The lack of fire as a management tool on the Great Plains has permitted indigenous and foreign woody plants to encroach on prairie grasslands, reducing Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat. Through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, NRCS can help producers and range managers remove woody invasive species — through burning, cutting and spraying. We tell one Oklahoma Panhandle rancher’s experience participating in the NRCS initiative.
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.
A couple years ago, while interviewing an ag producer in northwest Oklahoma, this fellow related a story about the time his aunt arrived from California for the holidays. The aunt pointed at a pasture and exclaimed, “Oh! Look at those lovely Christmas trees!” Of course the aunt was witnessing the encroachment onto the prairie of the eastern red cedar — a tree native to the Great Plains, but a species out of balance and out of control, for the lack of fire. Range fires were natural on the plains. When Europeans homesteaded in the middle 19th century, and ever since, mostly, we’ve suppressed fire.
“That regular occurrence of fire rejuvenated the grasses. But 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.”
Christian Hagen is an assistant professor at Oregon State, and he’s the science advisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative. Hagen researches the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.
“Fire is used less and less as a management tool, let alone occurring naturally. As fire diminishes, we see more and more trees encroach.”
Then there’s an exotic like tamarisk, or salt cedar, and the Russian olive. These were introduced as landscaping features and over time they’ve dominated, even bullied ecosystems, by disrupting natural vegetation, changing watersheds and disturbing native wildlife — like the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, which is a fickle bird. It’s native to the plains and wide open spaces. And it hates tall structures.
“They connect those things with predators. Those areas provide great perches for hawks and eagles, species that would just love to make a meal out of a prairie-chicken.”
“The main things that any of these plants change, where the negative impact comes to the environment, is a change in habitat structure.” Terry Bidwell is professor of Natural Resource Ecology & Management, at Oklahoma State University. “Wild animals key in on visual cues. When you get a different structure, it will displace some species and perhaps allow other species to come in.”
Through its Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, NRCS assists ag producers and ranchers by funding projects and providing technical assistance in promoting practices that benefit the chicken. John Ungerer is coordinator of the Initiative. Through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, NRCS can help producers and range managers remove woody invasive species — through burning, cutting and spraying.
“In the southern part of the range, this would apply to mesquite. Throughout Oklahoma and into Kansas, this would be the eastern red cedar.”
Jordan Shearer ranches at Slapout, Oklahoma, and he’s used the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative to help pay for invasives removal. “We’ve had some mesquite trees that we’ve treated and we’re also battling the eastern red cedar.”
Shearer says it’s an invasion of eastern red cedars. “Looking at the pasture, you wouldn’t think there are that many of them, but when you get out there to cut them, there’s a heck of a lot more than you think. Further east of us, in mainland Oklahoma, we’re really facing an epidemic. So, I think, getting ahead of some of these invasive species is a very good part of the program.”
NRCS cost-shares the expense of removing invasives.
“It’s very beneficial because I want to see the wildlife flourish. That’s one of my goals, but it’s hard to get there, financially, sometimes.”
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