Category Archives: News

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


 

Western Working Lands Snapshot | The Great Basin

This month’s Western Working Lands Snapshot is all about the Great Basin. While the Great Basin may be far from the Great Plains, it’s a fascinating landscape and we thought this post was worth sharing. Let us know what you think!


Definition

Map of North America’s watersheds. The orange section is the Great Basin, where water does not drain to the ocean. Map: WikiCommons

The Great Basin of the western United States is a 200,000 square-mile desert ecosystem—an area larger than most countries—where all of the water drains “inward” into terminal lakes or underground, rather than “outward” into the ocean.

Location

The Great Basin spans most of Nevada and portions of Oregon, Idaho, Utah and California. Its geographic borders are the Wasatch Mountains to the east, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges to the west, the Snake River Basin to the north, and the Mojave Desert to the south.

Notable Landmarks

Known for its dry climate and unique topography, this region contains mountains, deserts, woodlands, and riparian areas. The Great Basin also includes these noteworthy landmarks:

  • Lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level
  • Highest point in the contiguous United States: Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada at 14,505 feet above sea level
  • Largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere: Great Salt Lake in Utah
  • Largest alpine lake in North America: Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada

Basin and Range Topography

The Great Basin is characterized by a series of tall, rugged mountain ranges that parallel low, broad valleys (or basins). The valleys are usually desert shrublands with elevations around 4,000 feet, while the mountain peaks often soar above 10,000 feet.

Aerial view of basin and range topography. The darker areas are forested slopes on mountain sides, the lighter areas are dry valley bottoms. Photo: WikiCommons

This type of “basin and range” topography is created as the Earth’s crust spreads apart. Mountains form where the crust is pushed upward along moving fault lines, while basins appear where the crust stretches and becomes thinner.

Climate 

Because it spans diverse elevations and latitudes, the climate varies throughout the Great Basin. Most of the region experiences warm summers, cold winters, and arid conditions. Situated in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, the Great Basin’s average annual precipitation is just 6 to 12 inches and mostly falls as snow.

The Great Basin is characterized by dry valleys. Photo: NPS

Ten thousand years ago, many of the valleys in the Great Basin were covered with water from large lakes formed by melting ice. Today, only remnants of those vast lakes remain, such as the Great Salt Lake, Pyramid Lake, and Walker Lake.

Vegetation

The Great Basin is dominated by sagebrush, salt desert shrublands, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and other mixed shrub- and woodlands.

In the higher elevations where temperatures are cooler and precipitation rates are higher, alpine and sub-alpine forests dot the mountainsides. These areas are where you can find bristlecone pines, the oldest organisms on Earth that can live nearly 5,000 years! These high-elevation forests transition to pinyon-juniper woodlands in the foothills. At the bottom of some valleys, the soil becomes salty and so dry that only certain types of heat- and salt-tolerant shrubs grow.

Many of the Great Basin’s mountains support high-elevation plant communities as shown in this photo of Mount Wheeler. Photo: NPS

Animals

From rattlesnakes and tarantulas to golden eagles and sage grouse, the Great Basin is home to diverse species of wildlife. Abundant rodents scamper across the landscape, including black-tailed jackrabbits and kangaroo rats, while larger mammals native to the region include pronghorn, mule deer, mountain lions, coyotes and bighorn sheep.

The Great Basin Rattlesnake is just one of the many wildlife species that call this rugged landscape home. Photo: USFWS

Even shorebirds and salamanders can be found in the rare-but-precious wet places, like springs, creeks, playas, or terminal lakes. These “emerald isles” in the Great Basin’s deserts provide critical food, water, and shelter for much of the region’s wildlife.

People

Many different Native American tribes made their home in the Great Basin, including the Ute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Navajo. Some of these traditional cultures used horses, while others traveled by foot. Tribes typically moved frequently during the summer in search of food and water resources, while maintaining winter villages along valley bottoms.

Until the railroad came through in the late 1800s, the Great Basin’s endless rows of scorching valleys and steep mountains created barriers for early Americans migrating west. This rugged landscape is one of the most sparsely populated parts of the United States.

The Great Basin’s two largest cities are Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada. Livestock ranching and mineral extraction (including gold, silver, mercury, lithium, copper, and iron) are the main economic drivers for small communities in this region.

Salt Lake City, Utah is one of the largest cities in the Great Basin. Photo: WikiCommons

Conservation Concerns

Altered wildfire regimes represent the most widespread challenge to conserving the Great Basin’s native ecosystems. The proliferation of invasive species like cheatgrass has increased fire size and frequency relative to historic rates, especially at lower elevations. Ironically, at upper elevations, fire suppression efforts have allowed pinyon-juniper woodlands to become thicker and spread into imperiled sagebrush shrublands. These changes threaten native wildlife, and also impact rural economies—like ranching and recreation—that rely on healthy sagebrush ecosystems.

Healthy sagebrush ecosystems are important to the wildlife and people that live in the Great Basin. Photo: NPS

Another threat to people and wildlife in the Great Basin is dwindling freshwater supplies, which are necessary to meet growing demand from cities, industry, and irrigated agriculture.

Luckily, proactive conservation partnerships like USDA-NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife are working with private landowners to address these challenges with creative, voluntary solutions that maintain this vast and beautiful landscape for future generations.


>> Read more Western Working Lands Snapshots <<

PHEASANTS FOREVER Magazine | Of Partners, Promises and Prairie Treasures

Photo: Gary Kramer

Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have been long-standing partners of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, the Sage Grouse Initiative, and other Working Lands for Wildlife initiatives across the country. The organizations are best known for their work on pheasants and quail but their support for other upland bird species and for wildlife in general is making a real difference for wildlife not typically associated with the organizations.

In particular, Pheasant Forever’s support of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and the Sage Grouse Initiative has helped build out our Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT) who work on the ground with local ranchers, producers and NRCS staff to help implement LPCI and SGI conservation practices. Learn more about how PF supports LPCI and SGI here.

The Spring 2020 edition of Pheasant Forever’s Journal of Upland Conservation features four stories about North American grouse and how PF is partnering with groups and agencies like the USDA-NRCS to improve habitat for sage grouse, lesser prairie-chickens, greater prairie-chickens and Columbia sharp-tailed grouse. The lesser prairie-chicken and sage grouse excerpts are reposted here with permission.

>>Download a PDF of the Magazine Story Here<<


Male lesser prairie-chicken. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Lesser Prairie Chickens: Places for Grouse on the Southern Great Plains

By: Brianna Randall

It’s dawn on the prairie, and the grass-scented spring air is alive with birdsong and butterflies. Rocky red buttes rise through the undulating waves of green, while tall oaks shade winding streams. These are America’s Great Plains, which cover one-third of the country and support grazing animals, burrowing critters, and millions of birds.

As the sun peeks over the grass on a mild spring morning, bubbling sounds ring across the land—the lesser prairie chickens are “booming.” Males with dashing yellow eyebrows call in the plainer brown-and-white-striped females by inflating balloon-like red pouches on their necks. These grouse also stomp their feet, flutter-jump, and lunge in hopes of luring in one of the hens. Alas, the ladies are picky: they often visit two or three dancing grounds before selecting their mate.

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

Diminishing Habitat

Similar to sage grouse, this once-popular game bird used to number in the millions, booming on leks across our nation’s southern prairies. But this quirky chicken-like bird has declined precipitously due to dwindling habitat.

Only an estimated 38,000 birds remain.

The Great Plains are some of the most at-risk landscapes on our continent, threatened by conversion of native grassland to cultivated farmland, invasive weeds, and encroaching woody species. Because much of their native habitat has disappeared, the lesser prairie chicken now occupies just 17 percent of its original range. Today, this upland bird is found in portions of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, where short- to mid-grass prairie is dominated by shinnery oak and sand sagebrush.

NM Grasslands

Grasslands in New Mexico. Photo: Andy Lawrence

Private Lands Key

Over 95 percent of the land in the southern Great Plains is owned by farmers and ranchers—the economic mainstays for hundreds of rural communities. With nearly all of its habitat under private ownership, conserving the lesser prairie chicken for future generations depends on voluntary actions by private landowners.

Pheasants Forever is partnering with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), local conservation groups, and state resource agencies to work with landowners on putting into place practices that are mutually beneficial for these birds and for agricultural producers alike. Farm Bill biologists, cost-shared by PF, offer ranchers the technical know-how for creating more productive and resilient grasslands.

“The range of the lesser prairie chicken overlaps with several species of quail and pheasants, so our work to restore prairie grasslands helps a whole host of upland birds,” says Jordan Menge, lesser prairie chicken coordinator for Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever.

Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative

Historically, natural disturbances such as frequent wildfires and grazing by bison herds helped maintain healthy prairie habitat. The removal of these large-scale forces from the Great Plains has led to a shift from grasslands to woodlands, which diminishes the productivity of the prairie for both wildlife and livestock.

This lesser prairie-chicken is feeding on grasslands that were burned by a prescribed fire. Fire played an integral role in maintaining grasslands health historically and today, prescribed fire is used to achieve the same goals. Photo: NRCS.

Sustainable ranching activities can help deter invasive annual grasses (like cheatgrass) or woody plants (like redcedar or juniper) from taking over native prairie … and crowding out grouse.

Pheasants Forever is a key partner in the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI), led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. LPCI works with ranchers to restore large blocks of prairie in the Southern Great Plains by: reintroducing fire to the landscape; rotating the timing and duration of livestock grazing to conserve native vegetation; and installing a host of other sustainable ranching practices.

CRP Matters

Pheasants Forever also helps broaden landowner participation in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to replant native vegetation on former crop lands to restore grasslands.

“Pheasants Forever has been a staunch advocate of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program since its inception in 1985 because it helps us enact our mission to conserve upland bird populations through habitat improvements,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever.

A new study released from Bird Conservancy of the Rockies shows that these voluntary Farm Bill-funded programs do indeed work, and produce outcomes that matter. Lands enrolled in CRP or prescribed grazing programs produced 3 million more birds in the southern Great Plains, boosting populations of 24 species of grassland birds, 17 of which are in decline.

Workshops and Tools

Pheasants Forever partners with NRCS and others to share research results like these in order to bridge the gap between science and on-the-ground implementation. That means hosting workshops that share the most recent research with ranchers and land managers so they can more effectively conserve habitat.

It also means creating easy-to-use tools (like the free online mapping application at rangelands.app) that allow people to track changes in natural resources over time. These science-based tools help partners quickly measure the results of past conservation work and plan future projects.

“Our goal is to measure the big-picture scientific outcomes from investing Farm Bill dollars to ensure conservation practices are successful and cost-efficient,” says Dr. David Naugle, science advisor for NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife, which includes the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative. “This science-based approach allows us to provide the biggest benefits for people and wildlife.”


Sage Grouse: A Shared Vision of a Resilient West

By: Brianna Randall

Sunset drapes across the wide-open western range, tinting the snow-covered sagebrush pink. The fading light silhouettes a herd of elk against distant peaks, while the call of cattle echoes over the whistling wind. If you zoom in closer, you’ll spy coveys of football-sized birds beneath the sagebrush, eating the silvery-green leaves and staying warm during the harsh winter.

These are sage grouse, North America’s largest grouse. And this scene is taking place in any one of a dozen states in the western U.S. this winter on rangeland treasured by bird hunters.

As the snow starts to melt, sage grouse herald spring by congregating to mate in open areas called leks. Males strut and prance, inflate yellow air sacs on their white chests to make a champagne-cork pop, and fan their spiky tail feathers to entice nearby females. Some leks boast hundreds of birds. It’s an impressive natural spectacle for those lucky enough to witness it.

Sage grouse might be most famous for their quirky courtship dance. But they’ve also become known as an indicator for how their namesake ecosystem is faring.

Characterized by a diversity of shrubs, grasses and flowering plants, the sagebrush steppe covers 250,000 square miles and is home to 350 species, including pygmy rabbits, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and golden eagles. Sage grouse are considered an “umbrella species” for all of the flora and fauna in this beautiful country because these upland birds rely entirely on sagebrush-dominated landscapes to eat, mate, hide from predators, and raise their chicks.

Over 100 sage grouse congregate on a lek in Colorado to mate. Photo: Julio Mulero

In short, without healthy sagebrush habitat there would be no sage grouse. And for a while, it was a close call for the birds.

Sage grouse have dwindled to a mere 10 percent of their historic numbers due primarily to substantial habitat loss. Over the past century, the sagebrush sea has been chopped up by invasive weeds, roads, energy or housing developments, and cultivated croplands. Sage grouse haven’t adapted well to these human-generated intrusions, since the birds avoid roads, tall structures, and loud noises.

The bird’s decline led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine in 2010 that greater sage-grouse were warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a final decision on whether to list the bird due by 2015.

Sage Grouse Initiative

Immediately following that announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to proactively conserve the private land where sage grouse roam. Ranchers, industry leaders, nonprofit organizations, and local, state and federal government agencies formed an unprecedented coalition to voluntarily conserve sagebrush rangelands. This coordinated effort was primarily motivated by the concern that listing the sage grouse would disrupt a host of economic mainstays that rely on the sagebrush ecosystem—including hunting.

Over half of the remaining sage grouse habitat is privately owned, much of it as working agricultural lands. Recognizing that “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” SGI focuses existing Farm Bill programs to help ranchers put in place sustainable ranching practices that conserve wildlife habitat while also benefiting their agricultural operations.

From the outset, Pheasants Forever has been a key partner with NRCS for efficiently converting SGI-allotted Farm Bill dollars into improved habitat for sage grouse.

“Our ethos has long been that working in harmony with agricultural producers to maintain healthy habitat is what supports healthy upland bird populations on a landscape level. With SGI, we saw an opportunity to help the NRCS—as well as ranchers and bird hunters in the West—with a habitat conservation paradigm that invites collaboration instead of conflict,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever.

That paradigm has proven its worth and then some. Over the past decade, SGI has partnered with more than 2,100 ranchers to conserve nearly 8 million acres of sagebrush rangelands in core sage grouse habitat—an area three-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

“Our role is to help NRCS and other partners deliver conservation dollars, contracts, and field capacity as efficiently as possible, so that grouse get the best bang for the buck,” says Ron Leathers, a wildlife biologist who also serves as Pheasants Forever’s director of public finance and has been involved with SGI since its inception.

Farm Bill Biologists

Leathers points to PF’s investment in hiring and managing biologists across sage grouse range as one example of the organization’s long-term commitment to improving habitat. PF employs more than 185 Farm Bill biologists across the country who work with landowners to protect and restore wildlife habitat, and 20 of these biologists are based in sagebrush country. Many of these positions are cost-shared by the NRCS, state wildlife agencies, or other nonprofits.

“Our field biologists are local ‘boots on the ground’ who can help rural farmers and ranchers plan conservation projects that boost their agricultural operations while also improving wildlife habitat,” says Michael Brown, the SGI field capacity coordinator for Pheasants Forever.

These local field staff help put in place habitat improvement projects ranging from sustainable grazing systems, to marking barbed-wire fences to prevent bird collisions, to conservation easements.

SGI and LPCI SWAT staff gather in Idaho to learn about low-tech stream restoration techniques. PF cost-shares most of these positions, providing additional capacity and getting more done on the ground. Photo: Greg M. Peters

Conservation Easements

Habitat loss through development is the most irreversible threat to sage grouse. Conservation easements are an important tool for keeping sagebrush rangeland intact. In Wyoming, estimates show that a $250 million investment in targeted easements can slow grouse declines by nearly two-thirds within population strongholds.

Through NRCS Farm Bill programs, partners have now secured over 200 individual easements that permanently conserve 620,000 acres of working western ranchlands. In Montana alone, partners have protected 198,000 acres of at-risk range through SGI since 2010, a six-fold increase in easements over all years prior. These voluntary, incentive-based agreements with private landowners also maintain working ranches and keep this vast landscape whole for future generations.

Grazing Smart

In addition to permanently protecting land from development, SGI has also helped ranchers improve range health across 3.6 million acres of prime sagebrush habitat through sustainable grazing strategies. By working with individual landowners to adjust the timing, intensity, and duration of livestock use, grazing strategies promote diverse, native plant communities that provide food and shelter for grouse and other animals. This makes the land more resilient to drought and wildfires, and increases its productivity for livestock, too.

“SGI’s win-win approach provides solutions that are good for ranchers and good for grouse,” says Tim Griffiths, the western coordinator for NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife, which includes SGI. “That means we’re not only working to improve wildlife habitat, we’re also helping to sustain rural communities and maintain our way of life out West.”

Eliminating Woody Cover

Another big threat to sage grouse is the encroachment of woody species. Typically found in higher-elevation forested areas, trees like juniper have steadily marched across historically open sagebrush range over the past century due to fire suppression efforts.

Sage grouse hate trees and research shows that they avoid nesting in areas where there’s more than a single tree per acre. Invading trees provide perches for predators like raptors, and also crowd out the native low-to-the ground plants and shrubs that sage grouse prefer for brooding, nesting and chick-rearing.

SGI has helped landowners strategically remove encroaching trees to restore over a half-million acres of sagebrush habitat. Projects on private lands are often paired with complementary conifer removal work on adjacent federal- or state-owned land, which restores big chunks of habitat to health—to the advantage of everyone who values clean water, healthy soils, and open horizons.

In Oregon, conifer removal boosted sage grouse populations by 12% compared to areas where no conifer removal occurred. Photo: Todd Forbes.

“Sage grouse don’t stop at fences, so we try to work across entire watersheds by including multiple property owners in conservation actions,” explains Brown. “At the end of the day, what’s most important is to build resilient, functioning landscapes that also work for agricultural families.”

The science indicates that this watershed-scale conservation is working. For instance, research shows that in southern Oregon, sage grouse populations were 12% higher in areas where advancing trees had been removed. Plus, 29% of GPS-tagged sage grouse hens were nesting in or near restored sagebrush rangelands within three years of conifer treatments.

Water is Critical

Speaking of nests, research also shows that sage grouse cluster 85% of their breeding sites within 6 miles of wet habitats in order for hens and chicks to feed on the “green groceries” found near water. As the sagebrush uplands dry out in the late summer, the birds seek out protein-rich plants and insects found along streams, springs, and wet meadows. More than 80% of vital wet places in the West are located on privately owned ranchlands; but many of them are degraded.

SGI helps resource managers and landowners use simple, cost-effective methods that restore these precious wet habitats. NRCS, PF, and other partners have led 11 hands-on field workshops that trained over 400 people in low-tech methods of restoring wet habitat (such as hand-built stone structures, mimicking beaver dams, or grazing management). Once implemented, these restoration projects have been proven to increase vegetation productivity by up to 25% and keep riparian areas greener longer. That’s another win-win for grouse and ranchers.

Big Country, Bigger Vision

All of these habitat improvements stem from one source: a shared vision of wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching. This vision, endorsed and practiced by Pheasants Forever and its partners, is undoubtedly working to revitalize sage grouse populations: In September 2015, the USFWS announced that sage grouse no longer warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act.

This positive news didn’t spur conservation partners to close shop though.

Instead, PF has partnered with NRCS to scale up the sage grouse model to benefit other at-risk animals. Working Lands for Wildlife—the umbrella for SGI—now allocates Farm Bill resources to conserve 23 other keystone species and their habitats across 48 states. Partnership-based efforts are enhancing private farms, forests and ranches from coast to coast, and are being replicated globally, too. Through Working Lands for Wildlife, PF is now involved in 9 landscape-scale conservation initiatives across the country, including bolstering habitat for prairie chickens and bobwhite quail.

“We’re in this for the long term,” says Howard Vincent, president & CEO of Pheasants Forever. “It’s about more than saving birds. It’s about saving the beautiful wide-open spaces that define America.”


 

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?

RAP

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!


Transforming Rangeland In Kansas’ Gyp Hills

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


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

By: Brianna Randall

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Fire Can Help Heal Rangeland

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Water and Partnerships Makes the Ranch Go Round

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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


Read the full story from BEEF Magazine here.

Western Working Lands Snapshot | Western Meadowlarks

A meadowlark sings from a rock. Photo: Ken Miracle


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern meadowlark. Photo by John Sutton.

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

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

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

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

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

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


>> Read more Western Working Lands Snapshots <<