Division of Conservation Planning
Midwest Region

Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)

Only one-tenth of 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Northern Tallgrass Prairie NWR in 1999 with the goal of one day preserving 77,000 acres of native prairie and buffer lands at widespread locations within the historic range of the northern tallgrass region of Minnesota and northwest Iowa.

The refuge is currently over 5,200 acres in size and includes easement and fee title tracts in Minnesota and Iowa.

The wetland and northern tallgrass prairie habitats within the refuge are important habitats for a large number of migratory birds including songbirds, marsh and wading birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and upland gamebirds.

Approximately 243 species of birds are known to regularly use the refuge at some time during the year, and 152 species use refuge habitats for breeding.

Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge HPA Environmental Impact Statement SummaryPeople collecting native plant seeds

Purpose for Action
Need for Action
Proposed Action
Proposed HPA Goals
Alternatives
Scoping
Affected Environment
Landscape
Fish and Wildlife
Public Use
Environmental Consequences
Land Use
Historic and Cultural Resources
Socio-economic Conditions
Natural Resources
Public Use and Tourism
Implementation of Alternative B (Preferred Alternative)
Literature Cited

Purpose of Action

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has established the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Habitat Preservation Area (HPA) as a means of working with individuals, groups, and governmental entities to permanently preserve remnant tracts of northern tallgrass prairie. The purpose of this action is to preserve, restore, and manage a portion of the remaining critical tallgrass prairie habitat and associated habitats at widespread locations throughout the historic range of the northern tallgrass prairie area of western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa.

The Service has specific trustee responsibilities for migratory birds, endangered species, anadromous fish, certain marine mammals, and lands administered by the Service. The Northern Tallgrass Prairie Habitat Preservation Area is a new way for the Service to cooperatively meet its responsibilities as they relate to wildlife, plants, and natural communities found within the tallgrass prairie landscape.

The Service wishes to work with individuals, groups, and governmental entities to preserve tracts of northern tallgrass prairie. The Service recognizes that most of the remaining prairie is on private land and that a variety of tools must be available to assist those landowners in continued preservation of the prairie. The HPA proposal seeks to preserve tallgrass prairie by providing assistance and options to landowners that are not presently available to them.

The HPA is a non-traditional type of resource preservation effort, one that uses multi levels of involvement, protection, and preservation techniques. Emphasis is on permanent protection of the prairie resources through a variety of means. The first choice is working with private landowners and partnerships to ensure permanent protection. Some landowners may not be interested in commitments to permanent protection but may be willing to manage their prairie remnants in a way that preserves the plants and animals found there. Other landowners may prefer to sell their prairie remnants to ensure permanent protection. However, fee title acquisition of the entire 77,000-acre study area is not anticipated. State, other federal, nonprofit, and landowner cooperation will be a vital part of the protection strategy.

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Need for Action

The Great Plains, once the continent's largest ecosystem, is considered by some the rarest and most fragmented, and to a certain degree functionally extinct. Other natural communities and their associated mammals, birds, insects, fish, and microorganisms are threatened with a similar fate. Many people are realizing that the maintenance of biological diversity is the key to the health and future of the earth's ecological systems. Despite a broad consensus supporting the conservation of biological diversity, native prairie is largely neglected in this effort (Samson and Knopf 1994).

Biological diversity is important for many reasons:

Native prairie is an excellent example of biodiversity with its complex web of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and microscopic organisms. The need for action to preserve native prairie is supported by experience and the following findings:

In 1994, then Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt stated, "We need a new approach: one that encourages us to think ahead and plan for the future; one that encourages us to look at whole ecosystems and not just tiny parcels of land; one that stresses compromise and balance between people and nature . . . " (Klatt and Neal 1996). The new approach of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie HPA proposal seeks to accomplish this.

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Proposed Action

The selected alternative (Alternative B) is to permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements. Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by the Service and Service partners. Service acquisition of easements and fee title interest in lands would be on a voluntary basis from willing sellers.

Through an integrated ecosystem approach, the Service, with its partners, can protect and restore fish and wildlife habitat through holistic management strategies using a wide variety of tools and techniques. The Service will participate in public and private partnerships at many levels, complementing other prairie projects such as those of the Iowa County Conservation Boards, Iowa and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and others.

Estimates place the original northern tallgrass prairie in Minnesota and Iowa at approximately 25 million acres. Today, a common estimate of prairie remaining in the two states is about 300,000 acres (1.2 percent of the original acreage). This proposal seeks to permanently preserve 77,000 acres (0.3 percent of the original acreage).

Successful implementation of this prairie preservation initiative will require the active participation of individual citizens, citizen groups, and governmental entities. It is envisioned that formulation of strategies to preserve remnant prairie would come from a broad base of individuals, groups, and governmental entities.

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Proposed HPA Goals

Goals for the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Habitat Preservation Area in working with individuals, groups, and governmental entities to protect remnants of northern tallgrass prairie and aspen parklands habitats within Iowa and Minnesota include the following:

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Alternatives

Public input during the scoping process helped the Service better define alternatives and resulted in three alternatives being considered in the EIS. These are listed in Table 1 (see the plan). The alternatives and how each met the HPA goals are shown in Table 2 (see the plan).

Scoping

In the January 31, 1996 Federal Register, the Service published the "Notice of Intent" to write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The public was given early opportunity to provide comment and offer possible options for preservation of the northern tallgrass prairie. Part of the scoping process included 10 open houses, February 26 through March 8, 1996, during which stakeholders voiced their concerns, opinions, and ideas. Comments helped the Service decide which options to consider in the EIS.

A total of 75 meetings and more than 45 media contacts by Service personnel during scoping led to other ideas for the preservation, development, and management of tallgrass prairie. More than 2,000 participants stated a variety of issues and interests. The 360 participants at 10 open house meetings identified many of these issues. A stakeholder mailing list including over 1,500 individuals and groups was compiled. Comments used in the writing of the draft EIS fell into in one of seven categories: Economic, Social, Preservation Approach, Biology, Recreation, Land Use, and Administration.

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Affected Environment

A total of 85 counties or portions of counties fall within the project area in the two states, 48 in Minnesota and 37 in Iowa. About 95 percent of these lands are in private ownership. Four major categories of land use—cropland, grassland, wetland, and other—describe most of the region's current use of the land. The majority of the land in the project area is farmland. There are natural woodland communities within or bordering the prairie zone.

Other land uses, although comprising a relatively small percent of the land area, are significant to the landscape. Urban areas to accommodate 1–1.5 million people residing in the HPA require manufacturing, retail services, government, education services, transportation, utilities, and other commercial services. Urban spread into rural areas is resulting in the conversion of additional agricultural lands and prairie and grassland areas.

The project area displays considerable variation in landform, topography, and land use linked by a common history of glaciation, which was the origin of the region's hydrology and topography. Located on the shifting border of prairie and woodland, it contains seven major watersheds: the Red, Minnesota, Crow, Big Sioux, Little Sioux, Des Moines, and Iowa Rivers.

The National Register of Historic Places includes numerous properties within the HPA, most occurring in towns and cities. The properties in rural areas include barns, bridges, segments of the Red River Oxcart trail, mill sites, battle sites, and prehistoric archeological sites such as mounds, villages, camps, and rock art.

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Landscape

The project area landscape varies considerably from north to south. Despite a regional abundance of grassland in the northeastern portion, a number of non-grassland vegetation types (e.g., woodlands, forests, and shrub lands) are found. Approximately 286,000 acres of aspen parkland exist in the project area. Most areas still intact are degraded by succession due to fire exclusion.

The northwestern portion of the HPA includes vegetation that is quite variable and coincides with different moisture regimes. Approximately 48,500 acres of prairie exist in this section.

The Minnesota River prairie portion originally supported mostly plant communities typical of mesic tallgrass prairie, but areas near granite outcroppings supported dry and dry-mesic prairies.

The southern portion of the HPA was generally dominated by vegetation typically of mesic to dry-mesic tallgrass prairie. An estimated 15,000 acres of prairie exist in this area of northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

The northern tallgrass prairie is rich in diversity. The ecosystem is home to over 40 percent of Minnesota's 287 state-listed rare plant and animal species. In The Nature Conservancy planning portfolio assessment to identify targets for natural diversity, 109 natural community types and 27 target species were identified as occurring on inventoried managed areas (Chaplin et al., 1995).

Rare communities such as mesic, wet, and dry prairie types have been identified by the Minnesota County Biological Survey as communities most reduced and most at risk. Calcareous seepage fen is one of the most valued and recognized of the rare plant communities in the project area.

The Iowa and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources maintain official state lists of plants being watched for changes in abundance and distribution and of plants that are endangered or threatened and protected by state law. There are approximately 95 such plant species in the HPA counties of Iowa and approximately 80 such species in the HPA counties of Minnesota.

The project area includes four species of plants and seven species of animals that are federally listed as either endangered or threatened. There are another 22 species of concern to the Service due to incomplete or inconclusive information.

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Fish and Wildlife

The HPA contains habitats of importance to a number of migratory birds including songbirds, marsh and wading birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and upland gamebirds. All prairie waterfowl species are represented. Approximately 243 species of birds regularly use the HPA at some time of the year, with 152 species breeding there.

Partners in Flight program participants have evaluated the status of migratory birds and designated species that are of concern at the state, regional, and national levels. These species are rare, declining, or dependent on vulnerable habitats. Forty-eight occur in the HPA, including 43 that are known or likely to breed there. About 44 percent depend on some type of grassland habitat. Some, including the Greater Prairie-Chicken, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Bobolink, Henslow's Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow, are area-sensitive.

Mammals of the tallgrass prairie include 25 species. Free-roaming bison, along with the Great Plains wolf, swift fox, pronghorn antelope, and grizzly bear are no longer found in Minnesota. Black bear and elk can still be found; however, they no longer occupy their prairie niche. The grey wolf (Canis lupus) has filled the niche vacated by the Great Plains wolf in the Aspen Parklands but on a limited basis. Some woodland species occur within the project area due to woodland habitat types bordering the tallgrass prairie area.

Reptiles, amphibians, and insects play a pivotal role in the prairie ecosystem. Thirty-three species of reptiles and amphibian are found in the Minnesota and Iowa portions of the northern tallgrass prairie. The precise number of insect species that live in, breed in, or visit the tallgrass prairie is unknown but is estimated in the thousands. Their density in a particular place may also be high with 1,850 species, on average, found in one-square meter of Iowa tallgrass prairie (Risser et al., 1981). In the average prairie there are more species of invertebrates than of plants and vertebrate animals combined.

The HPA contains a wide variety of aquatic habitats which are characterized by different fish communities. Fish habitats ranging from prairie potholes to walleye lakes and from warm water streams to large rivers are contained in the HPA. Aquatic invertebrates are a very diverse group found in abundance and are an important source of food for both fish and wildlife.

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Public Use

Many public recreation opportunities are available for resident and non­resident visitors to the tallgrass prairie area of Minnesota and Iowa. Priority wildlife-dependent recreational activities are: fishing, wildlife observation, hunting, wildlife photography, environmental education, and interpretation. In this sense, wildlife-dependent means not only wildlife but their habitats. The estimated number of activity days people participate in these recreational activities each year in the project area is approximately 16 million, with nearly 11 million reported for Minnesota alone. Minnesota and Iowa residents participated in wildlife-dependent recreational activities at rates that were well above the participation rates per capita of most other states in the United States.

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Environmental Consequences

The environmental impacts of the three alternatives considered for preservation of northern tallgrass prairie were analyzed as to how they impact a number of topics. Topics that are discussed include:

Land Use
Historic and Cultural Resources
Socioeconomic Conditions
Natural Resources
Public Use and Tourism

The analysis of environmental consequences of the alternatives considered conditions within the northern tallgrass prairie area of northwestern Iowa and western Minnesota within the next 25 years. There is no reliable way to predict when or where land parcels might be acquired. Therefore, the EIS addresses cumulative effects that may result upon long-term completion of preservation efforts and project development.

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Land Use

Alternative A (No Action): Any changes in land use would be driven by forces not related to this project. Existing land use trends would likely continue.

Alternative B (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by the Service and partners. (Preferred Alternative)

Cropland area could decrease slightly since the potential would exist to convert approximately 7,000 acres from cropland to restored native grassland under this alternative. Some acreage could be from enrolled Conservation Reserve Program acreage, thus lessening the cumulative impact of land use conversions and direct impact from HPA efforts.

The grassland restoration under Alternative B could result in an increase of grasslands in the project area. This conversion would complement other shifts in land use resulting from other agencies' farm conservation initiatives such as the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative and the new Conservation Reserve Program.

Federal, state, and local regulations protecting wetlands would not change if Alternative B is implemented. The existing wetland base is not expected to increase significantly because of the restoration of drained wetlands on native prairie tracts. Protection of wetlands would be a secondary benefit of native prairie preservation. Riparian habitats would be enhanced and provide additional soil conservation and water quality benefits.

Other land uses such as urban development and gravel mining would experience only a slight decrease in expansion potential.

Alternative C (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by partners. Impacts would be slightly less than those discussed under Alternative B. The restoration of 7,000 acres of cropland to native prairie would be less likely to occur in Alternative C than Alternative B, because Service funding would not be available for project implementation. The amount of grasslands would likely increase less under Alternative C than B. Any slight increases in wetlands would likely be similar to Alternative B. Other land use such as urban development and gravel mining would experience only a slight decrease in expansion potential, similar to that experienced under alternative B.

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Historic and Cultural Resources

Alternative A (No Action)

There would likely be a slight decline in historic and cultural resources due to fewer protections existing under private ownership and the current trend toward increases in the types of land use (such as urban development), which can be damaging to these resources.

Alternative B (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by the Service and partners. (Preferred Alternative)

Preservation of up to 77,000 acres through management agreements, partnerships, acquisition of fee title, lease, and easements makes it likely that the Service would also acquire a variety of prehistoric and historic sites and structures. Archeological sites are reported in every county in which HPA acquisition is possible. The Service is bound by the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to consider the impact of federal actions on properties meeting the criteria for the National Register of Historic Places and to protect archaeological sites on federal lands. This would result in a slight increase in protection overall for historic and cultural resources, assuming that there is some federal ownership within the project area.

Alternative C (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by partners.

A slight decrease in historic and cultural resources would likely occur under this alternative due to partners not being bound by the same historic preservation and archeological resources acts that affect the Service.

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Socioeconomic Conditions

Alternative A (No Action)

There would be no change from existing conditions or trends.

Alternative B (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by the Service and partners. (Preferred Alternative)

The HPA is situated over a broad geographic area and would have a relatively minor effect on the economy. The economic impacts associated with HPA development do not differ greatly from those associated with the No Action Alternative (A). Even with growth in the baseline, the HPA project generates more economic activity than without the project for at least 24 years. Based on the information presented in the Economic Analysis and what is known about project specifics at this time, it appears that development of the HPA would not have substantial economic impacts, either positive or negative, in the HPA study area. Alternative B involves input of federal money to implement the project.

The most likely development schedule for the HPA is that a small portion will be developed each year over an extended period. If spread evenly over a 25-year period, about 3,080 acres (1/25 of 77,000 acres) would be preserved each year. The annual impacts of development (i.e., acquisition, restoration, enhancement) would total about $3 million, and about 31 jobs would be sustained by the development activity. In addition, HPA operations and visitor expenditures would result in sustained annual impacts of about $11.2 million and 140 secondary jobs.

Wildlife-dependent uses would increase bringing higher visitation to the area and an increase in the income generated by associated businesses. The completed project was assumed to attract 70,000 day visitors per year (based on visitation rates at similar sites) who would each spend an estimated $25 per visit. These visitor days are in addition to what exists under baseline conditions. Shifts to new business opportunities within local communities would boost local economies and mitigate reductions in agribusiness.

Conversion of small acreages of croplands to buffer natural prairie grasslands would decrease agricultural productivity slightly. Similarly, modifications to grazing and haying systems could reduce forage use and economic return. In the long-term, the additional grassland restored and increased productivity of the grasslands could benefit the cattle industry through increased forage availability.

Alternative C (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by partners.

As stated under Alternative B, due to the large scale of the project area and the relatively small negative and positive impacts, the net result is likely to be a neutral economic impact. This assessment applies to Alternative C as well. However, less federal funding is provided to implement this project under Alternative C.

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Natural Resources

Alternative A (No Action)

If current declines in natural habitats continue, this alternative is likely to result in decreased biological diversity. Associated with this, slight decreases in rare communities and plant and animal species of special federal concern will occur. Waterfowl populations are likely to maintain at existing levels if current habitat availability continues. Other birds and reptiles, amphibians, and insects would likely experience slight decreases in numbers if current trends continue. Mammals populations in general would probably not change under this alternative. Fish populations could experience slight decreases due to continued negative impacts on water quality from sediment rich runoff.

Alternative B (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by the Service and partners. (Preferred Alternative)

Under Alternative B, biological diversity in the project area would increase due to preservation of existing prairie and the implementation of management to improve its quality. Fragmentation of native prairie and other natural resource lands would continue but at reduced rates with the addition of Service acquisitions to current protection efforts of federal, state, and local agencies and private organizations.

Under Alternative B, greater success could be realized in developing contiguous native prairie and riparian corridors, interconnecting and buffering remnant prairie. Addition of buffer areas would increase the amount and quality of grassland habitats, benefiting birds, reptiles, amphibians, and species of special federal concern. Waterfowl and mammals would likely experience slight increases in numbers due to additional habitat availability and improved habitat quality.

Rare plant communities would benefit from protection and management. Restoration and protection of temporary and permanent pothole wetlands and meandering prairie streams would benefit fishery resources by providing essential feeding and reproduction habitats, improving water quality by filtering sediments and pollutants, reducing erosion by vegetation planting on eroded stream banks, and restoring ground water supplies.

Alternative C (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by partners.

The natural resource impacts of Alternative C would be similar to Alternative B but generally at a lower level. Biological diversity, rare plant communities, waterfowl and other birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, mammals, species of special federal concern, and fish would likely experience slight benefits. Plant species of special federal concern could experience population increases. With so little native tallgrass prairie remaining, even slight decreases can be harmful to maintaining the biological diversity and community distribution throughout the HPA. Even slight decreases could reduce the availability of seed sources and wildlife populations.

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Public Use and Tourism

Alternative A (No Action)

A slight increase in wildlife-dependent recreation (such as bird watching and photography) could occur if current trends continue.

Alternative B (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by the Service and partners. (Preferred Alternative)

Under Alternative B, there will be increases in wildlife-dependent recreation. The Service would manage public use and access on up to 77,000 acres of tallgrass prairie habitat through acquisition and partnerships with private conservation organizations and local and state agencies. Compatible wildlife-dependent recreation, such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education, and interpretation, will be available on most HPA lands purchased by the Service. Some additional opportunity would occur on lands of conservation organizations and agencies, and resulting from public education, some could occur where landowners agree to provide public access for wildlife-dependent recreation through negotiations on a case­by­case basis.

Alternative C (Permanently protect and enhance prairie remnants through partnership, incentives, education, and cooperative agreements): Any conservation easements or acquisition of full title would be done by partners.

Under Alternative C, there would likely be slight increases in wildlife-dependent recreation. The lower level of increase of these activities compared to Alternative B is due to less overall acreage, fewer personnel being available to support the activities, and less nationwide publicity of the available opportunities.

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Implementation of Alternative B (Preferred Alternative)

Successful implementation of this prairie preservation initiative will require the active participation of individual citizens, citizen groups, and governmental entities. It is envisioned that formulation of strategies to preserve remnant prairie would come from a broad base of individuals, groups, and governmental entities.

Field administration of the HPA will occur from scattered existing Service field locations with overall Service functions coordinated by staff located at Big Stone NWR at Ortonville, Minnesota, which is near the middle of the 520-mile long HPA project area. Walnut Creek NWR is not located within the Bailey's Ecological Subsection, but because of its ability to assist the HPA with prairie environmental education, research, and restoration, it has been included in the project area. Since final protection of the tallgrass prairie will depend upon private, local, state, tribal, and federal preservation action, in many cases the only Service role will be to provide assistance and coordination as needed, with no actual administrative role for the specific sites preserved.

Any acquisition of lands and rights to lands by the Service would complement prairie preservation being done within this northern region of the tallgrass prairie by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa County Conservation Boards, The Nature Conservancy, and others. Irrespective of the various agency or organization goals, each of their programs are striving to conserve remnants of the native prairie to save a part of the natural and cultural heritage of this once vast prairie area.

It is possible that if the Service does acquire a title interest in select prairie remnants, actual administration of some of the areas will be done by other partners through cooperative agreements or other management arrangements. The partners could include other agencies, groups, institutions, or individuals.

Successful preservation of remnant northern tallgrass prairie will require the highest level of partnering and coordination by the Service with prairie preservation agencies, organizations, and individuals.

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Literature Cited

Chaplin, S. J., W. R. Ostlie, R. E. Schneider, and J. S. Kenney. 1995. Conservation planning within the Great Plains. Trans. No. Amer. Wildl. and Natur. Resour. Conf. 60: current volume.

Klatt, B.J., and L.W. Neal. 1996. Benefits of Biodiversity Management at Landfills. Waste Age 27(6): 71–85.

Knopf, F. L. 1994. Avian assemblages on altered grasslands. Studies in Avian Biology 15: 247–257.

Risser, P.G., E.C. Birney, H.D. Blocker, S.W. May, W.J. Parton, and J.A. Wiens. 1981. The true prairie ecosystem. US/IBP Synthesis Series, Vol. 16. Hutchinson Ross, Stroudsburg, PA. 557.

Samson, F.B. and F.L. Knopf. 1994. Prairie Conservation in North America. BioScience 44: 418–421

Last updated: July 24, 2013
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