Upland Management

Prairie Meadowlark 512_219


History of Upland Management


 Historically, vast herds of bison ranged throughout north-central Montana. The mixed-grass prairie evolved and depended on these native grazers for its diversity and productivity.  As bison were eradicated, cattle were brought in to graze on the large, expansive grasslands.  


Fencing 250_135Year-round grazing and free ranging cattle, horses, and sheep was a common practice before the refuge was established. This type of practice led to overgrazing and left little growth of native grasses and forbs.  After the refuge was established and the boundary fenced, grazing on the refuge was controlled and managed through the use of permits, until it was gradually phased out between 1973 and 1977. The plan at that time was to rest native prairie areas on the refuge indefinitley, and then to resume grazing on a periodic basis as needed.  

Upland Management


 While rest is needed on a prairie, a constant state of rest is not healthy either.  Resource management of prairie calls for a host of disturbance techniques such as grazing, fire, haying, and mowing.  Prairie is kept alive through periodic disturbance.  Disturbance keeps shrubs and trees at bay, old growth is eliminated allowing for healthy stands of native grasses and forbs, and native plants are stimulated to grow.  

Prescribed Fire 200_150Grazing and fire have always been a natural part of the prairie ecosystem.  Native Americans used fire in the spring so that young tender grasses would grow and attract grazers such as bison, antelope, and elk.  Lightning would cause fires, especially in the dry portions of summer.  Large herds of bison roamed the prairies, grazing down large areas and traveling on to greener grasses elsewhere.  Today grazing and burning of native prairie still occurs, but under a more controlled environment.  Fires are conducted as prescribed burns, with a written plan and trained personnel to implement the burn and contain the fire to a specific unit. Grazing by domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats is also planned and implemented.  Native prairie needing grazing disturbance are identified and grazing units are set up to contain grazers for a determined period of time, based on management objectives, such as to promote the diversity of native species, control invasive plants, and reduce vegetative litter.

Haying 150_150
Mowing and haying are additional management tools.  The benefits to mowing are it decreases plant height of undesireable and invasive plants and forces them to utilize their energy reserves, thus weakening them. Native species typically take longer to establish than a more weedy, non-native, invasive species. During the first few growing years of a newly planted prairie, mowing gives the slower native growers a chance to out-compete the more dominant pioneer species.  Mowing also removes seed heads from undesirable weeds and non-native species before they have time to mature.  

When fire or grazing are not a management option, haying is the next best choice, as it helps to remove accumulated litter. Haying can be used with native stands of prairie vegetation, but it is more commonly used in plantings of Dense Nesting Cover (DNC).

Dense nesting cover is a type of seed mix made up of cool season grasses (typically non-native tame grasses), legumes (typically alfalfa), and forbs. It was developed by wildlife researcher in North Dakota as an affordable alternative to restore former cropland to grassland nesting habitat, primarily for ducks. Stands of DNC fields closely mimic the taller mixed-grass prairie of the Dakotas, and not so much the short, mixed-grass prairie of our region. Although widely used on Service lands to restore cropland areas, DNC is a temporary fix and not a replacement for the biological diversity and aesthetic values of true native prairie areas.

While DNC does produce good success rates of nesting, it tends to benefit those species that prefer tall, thick nesting cover, such as mallards, and is not a fully native mixed-grass planting which provides habitat for a diversity of bird species and other wildlife. To keep DNC plantings beneficial to upland nesting birds, haying is needed every 5-7 years otherwise the cool season tame grasses, crowd out the legumes, and plant diversity is eventually reduced. DNC has a life span of about 15 years, after which it needs to be replanted, preferably to native species if funding is available. 

Dense nesting cover does have its benefits:
• easier to establish than the slower growing native prairie species
• seeds are less expensive to purchase than native prairie seeds
• relatively faster means to protect cultivated land from further erosion
• provides nesting habitat for some species of upland nesting birds
• good alternative to habitat protection until adequate funding is available to purchase a mix of native plant species 

As you can see, upland management utilizes many tools, and each has its own rules of use. Managers know that each of these upland management tools has different uses, strategies, and outcomes, and in combination they can allow for healthy expanses of prairie vegetation and wildlife.