Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Integrated Management of the Greater Prairie Chicken and Livestock on
the Sheyenne National Grassland
- Keep the coyotes! Interestingly enough, recent research suggests that
one of the most effective ways to approximately double the rate of nesting
success is to have a coyote-dominated landscape as opposed to red fox. From
a management standpoint, this probably means simply recognizing this particular
value of coyotes and judiciously controlling them only when livestock depredation
- As in so many fields of endeavor, there is a need for managers/researchers
to use currently accepted methods and consistent terminology unless there
is a compelling reason to do otherwise. This is especially helpful when
comparing conditions for a species from a different time and area. For example,
Visual Obstruction Readings (VOR) to the nearest half decimeters has become
standard procedure in the literature and we question the advantage/practicality
of using inches. There is some apparent variation among field workers at
the Sheyenne Grasslands regarding the classification of "lowlands."
- The management of lowlands (about 14% of SNG) is a key factor in "ecosystem
management" at the SNG; but they must be shared. Cows will use them
if burned or mowed, prairie chickens use them more if burned or mowed,
but then left undisturbed for a season, and this is where the western
prairie fringed orchid lives. (Concerns were even expressed about the value
of lowlands to prairie grouse in 1963. See Mathisen paper in Appendix 9).
As a working figure, we suggest regular disturbance management of lowlands
but leaving 1/3 of these undisturbed for a season particularly in portions
of the SNG with the greatest presence of prairie chickens. Prairie chickens
use them (or portions thereof) for nesting, brood-rearing, and roosting,
depending on the extent of wetness in a given year. One management technique
that could be tried is to burn upland areas in the spring, then come back
and burn lowlands in July, when they are dry, to get better control of brush.
Lowlands perhaps have a special value to prairie chickens and livestock
during drought periods.
- Due to current budget and manpower limitations, we recommend that a better
job of censusing prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse be carried out
on a smaller target area rather than a hit-or-miss job over the
entire SNG. The example of the Ft. Pierre National Grassland is a useful
model. A goal of obtaining 3 counts of males only on each ground, on good
census mornings, should be set. Censusing an area rather than "numbered"
grounds is recommended because display grounds move depending on cover conditions.
The use of censusing volunteers could be helpful providing they were given
basic orientation. ATV's are a necessity to efficiently do spring censusing
at the SNG. Without an accurate, and on-going, census of an area there
is no way to biologically measure the effectiveness of management actions
such as lowland management, woody vegetation control, food plots, etc.
- The management of leafy spurge is a crisis issue at the SNG because if
it is not controlled, all of the other resource values are in jeopardy.
Control methods which do not reduce other forbs are recommended. Forbs are
important as food (leaves, fruits), as the food base for insects, and to
provide structural support of cover.
- The management programs at the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands and the
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge can provide a useful reference because
of some basic similarities to SNG: both units have prairie chickens and
sharptails, and grazing is integrated with overall resource management.
- It is not possible to maximize prairie chicken and livestock production
over the entire SNG. It is recommended that a core prairie chicken area
be identified, perhaps centered around the town of McLeod, where a high
priority would be placed on securing the SNG prairie chicken population.
This area supports the largest prairie chicken booming grounds which suggests
that the present array of public/private ownership and land uses is favorable
for prairie chickens.
- It should be recognized that nesting and brood cover are often different
and that the brood-rearing period may be THE critical limiting factor
in some years. As Ken Higgins of South Dakota State University points out,
there may be more than one "weak link" in the chain and some factors
may be more important some years than others. Brood cover, as such, was
not specifically identified in recent SNG monitoring studies.
- The importance of disease as a limiting factor for SNG prairie chickens
is not known but it is probably of limited importance due to limited prairie
chicken numbers and their reliance on mostly "natural" habitats.
However, the expansion of the commercial poultry industry could be a cause
for concern as it relates to disposal of manure and dead birds.
- Control of woody vegetation, especially trees, is an inherent dilemma
for an agency that is historically tree oriented and personnel attracted
to work for the U.S. Forest Service have presumably been trained to work
with trees rather than grass. But prairie chickens, and cows, utilize the
grassland ecosystem. Trees serve as nesting sites and hunting perches for
2 potentially significant predators of prairie chickens; red-tailed hawks
and great horned owls. Furthermore, not only is woody vegetation not to
the liking of prairie chickens but it favors sharp-tailed grouse which hybridize
with prairie chickens and are apparently dominant in competitive interactions.
- While prairie chickens are the most mobile of the galliforms, emigrants
from other areas will not likely contribute measurably to the SNG population.
The SNG population is realistically an isolated population at a level (conservatively
about 120 males) considered in jeopardy as far as eventual extinction, so
immediate management action is recommended.
- From a productivity standpoint, first nests can make the greatest contribution
to the population. Having 30% of the habitat around key booming grounds
with spring residual vegetation measuring 100% visual obstruction (VOR)
at 2.0 dm should be a reasonable management goal to secure SNG prairie
- Booming grounds are an important reference point for management and an
essential orientation and breeding center for prairie chickens. While most
nests may be located within 1 mile, birds will commonly use the area within
a 2-mile radius of a booming ground and this could be used as a planning
reference as it is in the Missouri plan (Mechlin 1991). This could improve
the application of the Prose Model to the SNG which presently rates booming
ground areas with a 0 value even though they support prairie chickens.
- A long-term goal of shifting the composition of many of the SNG pastures
from cool-season to warm-season grasses could be established to result in
enhanced spring residual cover. This can be effected through spring burning
( through the month of May) and spring grazing (1 May turn-in date),
timed to ensure warm-season grasses are not inhibited.
- Juxtaposition of habitat components is important in land management planning
for prairie chickens. Nesting cover should be within 1-2 miles of booming
grounds but optimum brood cover should be adjacent to optimum nest
cover. Winter food plots should be close to roosting cover. The overriding
concern is to minimize movements and exposure to predators.
- The need for all interests to cooperatively work together, striving for
win/win outcomes cannot be overemphasized. The effects of all management
actions cannot be anticipated, thus on-going data collection and information
sharing is critical to "adaptive resource management."
- Winter food is essential to secure prairie chickens in the Northern Great
Plains. Planting a food plot would be the best way to ensure the availability
of this resource with sunflowers, then corn, as recommended crops. By leaving
half of a food plot for 2 seasons, they could serve as spring feeding areas
for adult birds, particularly nesting females, and summer brood habitat.
The size of a food plot would depend upon the anticipated number of prairie
grouse to be served and deer use. Roosting cover should be within 1 mile
of winter food.
- Alfalfa is attractive brood and even nesting habitat, however harvesting
operations may injure birds. Cooperative agreements with private landowners
could be pursued to delay mowing, leave uncut blocks, and/or harvest back
and forth across a field rather than in circles. Obviously a farmer must
be concerned with efficiency of operation and quality of forage but there
may be some creative options available to reduce brood and nest losses.
- CRP fields within 2 miles of booming grounds provide an additional management
opportunity to provide nesting, brooding, and roosting cover. CRP fields
could be burned in 20-80-acre units on a 4-year rotation using disked firebreaks.
Mowed firebreaks may not provide enough control in comparison to disked
breaks due to fuel loads, also the disked breaks themselves have habitat
values by providing weedy growth and bare ground. Fall and spring burned
sites would also be utilized for spring and early summer feeding by adult
birds. Research in Minnesota has shown that unmanaged CRP fields are a "missed
opportunity" since nesting values tend to decline 4-5 years after establishment.
- As a general rule, it is good to maximize block size for nesting covers
to reduce predation. Studies have shown that reducing nest density tends
to reduce predator efficiency.
- Seasonality of (temporal) habitat use should be considered. For example,
lowland habitats may be too wet for nesting use but could be used for brooding
and roosting later in the year.
- How birds use particular places (spatial) in a habitat should be considered.
For example, a given habitat type could be considered both nesting
and roosting cover but the specific sites within that habitat used to place
a nest (heavier cover) would be different than roost sites (located in more
open areas within a cover).
- Consideration should be given to providing grazing exclosures of perhaps
40-acre units that could serve as nest and brood areas. Electric or permanent
fencing could be used. They could be placed in existing pasture corners
to reduce fencing expense thus creating triangles. Locating these "chicken
corners" in areas of low livestock utilization (away from water and/or
salt) would minimize the amount of forage given up. Nest cover units could
be burned every 3 years and brood units burned annually.
- Research on the FPNG and Valentine NWR has shown that prairie chickens
increased as the amount of forage removed by grazing decreased. Whether
this could be done by altered stocking or grazing systems is a matter of
discussion, but reduction of stocking rates is generally felt to be more
effective in the literature.
The preceding recommendations are what we consider to be key, specific,
items which could benefit the SNG prairie chickens. As a summary, we generally
agree with Johnson and Knue's (1989:121) wrap-up in their chapter dealing
with prairie chickens in North Dakota:
"the Sheyenne Grassland population has been the object of considerable
study. The Grasslands are used primarily for grazing and haying, and different
grazing and pasture management systems have been shown to have a direct
bearing on the grouse population.
Pinnated grouse have been described as birds of the grassland; it is said
that prairie chickens can be abundant only in areas with at least 35% permanent
grassland. But this statement is somewhat misleading. A study in Missouri
found that a region with a large relative percentage of permanent grassland
did not necessarily guarantee a large pinnate population.
Quality of the grassland is important; and the needs of grouse in terms
of grassland may be different at different times of the year. Recently the
U.S. Forest Service and Montana State University completed a cooperative
study on prairie chickens in the Sheyenne Grasslands. The study examined
the habitat needs of prairie chickens during the crucial nesting and brood
rearing season and during the winter.
From the Montana State University study and other studies, it appears
that we cannot expect the prairie chicken to spread in any significant way
outside the Sheyenne National Grasslands. The land surrounding the Grasslands
is highly productive and very intensively farmed. Within the boundaries
of the Grasslands, however, it does appear possible to maintain a viable
population, and possibly increase it.
The prairie chicken population in the Grasslands first began to show increases
when grazing in the Grasslands was changed from season-long grazing to some
kind of rotational pasture management system, and when some of the meadows
were burned in early spring. Why these changes had a salutary effect on
prairie chickens was explained by the Montana State University study.
During the nesting season, prairie chicken hens tended to choose pastures
which had been left unmowed and which were not being grazed. Nests in taller
and denser vegetation were more successful. After nests were hatched, hens
tended to stay in places that were relatively undisturbed1, or
move to places less disturbed by cattle or mowing. Again, height and density
of vegetation seemed to be of greatest importance.
Something similar was true during the winter months. During daylight hours
and times of mild weather, prairie chickens remained in agricultural areas
where high-energy food was available in the form of waste crops. During
the night and in periods of bad weather, pinnates moved to areas of taller
grasses which stood up well to winter conditions.
The implications for management of the Grasslands seems clear. The Sheyenne
Grasslands represent our best chance in North Dakota for maintaining a population
of prairie chickens, and management practices need to be such that prairie
chickens can co-exist with cattle. The Montana State University study makes
specific suggestions for rotational grazing systems, timed to allow spring
growth of grass and better pinnate nest success. The study concludes that
mowing patterns can be altered to improve the distribution of unmowed lowlands
most preferred by brood hens, and that residual vegetation be increased
for nesting and winter roosting. Burning and mowing can be beneficial for
both pinnates and cattle, but care should be taken that it does not interfere
with nesting or brood rearing. In addition, since the Grasslands hold the
only significant population of pinnates, an effort could be made to favor
pinnates over sharptails here by controlling shrubs."
1 We would qualify this to mean undisturbed while being used as brood
habitat but disturbed the preceding season.
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