The lack of fire on the Great Plains has permitted indigenous and foreign woody plants to encroach on prairie grasslands. These invasives dominate ecosystems by disrupting natural vegetation, changing watersheds and disturbing native wildlife, like the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. A suite of practices under the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is assisting range managers with technical assistance and funding to remove or control those invasives while positively impacting the bird’s habitat.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
Something has happened across America’s Great Plains region since the arrival of European settlers in the middle 1800s that’s allowing the landscape to change. Before the arrival of the Europeans, range fires and bison were the groundskeepers of the Great Plains. Fire destroyed weeds and instantly returned carbon and nitrogen to the ground where it nourished the roots of the grasses. Fire did another very important thing.
“One thing it did in particular was to keep invasive species, like the eastern red cedar, secluded to rocky ridges — places where the fire didn’t run through on a regular basis. As fire diminishes, we see more and more trees encroach.”
You’re hearing Professor Christian Hagen, who studies a bird indigenous to parts of the Great Plains, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. This bird, a native of the Plains has seriously declined in population — so much so, it was listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014. The bird is very particular about its habitat, requiring different heights of grasses for mating, for nesting and for brooding. As a creature of the Plains, this bird is used to seeing a flat landscape. When it sees tall things, it gets nervous.
“Tall structures, like an eastern red cedar or an abandoned building… we see prairie-chickens avoid these areas. They connect those things with predators. We don’t understand the mechanism perfectly, but they view those tall structures as places for things that want to eat them.”
And the parts of the High Plains where there are populations of this bird, the flat, mostly shortgrass prairie, is being encroached upon by the eastern red cedar. Chickens are spooked by the trees because of their vertical nature. Ranchers detest the trees for shading out grass forage across their pastures. And the eastern red cedar encroachment amounts to an epidemic across much of the plains states. Loren Sizelove of Laverne Oklahoma has ranched for more than 35 years. More recently he became the county extension agent in Beaver County, where eastern red cedar is encroaching.
“You don’t have to go very far east of Beaver County. The cedars get extremely thick, and it not only destroys chicken habitat; I think it destroys the grassland the way it was intended. Also, more locally here, is the tamarisk or salt cedar. That was a plant that was brought in, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, that has got away. And now, areas that used to be open, bottomland grass is no longer that way.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is promoting its Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, which amounts to a suite of range management and ag production practices designed to repair and bolster habitat for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. One component of the initiative is providing cost-share assistance to ranchers and farmers to burn, cut and spray those encroaching woody plants.
“Throughout the range of the chicken and in the southern part of the range, this would apply to mesquite. Throughout Oklahoma and into Kansas, this would be the eastern red cedar.” This is John Ungerer. He’s coordinator of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative for the NRCS. “Removal of these species will open up the grassland to provide the habitat that the bird needs while also assisting that producer with providing more production from their grassland. And also, it’s going to improve water infiltration in those areas.”
Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Original broadcast: February 2015