Category Archives: News

Ranchers cutting cedar

Woody Invasion in the Great Plains Diminishes Water Resources

New research details impacts to water from encroaching eastern redcedar and other conifers on landscapes in the Great Plains.

> Download and read the full Science to Solutions report here >

A new study from University of Nebraska-Lincoln ecologist and Working Lands for Wildlife partner, Dirac Twidwell, synthesized decades of research on the growing impact of invading conifers.

Redcedar cuttings

Redcedar cuttings in Nebraska.

The Great Plains cover one-fifth of America and provide critical farming and agricultural lands, while hosting numerous grassland-dependent species, like the lesser prairie-chicken. Comprised predominantly of grasslands, the Great Plains depended on regular low-severity fire, which removed woody plants and maintained native grass cover. As historic fire regimes have been altered through fire suppression and land conversion, woody plants like eastern redcedar, Ashe juniper, and mesquite have moved into rangelands at an alarming and increasing rate.

This vegetation conversion is a national issue given how it affects the economies of several states that play key roles in agricultural production and wildlife habitat.

Simple transitions in vegetation can have far-reaching impacts. This study shows how trees taking over rangelands can affect working lands, wildlife and water in complex ways — even impacting our well-being in metro areas. – Dirac Twidwell, study author.

Illustration showing impact to water cycle from redcedar conversion

This illustration summarizes the alteration of the water cycle following a grassland transition to redcedar woodland. It shows the net loss to aquifer recharge and streamflow as trees intercept water.

Click on image above to download and read this Science to Solutions report.

Key Findings from the study:

  • Lesser prairie-chickens won’t nest in grasslands with more than one tree-per-acre and stop using grasslands altogether when tree density reaches three trees-per-acre. (Read a prior Science to Solutions about this here.)
  • Encroaching woody species are rapidly taking over native prairie in the Great Plains, which causes unfortunate ecologic, economic, and hydrologic consequences.
  • These impacts include: forage loss, increased risk of fire, decreased habitat quality for wildlife, and diminished water resources.
  • Model simulations suggest that complete conversion of rangelands to redcedar woodlands in the central Great Plains would reduce streamflows by 20-40 percent.

Fortunately, through a variety of Working Lands for Wildlife and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative projects, producers and land managers are removing encroaching conifers. In fact, through Working Lands for Wildlife, the NRCS has worked with producers to remove encroaching conifers on 110,000 acres of rangeland in the Great Plains.

> Download and read the full Science to Solutions report here >

Conservation Insight Report Confirms LPCI Projects Benefit Birds and Ranchers

New Report Confirms LPCI Projects Are Good for Chickens and Ranchers

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife initiatives strategically implement conservation practices that benefit working lands, the wildlife that live on these lands, and the surrounding local communities. One way NRCS ensures its efforts are making a meaningful and lasting conservation difference is through the multi-agency Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) and its wildlife Conservation Insight series. In January, CEAP published “LPCI Practices Benefit Lesser Prairie-Chickens and Ranchers,” which highlights the win-win conservation solutions implemented by the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI) and its partners.

This report summarizes the findings of five recent studies that assessed conservation practices implemented through LPCI, including removal of encroaching woodland species on rangeland, using prescribed fire, and implementing grazing systems. The studies demonstrate that these practices benefit both lesser prairie-chickens and producers implementing the practices.

Click on the image above to download the report.

The findings are summarized below and the full report is available here.

  • Conservation practices applied through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) are beneficial to lesser prairie-chickens (LPC), the land, and livestock in the Great Plains.
  • Even low levels of woodland encroachment into grasslands have negative consequences for LPC. Woody plant removal (mechanical, chemical, or fire) can improve habitat quality for LPC and other wildlife, and it can benefit livestock by improving forage and soil water availability.
  • Ranchers using adaptive grazing management with combinations of decreased stocking densities, larger pastures, longer grazing periods, and targeted forage utilization can balance economic and conservation concerns.
  • Managing livestock grazing on areas recovering from prescribed burns (known as “patch-burn” grazing) creates the diverse habitat structure and composition needed to support LPCs through different life stages and provides a more sustainable fuels management strategy than fire-only treatments.
  • Targeted application of prescribed practices for LPCs provides the greatest initial conservation benefits and improves the likelihood of success in long-term conservation planning. Land managers who focus on woody plant removal, grazing management, and patch-burn grazing methods within LPC habitat can improve habitat quality, facilitate the persistence of LPC, and promote LPC movement into unoccupied habitats. Expansion of these practices into unoccupied grasslands improves the potential for LPC to successfully recolonize areas from which it was extirpated.

 > Read Full Report Here >


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video One

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

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

PRESENTER: Brady Allred – University of Montana

Video Two

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

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

PRESENTER: Colin M. Dovichin – Bureau of Land Management

Video Three

PRESENTATION TITLE: Optimizing Productivity Models for Enhanced Rangeland Monitoring

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

PRESENTER: Nathaniel Robinson – University of Montana

Video Four

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

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

PRESENTER: Nick Silverman –University of Montana

Video Five

PRESENTATION TITLE: Large Scale Rangeland Resilience Planning

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

PRESENTER: Dirac Twidwell – University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Video Six

PRESENTATION TITLE: Mapping Cross-scale Transitions in Rangelands

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

PRESENTER: Dan Uden – University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Video Seven

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

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

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

Video Eight

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

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

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

Video Nine

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

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

PRESENTER: Jason Reinhardt – University of Minnesota-Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are these landscapes so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecosystem Services Graphic

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Expert

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

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


Dr. Brady Allred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can reach Brianna Randall at

You can reach Greg Peters at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Ranchers Gather for How-to on Wildlife-Friendly Grasslands

By Quenna Terry, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

When farmers and ranchers take time out of their busy schedules to attend a meeting, you can bet the topic’s compelling. For more than 40 agricultural producers who gathered recently at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the day’s topic was managing rangelands to improve wildlife habitat.

More than 40 farmers and ranchers attended the Landowner Wildlife Workshop at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo: Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS

Jordan Menge, range coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), organized the workshop. His cast of presenters drew from the many agencies and organizations that share the goal of conserving native wildlife and rural agriculture, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Quail and Pheasants Forever, Blackwater Valley Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Many of those organizations offer assistance to ranchers to carry out habitat conservation, and the presenters showed how the available programs help ranchers manage range to benefit both wildlife and livestock.

Dr. Blake Grisham from Texas Tech University opened the workshop by sharing the life history and management of the lesser prairie chicken, drawing from research from the panhandle region. Lesser prairie-chicken populations need large tracts of high-quality prairie to survive and reproduce. Biologists consider the lesser prairie-chicken to be an “umbrella species” for habitat conservation because when habitat is optimal for this bird, they benefit countless other members of the Southern Great Plains.

Grisham explained that research still hasn’t fully determined all of the factors contributing to lesser prairie-chicken population declines, but that studies show that habitat fragmentation plays a key role. The additional of vertical structures to the prairie landscape—both in the form of tree encroachment and built structures—adds to that fragmentation. Grisham noted that research will continue to inform our understanding of the most effective management practices for lesser prairie-chicken habitat.  He credited NRCS and its LPCI partnership for supporting his research.

Prescribed fire is an important management tool for improving grasslands for bird and herd. Photo shoes recently burned grasslands at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Quenna Terry, USA-NRCS

NRCS Range Management Specialist Stan Bradbury then shifted the conversation to the practice of prescribed grazing. He emphasized the importance of understanding plant growth, and discussed ways to provide nesting cover for prairie-chickens and other ground-nesting birds through grazing deferment.

Bradbury described how range managers can influence grassland habitat through their choice of where to locate water development, salt and minerals, and fences. Careful planning can help change the composition of plant communities and promote better grazing distribution and utilization.

Bradbury noted how grazing plans are tailored to the particular needs and characteristics of each ranch. “There isn’t a standard grazing system that works for everyone,” Bradbury said. He stressed that careful planning and preparation for drought is an essential part of grazing operations. “Drought plans need to be developed when it’s raining straight down.”

Jordan Menge described ways to improve quail habitat, stressing that, like prairie-chickens, both bobwhite and scaled quail do better in native grasses rather than monocultures. Richard Baker from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out the day with an introduction to prescribed burning as an effective tool for improving grassland health.

Jordan Menge, range coordinator for the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, organized the Landowner Wildlife Workshop and presented on improving quail habitat. Photo: Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS

To accomplish grassland habitat improvements, landowners can take part in a variety of voluntary programs that offer technical and financial assistance. Since the array of programs can be confusing, representatives from each of the assistance agencies described the particular niche of their programs.

NRCS District Conservationist Angel Garcia described NRCS programs, like the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which landowners can take part in to carry out prescribed grazing, drought planning, prescribed fire, woody plant removal, and other practices beneficial to wildlife habitat. For landowners within the active range of the lesser prairie-chicken, additional NRCS funds are available through LPCI.

Ryan Jones from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) discussed programs available through his organization, and Farm Service Agency Executive Director Mark Tucker shared information on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE).  Don Call of Texas Parks and Wildlife described the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

Farmer and rancher Jerry Don Glover, past chairman of the state FSA committee, attended the program.  Glover commented this was one of the best wildlife programs he had been to in a while, stating, “I came to the program because I’ve always been interested in how we can increase wildlife on our land, particularly for pheasant and quail.”

For more information about conservation assistance programs for improving wildlife habitat, contact your local NRCS office at the USDA Service center in your county.

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

New Kansas Conservation Easement Protects Lesser Prairie-chickens

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has finalized permanent conservation agreements with three private landowners to conserve 3,682 acres of high-quality lesser prairie-chicken habitat in northwestern Kansas.

“These are the first easements obtained by WAFWA in the shortgrass ecoregion as called for by the Lesser Prairie-chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan,” said Brad Odle, WAFWA’s regional biologist, who worked closely with the landowners to secure the easement.

“We applaud these visionary landowners who are protecting and conserving the landscape as a working ranch that will be enjoyed by future generations. It offers habitat for a whole host of wildlife species, including the lesser prairie-chicken. This is another positive step toward establishing a stronghold for lesser prairie-chicken in this area.”

A stronghold is defined in the range-wide plan as a block of fairly contiguous grassland consisting of at least 25,000 acres that contains at least six active lek sites (mating display grounds). There must also be assurances that all the properties contributing to a stronghold will be protected from future development and managed in a way that is beneficial to lesser prairie-chickens into the future.

The newly conserved grasslands are in close proximity to the 17,290-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (Photo: TNC).

The complex of newly conserved properties is located near the Smoky Valley Ranch, which is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The 17,290-acre ranch is identified in the range-wide plan as a potential focal point around which a stronghold could be established.

With additional easements like the ones just finalized, the Smoky Valley Ranch and nearby permanently conserved properties could become a stronghold for the species.

The permanent conservation easements on the private properties were purchased by WAFWA and will be held and monitored by The Nature Conservancy. The easements restrict future development and activities that would be detrimental to the bird’s habitat. All other property rights associated with the land will be retained by the private landowner.

WAFWA, a key partner within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), has also established an endowment that will provide the landowners with sufficient annual payments to implement a lesser prairie-chicken conservation plan in perpetuity. The primary conservation practice that will be implemented is prescribed grazing, which will be used to maintain sufficient vegetative structure for every phase of the lesser prairie-chicken life cycle. This transaction not only permanently protects key prairie habitat, but also ensures that the properties will remain a working ranch.

“There’s probably no better approach to long-term conservation than a mutually beneficial partnership,” said Matt Bain, Western Kansas Conservation Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s been an honor for the us to be a part of this and help these landowners achieve their long-term vision for their ranch.”

The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA; the state wildlife agencies of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and many non-government conservation organizations. It was developed to conserve lesser prairie-chicken populations by providing another voluntary conservation program for landowner and industry cooperation and improving coordination between state and federal conservation agencies.

Funding for WAFWA’s conservation efforts comes from voluntary mitigation payments by industry partners that are enrolled in the range-wide plan. The plan provides certainty to participants that they will be able to continue operations without interruption.

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

Fire + Grazing Reduces Wildfire Fuels, Helps Prairie-Chickens, New Research Shows

In 2017, massive wildfires roared over the southern Great Plains, scorching more than 750,000 acres in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Though wildfires are a natural part of life on the Great Plains, more than a century of fire suppression has set the stage for catastrophic wildfires that have caused unprecedented losses to human life, property, livestock, and wildlife in recent years. How can we effectively reduce wildfire risk? New research shows that by pairing prescribed fire with grazing, range managers significantly reduce wildfire fuels.

The fire-grazing treatment—known as pyric herbivory, or, more commonly, patch-burning—also produces the mosaic of diverse grassland habitat that’s just right for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife.

Read the new research report

In the spring of 2016, a wildfire scorched more than 400,000 acres in Kansas alone, making it the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Until 2017, that is. A massive wildfire in March burned 650,000 acres in Kansas. (photo: Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News via AP)

On the Great Plains, wildfires are three times more frequent and four times bigger than they were thirty years ago. Some of the biggest increases in both size and frequency have occurred in the southern Great Plains. That’s an immense problem for both people and wildlife.

Led by Dr. Dwayne Elmore of Oklahoma State University, the research team studied the effects of management that used prescribed fire alone (no grazing) versus management that used a combination of fire and grazing known as pyric herbivory, or patch-burn grazing.

What is patch-burning?

Patch-burning mimics the natural duo of forces—fire and grazing—that together shaped prairie-habitat for thousands of years. Ignited by lightning and by native tribes, fire killed encroaching woody plants and prompted the vigorous re-sprouting and germination of native prairie vegetation. This succulent new growth, high in protein-rich forbs, attracted herds of large herbivores, which intensively grazed the recently burned area. The resulting habitat was a mosaic of newly burned areas scattered among grassland patches of varied ages since burning.

Ranchers mimic this process by burning portions of a pasture each year. Livestock are naturally drawn to focus grazing on the tender new growth.

This dynamic tag-team of patchy fire and grazing yields far-reaching benefits to the land—improved soil health and nutrient cycling, increased native plant and wildlife diversity, reduced invasive plants, reduced fuels for wildfire, increased drought resilience, and increased carbon sequestration.

Cattle on the Hashknife Ranch in Kansas graze a section of pasture burned just a few days earlier.

These changes, in turn, yield greater production of higher quality forage for livestock. Previous studies have already shown that patch burning increases overall biodiversity, and that diverse vegetation within a pasture produces greater stability in annual weight gain for cattle.

Why is patch-burning good for prairie-chickens? They need the kind of structurally diverse grassland habitat that patchy fire followed by grazing produces. Lesser prairie-chickens use areas with low-growing vegetation for lekking, tall and dense vegetation for nesting cover, and moderate height vegetation with lots of protein-packed invertebrates (which are known to increase in diversity and abundance following fire) for brooding rearing.

To both benefit prairie-chickens and reduce fire danger, management practices must promote structural diversity and reduce fire behavior characteristics—namely flame length and rate of spread.

What the research found

Patch-burn grazing (pyric herbivory) creates a mosaic of grassland habitat of various ages, density, height, and biodiversity–great for cattle and for lesser prairie-chickens.

The research team’s study shows that prescribed fire alone has limited utility in reducing fuel build-up, since the plant biomass quickly rebuilds in the absence of grazing. On its own, prescribed fire would need to be performed annually to keep the fuel load down. That fire frequency would reduce biodiversity, creating a uniform grassland landscape that lacks the kind of structural and species diversity that lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife need.

The team found that patch-burn grazing, however, significantly reduced flame lengths and rates of fire spread for an extended period of time. Moreover, subtle changes in weather from day to night—like reduced wind speed and increased fuel moisture—created more significant reductions in flame heights in patch-burned treatments.

The study showed that sites treated with a combination of fire and grazing achieved greater fuels reduction than fire-only sites. Moreover, sites treated with both fire and grazing created the vegetative structure and species mix that best suit prairie-chickens.

Male lesser prairie-chicken performs his mating display on a lek burned three days earlier on the Hashknife Ranch in Kansas, where rancher Ed Koger has practiced patch-burn grazing for many years.

The take-home for management? Don’t defer grazing on burned areas. As the study puts it, “We add to the evidence that deferment of grazing after fire is not warranted, at least in highly productive rangelands, such as those found in the southern Great Plains.”

“Given the reductions in rates of fire spread, we suggest pyric herbivory [patch-burning] could, if implemented at a landscape scale, result in lower area burned by wildfires in the southern Great Plains.”

That’s mighty welcome news in a fire-prone landscape.

Research and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped fund this research. That’s because research studies like this one help ensure that we’re encouraging the right actions in the right places to benefit prairie-chickens. That way, we can strategically direct funds to the places and practices that will yield the greatest conservation return on investment.

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