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Habitat Management

Group of fire technicians discussing burn plan. Photo by USFWS

Grasslands are made from frequent droughts and harsh winters. They are renewed by fire, whether started by lightning or man. Millions of bison can trample the ground and fill their bellies and still the grass comes back.  Today, we try to mimic these epic forces on a much smaller scale to maintain the health and diversity of grasslands.

  • Prescribed Burning

    Smoke plume from a prescribed burn, Waubay WMD. Photo by USFWS

    Fire is a natural event in grasslands.  Most would have occurred from lightning strikes though man has also been implicated in setting grass aflame - primarily to attract grazing animals. Though the after effects of a fire look devastating, fires can rejuvenate grasslands by getting rid of old vegetation and adding a quick burst of nutrients to the soil.  Today we use fire under carefully controlled conditions to improve the health and diversity of lands we manage. 

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  • Grazing

    Cattle grazing in tall grass. Photo by USFWS

    In the past bison roamed the prairies in massive herds, eating and trampling grass and adding nutrients as they went.  Today we use other grazers, primarily cattle, to manage our grasslands.  When used properly, grazing is a useful tool for controlling exotics, reducing dead plant material, and increasing nutrient cycling to improve a stand of grass.  Since we don't own our own livestock, special use permits are used with private landowners for a set time period and grazing rate.  Landowners benefit by resting some of their pastures and we get improved nesting cover and habitat for wildlife.

  • Haying

    Large area of grass mowed for hay. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    Haying is another tool that can be used to temporarily defoliate (remove vegetation) grasslands.  By removing the current years' growth, less dead material builds up allowing new plants easier access to sunlight and precipitation.  Haying is done by private landowners with a special use permit.  Landowners keep the hay for their operations and wildlife benefit with improved nesting cover the following year.

  • Grassland Restoration

    White pickup truck almost hidden by growth of big bluestem at a restored site. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    Some of the grasslands we manage are native prairie - they have never been plowed up and retain many native species.  Other grasslands may have been plowed up and planted to crops or tame grasses for pasture or hay.  These grasslands may have only one or two species of grass, few forbs, and may be infested by Canada thistle or other weeds.  These areas are slated for restoration using native grass and flower species.  The easiest way to accomplish this is to crop it for a few years to get a clean seed bed.  Ten to twenty species are then planted and nurtured for the next few years.  Though this is a far cry from native prairie, these areas do provide more diversity and structure for wildlife habitat.

  • Rest

    Native prairie with little bluestem and leadplant. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    Although grasslands benefit from some type of management that removes the vegetation, doing it too much or too often is not a good thing.  For this reason managers often use rest as a management tool.  But as in all things, too much rest can also be detrimental to grassland habitats.  Rest allows dead  vegetation to build up on the soil effectively shading and cooling it. This will smother some native plants as well as make conditions better for non-native invasive species like smooth brome or Kentucky bluegrass.

  • Weeds and Invasive Species

    Leafy spurge plant. Photo by USFWS

    Invasive species are plants that have been introduced on purpose or accidentally. They often have no natural predators or controls in their new habitat. This allows them to out compete native species, often resulting in a monoculture or greatly reducing the diversity of a site.  Weeds can be treated chemically, mechanically, or with biological controls.  Treatment will depend on the species, the size of the infestation, and whether it is a native or non-native grassland.

  • Trees

    Cutting a tree down on the entrance road, Waubay NWR. Photo USFWS

    Trees do not occur naturally in prairie except around lakes or in coulees that are generally cooler, wetter, and protected from fire.  When pioneers first  crossed the Great Plains, few cared to stay as there was little to use for fuel or building materials.  But the Timber Culture Act (1873) offered settlers additional land if they planted trees.  Trees and cultivation fragmented the open expanses of prairie changing the habitat for wildlife.  When possible we remove trees to provide habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife that evolved with and survive better in treeless habitats.

Last Updated: Apr 16, 2013
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