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State of the Birds Report

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Grasslands


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                   At a Glance

• Grasslands cover 358 million acres of the U.S., 85% of which are privately owned and  serve as important habitat for 29 breeding obligate grassland bird species.

• Livestock production can be compatible with grassland bird management. Managed cattle grazing that creates diverse mosaics of grassland habitat are beneficial to livestock and grassland birds.

• Grasslands provide important wetland buffers that improve water quality and watershed health for human communities.

• As crop prices soared between 2008 and 2011, about 23.7 million acres of grasslands, shrublands, and wetlands were converted to crop production.

• Acquisition and restoration of native grasslands are critical to provide larger habitat patches and movement corridors for bird population sustainability, especially in the face of climate change.

 

Image: Prairie Pothole Region by Jim Ringelman  
I am very proud to be the fourth generation to live on, and manage, my family’s ranch. I shudder to imagine a
grassland ecosystem devoid of the sights and sounds of its unique and melodic bird species.
Jeff Smeenk, Center of the Nation Cattle Company, Butte County, South Dakota.4th generation Rancher and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Region VII Environmental Stewardship Award winner


Grassland Birds on Private Lands

Grasslands (including prairie and pasturelands) in the U.S. are 85% privately owned. These 302 million acres of privately owned grasslands are critical to 29 breeding obligate grassland bird species that have 82% of their distributions on private lands, one of the largest percentages for any habitat. Most grasslands also function as working landscapes for livestock grazing. These working grasslands provide wetland buffers that improve water quality and watershed health, as well as sequester carbon to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation and mitigate climate change.

Grassland birds are dependent on healthy, intact grasslands. Seven obligate species, including Dickcissel, have more than 90% of their breeding distributions on private lands. Wintering grassland birds are similarly dependent on private lands: 22 obligate grassland species average 83% of their winter distributions on private lands.

Some grassland bird species have habitat requirements for short grasses with heavy disturbance; others require undisturbed, thick patches of taller grasses. Ranchers can model cattle grazing to mimic the historic, variable grazing patterns of bison (with which grassland birds evolved), so that some areas are grazed intensely (preferred by Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur) while other areas are lightly grazed or untouched (for Bobolink and Upland Sandpiper). This variable grazing creates diverse grasslands that are also a more beneficial food resource for livestock. Management that both meets the economic bottom line for agriculture and promotes healthy wildlife habitat is essential for sustaining grassland bird populations.

Grassland Bird Distribution 

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With 97% of their distribution on private lands, Eastern Meadowlarks depend on the grassland habitat provided by pastures and farm fields. Six other obligate grassland breeding bird species also have distributions greater than 90% on private lands. Eastern Meadowlark by Joshua Clark, www.momentsinature.com.
 

 

Conservation Successes

Conservation programs are proving that ranchers can sustain a livelihood and sustain grassland birds at the same time. The Wineinger-Davis Ranch has worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to establish a conservation easement on 14,000 acres of shortgrass prairie. The easement allows the family to continue raising livestock for future generations, while managing their grasslands for Mountain Plover, Ferruginous Hawk, Lark Bunting, and Western Meadowlark. The ranch owner is thrilled with the easement, and now several neighboring ranches have entered into similar agreements, conserving large grassland blocks of tens of thousands of acres. This kind of contagious conservation is growing among many landowners.

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Bobolink by Jason Crott

In America's Corn Belt, the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program is restoring grassland habitat for breeding birds. Henslow’s Sparrow populations, which have declined more than 95% since the mid-1960s, have rebounded in some areas through CRP. In Illinois, the regional Henslow’s Sparrow population has significantly increased; spring bird counts for the species are now about 25 times greater than 30 years ago, prior to CRP. The increase strongly coincides with CRP lands; counties with the highest percentage of CRP acreage also have the highest Henslow’s Sparrow population gains.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism uses State Wildlife Grants to provide cost-sharing assistance to private landowners for restoring native grasslands for Lesser Prairie-Chickens. As of December 2012, Kansas' State Wildlife Grant Private Landowner Program has partnered with 21 landowners to restore 11,155 acres of Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat. CRP lands seeded with forbs and legumes are also helping Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations to hold
steady in western Kansas.

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Upland Sandpiper by Barb D'Arpino,
www.naturethroughmyeyes.com
 
Conservation Challenges

Altogether, grassland bird species are experiencing rapid population declines. The McCown’s Longspur population—with 73% of its distribution on private lands—has declined an estimated 92% over the last 45 years.

Habitat loss is a driver of these declines. Increasing crop prices have increased pressure to put land into production. According to an Environmental Working Group study ("Plowed Under," 2012), about 23 million acres of grasslands, shrublands, and wetlands were converted to crop production between 2008 and 2011 (including 8.4 million acres converted for corn and 5.6 million acres converted for soybeans). Grasslands enrolled in CRP have dropped from over 30 million acres in 2007 to just over 20 million acres today. Energy development and residential development pose additional threats to grasslands.

Fear of regulation often deters landowners from participating in conservation programs that address these threats. Many landowners rely on their lands to make a living, and they are sensitive to state or federal regulations on land management.

However, conservationists and landowners can work together on proactive, voluntary efforts that conserve private grasslands and preclude the need for regulations to protect declining species. Conservation programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as CRP, compensate a landowner for restoring grasslands and reserving them from agricultural production. Cost-share programs defray a landowner’s expenses for enhancing grassland habitat. Easement programs are another way to protect grasslands from being plowed up or developed.

Making conservation-friendly technical assistance on land management readily available to private landowners is key to sustaining grassland bird populations,
as well as fostering a community conservation ethic. Given the compatibility of grasslands birds and sustainable agricultural production, maintaining healthy communities for birds, farms, and ranches is a real and achievable conservation goal.

 

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