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Grassland Habitats

Grasslands
 

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The North Dakota Game and Fish Department can cost-share on establishment, renovation and management of grassland habitats as well as pay a rental to protect these habitats. Access for walk-in hunting is required on most cost-share agreements. The PLOTS programs for cost-share include Habitat PLOTS, Working Lands, and the CRP Access programs.

Grassland Habitat Introduction

Native prairies provide many wildlife species with a portion or all of their life requirements, including nesting, brood rearing, roosting, escape cover and feeding areas. North Dakota once was a state of endless acres of native prairie. However, today these large blocks of contiguous native grasslands are fragmented by trees, roads, ex-urbanization (i.e., 40-acre ranchettes) and agricultural fields. This fragmentation has resulted in the decline of many bird and mammal species that depend on large blocks of grassland. Fragmented habitat favors edge generalist species like robins, pheasant and white-tailed deer, while negatively affecting native species that tend to be edge sensitive like native grassland sparrows, sharp-tailed grouse and elk.

Restoration of Grassland Habitat

Grassland habitats can be re-established on lands previously tilled or cropped, by planting a diverse mix of grasses and forbs. It is important to choose a seed mixture suitable to the soils. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service's web soil survey, located at http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/, provides soil data and other information. It is also important to reduce fragmentation of existing grasslands.

  • Native Seeding: Native plant materials are adapted to the local soils and climate and may persist longer than introduced plants. Native species may take longer to establish from seed than introduced species, but generally require less maintenance over time. Consider planting areas that are not profitable to farming such as small, wet or saline areas, along with highly erosive soils, back to native plant species. Plant a diversity of species including grasses and forbs, both warm-season and cool-season, bunchgrasses and sod-forming grasses suitable to the soils. Forbs are an important component of the mix, attracting insects, including native pollinators. Grasses providing good wildlife habitat include big bluestem, switchgrass, sideoats grama, western wheatgrass, green needlegrass and Indian grass. Forbs beneficial for wildlife include maximillian sunflower, prairie coneflower, purple prairieclover, blanketflower and black-eyed susan. Trees should not be planted in grassland habitat as they will fragment the land and hurt species that rely on larger blocks of grassland. Low-growing native shrubs such as leadplant, saltbush or western snowberry can be planted. Existing native riparian areas or woody draws can be enhanced using existing native woody species.
  • Introduced Seeding: Introduced grasses and legumes, planted and managed specifically for wildlife, have the potential to provide good habitat for many wildlife species. Avoid planting grass species that are considered invasive to North Dakota, such as smooth bromegrass, crested wheatgrass and Kentucky bluegrass. These species do not provide adequate winter cover. If possible, create herbaceous blocks of at least 40 acres to reduce predator concerns, reduce fragmentation, or tie existing grassland habitats together. Introduced plantings should include a mixture of grasses and legumes to provide at least 15 inches of tall standing cover in the fall. A common introduced mixture, dense nesting cover, consists of tall wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass, alfalfa and sweetclover.

Managing Grassland Habitat

Grasslands, whether native (a.k.a., rangeland, native prairie) or introduced, require management to invigorate and maintain desirable species in an optimum condition. Native grasslands evolved with disturbances such as grazing by native herbivores (bison, pronghorn, elk) and periodic fire. These frequent disturbances maintained the natural diversity of warm and cool-season grasses and forbs. Elimination of fire and changes to grazing frequency following European settlement, drastically altered the natural disturbance regime. This, coupled with introduction and invasion of nonnative species such as Kentucky bluegrass, smooth bromegrass, crested wheatgrass, annual bromegrasses, Russian olive and the spread of some native woody species like Rocky Mountain juniper, has, in some cases, dramatically altered the composition and health of native grassland habitats.

Left idle, excessive plant litter accumulates on native grassland, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching plant crowns near the soil surface. This shading shifts the competitive advantage to shade tolerant invasives such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth bromegrass. Unchecked, this shift in plant species composition can further accelerate the invasion of Kentucky bluegrass, smooth bromegrass, crested wheatgras and annual bromegrasses, and enhance the spread of some native woody species. Ultimately, plant and wildlife species diversity is greatly reduced. The following management practices can help maintain grass and forb diversity.

  • Prescribed Grazing: Grazing systems should be designed to change season of use for each pasture from year-to-year. This will improve plant vigor and provide undisturbed nesting cover in a portion of the grazing unit. Grazing systems should allow for adequate recovery time (45-65 days for native grassland, 25-35 days for introduced grassland) between grazing events to improve plant vigor and provide for residual cover for the nesting season and winter cover for resident wildlife species. Grazing systems should provide a diverse grass and forb community rich in insect populations to provide a protein source for chicks and fledglings. The flexibility afforded by multiple pastures within a grazing system enhances the manager’s ability to control the amount of time any one pasture is grazed or rested. The ability to manage the time factor increases as the number of pastures within the rotation increases, permitting the manager to better meet habitat objectives.
  • Prescribed Burning: Burning can help reduce unwanted woody vegetation and invasive plant species. Prescribed burning is most effective on native grasses. Burning reduces plant litter, stimulating new plant growth. Burning must be timed to negatively impact the targeted invasive species. For cool-season invasive species such as smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass, burning must be done in early spring after plants have greened-up and prior to native species green-up. Burning should be done on a 3-5 year rotation, however, annual burning may be needed in the beginning for native grassland heavily invaded by smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass.
  • Mowing or Haying: Typically, mowing or haying is used on introduced grass stands. Mowing or haying should be delayed until after the primary nesting season (April 15 through August 1). It should be done on a rotational basis, mowing or haying an area once every 3-5 years. Haying should be done with a sickle bar mower and rake in order to remove plant litter. Haying equipment such as swathers or conditioners do not remove plant litter build-up. Haying should be done from the center outward or toward undisturbed habitat. (See Figures 1 and 2.)
  • Mowing
  • Mowing
  • Light Disking or Harrowing: Disking or harrowing can be done on introduced grass stands after the primary nesting season (April 15 through August 1) to help break down plant litter build-up and stimulate new plant growth. A minimum of 30 percent residue should remain on the soil surface for erosion protection.
  • Preserve native prairie. It is not recommended to convert native prairie to wildlife food plots, introduced grass species or trees. Maintain grasslands free of or with little woody vegetation.
  • Preserve contiguous tracts of grassland. Control tall woody vegetation, including single trees that act as raptor perches or nest sites.