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Transforming Rangeland In Kansas’ Gyp Hills

Cattle roam the Gyp Hills of Kansas. Photo: Brianna Randall


Working together with conservation partners, a landowner and livestock producer restore prairie grazing lands in the southern Great Plains.

By: Brianna Randall

Editor’s note: This story has been adapted. This condensed version contains more photos than the original, which was first published in BEEF Magazine. Find the full BEEF Magazine story here.


Red Angus cows wander amongst the waves of green mixed-grass prairie, matching the color of the Kansas hills they roam. Known as the “Gyp Hills”, these red clay-coated buttes are shot through with lines of white gypsum, a crumbly mineral that makes drywall and chalk.

Here in the southern Great Plains, landowner Max Nichols is partnering with ranch manager Russell Blew to transform the range. They’ve put in place a host of conservation practices to restore the health of prairie grasslands, as well as boost agricultural operations on 11,000 acres near Medicine Lodge, Kansas.

“My goal is to return it to the way I remember it,” says Nichols. He’s referring to eastern recedar trees which have moved onto the prairie and now cover more than 1/3 of the ranch.

This image shows how eastern redcedar trees had invaded the prairie. Photo: Aron Flanders, USFWS

This image shows the ranch after encroaching redcedar trees were removed and impacted by fire. Photo: Aron Flanders, USFWS

After a few years working on his own to restore his land in the Gyp Hills, Nichols found the Blew brothers who he says are “top-notch range managers and conservationists.”

“Max shares our idea of sustainable range management,” agrees Russell Blew, who began running cattle on the ranch in 2012.

Blew and his brother, who collectively own the Blew Partnership, were selected as 2019 regional finalists for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Environmental Stewardship Award Program due in large part to the impressive conservation gains made on Nichols’ Gyp Hills ranch.

From left to right, Carl Jarboe, NRCS; Russell Blew; and Lody Black, NRCS talk while on the Nichols Ranch in KS. Photo Brianna Randall

 

Over the past decade, Nichols has invested millions of dollars in conservation efforts on his land that make it more productive for livestock and for wildlife. The improvements include installing 30 miles of new fences, five new water delivery systems, and eradicating redcedar on hundreds of acres. While he has footed the bill for much of that, partnering with the USDA-NRCS and other organizations like the Fish and Wildlife Service has helped leverage his investments into more on-the-ground conservation work.

I’m often leery of government help. But the NRCS has done a good job with the water projects, and the people have been an enormous help engineering it. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out. ~Max Nichols.

 

Blew shows off the grazing management plan developed in partnership with the USDA-NRCS. Blew now helps manage several cost-shared projects through NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife as well as the Kansas Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program and Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, all geared toward boosting the ranch’s bottom line as well as improving range health. Photo Brianna Randall

Fire Can Help Heal Rangeland

Historically, the Great Plains had very few trees except near creeks or wet draws. That’s because the grasslands used to burn every few years, keeping woody species at bay. In contrast, Nichols’ Gyp Hills ranch hadn’t burned in 50 years due to fire suppression efforts, allowing eastern recedar to take over once-productive prairie grazing lands.

Prescribed fire is a key strategy in restoring conifer-dominated rangeland and in keeping uninvaded areas free from encroaching trees. Photo: Brianna Randall

“Wildfire accomplished in one day what it would have taken us 20 years to do,” says Blew of the Anderson Creek Wildfire that burned 99% of the Nichols’ Ranch in 2016.

This image highlights how both wild and prescribed fire can help remove redcedar trees and restore native perennial grasses and forbs. Photo: Aron Flanders, USFWS

 

“This is a flagship project in the area,” says Aron Flanders of the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, who works with Blew on conservation projects. “We’ve led several tours to show other ranchers and community members the benefits of conservation practices.”

Monarch butterflies have returned to the ranch after fire was reintroduced. Photo: Brianna Randall

 

Water and Partnerships Makes the Ranch Go Round

“The limiting factor is always water,” says Blew, referring to the general challenge of ranching in the Kansas Gyp Hills.

The Nichols ranch is lucky enough to have three creeks running through it, which now flow consistently after the wildfire and targeted redcedar eradication. The NRCS-provided technical expertise has also helped the Blews improve ranch management.

 

Russell Blew (front) talks with Carl Jorboe of the NRCS about the Nichols Ranch water systems. Together, they’ve installed solar-powered water systems across the ranch. Photo: Brianna Randall

 

Blew also worked with NRCS range expert Dusty Tacha to set up a rotational grazing system of multiple contiguous pastures that helps him improve the condition of the range and also increase the number of cattle the ranch can support.

Healthy grasses are the foundation of any ranch. By partnering with NRCS and other organizations, the Nichols Ranch has increased its carrying capacity while improving habitat for wildlife. Photo: Brianna Randall

 

“I’m extremely happy that we’ve been able to put this range back into good health,” says Blew. “We want the next generation to be able to graze this land, so we’re managing for the long-term.”


Read the full story from BEEF Magazine here.

Western Working Lands Snapshot | Western Meadowlarks

A meadowlark sings from a rock. Photo: Ken Miracle


This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to meadowlarks. These melodious songbirds are abundant across western rangelands from the Mississippi to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.


Western meadowlarks are common, yellow-chested grassland birds whose flute-like songs trill brightly through meadows and fields across western North America.

Identification
This stout bird is best identified by a bright yellow underside and a distinctive black v-shaped bib on its chest. Western meadowlarks have a flat head, long legs, and pointed bill. Their short tail has easy-to-spot white outer feathers. Non-breeding adults have more brown and white streaks with pale yellow markings than their breeding counterparts.

Wesstern meadowlark by Kevin Cole, Wikimedia, CC. Click photo for link.

Song
Oftentimes western meadowlarks are easier to hear than to see. Their songs are lovely whistles that sound like an arpeggio of descending notes. Although it has a melodious call like members of the lark family, the meadowlark is actually in the blackbird family.

Habitat
Western meadowlarks live in open grasslands, prairies, meadows, agricultural fields and marsh edges ranging from sea level to 10,000 feet. During the spring and summer breeding season, males sing from atop fence posts, shrubs, or powerlines.

Male western meadowlarks often sing from fence posts as this shot shows. Photo: USFWS Mountain Prairie Region, George Ho, Jr. Via Flickr. Click photo for link.

Range
These birds are abundant and widespread across the West and Midwest, ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and from the Mississippi to the Pacific. They are so abundant that the western meadowlark is the official bird of six states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Migration
Most of these birds remain in their home range year-round, but meadowlarks living in the cold northern part of the range or at high elevation will migrate to warmer areas during the winter.

Food
During the fall and winter, western meadowlarks eat grains and seeds by foraging on the ground. Their diet changes to insects in the late spring and summer when they probe the soil for beetles, ants, worms, grasshoppers and crickets.

Like other members of the blackbird family, meadowlarks use a technique called “gaping” to access hard-to-reach insects or seeds: they insert their long, strong bills into soil or bark then open wide to pry apart the substrate, probing for food that most birds can’t reach.

Nesting
Females build nests in a small dip or divot on the ground, often choosing a spot that’s well-hidden by vegetation. They use their bills to deepen the depression then line the nest with soft, dry grasses. After mating, females lay 4-6 eggs and incubate them for about two weeks.

Males typically mate with two females at a time, bringing food to the chicks once they’ve hatched and helping to defend the nest from predators. Western meadowlarks have one or two broods each season.

A western meadowlark nest in native prairie on Sand Lake Wetland Management District. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Tom Koerner via Flickr. Click photo for link.

Eastern vs Western
Explorer Meriwether Lewis was the first to note the differences between the eastern and western species of meadowlarks. Although they are nearly identical in appearance, their songs are completely different: the western species sings a gurgling, flute-like and variable song of 7-10 notes while the eastern species sings 3-5 pure, plaintive whistles that gradually drop in pitch.

The two species almost never hybridize even though their ranges overlap in the Midwest, perhaps partly because they don’t “speak” the same language.

Eastern meadowlark. Photo by John Sutton.

People
Western meadowlarks are very skittish around humans, particularly when nesting. If disturbed while incubating her eggs, the female will abandon the nest.

While some people get frustrated with meadowlarks for eating grain from farms or gardens, these birds actually provide a service to farmers by eating crop-damaging insects.

Breeding Decline
Although western meadowlarks are abundant, their breeding populations have declined by one percent per year over the past five decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This decline may be due to loss of their breeding habitat as native grassland is converted to houses, overtaken by invasive weeds or domesticated crops, mowed, over-grazed, or contaminated by pesticides.

Conservation
USDA-NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife funds voluntary conservation practices on agricultural lands that benefit at-risk grasslands across America’s western states. By restoring productive grazing lands, protecting wet meadows, and maintaining healthy native plant communities, thousands of ranchers and farmers are helping to support songbirds like the western meadowlark.

Map of Eastern and Western Meadowlark abundance from eBird data; Farm Bill conservation practices from USDA-NRCS data.

Recent research found that ranches enrolled in prescribed grazing through the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative showed the greatest variety and abundance of grassland-dependent birds. The conservation practices resulted in over 3 million more songbirds, including more meadowlarks.


>> Read more Western Working Lands Snapshots <<

Pronghorn. Andy Lawrence photo

Chicken Challenge | Pronghorn

Pronghorn. Andy Lawrence photo

Pronghorn. Andy Lawrence photo

Fun Facts

  • The Latin name for pronghorn is Antilocapra americana, which means “American goat-antelope.” But pronghorn aren’t related to goats or antelopes; instead they are the only surviving member of Antilocapridae family, a group of animals that existed in North America during the Pleistocene epoch. It’s believed that pronghorn have been in North America for a million years.
  • Adult male pronghorn weigh between 85 and 150 pounds; adult females weigh 75-105 pounds on average.
  • The horns of pronghorn have characteristics of both horns and antlers. Antlers are made of bone and are shed each year. Horns are made of keratin and are never shed. Pronghorn horns have both a bony interior and a keratin sheath that is shed each year. Females also have horns, but they are smaller than those found on males.
  • Pronghorn typically breed in September or October and females give birth in late May, often to twins. Newborn pronghorn hide in grass for the first few days of their lives, nursing from their mother. They join the herd after a week or two.

Take the Chicken Challenge | Pronghorn


 

UMT | UNL Logos

Job Posting: Research Scientist Positions at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Montana

University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Montana, in collaboration with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and their Conservation Effects Assessment Project, seek to jointly hire two scientists to study ecological and economic outcomes of conservation investments in western rangelands.

>>Download a PDF of the position description<<

Opportunities

Multi-institutional partnership offers unique advantages for highly motivated individuals:

Immediate impact with a team of applied scientists who for a decade have helped inform millions of acres of on-the-ground conservation through the NRCS-led Working Lands for Wildlife

Leverage technological innovations that address the most pressing needs of rangeland conservation across unprecedented spatio-temporal scales

Membership in the new ​Center for Resilience in Working Agricultural Landscapes​ at UNL and the Rangeland Analysis Platform​ (RAP) science team at UM

Projects

Seeking two new team members to assess a pair of fundamental questions in rangeland conservation:

1) How much rangeland productivity has been lost to woody plant encroachment on western rangelands?

2) What are the economic consequences of the loss of productivity? Working together, scientists will apply spatial econometric methods to quantify changes in productivity resulting from woody encroachment, its management, and corresponding impacts on the economic value of rangeland resources. Critical evaluation of both questions is made possible through newly produced, fine resolution datasets of rangeland vegetation cover, productivity, and transitions (​Jones et al. 2018​, ​Robinson et al. 2019​, ​Uden et al. 2019​), soon to be publicly available on RAP. Economic scenarios will examine how Farm Bill financial incentives could expedite the speed and scale of rangeland restoration through woody plant management. Responsibilities include project development and implementation, peer reviewed publications, and close interaction with partners and stakeholders to inform conservation actions.

Qualifications

Successful candidates will be enthusiastic and self-motivated, and willing to provide guidance, leadership, and new perspectives to help push the boundaries of rangeland ecology and conservation. Individuals must be able to work in a cooperative and dynamic team environment across both universities and with conservation partners. A PhD in ecological economics, rangeland ecology, or similar field is required. For the ecologist position, experience with geospatial datasets and software (e.g., Google Earth Engine) is preferred.

Location and compensation

Rangeland ecologist will be based at UM in Missoula, and ecological economist will work out of UNL in Lincoln. Travel between the two universities is required. Salary will be $65k/year with health and retirement benefits. Duration of each position is two years. Preferred start date is January 2020.

Please send inquiries via email about either position to Brady Allred or Dirac Twidwell.

To apply for either position provide 1) letter of interest, and 2) CV (including references) to both Brady Allred (​brady.allred@umontana.edu​) and Dirac Twidwell (dirac.twidwell@unl.edu​) by December 1, 2019.

>>Download a PDF of the position description<<

Scientists using telemetry

Quantifying Outcomes Improves Conservation Effectiveness

Scientists using telemetry

Outcome-focused science plays a key role in Working Lands for Wildlife’s approach to conservation on private lands. Photo: Kenton Rowe.


The agricultural rangelands that span the western United States generate economic revenue for rural communities and produce food and fiber for the nation. These rolling grasslands, silvery sagebrush flats, and green meadows are also home to world- class wildlife populations, including hundreds of different kinds of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

This infographic highlights some of WLFW’s conservation outcomes. Click to download it. Infographic by: Emily Harrington.

It can be challenging for ranchers to maintain these grazing lands for future generations, especially when faced with drought, development, and commodity price swings. Conserving America’s vast working rangelands requires a proactive, collaborative, landscape-scale approach that keeps agricultural operations profitable and wildlife habitat productive.

One key pillar to advancing conservation on private lands is sound science. That’s why WLFW has partnered with the NRCS’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project to co-produce 37 peer-reviewed research studies over the past decade that document outcomes from Farm Bill-funded conservation practices on rangelands.

WLFW relies on science-based targeting tools to: 1) pinpoint where to invest limited resources, 2) evaluate outcomes to quantify the results, and 3) improve conservation delivery to benefit people and wildlife.

Taking a team approach to quantify conservation outcomes brings accountability for taxpayers, and also illustrates the important role of science in keeping our nation’s working lands productive. ~ Charles Rewa, NRCS Resource Inventory and Assessment Division

A new Science to Solutions Report details some of the conservation outcomes studied by CEAP and WLFW.


>>Download the Science to Solutions Report<<


The report summarizes outcomes from four key conservation practices WLFW employs. Read on for the details.


Removing encroaching conifers from sagebrush-steppe rangelands:

WLFW has helped landowners restore rangelands by strategically removing encroaching woody species on 780,000 acres of prime grazing lands in the western U.S., generating the following outcomes.

  • Greater sage-grouse population growth rates are 12% higher in grazing lands where advancing trees have been removed. Within three years of conifer treatments, 29% of studied sage grouse hens were nesting within and near restored grazing lands. Read more about this study.
  • Songbird abundance doubled following tree removal in sagebrush landscapes for at-risk species like the Brewer’s sparrow, green-tailed towhee, and vesper sparrow. Read more about how WLFW practices benefit songbirds.

Stemming the loss of intact rangelands:

WLFW has secured over 200 individual easements that conserve 567,100 acres of ranchlands, and also implemented improved grazing strategies to improve 3.6 million acres of prime rangelands. In Montana alone, partners have protected 190,000 acres of at-risk grazing lands since 2010, a six-fold increase in easements over all prior years. This work has generated the following outcomes:


Restoring wet habitats:

During the summer, wet habitats cover less than 2% of the western landscape, but more than 80% of these vital resources are located on privately owned ranchlands. Research shows sage grouse cluster 85% of their breeding sites within 6 miles of wet habitats in order for hens and chicks to access “green groceries” near water in the late summer and fall.

WLFW and its partners have led 11 hands-on field workshops that trained more than 400 resource managers and landowners to use simple, cost- effective methods that restore precious wet habitat.

  • Low-tech methods of restoring wet habitat (such as hand-built stone structures, mimicking beaver dams, or grazing management) increase vegetation productivity by up to 25% and keep riparian areas greener longer. Read about the importance of conserving wet habitats.

Turning science into action:

In addition to examining on-the-ground outcomes, CEAP and WLFW help bridge the gap between science and implementation by creating easy-to-use technology and tools that empower ranchers and resource managers to effectively conserve working lands. One example is the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), a free online tool powered by Google’s Earth Engine. RAP merges decades of field data and remote satellite imagery to show how rangeland plant cover has changed at the watershed, ranch, or pasture scale.

Incorporating science and focusing on conservation outcomes improves the efficiency and effectiveness of Farm Bill programs so that they achieve the biggest benefits for wildlife, rural communities, and agricultural operations. By putting science directly into the hands of conservation practitioners, CEAP and WLFW are helping to maintain productive and profitable rangelands throughout the American West.


>>Download the Science to Solutions Report<<


 

Western Working Lands Snapshot | Grasslands

Grasslands and blue skies in America’s Great Plains. Photo: Amy Erickson

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a new series of posts we’re calling “Western Working Lands Snapshots.” These posts will cover the natural history, wildlife, ecosystems, people, and more that make western working lands so special. For the first post, we’re featuring grasslands. We hope you enjoy this new series.


This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to grasslands, which cover one-third of America and one-quarter of the world. These unique ecosystems provide vital grazing lands for livestock and rich wildlife habitat.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.

Definition

Grasslands are open, un-forested areas dominated by grasses. Shrubs, wildflowers, and other herbaceous plants are interspersed among the grass species. Trees are rare and are usually only found along streams or rivers.

NM Grasslands

Grasslands in New Mexico. Photo: Andy Lawrence

Range

Grasslands cover at least one-quarter of the world’s land area and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Here are a few of the names grasslands go by:

  • Savannas (Africa)
  • Pampas (South America)
  • Steppes (Eurasia)
  • Veldt (South Africa)
  • Prairies (North America)
Grassland Map

This map, from WikiCommons, shows the worlds grasslands in brown.

Great Plains

The Great Plains are the largest grasslands in the U.S., covering one-third of the country and portions of 10 states. Farming and ranching are the main economic drivers across these prairies, supporting hundreds of rural communities.

Ecosystem Role

Grasslands provide diverse and abundant vegetation that feed people, livestock, wildlife and insects. Many of the popular grains that people eat today—such as corn, wheat, oats and rice—were domesticated from wild grass species.

Pronghorn on grasslands

Grasslands support wildlife and agriculture. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

Climate

America’s Great Plains receive between 10-40 inches of rain annually, depending on the region. It’s drier in the west because of the rain shadow created by the Rocky Mountains, and wetter as you move east. Temperatures range from below freezing in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.

Vegetation Types

Shortgrass prairies and bunchgrass steppes—where grasses only grow 8-10 inches high—are common in the drier landscapes in the western Great Plains. Tallgrass prairies are found in the wetter regions to the east, where grasses can grow up to seven feet high. The middle of the Great Plains is a transitional zone of mixed-grass prairie that includes both short- and tallgrass species.

Grasslands also include many species of broad-leafed plants (called forbs), like wildflowers and some woody species that are most commonly called shrubs. Most native grassland vegetation is perennial, meaning the plants come back each spring after going dormant during the winter.

Coneflower and butterfly

These purple coneflowers (echinacea) and the clouded sulfur butterfly are examples of forbs and insects found on grasslands. Photo: Ken Brunson.

Roots

Native grasses and forbs play a key role in creating rich, healthy soils. Sometimes called “upside-down forests”, their dense, fibrous root systems extend three to six feet below the surface, where they cycle nutrients and help hold water on the land. These roots also supply food and habitat to burrowing animals, insects, bacteria and fungi.

Western roots postcard

This postcard, available for download on SGI’s site (click photo for more about western roots), shows how deep native plant roots penetrate into the soil. Many of these plants grow in prairies in addition to sagebrush-steppe.

Resilience

Because most of their biomass grows below ground, grasslands have evolved to withstand drought, grazing, and fire. Grasses and forbs can easily grow back their above-ground stems after they have dried out or have been eaten or burned.

Historically, natural disturbances like fire or grazing helped maintain healthy, vigorous prairie habitat by encouraging plants to send up new shoots. Today, well-managed grazing and prescribed fire can help deter invasive annual grasses (like annual bromes and cheatgrass) or woody plants (like redcedar or mesquite) from taking over productive grasslands.

LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners for voluntary conservation practices like prescribed grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire. Photo: Stan Bradbury

Wildlife

Grasslands feed grazing animals like elk, pronghorn, deer, and bison, whose hooves help break up the soil and disperse native seeds to regenerate the prairie. Millions of birds rely on healthy grasslands, including sage grouse, eagles, prairie chickens, hawks, and a variety of songbird species. During the spring, pollinators like butterflies and bees feast on the wildflowers. Abundant grassland rodents such as prairie dogs and voles feed predators including badgers, coyotes, and swift foxes.

Bison in KS

Bison, like these in Kansaas, played a key role in grassland ecology historically. Today, cattle, pronghorn, and deer, help maintain grassland health. Photo: Ken Brunson.

Conservation

The Great Plains are one of the most at-risk landscapes in North America. The main threats are the conversion of native grassland to cultivated cropland, and the loss of native plants to invasive annual grasses or encroaching woody species.

Working together

Researchers, natural resources professionals, and landowners work together to restore and maintain productive grasslands. Photo: David Haukos.

Working Lands For Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in creating resilient, productive grasslands. Strategic practices are developed on a case-by-case basis to benefit agricultural operations as well as wildlife, and include prescribed fire, sustainable grazing systems, woody plant removal, wet meadow restoration, and drought management plans.


 

Why You Should Know About the Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project

This isn’t how America’s Great Plains are supposed to look.

The Western Working Lands for Wildlife initiatives like the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) and the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) focus on the concept of rangeland resiliency. In short, rangeland resiliency is the capacity for rangeland to absorb “disturbance,” like drought or fire, without becoming degraded. Resilient rangelands continue to function in the face of disturbance, or they bounce back from periodic disturbances and quickly return to healthy, productive ecosystems after their initial collapse. Rangelands that lack resiliency struggle to recover from disturbances, do not return to their pre-disturbance structure and function, and instead transition to an alternative state that is often less desirable for both agriculture and wildlife.

In the West, Working Lands for Wildlife works to improve rangeland resiliency on private lands across the prairies and grasslands of the Great Plains and the 11 states with sagebrush-steppe landscapes. Many challenges threaten rangeland resiliency in this huge region. Conversion of productive grasslands or sagebrush-steppe to closed-canopy woodlands is one of the biggest ones.

Trees are, of course, historic residents of the West. But over the last 150 years, conifer trees have expanded from their historic range into previously tree-less landscapes. In the sagebrush-steppe, juniper trees are the main culprit. In the Great Plains, Eastern redcedar is perhaps the most notorious example of a native tree turned invasive, and it’s moving into new territory at an alarming rate. Nebraska is now at the front lines of cedar invasion: nearly half a million acres of grazing lands have been lost since 2000 because of expanding redcedar forests.

Across all of the regions, this change is creating numerous impacts.

  • As conifers encroach on grasslands and sagebrush-steppe, wildlife like the lesser prairie-chicken, the greater prairie chicken, and the greater sage grouse move out. Research by SGI and LPCI has shown that as few as one to two trees per acre will cause the birds to leave.
  • Grasslands and sagebrush-steppe are remarkably diverse ecosystems. As they change into forests, much of that biodiversity is lost, and native grassland- and sagebrush-dependent species are negatively affected.
  • Trees use more water than the native plants in prairies and sagebrush range. The trees suck up water that is no longer available to native plants, aquatic life, agriculture, and communities.
  • Woody species also increase the negative impacts from wildfires. The trees fuel more intense wildfires, which impact wildlife, encourage invasive weeds, stress communities, and more.

Nebraska is on the front lines of an eastern redcedar invasion as illustrated by this photo from the Loess Canyons area. Photo by Dirac Twidwell, UNL

One of the leading researchers on the impacts these trees are having on the Great Plains is Dr. Dirac Twidwell of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to his research efforts, Dr. Twidwell is also the Associate Director for the new Center for Resilience at the University of Nebraska.

Dr. Twidwell and his colleagues at UNL launched the “Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project” in a two-part effort to study the impacts of Eastern redcedars and other conifers and to share their findings with the public. We sat down with Dr. Twidwell to talk about his research, the Project, what this threat means for wildlife and humans, and what land owners and managers can do about it.


Will you start by introducing the Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project? What is it? When did it start?

The Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project (ERCSLP) is the most comprehensive resource for understanding the spread and impacts of Eastern redcedar, one of the most well-studied and problematic invasive species in North America. I want to acknowledge the contributions of all the researchers and graduate students who helped create the ERCSLP, especially Christine Bielski, a graduate student who led the project’s development.

The project started in response to the increasing demand from private citizens and natural resource professionals for more information on the consequences of the Eastern redcedar invasion. As we studied these impacts, it became increasingly clear that the general public was unaware or ill-informed about the breadth and depth of science related to Eastern redcedars.

ERCSLP homepage image

The Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project website is a one-stop-shop for the most up-to-date eastern redcedar science and research.

What was your motivation for creating the project? What are its goals?

As a scientist, I increasingly feel an ethical responsibility to disseminate decades of research findings to the general public, politicians, K-12 educators, natural resource professionals, city planners, and the next generation of scientists. Scientists have reached clear consensus about the problems posed by Eastern redcedar invasions. The ERCSLP provides the facts that should be used to question existing land management practices, to critique existing government policies and future proposals, and to hopefully create a more literate and informed society. My goal is that every citizen in the Great Plains knows the costs of Eastern redcedar invasion and the underlying reasons for why scientists continue to draw attention to this environmental problem.

How did we get here? What allowed eastern redcedar and other conifer trees to expand their ranges so dramatically? 

These are two of the most common questions we are asked, and we actually developed a FAQ section for scientists because they were brought up so frequently (link). Eastern redcedar, while historically rare, has been part of the Great Plains ecosystem for millennia, but it is one of the most fire-sensitive plants in the region. It cannot resprout after a fire, so its survival strategy is to escape fire damage. Historically, fire burned so frequently, with such intensity, and across such a large part of the Great Plains each year that Eastern redcedar distribution was effectively contained in areas where fire didn’t reach.

The removal of fire’s historical control process, coupled with ubiquitous planting and distribution of Eastern redcedar, set the stage for widespread invasion and the proliferation of cedar across multiple states today.

Woody species map

This image shows the extent that woody species, led by eastern redcedars, have expanded throughout the Great Plains from 2000-2018. Image courtesy of UNL.

Why is there a such a strong sense of urgency in the Project’s language?

The strong sense of urgency in the Project’s language matches the overall narrative of scientific experts. Many people seem to expect scientists to emphasize technical points and use an almost robotic style when they communicate with the public. But there is strong concern voiced in the scientific community about the lack of attention to this environmental challenge that spans multiple states. That is what this site is all about. Increasing literacy is not just about knowing the facts, but also understanding the tone and urgency from the scientists that have spent their entire careers studying this issue.

Why tackle this problem now?

The clock is ticking to conserve the last remaining prairie regions in the central and southern Great Plains. Cedar distribution is rapidly expanding, and I am part of a group of scientists tracking its change and impact on rangeland resources. No state has effectively prevented cedar invasion from overtaking rangelands, and no state has restored large areas of rangeland after conversion occurred. The ranching community is particularly affected, since the transition from grassland to cedar woodland can displace 75% or more of rangeland productivity used for livestock production. It is simply in our best interests to tackle this problem and avoid further losses to this and other ecosystem services.

The Project’s website says that “Eastern redcedar is considered one of the greatest threats to human well-being and to the unique flora and fauna of the Great Plains.” Will you share some of the impacts to human well-being that eastern redcedars pose?

The impacts of Eastern redcedar to human well-being are very well studied. The negative consequences span wildlife and biodiversity, livestock productivity, water quality and quantity, increased wildfire danger and a reduced ability for firefighters to successfully suppress wildfires, and reductions in school funding for public education. Recent research has linked cedar impacts to today’s allergy problems and insect-based disease vectors. Very few plants affect this number and array of resources that are so important to our lives.

Are there specific types of wildlife that are more impacted by encroaching conifers than others?

Cedar so severely changes the structure and function of rangelands over time that it affects all grass-dependent species. Multiple species become rare or locally extinct after conversion to cedar woodlands. We cover this in detail in the Science Literacy webpage. However, it is true that some wildlife are more sensitive than others. For example, prairie chickens are particularly sensitive and decline at very low levels of cedar encroachment.

Aren’t there also benefits to wildlife? How do you reconcile negative consequences versus benefits?

One of the most common misconceptions is that because wildlife are seen using cedar trees, they must need them. There is a video series where scientists breakdown these types of misconceptions. Dr. Dwayne Elmore, from Oklahoma State, has a great set of points in his video and the following powerful quote, “No wildlife require cedar.” This is an important point. While wildlife might use cedar for various purposes, those uses do not outweigh the consequences to wildlife when their habitat is lost to an unsuitable, alternative ecosystem.

In short, the displacement of native species with habitat generalists that tolerate invading trees should not be acceptable to the conservation community.

Are there examples where management is sustaining rangeland in the face of cedar invasions?

Yes, there are two examples: The Flint Hills in Kansas and the Loess Canyons area in Nebraska.

In the Flint Hills, there is still a culture of fire and a relatively intact fire regime across approximately 3 million acres. It is a great example of resilient rangelands where the intact disturbance regimes build resilience, which helps prevent major problems from occurring. Fire in this region is effectively preventing the establishment and spread of Eastern redcedar.

Kansas’ Flint Hills still have an intact fire regime, which has helped prevent eastern redcedar trees from encroaching on the valuable grasslands. Photo: Jim Minnerath, USFWS via Flickr.

In the Loess Canyons area, landowners established prescribed burn associations to restore fire in an attempt to regain the livestock productivity and wildlife diversity lost to Eastern redcedar. It is one of the most heavily invaded ecoregions of Nebraska, yet landowners have been able to rebuild a fire culture and are now cooperating on over 200,000 acres. Since 2013, cedar cover has stabilized and stopped its steadily increasing trend. This is the first example we have found where a community adapted their management practices and restored fire back into the system. The result is the stabilization of a region that had become heavily infested with Eastern redcedar.

Prescribed fire in the Loess Canyons

Prescribed fire like this have helped landowners in the Loess Canyons area of NE stem the invasion of eastern redcedar trees. Photo: Dirac Twidwell, UNL

What’s next for the Eastern Redcedar Science Literacy Project?

The ERCSLP was created to meet landowner needs for communication, and we foresee it continuing to evolve in ways that meets their needs in the future. Right now, we are creating landowner stories across the Great Plains so that people better understand their legacy and management challenge.

If you could leave readers with one key take away, what would it be?

I would actually say there are two key takeaways: The first is Prevent, Prevent, Prevent. Do not underestimate how difficult it is to restore iconic rangeland regions after cedar compromises its integrity and resilience. The second is that loads of scientific evidence counters the myth that converting grassland ecosystems to forested ecosystems will actually benefit ecosystem services and human well-being.

The conversion of grassland to cedar forest does not support the same amount of diversity, agricultural productivity, water resources, or protection from wildfire risk. Sure, some species – especially generalists – use cedar trees (and other conifers), but native grassland species are reliant upon large areas of grasslands and they require those grasslands to remain healthy and tree-free. We shouldn’t jeopardize the future of those grassland-dependent species or other critical ecosystem services simply because a few localized benefits are observed when these trees invade.

Meet the Expert

Do you have redcedars in your yard?

Dirac Twidwell

Dr. Dirac Twidwell. Photo courtesy of UNL.

My family and I just bought a property, and it happens to have lots of Eastern redcedar. I look forward to teaching my kids proper rangeland management, so I would enjoy answering this question again in a couple of years.

What is your role with Working Lands for Wildlife?

I am a science partner with Working Lands for Wildlife and share the philosophy of scaling up conservation for future generations to enjoy productive and diverse ecosystems. My aim is to co-produce science that can help the team address some of the grand challenges we face in rangelands and to better unify expertise across private-public-academic partners, especially in the Great Plains. More importantly, being involved in Working Lands for Wildlife helps me better understand how to develop use-inspired science.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Family, fishing, and travel. I also better mention that I am a lifelong St. Louis Blues Hockey fan since they won their first Stanley Cup this year!

Conserving prairies for chickens helps millions of songbirds too

New study evaluates how private lands enrolled in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and the Conservation Reserve Program benefit songbirds.

>Download the full Science to Solutions Report here>>

A new study done in partnership with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, CEAP Wildlife, and Playa Lakes Joint Venture as part of the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions Program, highlights population benefits for many species of songbirds that use prairie habitat alongside lesser prairie-chickens. The key take away from the study? Conservation practices contributed to an increase of 2.4 million songbirds across the region.

Grasshopper sparrow (Alan Schmierer), eastern meadowlark (John Sutton) and Cassin’s sparrow (Alan Schmierer) are some of the songbirds evaluated in the research. All three showed impressive population gains following the implementation of conservation practices through LPCI and CRP.

Healthy prairies are a vital resource for agricultural producers and wildlife. They provide a mix of grasses and forbs that supply protein-rich forage for livestock as well as habitat for numerous grassland birds like lesser prairie-chickens.

Unfortunately, in North America’s Great Plains, this asset is at risk from development, conversion to croplands, and other intensive land use practices that fragment or degrade our grasslands and prairies. Ninety-five percent of the land in the Southern Great Plains is privately owned, making voluntary conservation on private lands a key strategy in preserving and improving the prairie habitat that supports lesser prairie-chickens and dozens of other songbirds.

From 2015 to 2017, researchers monitored birds on ranches in CO, KS, OK, NM, and TX that had implemented conservation practices. The study compared avian population densities on private land enrolled in either the Conservation Reserve Program or that had established prescribed grazing plans through the USDA-NRCS’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative to reference grasslands in the region.

In total, the conservation practices contributed to improved regional abundance for:

  • 14 of 27 species of grassland generalists, 10 of which are declining
  • 10 of 13 species of grassland obligates, 7 of which are declining
  • Conservation-related population increases amounted to 2.4 MILLION MORE SONGBIRDS in the study area, including these species-specific gains:
    • 17% of the Cassin’s sparrow population
    • 21% of the eastern meadowlark population
    • 16% of the grasshopper sparrow population

Livestock grazing is compatible with maintaining healthy grasslands, as demonstrated by the variety and abundance of birds on well-managed ranch lands. ~  David Pavlacky, Research Ecologist, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, lead author on the study.


Key findings from the study:

  • In the southern Great Plains, several bird species that depend on healthy grasslands are in decline.
  • Researchers found that conservation practices contributed to improved regional abundance for 24 of the 40 grassland bird species studied, over half of which are in decline, amounting to 2.4 million more songbirds.
  • Ranches enrolled in prescribed grazing through the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative showed the greatest variety and abundance of grassland-dependent birds.

CRP grasslands, western Kansas. Photo: Megan Waechter.

Prior research has also shown that lesser prairie-chickens increase their use of grasslands following the implementation of prescribed grazing and other conservation practices promoted by LPCI.

Additionally, research commissioned by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, showed that lesser prairie-chicken populations expanded following a 2009-2012 drought in the Great Plains. Many of the population-level increases occurred on lands enrolled in LPCI and CRP conservation programs. While the rebound cannot be directly contributed to conservation practices implemented through LPCI or CRP, the birds did take advantage of restored habitat when it was available.

Taken together, these studies highlight how conserving lands for lesser prairie-chickens sets the stage for increased population levels of multiple bird species, including lesser prairie-chickens and songbirds, while also improving the productivity of grasslands for ranchers. That’s win-win conservation at its best.

<<Download the full Science to Solutions Report here>>


 

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

Chicken Challenge | Test Your Knowledge of Ranching

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

Lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background. Laura Erickson photo.


LPCI’s work is focused on private lands – working ranches and farms across the southern Great Plains. These lands are critical to lesser prairie-chickens and to the hundreds of other species that rely on healthy grasslands. Privately owned ranches also help maintain open spaces, often bordering and operated in common with public lands. Test your knowledge of ranching with this Chicken Challenge.


Fun Facts:

  • Agriculture is one of the nation’s largest employer with more than 23 million jobs involved.
  • Raising beef cattle is the single largest segment of American agriculture.
  • U.S. ranchers produce 18% of the world’s beef with only 8% of the world’s cattle.
  • 85% of the land where cattle graze is not suitable for raising crops, thus grazing animals on this land increases the amount of food produced.
  • All “cows” are female. The males are called bulls or steers.
  • Water is precious in the arid West. Only 2% of the West is considered wet habitat. Of that, more than 75% is on private land.
  • The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative has worked with more than 800 landowners to voluntarily conserve more than 1.6 million acres of land.

Take the Chicken Challenge | Ranching


 

How do lesser prairie-chickens like mesquite removal? Ask an Expert with Dr. Christian Hagen

LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen (left) talks with rancher, Bill Barby, about his range management practices.


Dr. Christian Hagen is a researcher and professor at Oregon State University and a science advisor to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative. Recently, Hagen was the lead author on a new study that analyzed lesser prairie-chicken’s use of habitat in New Mexico where mesquite trees have encroached on the bird’s grassland habitat. The study also analyzed how using a species like the lesser prairie-chicken as a bioindicator species can help land managers and others most effectively target habitat restoration that benefits multiple species of wildlife, including lesser prairie-chickens. We recently caught up with Dr. Hagen to talk about his latest research and what it means for restoration on the southern Great Plains.

Your study shows that lesser prairie-chickens avoid areas with “tall” structures like honey mesquite trees, but the reality is a bit more nuanced. Will you explain the impact trees have on lesser prairie-chickens?

The impacts are akin to a two pronged-fork. At low densities, these trees provide hiding cover or perches for predators that gives them undo advantage over the birds. In time, as the woody cover dominates the prairie, it chokes out the grasses and forbs that serve as the basis for habitat for the birds.

Are trees like the honey mesquite problematic to other species or to the southern Great Plains prairie ecosystem itself?

Yes, tree encroachment is big problem for all prairie obligate species. However, most of the research has focused on birds, and it shows significant effects on prairie birds in particular. Prairie birds, like the lesser prairie-chicken, are an avian community that has sustained some of the larger population declines in North America.

If mesquite trees are such a problem, why not just cut them all down?

It’s a multimillion-acre problem and removal efforts aren’t cheap. Additionally, mesquite is an excellent sprouter, so just cutting a tree at its base does not guarantee it’s gone. You may just make it mad! Finally, there are places where mesquite is meant to occur naturally and removal from those areas would not be ecologically responsible management.

Mesquite isn’t just a problem for livestock forage production—it’s a problem for native wildlife. Studies show that lesser prairie-chickens greatly prefer landscapes with less than 2% mesquite canopy cover. That’s likely because mesquite provides hiding and perching sites for predators.

What is a bioindicator species?

A bioindicator species is a critter that lives its life in a particular ecosystem, relying on the ecosystem for all aspects of its life. If the species is abundant in the ecosystem, it shows that the ecosystem is healthy. If the species is missing from the ecosystem, or is there in limited numbers, it suggests the ecosystem is in trouble. In a nutshell, bioindicator species are the “canary in the coalmine” for a particular ecosystem.

Why is the lesser prairie-chicken a good bioindicator species in terms of honey mesquite and prairie restoration?

The lesser prairie-chicken requires prairie vegetation to meet all of its life-history requirements. As this prairie transitions to woodland or savanna, chickens will no longer occupy those areas, thus showing that the health and functionality of the prairie ecosystem itself is declining.

Male lesser prairie-chicken during springtime courtship display. Photo: Andrew Stetter courtesy of David Haukos

You use the term “conservation triage” in your paper. What do you mean by that? How does your study help managers decide where to “triage”?

Just as a medical doctor in an emergency room has to prioritize how to treat all of the patients, we are applying similar principles to conservation. In short, we treat areas of mesquite with a high likelihood of successful restoration first. Those areas that have surpassed an ecological threshold because they have been infiltrated by high levels of mesquite trees may never be restored. Treating these areas becomes too costly and the time it takes for the prairie to recover is much too slow to make the investment worth it.

Our work helps identify those areas of early infestation that are “bad” for birds but relatively “easy” to restore both methodologically and financially. By focusing on “birdscapes,” it allows managers to concentrate efforts in specific geographic areas until the job is “done.” We have learned elsewhere that it requires watershed-level treatment to yield biologically meaningful outcomes.

How did you get the idea for this study? Have there been comparable studies done for other grouse species? If so, were the results similar to what you found?

Our previous work on greater sage-grouse and western juniper has striking resemblance to the avoidance behavior we observed in chickens with regard to mesquite trees. Earlier work by The Nature Conservancy’s Sharon Baruch-Mordo and other partners found that as little as 4% cover within about 0.75 miles of breeding ground (lek) was enough to lead to those leks being abandoned over time.

We implemented the very same analytical approach as Baruch-Mordo but with prairie-chickens and mesquite and found nearly the same pattern. We had a hunch it would be similar but not almost identical.

There is a growing body of research from different species of grouse, like lesser prairie-chickens and sage grouse that live in treeless landscapes, showing that with somewhere between 2% and 4% canopy of invasive trees, the land becomes uninhabitable by birds. It’s remarkable that both species abandon areas with nearly the same level of invasive trees.

Lesser prairie-chickens use four habitat types, including sand sagebrush prairie shown in this photo by Dwayne Elmore. None of the habitat types have widespread tree cover.

Much of the remaining lesser prairie-chicken habitat is on private lands. How do private land owners put your research into practice? Are there resources they can access that help them prioritize where to remove mesquite or other encroaching woody species from the southern Great Plains?

As you point out, private landowners are critical to helping recover lesser prairie-chickens. This study helps them figure out where to start restoring prairie habitat so their efforts will make the biggest difference for the bird and prairie health generally. The USDA-NRCS has technical and financial assistance available to assist producers in tackling this problem on their land. Various mapping tools are available to NRCS staff to help producers assess costs and treatment types best suited for their operations. Also, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program through USFWS is geared to assist with these types of treatments as well.

What is the key takeaway you want people to understand from your study?

Mesquite expansion is an ecosystem-wide problem, and it’s going to require significant resources to abate. Our work provides a road map to start tackling the problem, and that road map utilizes what we’ve learned about a charismatic and iconic species of the southern Great Plains – the lesser prairie-chicken.

Meet the Expert

How long have you been studying lesser prairie-chickens?

Nearly 20 years now…

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Dr. Hagen and his dog.

Making contributions (hopefully) to improving our effectiveness at conserving the last wild working landscapes of the West.

 What else do you like to do when you’re not chasing chickens across the southern Great Plains?

Chasing elk with my traditional bow and chasing other upland birds with my two bird dogs.

 

>>Read the paper in Journal of Arid Environments>>