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Integrated Management of the Greater Prairie Chicken and Livestock on the Sheyenne National Grassland


  1. 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 problems occur.

  2. 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."

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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 chickens.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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."

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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).

  23. 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.

  24. 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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