Category Archives: Ask an Expert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What are the biggest threats facing these grasslands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Loess Canyons, Nebraska

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

More Resources

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

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

Learn more about the Nebraska Great Plains Grassland Initiative here.

Learn more about the Kansas Great Plains Grassland Initiative here.

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

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

Learn more about the impacts of eastern redcedar on grasslands.

Ask an Expert: Early Warning Signals and Grassland Bird Richness

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prescribed fire burn crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Expert

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

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


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

What’s your favorite bird species?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are applications for the CRP evaluated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the NRCS help focus resources on those areas?

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Expert

What is your favorite grassland bird?

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

Describe your perfect weekend day. 

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

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

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


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

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

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.

Scientists using telemetry

Ask An Expert | The Science Behind Private Lands Conservation—A Conversation with Dr. Dave Naugle, Working Lands for Wildlife Science Advisor

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 Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is part of the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife efforts – nationwide initiatives focused on conserving and restoring working agricultural lands to benefit wildlife and watersheds while also improving ranch and farm productivity. The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is another Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) effort focused on the sagebrush ecosystem of the Intermountain West.

Working Lands for Wildlife takes a team approach to conserving western rangelands: NRCS leadership ensures Farm Bill funding is used efficiently and effectively to improve western rangelands for healthy wildlife, water, air and plants, and for the rural communities they support. Local NRCS staff and the LPCI’s Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT) work with private landowners to implement conservation practices like sustainable grazing systems, mesic habitat restoration, conifer removal and prescribed fire. Partners, like Pheasants Forever and The Nature Conservancy, leverage funding and resources to do more work across the West. It’s a great model that has allowed the LPCI to work with more than 800 landowners and to conserve more than 1.6  million acres of the southern Great Plains since 2010.

But there’s another group of people behind the scenes who play an integral role in WLFW’s work: A team of working lands scientists. Since its inception, WLFW and in turn, LPCI and SGI, have been science-driven efforts. The opening page of LPCI’s website notes that “LPCI-funded research ensures we’re doing enough of the right things in the right places to achieve our conservation goals.”

Dr. David Naugle. Photo courtesy of Dr. Naugle.

Long-time WLFW Science Advisor and University of Montana wildlife professor, Dr. David Naugle, helps lead the western WLFW science team. Dr. Naugle recently published a paper in the prestigious journal BioScience entitled Coproducing Science to Inform Working Lands: The Next Frontier in Nature Conservation. This new paper champions both the importance of working lands in conservation and the role for science in achieving better outcomes for ranching and wildlife.

We sat down with Dave to learn more about the critical role science plays in WLFW’s approach to conservation.


Why your intense interest in working lands conservation?

I spent my early career working on public lands policy but now find myself fascinated by working rangelands as global productivity centers, biodiversity hotspots, and the glue that holds together public lands. The father of modern conservation, Aldo Leopold, taught us that “conservation ultimately boils down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

Public lands are a cornerstone of American culture but it’s the privately-owned working lands that hold the key to maintaining conservation-reliant species for which persistent threats cannot be eliminated but only actively managed. Reinvesting in these rural communities is the best way I know to keep intact grazing lands from being swallowed up by cultivation, subdivision and energy developments.

Your paper is called Coproducing Science to Inform Working Lands: The Next Frontier in Nature Conservation. What is coproduction and how does it differ from other approaches to science?

Simply put, coproduction of knowledge is a way of making science more actionable by engaging with stakeholders to share in both study design and implementation. And surprise, surprise…people are more apt to incorporate new information into their way of thinking if they are invested upfront in its production. So, the goal of coproduction is to achieve better outcomes for society by engaging more people earlier in the science process and thereby increasing the utility of science in decision-making and practice.

Notably, the recent popularity of coproduction in health care with patient and public involvement is leading to better outcomes. If widely adopted for working lands, coproduction could provide participants with the necessary knowledge to better sustain rural livelihoods and nature’s resources on privately managed rangelands, forests, and cultivated lands that collectively occupy 80% of the world’s terrestrial area.

Outcomes are all the rage today in conservation; what is an outcome?

Merriam’s dictionary defines outcomes as: “something that follows as a result or consequence.” In other words, an outcome is the upshot, or the way a story turns out. In contrast, outputs simply describe the amount of conservation produced, which are typically reported as acres enrolled, miles managed, or dollars allocated. Outcomes are superior to outputs because they quantify the impact of conservation efforts.

For example, the SGI’s efforts have resulted in the following outputs: 11,000 square miles of sagebrush grazing lands restored or enhanced on more than 2,000 ranches since 2010. While such outputs are large, even more impressive are resulting outcomes including +12% higher sage grouse population growth within conifer management in Oregon, +25% greater vegetation productivity for ranching and wildlife following riparian and wet meadow restorations in Nevada, Oregon and Colorado, and 75% of priority habitats conserved for two migratory mule deer herds through measures enacted to protect sage grouse in Wyoming.

If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s this…having coproduced outcomes makes it way easier to tell your conservation story. Outcomes also provide partnerships with a mechanism for sustained funding by articulating return on investment to stakeholders. Looking back, the 2015 ESA decision was a major testing ground for the utility of outcomes in evidence-based conservation. Turns out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited SGI outcomes 43 times in their determination to not list sage grouse as an endangered species.

Has your coproduced science ever failed to support a highly anticipated outcome?

Oh, yeah, it really happens. Such was the case when a seven-year assessment showed that pastures rested from domestic grazing did not increase sage grouse nest success. Despite dogmatic support in the literature, the hypothesized benefits of herbaceous hiding cover never materialized at pasture- and ranch-level scales in which herbaceous cover was experimentally manipulated. In response to our findings, the NRCS adjusted delivery of conservation practices to de-emphasize financial incentives being paid for extended rest within rotational grazing systems.

WLFW’s Science to Solutions series highlights new research in a clear, practical manner.

These results spawned additional inquiry challenging the long-held belief that grazing restrictions inevitably benefit sage grouse populations. Follow-up study revealed that commonly used methodologies were inherently biased, misrepresenting the relationships between habitat structure and sage grouse nest success. These results initiated a third line of questioning to understand the economic implications of the unintended habitat loss on private land resulting from grazing restrictions placed on publicly adjacent rangelands. Collectively, this string of coproduced science is raising the collective appreciation of the more complex interrelationships between wildlife habitat and ranching enterprises in this public–private checkerboard of land ownership of the Western U.S.

Why is Working Lands for Wildlife science unique?

Unique maybe; laser-focused…always! As the science arm of WLFW, we do two things— 1) develop spatial targeting tools to pinpoint where to invest in conservation, and 2) evaluate whether resulting investments yield desired outcomes. The USDA and our partners know that limited resources necessitate a strategic, landscape-scale approach that replaces random acts of conservation kindness to increase the odds of achieving desired outcomes.

Versed in coproduction, our science team knows well the painstaking preplanning and delayed gratification that accompanies doing science alongside real, watershed-scale conservation. We often jest that science chases implementation because of our partners’ appetites for access to coproduced science, online tools and additional outcome-based evaluations.

For example, it took us ten years, two PhD students and a boatload of radio-marked birds to confidently say that conifer management increases sage grouse population growth by +12%. From a science perspective, quantifying this level of population response is almost unheard of in wildlife management, and I hope this new knowledge gives managers the confidence to continually scale up this beneficial practice. Is it easy? No. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.

What do you value most with your involvement with working lands science?

We science folks can be a flighty bunch, chasing personal research interests and jumping from one funding opportunity to the next. But I’m a long-term investor who believes that it takes time to develop a meaningful program. The tendency for science to be paid for and published, but then left on the shelf for someone else to find and use is no longer a defensible approach. To quote Wes Burger, a private lands scholar and colleague at Mississippi State University, ‘science should be done with the intent to deliver conservation actions, and delivery should be done with the intent to measure outcomes.’

Also, and this aligns with the concept of coproduction, the WLFW team does a good job of making all the science we produce accessible to multiple audiences. A recent report from the University of Wyoming’s Ruckleshaus Institute titled “Developing a social science research agenda to guide managers in sagebrush ecosystems” (2019) noted: “One communication model highlighted by multiple participants is the Sage Grouse Initiative’s (SGI) Science to Solutions program, which multiple participants felt was an effective strategy for reaching a diverse array of stakeholders.” I think that’s pretty great. That same report also stated that: “Participants emphasized the importance of trust and relationship building on behalf of social scientists and decision makers and identified the Sage Grouse Initiative as an example of a trusted source of information that has had some success in influencing sagebrush conservation and management decision making.”

So, if I had to put my finger on one thing that makes Working Lands for Wildlife special, it’s the direct pipeline between science and conservation. The speed at which new knowledge is incorporated into on-the-ground conservation is amazing; once you experience this as an applied scientist you’ll never go back!

Where is the science arm of WLFW headed next?


The powerful Rangeland Analysis Platform is revolutionizing rangeland management.

We’re diving headfirst into expanding conservation using our new Rangeland Analysis Platform or RAP. The RAP is the brainchild of Brady Allred our rangeland ecologist here at University of Montana. It fits our philosophy wherein coproducing scientists provide partners with state-of-the-art mapping technologies who, in turn, implement well-placed practices to further scale up beneficial outcomes.

And as word spreads, neighboring watersheds are hungry to employ this tool (and others) in their backyards. Idaho is using RAP-based invasive annuals mapping to craft their Cheatgrass Challenge knowing that weed control is most effective when management is informed by what’s going on in the surrounding landscape. On the horizon for the RAP are jam sessions with USDA to evaluate pipelines for these web applications to be used more broadly across the Department.

Lastly, the upcoming launch of our newest RAP functionality will evaluate biological and economic strategies to help partners get ahead of woodland expansion on grazing lands across the western U.S.

Does your crystal ball show a bright future for working lands conservation?

There is no doubt in my mind that we are entering a ‘Renaissance-type Era’ for private lands conservation that will rival our response to the Dust Bowl. Landowner-led and collaborative partnerships will show us the way with much leadership already in place (e.g., Blackfoot Challenge, Malpai Borderlands Group, Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, Sandhills Task Force, and many more). Local landowner leaders hold much of the deeply rooted trust and credibility necessary for the longevity of resulting conservation.

Equally important is the advancement of like-minded, landowner-led groups such as Western Landowners Alliance and Partners for Conservation that are coalescing into umbrella organizations to extend their shared vision of working lands conservation into additional watersheds. The only real question now is one of further coordination and support so that we’re all pulling in the same direction.

Any closing thoughts beyond coproduction?

Yeah I have one that keeps me up at night…as conservation professionals we ought to ask ourselves if we’re properly equipping the next generation in working lands conservation. The public recognizes the Farm Bill as one of the most globally powerful tools in conservation. Neighboring countries envy us for it, yet its depths are poorly understood locally, and unknown to most of the generation in training.

Working with young scientists on private lands conservation is critical for the future of the field.

I often play the acronym game with wildlife students in class; they all know BLM, FWS and USFS, but most blankly stare back when I quiz them on NRCS. We need to change that to effectively deliver conservation on private lands at watershed scales.

But even when I start to worry, I’m reminded of rapid change on this front too. For example, Lowell Baier’s new book entitled Saving Species on Private Lands, due out in April, serves as a Farm Bill roadmap for landowners, and as a first to my knowledge, Colorado State University is advertising a Professor of Working Lands position.

Meet the Expert

What book are you currently reading?

Don’t be Such a Scientist (2018) by Randy Olson, and anything else I can get my hands on to make me a better communicator with non-science audiences—have to admit, I’ve become a bit obsessed the last couple of years.

What is your favorite non-academic activity?

Family, family, family. Travel hockey with our son is the focus for weekends now through March. I’m having a blast watching my daughter finish up undergraduate here at UM before heading to PA school next year. My wife and I are travel junkies that love investigating different corners of the world—next up, Norwegian fjords.

And finally, you got your MS and PhD from South Dakota State but now work at the University of Montana. Who do you root for?

Oh gosh…ok, picture this, how about a ‘Go Griz’ hoodie overtop my ‘Get Jacked’ SDSU t-shirt on game day when Jacks battle Griz on the gridiron in UM’s Washington-Grizzly stadium!

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!