Research Says, Adjusting Grazing Practices Can Improve Prairie-Chicken Habitat

When it comes to creating the diverse grassland structure that lesser prairie-chickens need, prescribed burning–and particularly patch-burn grazing–is a go-to, cost-efficient management strategy. But weather conditions in the semi-arid southern Great Plains can stand in the way of implementing prescribed fire plans. That’s why range managers need a variety of conservation practices in their toolbox to create and maintain the mosaic of grassland habitat that lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife species depend on.

A new study by researchers at Kansas State University identifies specific grazing practices—targeted forage utilization goals, decreased stocking density, and larger pastures—that create the varied grassland habitat structure that lesser prairie-chickens need. The latest Science to Solutions report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative describes the research and what it means for on-the-ground management strategies.

Read the Science to Solutions report, “Grazing Practices Foster Diverse Grassland Habitat.”

What the Study Found

Past research has shown that intensive grazing management (standardized forage utilization goals, smaller pastures, and short-duration grazing periods) can harm grassland ecosystem function, and that producers can increase grassland structural diversity by properly adjusting forage utilization goals, decreasing stocking density, and increasing pasture pasture size.

The recently released study, led by John Kraft, is the first to assess whether these structural diversity-producing grazing strategies have a significant effect on lesser prairie-chicken habitat selection.

The new research shows that  non-breeding lesser prairie-chickens preferred grasslands with 35-45% forage utilization and that use steadily declined when forage utilization topped 50%. Breeding females placed all nests in pastures with less than 40% forage utilization, and the greatest number of nests were placed on sites with forage utilization between 0 and 20%. As grazing pressure increased, daily nest survival fell.

Using computer modeling, researchers then investigated how lesser prairie-chickens utilize grasslands managed with grazing strategies known to increase structural diversity. They found that, regardless of the forage utilization value, lesser prairie-chicken habitat use increased significantly with lower stocking densities, and that larger pasture size increased habitat use. Their findings have important implications for range management within the lesser prairie-chicken’s active range in the southern Great Plains.

What it Means for Range Management

Female prairie-chickens nest in habitat with tall, dense vegetation, then move their broods to habitat with more insect-rich forbs and more bare ground, which allows for greater mobility for chicks. When range management does not create adequate grassland structural variety to meet changing seasonal needs, lesser prairie-chicken populations decline. (Photo: David Haukos)

Stocking density is a crucial indicator for maintaining or improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Many ranchers have adopted intensive grazing management practices in which pastures are subdivided into smaller paddocks. This increases stocking density and reduces the quality of the resulting habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. Range managers can reduce stocking density by selectively removing cross fencing to make pasture areas bigger, shifting toward a continuous grazing system. While there is much debate on the merits of rotational and continuous grazing systems, the superiority of one system over another in terms of livestock production and ecosystem health is not widely accepted among professionals.

In rangelands that already have the diverse vegetative structure that lesser prairie-chickens require, range managers can maintain large-scale (i.e., across pastures) heterogeneity through a mix of low-to-moderate forage utilization goals between pastures. Small-scale heterogeneity (i.e., within pasture) can be maintained by implementing low stocking densities, greater pasture areas, and shorter deferment periods.

In rangelands where vegetative structure suitable for nesting is limited, or where the most important grass species for nesting are also among the most palatable, longer deferment and rest-rotation may be needed to restore or create advantageous vegetative structure. Further, periodic, year-long deferment is likely essential to maintain the integrity of grazed lands regardless of plant community composition.

The Science to Solutions report identifies specific management practices to improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat–Read them on page 4 of the report.

The bottom line? While the combined effects of prescribed fire and grazing (patch-burn grazing) offer an exceptional tool for optimizing lesser prairie-chicken habitat and livestock production, a particular assemblage of vegetative diversity-promoting grazing practices can help maintain and improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat when range conditions preclude the use of fire.