Publication Alert: Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness


Prescribed fire is one of the best tools for maintaining native grasslands free from encroaching woody species. In the Loess Canyons, a unique, community-led partnership has used prescribed fire to restore grasslands experiencing woody species encroachment, with benefits to grassland-dependent birds. Photo: Dillon Fogarty.


In the Loess Canyons of Nebraska, landowners have used prescribed burning for nearly two decades to address the greatest threat to their working grasslands – woody encroachment. New research from the University of Nebraska, funded by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, demonstrates how these fire treatments have not only restored productivity on privately owned rangelands but also increased the number of grassland bird species found across most of this ecoregion.

Science documenting increases in bird populations or diversity of species in specific areas due to conservation efforts is extraordinarily rare. Over 700 million birds have been lost from grasslands and 74 percent of grassland bird species are in decline in the Great Plains – the highest of any region in North America. Addressing large-scale threats, like woody encroachment, and building from measurable outcomes of success, like increasing numbers of bird species on landscapes, is a top priority to address the alarming trend of grassland bird declines.

This new research–funded by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and led by Caleb Roberts, now a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit–shows this decline does not have to be permanent and grasslands and species richness can be recovered through concerted, landscape-scale action.

Roberts and his coauthors used 14 years of fire treatment data, six years of grassland bird monitoring data, and remotely sensed tree cover data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) across more than 330,000 acres of privately owned grasslands to observe how grassland-dependent birds responded to landscapes restored by prescribed burning.

The team found that the number of grassland bird species increased across 65 percent (~222,000 acres) of the Loess Canyons, and woody plant cover decreased up to 55 percent across 25 percent of all fire-treated areas.

This is the first study showing how strategic, long-term human management at the ecoregion scale can reverse the impacts that woody species have on grasslands and on the richness of bird species that depend on intact, resilient, and tree-free grasslands. Combined with other findings from scientific research in the Loess Canyons, this work will continue to inform future conservation projects addressing the woody encroachment threat.

Grassland bird conservation is a key priority of a new Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grassland Biome developed by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW). When coupled with a new science guide that provides the first-ever framework for addressing woody encroachment at large scales, conservationists and land managers have the tools they need to defend core grassland habitats and protect wildlife strongholds being threatened by woody encroachment in the Great Plains.

Funding for this study was provided by Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, with additional support from the National Science Foundation, University of Nebraska, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the USDA-NRCS and Working Lands for Wildlife.


Title: Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness on private lands

Abstract: Of all terrestrial biomes, grasslands are losing the most biodiversity the most rapidly, so there is a critical need to document and learn from large-scale restoration successes. In the Loess Canyons ecoregion of the Great Plains, USA, an association of private ranchers and natural resource agencies has led a multi-decadal, ecoregion-scale initiative to combat the continued loss of grasslands to woody plant encroachment by restoring large-scale fire regimes.

Here, we use 14 years of fire treatment history with 6 years of grassland bird monitoring and remotely sensed tree cover data across 136,767 hectares of privately-owned grassland to quantify outcomes of large-scale grassland restoration efforts. Grassland bird richness increased across 65% (90,032 ha) of the Loess Canyons, and woody plant cover decreased up to 55% across 25% (7,408 ha) of all fire-treated areas.

This was accomplished with extreme fire treatments that killed mature trees, were large (mean annual area burned was 3,100 ha), spatially clustered, and straddled boundaries between invasive woodlands and remaining grasslands—not heavily-infested woodlands. Findings from this study provide the first evidence of human management reversing the impacts of woody encroachment on grassland birds at an ecoregion scale.

Citation: Roberts, C. P., Scholtz, R., Fogarty, D. T., Twidwell, D., & Walker, T. L. (2022). Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness for a private lands’ ecoregion. Ecological Solutions and Evidence, 3, e12119.

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