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Reserve Design For Grasslands:
Considerations For Bird Populations


When you think of a park, you probably think of trees. Maybe mountains. Or possibly a lake or oceanfront. You probably don't think of prairie. Prairie? That's just ... well, grass. What can you do there? Certainly no fishing. No trees to camp under. And no majestic mountains to view.

And so it is. Huge areas of trees are given some protection in national and state parks and forests. America's national parks contain a large percentage of the mountains. And lots of lakes and ocean shorelines are included in national seashores and other preserved areas. But prairies? Very little prairie has been included in parks (Flores 1996). For example, only 0.4% of National Park Service (NPS) lands are in grassland, and most of that actually represents badlands formations, atypical of prairie (Licht 1997). Most national parks with tallgrass prairie habitats were preserved for their cultural, rather than natural, features and thus tend to be small, isolated, and surrounded by urban areas or intensive agriculture.

This lack of attention to grasslands is reflected in the fact that prairies are among the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. Noss et al. (1995) indicated that 55% of all critically endangered ecosystem types in the nation were grassland, savanna, or barren. Most states have lost 99% or more of their native tallgrass prairie (Samson and Knopf 1994). Much grassland has been cultivated, primarily because of the rich soils underlying, and originally created by, the grassland.

Grasslands are beginning to receive due consideration. But progress is slow: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was created in the Flint Hills of Kansas, but it met resistance from local land-owners and politicians (see Madson 1995, 289). Currently 4,449 ha have been acquired by the National Park Trust, and are managed by NPS (NPS 1997,45). Other agencies are getting increasingly involved. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, is working on a northern tallgrass prairie habitat preservation area in western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa, intended to protect and enhance prairie remnants there (USFWS 1998). The Nature Conservancy has made native prairie a high priority in the Midwest. Canada developed a Prairie Conservation Action Plan, intended to protect representative prairies and encourage appropriate land-use practices (Dyson 1996). Ducks Unlimited-Canada has an emphasis on protecting native grassland (Anderson et al. 1996) and Ducks Unlimited, Inc., is initiating a major effort to preserve grasslands in the northern prairies of the USA (J. Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., personal communication).

In addition to protection, the restoration of prairies is receiving greater attention. Most efforts are small-scale; the largest is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's attempt to reconstruct tallgrass prairie and savanna on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, about 2,000 ha of Iowa fields used for decades to grow corn and raise livestock. Two recent books (Thompson 1992; Packard and Mutel 1997) focus on the restoration of prairies and allied habitats. Two journals, Ecological Restoration and Restoration Ecology, regularly feature articles on the re-establishment of prairie.

Birds are particularly an issue in grasslands, as many grassland-dependent species have been declining in number. North American Breeding Bird Survey results indicate that grassland species have shown greater and more consistent declines than other groups of birds (Droege and Sauer 1994). In recognition of the plight, the U.S. Department of the Interior (1996) recently developed a conservation strategy for grassland birds.

Fortunately, heightened interest in grassland birds has led to greater research attention. The objective of this article is to review relevant findings, particularly landscape issues to consider when designing grassland reserves for breeding birds.

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