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New technology helps ranchers maximize grass production


How much forage have producers lost to woody species? The Rangeland Analysis Platform can provide answers. Photo: ShutterStock/Max Voran.

Join the NRCS for a free webinar about how RAP can help incorporate economics into area-wide planning efforts on Thursday, February 25 at 3:00 p.m. ET.

>>Learn more and register here<<

By Brianna Randall, USDA NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife

Did you know that one out of every three acres in the U.S. is rangeland? Two-thirds of these rangelands are privately owned, mainly by ranchers who graze their livestock in the vast open country of the American West.

From the Great Plains to the Great Basin, our rangelands produce premium beef, quality wool, and creamy dairy. But it’s the plants that feed these livestock that are the foundation for profitable agriculture in the West.

But ranchers haven’t had a good way to measure how their grass is faring — until now.

The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), developed in partnership with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the University of Montana, allows producers to track changes in the amount and types of plants (like perennials, annuals, or trees) growing on their property.

This free online resource combines current and historical satellite imagery with thousands of on-the-ground vegetation measurements and displays them near-instantaneously as simple graphs and maps.

The RAP is a free online resource that provides easy-to-access data on vegetation trends across the West from the mid-1980s to the present day. Plus, this web application calculates how productive those plants are. A combination of long-term datasets show landowners how their lands have changed over time, which translates directly into how profitable their operation is.

“We can finally quantify outcomes of rangeland conservation in terms of dollars and cents,” says Tim Griffiths, western coordinator for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife.

Closing the gap to boost grass growth

Farmers in the central and eastern U.S. have been using technology to closely track changes in crop production for decades. As soon as they see data showing that their plant productivity is declining — and revenues following suit — they can take steps to address the limitations and boost productivity again.

RAP provides the same power to ranchers.

This technology can show ranchers the gap between their potential production and the actual production they realize in terms of pounds-per-acre of grass (typically called  “yield gap” in farming circles). It helps landowners understand how much they can potentially gain by changing management practices to boost available forage and close the gap.

RAP can help identify yield gaps by pinpointing where woody species are reducing forage.

Landowners can see how their plant production has changed within a single month or over the span of several years. The technology can be used to visualize plant productivity in an area as small as a baseball diamond or over a landscape as large as several states.

“Basically, RAP can prevent lost revenues by showing producers where their land is less effective at growing grass. It helps ranchers put the right practices in the right places,” says Brady Allred, the researcher from the University of Montana who helped develop RAP.

Preventing trees from robbing ranchers

One of the main threats to production and profitability on western rangelands is the expansion of trees onto grasslands. From eastern redcedar destroying tallgrass prairie to juniper marching across sagebrush grazing lands, woody species are costing producers millions of dollars in lost forage.

For example, a now-forested property in Nebraska produced 0 pounds/acre of grass in 2014. But in 1985, RAP reveals that same property produced 2,200 pounds/acre of grass — before eastern redcedar consumed the once-fertile prairie.

This used to be a Nebraska prairie. When woody species dominate a landscape, native grasses, shrubs, and other plants that wildlife and livestock need, can completely disappear. Photo: Courtesy of Dirac Twidwell

“Last year, we quantified that western rangelands missed out on tens of billions of pounds of forage due to trees taking over prairies and shrub lands since 1990,” says Dirac Twidwell, rangeland ecologist at the University of Nebraska and science advisor for NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife.

This yield gap, says Twidwell is “costing producers hundreds of millions in lost revenue each year.”

Take the Flint Hills of Kansas, America’s most productive grasslands and the fourth-largest intact prairie left in the world. In 2019, RAP shows that this region produced 21.3 billion pounds of forage.

But RAP also shows that ranchers in the Flint Hills were cheated out of another billion pounds of forage in 2019 due to encroaching trees. That adds up to nearly 800,000 round-bales of hay lost last year.

Put in terms of dollars and cents, those unwanted trees cost Kansas producers $8.3 million in lost revenue in a single year.

This graphic highlights the amount of forage lost in 2019 due to woody species expansion. Each small figure represents a different landscape scale. Image: NRCS

Stemming the tide of trees with technology

Luckily, we are now armed with data that helps landowners take action to prevent future losses in rangeland productivity. Using RAP’s satellite imagery, ranchers across Nebraska are working together to burn seeds and saplings before they become trees. Regular prescribed fires also improve soil health and promote fresh grass growth.

And in Kansas, ranchers are using RAP, along with Farm Bill funds and technical know-how provided through NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife, to cut trees across ownership boundaries to restore prime grass grazing lands.

New technology like RAP is exciting because it helps all of us “help the land” in order to sustain wildlife, provide food and fiber, and support agricultural families long into the future.

Learn more about RAP and what it can do for you: join this free webinar on February 25 at 3:00 p.m. (ET).

Getting the most forage per acre is important for producers, but stemming the loss of grasslands and sagebrush range due to woody species encroachment benefits wildlife, too. Photo: MT Stockgrowers Association.

A Landowner’s Journey to Using Prescribed Fire – Repost – Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Over the past several years, Callaway rancher Jim Jenkins, here with his dog, Bella, learned how to use prescribed fire with the help of conservation professionals. (Jim Jenkins photo)

This story originally appeared on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission website. Reposted here with permission. See the original here.

By Renae Blum
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Looking at the numbers, and seeing the state of his pastures, Jim Jenkins knew it was time for a change.

The Callaway rancher turned to prescribed fire after his efforts to remove eastern redcedar trees from his land mechanically proved too costly and ineffective at stopping the spread. However, using prescribed fire on a larger scale was unfamiliar.

“It was complex and I was a bit scared of it, because I’d just never been around burning,” Jenkins said.

The learning curve to use prescribed fire can be intimidating for landowners, said Brian Teeter, a prescribed fire coordinator with Pheasants Forever. Yet, every year, conservation professionals across the state help many landowners through the process. In recent years, Jenkins became one of them.

Jenkins knew the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office provided help for landowners looking to burn, and so several years ago, he sat down with Lisa Clarke McMillan, a soil conservationist at the agency, and signed up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The program provides incentive payments for brush management, deferred grazing and prescribed burning.

McMillan helped him develop a burn plan and visited his ranch to lay out where the burn would take place. Then, with McMillan’s guidance, Jenkins began prepping for the burn, creating a firebreak and cutting and strategically placing trees to facilitate a better burn.

“I would tell anybody that it’s important that you talk to people like Lisa,” Jenkins said. “If you can spend some time with them, it’s really helpful because they’ve been through literally hundreds of burns.”

Last fall, at McMillan’s recommendation, Jenkins attended a prescribed fire workshop led by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Pheasants Forever, where he learned the basics of prescribed fire, including techniques, equipment and common terms.

At the workshop, Jenkins also networked with other landowners and resource professionals. Teeter was one of them and offered Jenkins the use of a trailer of equipment for his burn. He also got Jenkins in touch with several prescribed burn associations, groups of landowners who team up to conduct prescribed burns in their communities.

Last spring, using his new connections, Jenkins went to a couple of prescribed burns.

“I was impressed at how relatively easy the burn goes,” he said. “Once you have all the preparation work done and you’ve got a good crew and you’ve got the right conditions, the burn itself is almost anticlimactic.”

Eastern redcedar trees became a growing problem on rancher Jim Jenkins’ land, stifling valuable grazing pasture. (Jim Jenkins photo)

Jenkins hoped to conduct his burn in late February or early March, but ultimately decided to wait for better weather conditions and to finish more prep work. He’s looking forward to holding his first burn next spring.

I can’t wait,” he said. “I don’t drink, but I might consider having some champagne or something.

It takes time and effort to learn how to use prescribed fire, Jenkins said. However, “if you’re willing to invest the time, there are plenty of people out there willing to help you,” he said.

A number of organizations throughout the state assist landowners in implementing prescribed fire, including Game and Parks, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, The Nature Conservancy, the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. They do it because prescribed fire is beneficial: It offers a boost to pasture productivity, is a valuable conservation tool, improves wildlife habitat, reduces wildfire risk and eliminates invasive species.

“If somebody wants to get a fire on the ground in the state right now, it’s a high priority of most every land management or conservation organization in the state,” Teeter said. “They’re never alone.”


Working Lands for Wildlife – Director of Agricultural Communications – Request for Proposals

Contractor Opportunity: Director of Agricultural Communications

Location: Remote, Great Plains preferred

Deadline: December 4, 2020

Summary: Pheasants Forever, Inc. and Working Lands for Wildlife, invite qualified contractors to submit proposals to create and implement a communications strategy for “Working Lands for Wildlife” (WLFW) initiatives. This contractor would develop and oversee targeted communications plans for each regional initiative, as well as consistent messages for the broader western WLFW effort, geared specifically to engaging agricultural audiences.  Please download the Request for Proposal (RFP) for full specifications.  All inquiries regarding proposal submission may be directed to Sarah Marquart at 651-209-4920 or

Interested parties can also access the RFP and additional details at Pheasants Forever’s website here.


Conservation Reserve Program Benefits Lesser Prairie-Chickens

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

New Report Details How the CRP Program Provides Critical Habitat for LEPCs

>>Download the Report Here<<

A new Wildlife Conservation Insight Series Report from the USDA’s’ Conservation Effects Assessment Project discusses a new study from Oklahoma State University that shows how lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) benefit Lesser Prairie-Chickens (LEPCs).


Human-driven land cover change over the past two centuries has transformed previously extensive grasslands in the Great Plains into a mosaic of croplands, woodlands, industrial infrastructure, and remnant grasslands. These changes have resulted in North American grasslands being considered some of the most altered and threatened ecosystems in the world. As a result of this fragmentation of the landscape, the lesser prairie-chicken (LEPC) has experienced population declines of greater than 90% from its historic abundance.

Lesser prairie-chicken in Oklahoma. Photo: Ashley Tanner.


Conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) address multiple resource concerns (e.g., soil erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitat) on private lands. The enrollment of land in CRP in recent decades has significantly altered land cover patterns throughout the Great Plains (Tanner and Fuhlendorf 2018), providing benefits to wildlife and other ecosystem services (Hagen et al. 2016, Sullins et al. 2019).

More than 4.9 million acres are enrolled in CRP on over 43,000 individual properties within the current range of the LEPC.

Key Findings From the Report

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation are primary factors in lesser prairie-chicken (LEPC)

    Click on the image to download the CEAP report.

    population declines.

  • Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides large areas of grasslands and grassland connectivity that directly influence habitat suitability for and space use by LEPCs.
  • At the county scale, the presence of CRP appears to highly influence habitat suitability and roost-site selection for LEPCs.
  • At the pasture scale, managed grazing of CRP land does not negatively influence LEPC movement or habitat selection.
  • Consideration of spatial arrangement and proximity to CRP patches can lead to maximum habitat benefits for LEPC, given that individual birds rarely traveled more than 0.3 miles to or from roost sites.
  • A patchwork mixture of CRP, native range, and cropland areas may best provide for the needs of LEPC.

Conservation Implications

CRP provides benefits to both grassland species and producers throughout the Great Plains by promoting grassland connectivity, reducing soil erosion, providing forage during managed grazing practices, and providing critical habitat for grassland wildlife. The benefits of CRP cover combined with healthier rangeland conditions coming from practices recommended in the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative are helping to sustain and improve LEPC populations in the Great Plains.

This study shows that the presence of CRP cover interspersed with other diverse cover types (native range and cropland) is an important component in meeting the habitat needs of LEPC. At both the local and distribution-wide scales, the LEPC conservation framework used by planners in the future must be based on a good understanding of the temporal and spatial dynamics of LEPCs on CRP lands.

Finally, managed grazing within CRP areas appears to be compatible with LEPC ecology, and other mid-contract management practices (e.g., haying) should be further evaluated for compatibility.

Download and read the CEAP report for additional details on the OSU study and its implications for LEPC management.


Western Working Lands Snapshot | Wet Habitats in the Great Plains

Playa Photo

Playas are important wet habitats for birds and wildlife. Photo Andy Lawrence.

This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to wet habitats — like riparian areas, wet meadows, playas, and potholes — which are vital for wildlife and livestock.

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.

By Brianna Randall


Wet “mesic” habitats are the places where water meets land, and the soil maintains a well-balanced supply of moisture throughout the growing season. This includes riparian areas along streams and rivers, wet meadows, springs and seeps, wetlands, and irrigated fields.

In the Great Plains, playas and prairie potholes are special types of wetlands. These are shallow depressional wetlands that exist as self-contained watersheds (no streams flow in or out of them, although in especially wet years, they may be connected by streams if close enough). They are generally ephemeral, meaning they only hold water during certain parts of the year, typically in the spring when rains or snowmelt causes them to fill. Some are recharged by below-ground aquifers.


The “Prairie Pothole Region” of the northern Great Plains is a large expanse of shallow depressional wetlands that fill with snowmelt and rain each spring. Prairie potholes extend from Canada through northern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and into western Minnesota and northern Iowa. The playas of the central and southern Great Plains are found in Nebraska’s Sandhills Region, and in Kansas, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The prairie pothole region extends from Canada into the northern Plains states. Map from Wikimedia, originally, USGS.


Spring rains and snowmelt are the primary ways that prairie potholes and playas recharge. Creeks and rivers throughout the Great Plains are fed by snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and also by spring rainstorms.

Healthy mesic habitats act like sponges, helping to capture, store, and slowly release water year-round. As the spring snow melt dissipates and rain stops, the water on the landscape slowly evaporates, leaving green “islands” in the landscape.


Natural mesic habitats like riparian areas, springs, and wet meadows, are defined by water-loving vegetation that grow well in wetter soils, including sedges, rushes, flowering plants, and even woody species. Some of these wet places (streams and rivers) have moving water (called ‘lotic’ systems) while others (potholes and playas) have standing water (called ‘lentic’ systems). Agriculture maintains wet places through irrigation in fields used to grow alfalfa and grass hay.

Playa Photo

Playas provide water for vegetation that helps sustain wildlife and livestock. Notice the dark green ring of riparian vegetation around the playa. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

Ecological Services

Mesic habitats provide essential services for people and animals. These wet places offer food, water, and cooler shelter when summer heat dries surrounding lands. They also help resist wildfires and droughts, acting as a much-needed refuge when water is scarce. Playas and potholes also help recharge aquifers and filter fertilizers, sediment and other pollutants from groundwater.

Prairie potholes (shown in this photo) and playas provide a host of ecosystem services like ground water recharge, wildlife habitat, and more. Photo: USGS


Mesic habitats serve as grocery stores for many birds and mammals. In these ribbons of green vegetation, they feast on protein-rich forbs (wildflowers and shrubs) as well as a variety of insects. The potholes and playas of the Great Plains are particularly important for migratory birds that utilize the Central Flyway. These wet landscapes are considered the most biodiverse areas in the entire Plains landscape.

Turtle Photo

Reptiles, like this yellow mud turtle, amphibians, birds, and mammals all make use of playas and other wet habitats in the Plains. Photo: Andy Lawrence.


Recognizing the importance of wet, green spots, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in protecting or improving precious water resources.

A variety of practices keep water on the land longer and vegetation green in playas, potholes and riparian areas. The following practices help buffer the impacts of drought for ranchers, boost forage production for livestock, and improve habitat for wildlife:

  • Grazing Management
  • Riparian Protection and Enhancement
  • Low-Tech Restoration
  • Invasive Tree Removal
  • Mechanical Restoration
  • Conservation Easements
  • Patch Burning

Watch a video about playas produced by the Playa Lakes Joint Venture and visit their site to learn more about these important prairie wetlands.

Click on the image above to watch a video about playas from the Playa Lakes Joint Venture.

>>Read more Western Working Lands Snapshot Posts<<

Note: The page opens with the most recent Snapshot; scroll down to find earlier posts.


NM Grasslands

Take the Chicken Challenge | Prairie Habitat

NM Grasslands

Lesser prairie-chickens need large expanses of prairie with diverse grasses, forbs and shrubs for all aspects of their lives as seen in this photo of New Mexico. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

This Chicken Challenge focuses on the prairie habitat where lesser prairie-chickens live. Test your knowledge of lesser prairie-chicken habitat with the quiz below. Good luck!

Fun Facts:

  • The lesser prairie-chicken lives in five states in the southern Great Plains: Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado.


  • Lesser prairie-chickens require large expanses of native prairie habitat for their life cycles. Habitat fragmentation by roads, residential and industrial development and conversion of prairie to cropland are two of the biggest threats to prairie-chicken habitat.


  • In addition to large, intact landscapes, lesser prairie-chickens need habitat with a diverse mix of plants that include grasses, forbs and shrubs.


  • Prescribed grazing practices can help improve habitat for prairie-chickens by fostering the diversity of plants that prairie-chickens need. Fence marking can help mitigate collisions when temporary or permanent fencing is used for prescribed grazing management.

Take the Chicken Challenge | Prairie Habitat


Ask an Expert | Fire and the Great Plains

Large wildfires are becoming more frequent on the Great Plains, driven, in part, by more woody vegetation. This photo shows eastern redcedars burning on the Carr Ranch during the Anderson Creek wildfire.

Fire has long played a leading role shaping the ecology of the Great Plains. Whether lightning-caused or human-induced, research shows that much of the Great Plains experienced fire frequently, every fourteen to less than two years depending on region. Recurrent fire helped create and maintain the diverse grassland ecosystems – short grass, mixed grass and tallgrass prairies – that exist across the Plains. Fires also controlled woody species presence throughout the region, confining trees and shrubs to sites where fire was less frequent or absent due to topographical, climatic, or other natural conditions.

Over the last couple of centuries, the removal of indigenous fire ignitions and widespread fire suppression throughout the region drastically altered this historic fire regime. In a short period of ecological time, the Plains went from one of the most frequently burned regions on the planet to one where fire became relatively scarce, allowing woody species and associated fuel loads to build and expand. Today, wildfire, specifically large, damaging wildfires, have greatly increased in frequency and severity across the Plains. The 33 documented large wildfires that burned in the Plains from 1985 to 1994 have been eclipsed by 117 large wildfires that burned in the next 10 years (2005-2014).

Woody expansion is causing a shift from grasslands to woodlands in central North America, and this shift is collapsing wildlife diversity, heightening wildfire risk, and crashing grazing land profitability. In short, woody expansion is threatening the very characteristics that make the Great Plains so productive.

Fires that deter woody expansion are driven by complex interactions between climate, fuel loads, land use, and human behavior. Dr. Victoria Donovan and her team of researchers at the University of Nebraska are at the cutting edge of understanding the various roles of fire as a driver of plant community change in central North America. We sat down with Dr. Donovan to learn more from her two new papers: Land-Use Type as a Driver of Large Wildfire Occurrence in the U.S. Great Plains and Resilience to Large, ‘Catastrophic’ Wildfires in North America’s Grassland Biome.

These two papers focus on fire in the Great Plains. Scientists have concluded that fire was once a regular part of the Great Plains ecosystem, but that’s no longer the case. Why were you and the team interested in studying large wildfires in the Great Plains?

While we know that large wildfires have been increasing substantially across forested regions of the western U.S. for some time, recent increases in large wildfire are relatively new in the Great Plains. This offers us the opportunity to understand shifting wildfire patterns in this region and possibly get ahead of some of the risks large wildfire can pose to people by learning how to better manage wildfire to prevent loss of human life and property.

Let’s start with the paper called Land-Use Type as a Driver of Large Wildfire Occurrence in the U.S. Great Plains. Your team analyzed large wildfires in the Great Plains from 1993 to 2014 and overlaid the boundaries of those fires onto a map. You then analyzed the various types of land use, which you classified into five types – grassland, woody vegetation, cropland, pasture and hay fields, and developed areas – within the fire boundaries. What were you looking for?

We wanted to understand how land use might be playing a role in shifting wildfire patterns by identifying which land-use types have the highest propensity for wildfire. Around the world, different land-use types, including agricultural and developed lands, are known to affect wildfire occurrence differently. Over the last century, the Great Plains has seen drastic shifts in land-use following Euro-American settlement, including agricultural conversion and development, along with widespread woody encroachment of grassland systems. Today’s wildfires are occurring within that altered landscape. Since our previous research showed a surge in wildfire activity in the Great Plains, a clear question for us was to determine whether this surge was tied to different land uses.

You note that in 11 of the 14 ecoregions you analyzed: “areas burned by large wildfire were primarily composed of woody vegetation and grassland.” Why are these land-use types more susceptible to large fires?

There are a number of reasons why we saw more fires in these land-use types. Grasses are one of the most flammable fuel types on the planet, and they are highly adapted to and have properties that promote frequent fire. While woody vegetation communities do not typically experience fires as frequently as grasslands, they offer an abundance of fuels that promote large fires once ignited. In contrast with grasslands, vegetation in pastures, hay fields, and crops generally have different fuel properties that make them less susceptible to fire. For instance, the plants in these areas tend to hold more moisture, which can make it much more difficult for fire to ignite and spread. Irrigation could also play a role in this. This result is consistent with research that suggests that crop fields may actually act as a barrier to fire spread in some regions of the world, which is interesting since we know that agricultural lands are some of the most frequently burned land use types elsewhere in the world. There are social reasons as well. For instance, fire suppression is more likely to be successful for a wildfire burning through a grassland than one burning through forest canopy.

Dr. Donovan’s team found that grasslands and woody vegetation are the land-use types with the highest propensity for large wildfires. Figure courtesy of Dr. Donovan.

It makes sense that intact grasslands burned more than crops or developed areas, but you found that woody vegetation “burned proportionately more than any other type of land-use in the Great Plains.” What do you mean by that and why is it important?

We found that of all of the land-use types in the Great Plains, large wildfire is most likely to burn in woody vegetation. This means woody vegetation is associated with the highest large wildfire risk. This is extremely important because we know that woody vegetation is increasing across much of the Great Plains by invading our grassland systems. We also know that wildfires that occur in woody vegetation are generally more difficult for us to put out. Consider a campfire: You might use a few handfuls of dried grass as a way to get the fire started, but if you don’t add some logs to it, it will burn out quickly. The same is true in natural systems. Woody vegetation generally offers more fuels that can burn longer and more intensely than grasses. To add to that, trees grow much taller than grasses. Imagine trying to put out your campfire when it is a few stories above you.

We know many grasslands are transitioning to woody vegetation in the Great Plains because we have removed the frequent fires that used to burn through grasslands. We also know that tree planting is a common practice across much of the Great Plains and these have served as seed sources for invasion into more intact grassland systems. What our results suggest is that if we continue to promote woody vegetation across the Great Plains, we are also going to be increasing our risk for large wildfires that are more difficult for us to control.

Woody vegetation is the most likely type of land use to burn in the Great Plains. Figure courtesy of Dr. Donovan.

Let’s shift gears to the second paper called Resilience to Large, ‘Catastrophic’ Wildfires in North America’s Grassland Biome. Will you explain what you mean by “resilience”?

Resilience is the amount of change that an ecosystem like a grassland can experience before shifting into something else, like a desert. When we were considering resilience in this study, we were tracking whether vegetation cover in an ecosystem was able to recover following wildfire or transition to an alternative type of ecosystem. For example, we wanted to know whether grass cover recovers to the same level as before the wildfire or whether a different vegetation type takes over after wildfire.

So, your team examined how the landscape, and specifically how the vegetation community on that landscape responded to large, severe wildfires. First off, how did you find the information and data you analyzed? Secondly, what did you find?

We were lucky enough to gain access to an amazing new data set from the Rangeland Analysis Platform, a project led by researchers from the University of Montana in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife team. It provided us with information on vegetation cover across much of the Great Plains that hadn’t been available over such large areas before. What this meant was that we could ask questions about the outcomes of large wildfires on vegetation across vast extents of the Plains to gain a fuller picture of wildfire in this region.

While we know that fire was historically an important part of the Great Plains, there is also concern in this region that fire can cause irreversible changes to vegetation. For instance, there are a number of programs that promote re-seeding following wildfire to prevent desertification, that is, the conversion of a vegetated area to bare ground. What we found was that the Great Plains is highly resilient to wildfire. At the biome level, all vegetation returned rapidly to pre-fire levels. In every ecoregion, we saw rapid recovery of perennial and annual forbs and grasses. Our findings echo over a century of research demonstrating grasslands in the Great Plains are highly resilient to wildfire.

The researchers found that perennial vegetation cover came back quickly following fire and that bare ground returned to pre-fire levels just as quickly. Figure courtesy of Dr. Donovan.

Was there one vegetation community or one location within the Plains where fire did cause a long-lasting change in the type of vegetation cover?

Yes, in the northwestern Great Plains ecoregion we saw persistent decreases in tree cover following wildfire over our study period. This helps confirm findings from more localized studies that indicate that fire has the ability to control and remove woody vegetation in some rangeland systems. The northwestern Great Plains is dominated by ponderosa pine trees, which can be rather fire sensitive compared to some re-sprouting species in the southern Great Plains, like mesquite.

In the Northwestern Great Plains, the researchers found that tree cover decreased following fire. Figure courtesy of Dr. Donovan.

Does drought play a role in how vegetation responds to wildfire?

We found that drought can amplify the immediate response of vegetation to wildfire. For instance, if a wildfire occurred under more severe drought conditions, there was generally a greater initial loss in perennial forbs and grass cover. However, we didn’t find that drought had any impact on long-term losses of vegetation cover. In other words, wildfires burning under more extreme drought conditions did not impact the probability of vegetation recovery, though recovery may take longer than if wildfire had burned under moist conditions.

Your team found that woody vegetation burns disproportionately more often than other land-use types, and that in some places it is the one vegetation community that is least likely to return. Given that encroaching woody species have a negative impact to water, wildlife, and other resources on the Great Plains, that seems like it could be a good thing for rangelands. Is that the case?

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.

Yes and no. For wildlife and vegetation that depend on a prairie environment, wildfires can provide a pathway for re-gaining rangeland lost to woody vegetation. In fact, some landowner groups in the Great Plains and elsewhere have viewed wildfire as a restoration mechanism that can be used as a launching point to prevent the re-establishment of problematic woody species like Eastern redcedar. On the other hand, we know that large wildfires can pose a risk to human communities, particularly, when they occur in more volatile woody fuels. How do we balance that? We utilize prescribed fire. The Great Plains was one of the most frequently burned regions in the world historically (with some locations burning every two years or less). Vegetation in the Great Plains has a long history of thriving with fire, which our research helps to emphasize. Frequent applications of prescribed fire is an effective way to help reduce wildfire risk while re-integrating an important ecological process into grassland ecosystems.



What are the key takeaways that you want people to understand from your papers?

  1. In the Great Plains, our grasslands are able to recover rapidly following fire, even under extreme drought conditions.
  2. Removing fire from these systems may have inadvertently increased the risk of large wildfires by allowing woody encroachment.
  3. Using fire as a management tool could help reduce large wildfire risk in some regions by reversing and preventing further woody encroachment.

Meet the Expert

Will you tell us a bit about your research interests and what you’ll be focusing on next?

Dr. Victoria Donovan is a researcher at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Dr. Donovan.


I am really interested in understanding how processes like fire structure and shape ecosystems. In this rapidly changing global environment, I think understanding this will be key to building ecosystem resilience and managing ecosystems that we depend on. I have a background in wildlife research, so I am hoping to take the findings that I have learned here and integrate them with wildlife data to get a better picture of how animals, plants, and processes like fire shape one another and how we can use these interactions to plan for and adapt to future change.


What keeps you busy when you’re not working on a research project?

I am big into travel. I love to explore the wilderness of different countries, learn about new cultures, and try new and delicious foods. While I am saving up for my next trip, I am camping, hiking, kayaking, and volunteering with my local animal shelter or youth organization.

Cake or pie?

Definitely cake and preferably chocolate.

New Report Highlights LPCI’s Outcomes Since 2010

Released this month is a new report detailing the conservation outcomes achieved through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) in the southern Great Plains.

Report cover image.

Click on the image to download the report.

With 95% of lesser prairie-chicken habitat on private lands, conservation efforts focused on private working lands are critically important to the species and rural economies.

Report findings show that NRCS worked with 883 landowners to conserve 1.6 million acres, which is 107% of the original goal outlined in the LPCI strategy.

Habitat suitability for prairie chickens improved by 11% for every 1% of the landscape that NRCS put into Prescribed Grazing.

NRCS worked with producers to transition expiring CRP fields from idle to working grasslands. These actions contributed to the outcome that 60% of expired CRP fields in the region remained as grasslands a decade later.

Peruse this report to learn more about outcomes in conservation achieved for Great Plains grasslands.

>Download the report<<


Western Working Lands Snapshot | Pollinators

Monarch butterflies are one of the best known and most imperiled pollinators. Read on to learn more about pollinators and what producers can do to help them out. Photo: NRCS

This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” celebrates pollinators. These busy bees, birds, bats, and other critters help plants reproduce and are a critically important part of natural and agricultural systems.

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.

By Brianna Randall

What is pollination?

Pollination is the first step in the reproductive process of plants. It happens when small grains of pollen are transferred between the male (anther) and female (stigma) parts of a flower. Since plants are rooted in place, they rely on wind, water, or animals to move their pollen between flowers, which in turn creates seeds that bring forth new plants.

Pollinators help plants reproduce.

Over 80% of the world’s flowering plants rely on a pollinator – an insect, bird, or other animal – to reproduce. Critters that help transfer pollen include bees, bats, butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, ants, and many other animals.

Without pollinators, 80% of the world’s flowers wouldn’t be able to propagate. Photo: NRCS-MT

Pollinators add value for people and wildlife.

Pollinators play an invaluable role in producing the plants that feed people and many of the Earth’s animals. One out of every three bites of food we eat is created with help from pollinators including chocolate, coffee, nuts, and spices.

Pollinators also play an important role in boosting yields on working agricultural lands. Their ecological service is valued at $200 billion each year.  This includes their important role in generating more profitable yields on America’s working agricultural lands, too.

Bees are valuable both for their honey and for their pollination services. Photo: NRCS-MT

How do plants attract pollinators?

Flowering plants have co-evolved with pollinators to recruit the help of specific species using a combination of shape, scent, and color. For instance, butterflies are lured toward bright, sweet-smelling purple or red flowers, while beetles are drawn to dull-colored white or green flowers.

In return for helping out the plant, a pollinator is rewarded with a meal of energy-rich nectar or protein-rich pollen. They also use flowers as shelter, to find mates, or to build nests.

Bees pollinate most of our fresh food.

More than 4,000 native bee species buzz around the United States. Honey bees alone pollinate 80% of all flowering plants, including more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables. Since they are easy to capture, bees can also serve as tell-tales of ecosystem health.

Bees are critically important, and economically valuable, pollinators. Photo: NRCS

Pollinators are a key part of the ecosystem.

Beyond moving pollen around, pollinators also contribute to healthy soils because they foster diverse plant communities. Plus, they are a key part of the food web. Over 85% of birds that breed in the U.S. eat insects, including sage grouse and prairie chickens. Of course, sage grouse and prairie chickens also eat the flowers (called forbs by scientists) that pollinators help produce, making pollinators even more important to these species.

Pollinators and sustainable ranching go hand in hand.

A recent study from Montana State University found that sagebrush rangelands enrolled in rest-rotation grazing plans through the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative produced better habitat for native pollinators like bees than pastures with no livestock grazing.

Similarly, another study showed that rangelands with sustainably managed cattle grazing had a higher abundance of the types of insects that sage grouse chicks eat than nearby un-grazed land.

By working with the NRCS in creating pollinator habitats, Harlequin Produce’s plantings and cover crops promote a place for bees and other pollinators to thrive. Photo taken June 10, 2019 in Arlee, Montana located in Lake County.

We can all help pollinators recover.

Pollinator populations are dropping alarmingly across North America due to habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants. For instance, the number of monarchs—the familiar orange-and-black butterfly known for its annual migrations—decreased from one billion to 34 million butterflies since 1995 – just 25 years.

Luckily, private landowners are stepping up across the country to protect habitat for pollinators. Through the Farm Bill, NRCS offers dozens of conservation activities that benefit both pollinators and agricultural producers by producing healthy, high-value nectar plants.

Learn more about how the NRCS is helping producers help monarch butterflies, a critically important and imperiled pollinator, in this excellent storymap.

Click the image to see the storymap about how the NRCS is working with producers to benefit monarch butterflies.

>Read more Western Working Lands Snapshots<<

Note: The page opens with the most recent Snapshot; scroll down to find earlier posts.


Take the Chicken Challenge | Conifers

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

This Chicken Challenge focuses on conifer trees, which are causing a cascade of negative impacts to grassland and sagebrush range across the West. Try the quiz and see what you know about these impacts.

Fun Facts

  • “Conifer” refers to any plant that produces cones. Some conifers, like pine trees, have easily recognizable cones. Others, like the Pacific Yew, have a fleshy cone that looks like fruit and yet others, like juniper trees, have cones that look like berries. The word conifer is a compound of the Latin words for “cone” (conus) and “to bear” (ferre) and directly translates as: “the one that bears cones.”
  • Most conifers have needles for leaves, but not all conifers keep their needles year-round. For example, the bald cypress which grows in southeastern swamps loses its needles each winter and tamarack or larch trees have needles that turn a golden yellow in the autumn before dropping to the ground.
  • Conifer trees like pinyon pine, juniper, and mesquite have always been present on sagebrush and grassland landscapes but have been expanding into areas where they didn’t historically grow over the last 150 years.

Take the Chicken Challenge | Conifers