed burning. It wasn’t a decision lightly made. While low-intensity fire can help create the vegetation mosaic lesser prairie-chickens need, an uncontrolled, high-intensity fire can destroy nesting habitat, plus a whole lot more. This is dry country and aversion to fire runs deep.

Local rancher Kyle Dillard voiced a common fear as he recalls a wildfire that came on the heels of the intense drought of 2011-12. “My place caught on fire—we burned 5,000 acres from lightning—and it blew for three years. It was a disaster.”

“We had another fire in June [2016] that we started accidentally with our tractor,” Dillard continued. “But it rained right after, and it actually looked really good. If you could predict the rainfall, then fire might be OK.”

That’s just what prescribed burn planning aims to do—to identify site conditions that can produce a contained fire that meets the landowner’s range management objectives, and to time the burn treatments to meet those conditions.

On Sand Ranch, the overarching range management objective is to maintain optimal lesser prairie-chicken habitat, which means creating a dynamic mosaic of vegetation.  Nathan Curnutt, BLM fire management specialist, was tasked with developing and implementing the prescribed burn plan for Sand Ranch.

According to Curnutt, the plan divides Sand Ranch into 15 burn units that can be burned on a rotation schedule. Prescribed fires are carried out prior to prairie-chicken nesting so that birds are not impacted. The goal is to remove about 50 percent of the vegetation within the burn area, creating the vegetative mosaic that lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland wildlife need.

The long planning process came to fruition in 2016, when the BLM’s fire crew carried out the first-ever prescribed burn on Sand Ranch, treating a total of 3,100 acres in two areas. The burns were picture-perfect. Fire snaked through the prairie, leaving behind areas that didn’t burn and areas that did.

A male lesser prairie-chicken carries out his mating display at a lek site in Kansas that burned in a prescribed fire just three days earlier. Photo: Jonathan Lautenbach

Dr. Scott Carleton of New Mexico State University studies lesser prairie-chickens on Sand Ranch and was ecstatic about the burns. “Lesser prairie-chickens were seen out foraging in [the burned area] right after the burn. Within two weeks we had a lek move from an adjoining unburned area to the recently burned area,” he said.

In late February of 2017, the BLM fire crew burned two more areas totaling 10,700 acres. Then in July, the East Cato Fire started, right in the middle of the Sand Ranch, where the huge Cato Fire had burned in 2009. After scorching 372 acres, the East Cato wildfire ran into the grasslands that had burned four months earlier. Starved of fuel, the fire was easily extinguished.

The difference in both economic and ecological costs of wildfire versus prescribed fire are dramatic. The 55,000-acre Cato Fire cost approximately $525,000 to suppress, and it incinerated all grassland habitat in its path. The BLM’s 2017 prescribed fires cost about $40,000, created optimal wildlife habitat, and reduced fuel loads.

That’s why prescribed fire is a core conservation strategy within the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). LPCI offers technical and financial support to farmers and ranchers interested in carrying out voluntary conservation measures that improve their rangelands for lesser prairie-chickens.

Only five percent of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat occurs on public land parcels like Sand Ranch, so engaging private agricultural producers in habitat conservation is essential to the bird’s survival.

The beauty of LPCI’s conservation effort is that what’s good for lesser prairie-chickens is also good for livestock. The healthy habitat that lesser prairie-chickens need is also resilient, productive, drought-resistant forage for livestock—win-win conservation at its best.

LPCI focuses conservation dollars on sites and strategies where efforts are likely to do the most good for lesser prairie-chickens. In terms of both economics and ecological results, prescribed fire is a remarkably effective tool in the conservation toolbox.

Though prescribed burning is not yet an integral part of the ranching culture in eastern New Mexico, the East Cato wildfire offers an encouraging vision of its potential for both recovering grassland habitat and reducing fuel loads in this arid region.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Prairie Grouse Meeting Showcases Latest Prairie-Chicken Research

How do range managers know they’re taking the right actions in the right places to conserve at-risk wildlife species? Through rigorous scientific research. That’s why the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative supports lesser prairie-chicken research projects across the southern Great Plains.

During the two-day meeting, LPCI Science Advisor Christian Hagen presented findings on two studies–assessing lesser prairie-chicken occupancy, and reasons for the decline in carrying capacity of lesser prairie-chicken populations.

This research took center stage last week at the 32nd annual Prairie Grouse Technical Council meeting in Dickinson, North Dakota, where more than 60 researchers gathered to share findings.

Three species of prairie grouse inhabit the Great Plains—sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie-chickens, and lesser prairie-chickens. Nearly half of the 32 presentations focused on or included lesser prairie-chickens.

Highlighted studies included:

  • Preliminary findings from a project in southeastern Colorado, where a research team is reintroducing lesser prairie-chickens from the shortgrass prairie of northwestern Kansas to the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeastern Colorado.
  • An update on the annual aerial survey, now in its 7th year, which estimates the abundance of the lesser prairie-chicken across its range.
  • Discussion of causes of the declining carrying capacity of lesser prairie-chicken populations across the southern Great Plain, as well as potential solutions to this problem.
  • The importance of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands for lesser prairie-chicken recovery in Texas.
  • Specific grazing management strategies that can produce the habitat structural diversity and biodiversity that lesser prairie-chickens need, in the absence of fire.

    The meeting included a half-day site visit with many stops along the way, including this one in which Llewellyn Manske presented findings on the effects of 75 years of non-grazing on a mixed grass prairie exclosure.

  • Factors affecting lesser prairie-chicken brood survival in the sand shinnery oak ecoregion of western Texas and eastern New Mexico, including vegetative cover, and insect abundance.
  • Patch-burn grazing as an effective tool for providing the habitat diversity lesser prairie-chickens need throughout the year.

In the coming weeks, LPCI will be producing Science to Solutions summaries of two studies that have significant implications for grassland management in the southern Great Plains. Together the two studies suggest specific practices for managing grasslands to produce the kind of vegetative diversity that lesser prairie-chickens need.

Stay tuned!