Eastern red cedar encroaching on grasslands.
Photo by Mike Carter

Woody Plant Encroachment

While grasslands are among the most heavily converted ecosystems and have the least protection, woody plant encroachment is the biggest ongoing threat within the PLJV region. Woody plants, such as honey mesquite and eastern redcedar, continue to invade large intact grasslands — fragmenting habitat and worsening grassland bird declines.

The amount of woody plant cover at which grassland birds begin to decline can be astonishingly low, often at less than 1% cover.

Woody plants — like juniper and mesquite species — have always been a feature of grasslands and woodland savannas in the plains, but they were kept in check naturally by frequent fires. Without the regular use of fire, areas that were once prairies are quickly becoming shrublands, and even woodlands, which changes the quality of habitat for grassland dependent birds.

Each bird species has very specific habitat preferences. For example, Cassin’s Sparrows, the most frequently detected breeding sparrow in the PLJV region, favor areas with a small amount of native shrub cover, whereas Horned Larks would rather have open ground and short grasses. The encroaching woody plants also provide more perches and, therefore, more opportunities for raptors and other birds of prey to hunt smaller grassland species.

The amount of woody plant cover at which grassland birds begin to decline can be astonishingly low, often at less than 1% cover. Fortunately, grassland birds are resilient and benefit from grassland management. Farm Bill conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), provide large contributions to grassland conservation every year. Removing invasive woody plants and other efforts to control encroachment are also important grassland management strategies.

Tackling a problem as substantial as woody plant encroachment across the central and southern grasslands of the Great Plains involves close collaboration among many partners. PLJV is currently working with a number of large partnerships that are addressing this issue including NRCS Great Plains Grasslands Initiative for Kansas and Nebraska, Working Lands for Wildlife Great Plains Conservation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Southern Plains Grassland Program, Central Grasslands Roadmap, and JV8 Central Grasslands Conservation Initiative.

Learn more about our strategy to control invasive woody plants and how it helps us meet our grassland goals.

Invasive Woody Plant Social Science Review

In 2023, PLJV conducted a literature review on landowner perceptions regarding invasive woody plant management. The goal of this review was to identify the primary motivations, barriers, and needs for conducting management to support future application of social science insights into conservation delivery, communication, and outreach.

Findings from the literature revealed that motivations, barriers and needs of landowners varied greatly depending on the management practice utilized, with most studies (71%) focusing on prescribed burning as a way to eliminate invasive woody plants. The strongest motivations for management were related to the landowner’s purpose for owning the property — ranchers were more likely to manage than those who own land for hunting or other recreational purposes. Standard burn policies in place related to liability were cited as the number one barrier toward effective management. Looking forward, establishing programs that provide peer-to-peer mentorship and offer access to resources such as labor, equipment, and funding was found to be crucial for successfully managing against encroachment.

These results can particularly benefit applied social scientists and conservation delivery practitioners who are developing projects or are already working with landowners regularly on grassland management-related issues. Key recommendations from this report include strategies for forming new partnerships to combat invasive woody plant species, ideas for future communications and outreach with landowners around the topic, and suggested changes to current programs and policies in place.

Roberts, R.M., Shorter, L., Gramza, A. and Hamend, M. (2023). Invasive Woody Plant Social Science Review: A synthesized report of landowner motivations, barriers, and future needs for invasive woody plant management across the Great Plains. Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Lafayette, CO. View the full report >>

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