Seeing the Prairie From a Coyote’s Eye View

by Marina Osier

The NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative partners with Pheasants Forever and other organizations to fund field staff positions in communities within the lesser prairie-chicken’s active range. LPCI field staff work one-on-one with landowners, offering technical assistance that helps landowners take part in voluntary conservation assistance programs that benefit lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Marina Osier is an LPCI range conservationist based in Lamar, Colorado.

 

Coyote, southeastern Colorado. Photo: Marvin Watson, NRCS

I recently saw a coyote running through a field with what looked suspiciously like a pheasant in its mouth, and it struck me that good grassland habitat is a matter of perspective.

When biologists go out to assess wildlife habitat, it’s easy to look at it from the perspective of who we are – humans. We may look out across the rangeland and see what we think looks like good cover for grassland birds. But if we get down on hands and knees and look at that same habitat, things can look a lot different. We might see that there’s actually excessive bare ground that isn’t the best cover after all. That difference in perspective begs the question – why do birds such as lesser prairie-chickens, pheasants, and quail need a certain type of cover to begin with? Who are they hiding from?

There are many factors that influence grassland bird survival, but one important factor is predators. Who preys on these birds? For one, coyotes. And coyotes have a different perspective on the prairie than we do. They don’t stand 5-6 feet tall and look out over the grassland to the horizon. No, they work their way through the grass and search on a much closer scale. And that’s why, when we monitor vegetation on land enrolled in the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) or the Western Association of Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Range Wide Plan (RWP), we include an assessment that looks at the habitat from a coyote’s eye.

Range conservationists in New Mexico use a Robel pole during vegetation monitoring. Photo: Jake Swafford

This assessment is called the Visual Obstruction Reading (VOR), and is measured with a Robel pole. To measure VOR, I stand 6.5 feet from the Robel pole and crouch down until my eye is 1.5 feet above the ground. Then I look at the striped pole and record how much of the pole is obstructed by vegetation.

By doing that at regular intervals along a transect line, range conservationists can get a sense of the hiding cover available to lesser prairie-chicken and can recommend conservation practices that optimize that cover.

Research shows that lesser prairie-chickens tend to select nest sites in grasslands with high VOR readings. Once the eggs hatch, females guide chicks to areas with a more bare ground and more insect-attracting forbs (where chicks can move about more freely and eat nutrient-rich bugs), though still with enough cover to elude predators.

Looking at the prairie from a coyote’s eye view helps land managers help lesser prairie-chickens. Keeping a broad perspective is an important part of managing habitat for healthy grassland bird populations.