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Influences of Waterfowl Management on Nongame Birds: The North Dakota Experience

Douglas H. Johnson, Randy L. Kreil, Gordon B. Berkey, Richard D. Crawford, David O. Lambeth and Steven F. Galipeau


Wildlife managers traditionally have been expected to manage for game. More recently, they have been asked to manage also for nongame species. This added responsibility posed a problem; although a general belief was that "what is good for game animals is good for nongame," little objective evidence supported the claim. Nor was there evidence that management for game species was detrimental to nongame. Further, managers had little guidance for practices that benefit nongame.

This quandary led to the effort described herein. We attempted to determine the effects, both positive and negative, that current management activities for game species have on nongame species in North Dakota. We focused on waterfowl management activities and their influence on all species of birds. The authors, convened by R. L. Kreil, possessed a range of experience and expertise with birds and their habitat needs in North Dakota. Some of us are birders, whose professions are unrelated to wildlife, whereas others of us have careers in wildlife science. Although some authors are employed by natural resource agencies, we did not represent these agencies during our discussions.

Note: This resource is a published paper that describes the process used to develop Wildlife Management Practices in North Dakota -- Effects on Nongame Birds. That web-published report is available online at this site.

Table of Contents

Tables and Figures

The Process

Twice we met for two days each; we also did much work outside the meetings. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials with responsibility for waterfowl management in North Dakota provided a list and description of common management practices in the state. One of the managers participated in the second meeting to clarify the extent of application, criteria used, and the responses of waterfowl to the practices under discussion. We discussed the effects of 26 practices (Table 1) on each bird species that regularly occurs in the state (Faanes and Stewart 1982). We paid particular attention to 22 species of special concern that either have a limited geographical range with a substantial share of the population breeding in North Dakota, have declined significantly at the state or continental level, or are indicators of rare, unique, or threatened habitats.

We tried to reach a consensus about the effects of management practices. We often found that too little was known about these effects and the habitat needs of certain species to comfortably reach a decision. A thorough review of the literature would have been helpful but was precluded by time constraints. Therefore, we based our conclusions on personal knowledge and experience.

We categorized the effect of a particular practice on each species as very beneficial, beneficial, negative, very negative, or unknown. We did not list species for which we judged effects as neutral or insignificant. For example, when we evaluated wetland creation in a central North Dakota grassland, we concluded that creating wetlands has no effect on rock wrens (Salpinctes obsoletus), because they do not occur there. The same no-effect determination was made for yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia), even though they occur in the area, because the habitats that they use are not affected by this practice. We sometimes made additional comments to provide some explanations of potentially difficult and unclear points that were considered during our evaluation.

Our product was a written report, "A review of wildlife management practices in North Dakota: effects on nongame bird populations and habitats," provided to Refuges and Wildlife, Region 6, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In this paper we describe our procedures, illustrate results of our analyses, and provide a perspective on management of North Dakota habitats, specifically grasslands.

Example: short-term grazing

An example dealing with the management practice of short-term grazing will provide some insight into the process and will illustrate the results of our evaluation (Fig. 1). A brief description of the practice, as provided by managers, is first given. In this instance, the intended objectives are removing litter, favoring warm-season grasses, and grazing cool-season grasses. Some measure of the scope or extent of the practice is also given, which in this example is 20,000 to 25,000 acres of Service land grazed annually.

Qualifiers expand on the description and give guidelines about the practice and situations to which it should be applied. For short-term grazing, we mention that impacts will vary by location and habitat conditions. Qualifiers also allude to differing responses by birds in the short term versus long term.

Results provide our assessment of the (proximate) effects on various species. Short-term grazing was not deemed very beneficial or very negative for any species. We judged it as beneficial for 11 species, particularly those that favor short grassy vegetation for breeding habitat. We assessed the practice as negative for 14 species and for dabbling ducks as a group; these species tend to favor more luxuriant grassy cover, which grazing reduces. We listed the effects on six species as unknown; some of these uncertainties were due to differences between nesting foraging habitats.

The Comments section indicated that the frequency of treatment mentioned under Qualifiers (once every 1 to 5 years) was not consistently adhered to. The degree to which these guidelines are followed probably depends on various constraints and the interests of individual managers. We also suggested that the intended purpose of the treatment--to reduce invading cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)--was unlikely to be achieved.

Example: Wetland Manipulation on Hayland or Pasture

This practice is targeted at privately owned land, where new wetlands are created or drained wetlands are temporarily restored (Fig. 2). A treated wetland is dewatered after 15 May but before 15 June to permit grazing or haying for the rest of the season.

We concluded that the practice is very beneficial to spring-migrating ducks and shorebirds, and beneficial to several species of swallows. We thought it would be negative for American coots (Fulica americana), pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps), soras (Porzana carolina), Virginia rails (Rallus limicola), and Wilson's phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor), which nest over water. Any of these birds may begin nesting in the flooded area, which soon thereafter is drained. Effects on ducks, American bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus), and other shorebirds were listed as unknown, but we recognized that responses depend on the availability of alternative nesting cover and brood-rearing water in the vicinity of the treatment area. The practice may harm breeding ducks, for example, if it attracted birds to an area because of the flooded wetland and then left them or their water-dependent young stranded after drawdown.

The Alternative to Management

Any management practice has feasible alternatives. One alternative is to do nothing, which can be done either after a conscious decision--that leaving alone is the best management--or by default--through failing to take any other action. Doing nothing should be considered as objectively as any other practice; it may be the most appropriate strategy for a given place and time. Some individuals believe that purchasing land provides all the protection necessary and that leaving the land idle is generally the preferred management alternative. At the other extreme are some managers who feel that they must actively manage all their lands.

We discussed the consequences of the no-action alternative in terms of long-term effects on the habitat and bird communities in North Dakota. We focused on grassland, the most extensive natural ecosystem of the state. We could have examined wetlands, the other major natural habitat in the state, in a similar vein. If others repeat our exercise for another area, they may wish to consider different ecosystems.

Historically, disturbance played an important role in the formation and maintenance of North Dakota's grasslands. The prairie was grazed heavily but intermittently by huge herds of bison (Bison bison), which left the landscape in a mosaic of habitats ranging from severely grazed to ungrazed. Grasslands were also subjected to fires, some set naturally by lightning, others set intentionally by Native Americans for a variety of purposes. Furthermore, varying climatic regimes, geological formations, and topographic features added diversity to the landscape. It is with this perspective that management of prairies should be viewed.

Settlement by Europeans altered the majority of natural grasslands in North Dakota. Cultivation was the most direct and immediate agent of change, and a large part of the state has had its prairie turned upside down. Other effects were less direct, but equally destructive. Among these were intentional or accidental introductions of Eurasian plant species, such as Kentucky bluegrass and leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), which have invaded native grasslands and disrupted the original plant communities. Efforts to reduce weedy plants by herbicides have had further detrimental effects on native vegetation, especially forbs. Grazing by free-ranging bison has been replaced by grazing by domestic livestock, often confined in small pastures for the entire growing season at stocking rates that lead to severe overgrazing, with attendant soil erosion and changes in plant composition. Fire suppression by settlers also facilitated increases of woody vegetation, especially in moister parts of the state.

Most lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies that manage public natural resources are small islands in a mosaic of privately owned land. The same land-use practices have been applied on these public lands as on private lands but in different proportions. Much less publicly owned wildlife land is cultivated annually and much more is left idle for extended periods of time either as part of a management plan or due to lack of resources, local public concerns, or characteristics of the tract.

The consequences of idling grassland and suppressing fire for long periods may be summarized in three scenarios of succession, which depend on the prevailing precipitation regime. In the more mesic areas, especially in eastern North Dakota, the grassland is ultimately transformed to woodland, dominated by small trees and large shrubs such as green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), and chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), with an understory of smaller shrubs and introduced grasses. The second scenario, applicable to somewhat drier areas, has succession proceed to a shrub community dominated by wolfberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), silverberry (Elaeagnus argentea), and Woods rose (Rosa woodsii). The third scenario, anticipated in the more arid parts of the state, does not have a woody community arise; instead, the grassland becomes choked with an accumulation of litter.

Breeding bird communities change drastically under these vegetation successions from grassland. The first scenario (for mesic areas) leads to increases in numbers of many shrubland and woodland-edge species, such as willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii), eastern and western kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus and T. verticalis), house wren (Troglodytes aedon), American robin (Turdus migratorius), gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), and brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). The second scenario (in drier areas) favors species such as clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) and common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Few species likely benefit to any degree from the third scenario (in more arid areas). In contrast, any of these successional changes reduce populations of almost all true grassland bird species, such as ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), marbled godwit (Limosa fedoa), burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), Sprague's pipit (Anthus spragueii), Baird's sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii), and chestnut-collared longspur (Calcarius ornatus).

The establishment of tall, woody vegetation in prairie landscapes affects the bird community in several ways. Most obvious is the direct loss of prairie plant species, through competition for light, water, or nutrients. Insects that use those plants, and which serve as a food base for many birds, then disappear. Also, certain grassland birds avoid areas with woody vegetation, even where appreciable grasses and prairie forbs remain. Woody vegetation can fragment a grassland, dividing it into noncontiguous parts that are individually too small to be used by area-sensitive prairie birds. The ecological influence of woody plants extends well beyond their canopies. Trees and tall shrubs provide nesting sites and hunting perches for raptors, travel lanes and denning sites for mammalian predators, and vantage points from which brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) can survey the surrounding area and locate nests to parasitize. Thus, the intrusion of woody vegetation has far-reaching consequences to grassland bird communities.

Overall, succession to woody vegetation, as anticipated under the first two scenarios, leads to an increased total number of species in an area. This local species diversity is usually enhanced by having a large number of different habitats and habitat edges in close proximity. Local species diversity should be distinguished from the concept of biodiversity and the goal of preserving as many species and populations as possible.

How best can publicly owned wildlife lands in North Dakota contribute to biodiversity? Although these lands could be managed to increase local numbers of shrubland, woodland, and woodland-edge species, the areas will probably not make important contributions to maintaining continental populations of those species. Most such species have widespread distributions and are much more common elsewhere. Most have large populations that are not in jeopardy. Many grassland species, however, especially those of the mixed-grass prairie, have little alternative habitat outside the northern plains. The distributions of some of these species center in or near North Dakota; no major populations are elsewhere. Further, many grassland species have suffered population declines at least as severe as birds of eastern forests, which have received greater popular and scientific attention. The lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys) and grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), as examples, each declined 60 percent during the past quarter-century (Johnson and Schwartz 1993).

One mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other wildlife management agencies is to protect and manage wildlife populations. Their goal is not to pack as many species as possible into the parcels of land it manages, as might befit a zoo. Accordingly, the primary interest is in maintaining natural ecosystems and biodiversity, not enhancing local species diversity. Both game and nongame prairie species need protection in grassland states such as North Dakota, which is in the heart of their breeding range. Management should be directed at grassland (and wetland) species, especially endemic ones, in preference to those of other habitat affinities and distributions.

Exceptions exist, but most species are best maintained by sustaining, in as natural condition as is feasible, the ecosystems on which they rely. For that reason, we believe that management of publicly owned wildlife lands in North Dakota should be oriented toward protecting and restoring large tracts of the most natural ecosystems extant. As a consequence, those actions will protect biodiversity, although local species diversity will not be maximized. This approach may not be the optimum for those who enjoy the natural values of unnatural habitats, such as bird watching in shelterbelts on a national wildlife refuge dominated by grassland, but it will favor the long-term protection of the widest array of game and nongame bird species. Compromises, such as restricting woody vegetation primarily to riparian areas, would increase local diversity and allow associated public uses but still would permit restoration of native plant and animal communities in most of the area.

Managers are often responsible for large areas of degraded grassland. Restoration of those habitats to a more natural condition may result in a local reduction in the number of species using those areas. The public should consider those losses as an acceptable trade-off made by managers in favor of preserving natural biodiversity, including game and nongame species, of the northern Great Plains.

Recommendations and Research

During our deliberations and our interactions with managers, it became obvious that many consequences of management were not well understood. In certain instances, managers were conducting activities to favor particular species, but at least some experts thought that the actions could be detrimental to those species. In other cases, consequences for target species, as well as nontarget species, were simply unknown. For some actions, effects on target species were understood, but influences on other species were not. And for some practices, immediate effects were known, but long-term ones were not. Effects of some practices differ markedly by geographic region or time of application (usually mediated by climatic influences); such spatial and temporal variations need to be appreciated. Because the costs of various management actions differ, the expected results should be quantified so that alternative courses can be objectively considered.

We viewed with concern the uncertainty about the effects of management practices. We recognized that decisions must be based on incomplete knowledge. Nonetheless, we strongly recommended two general courses of action. First, research should be conducted on proposed management activities. Particularly in need of study are actions that meet one or more of the following conditions:

  1. they are expected to influence large areas of land
  2. they have drastic effects
  3. they are applied where sensitive plant or animal species occur
  4. they have little previous history on which to base conclusions.

For some management practices, research findings are available; these should be reviewed and evaluated.

The second recommendation was that responses be monitored after management is implemented. Previous research should lead to some expectation of the results managers anticipate. Follow-up monitoring will assess whether or not the results meet those expectations. If not, further evaluation of the management action is warranted. Careful monitoring also helps understand the geographic and temporal influences on the results of management.

It might be argued that research and monitoring are too expensive, that problems are immediate, and that action must be taken without delay. We believe that the issues--and the resources--are too important not to evaluate carefully. Moreover, conducting management practices that have not been evaluated and may not have the desired effects can be a serious waste of funds.

We made specific research recommendations, including:

  1. gather basic life history information on species of special concern, which would allow for a better evaluation of the effects of current or proposed management practices
  2. initiate and (importantly) continue broad-scale reviews of landscape ecology and land-use changes, which combined with breeding bird surveys and other population studies would allow for a better evaluation of actual changes
  3. determine actual effects of practices such as grazing and fire on cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and on native species, to resolve apparent inconsistencies among research findings and expected and actual results.


We emphasize that the report we provided is not the final word but only a beginning. Further research and careful monitoring of the results will lead to a clearer understanding of the values of management actions to both game and nongame species. Since the report was completed and distributed, we have received comments about our process and the results of the review. We encourage further scrutiny of our product, for that will improve our recommendations and ultimately enhance management and the natural resources themselves. More recently, we learned that our report is being used as a template for evaluation of the effects of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan on non-waterfowl migratory bird populations.

If the evaluation were to be repeated elsewhere, we offer two suggestions. First, involve managers throughout the process. They not only provide essential information about the practices but also gain a better appreciation of the process and the resulting product. Second, try to agree on the objectives of the management practice. This is important for both the managers and the review group and keeps everyone focused on the same target.

Acknowledgments, References and Author Information


We thank several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, notably Stephanie L. Jones, who provided a grant for the participants' travel and for printing the report; Michael McEnroe and Kevin Willis, who graciously gave the group detailed information about the management practices; and Arnold D. Kruse, who offered insight into certain practices. Biologists at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center provided a preliminary evaluation of our review and technical perspectives on the biology and habitat needs of some species. Mark Dryer and Karen Kreil, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Craig Bihrle, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, offered many constructive comments on various drafts of the report. L. D. Igl, H. A. Kantrud, R. E. Kirby, A. D. Kruse, M. R. McEnroe, and E. Rockwell offered comments on this manuscript.


Faanes, C. A. and R. E. Stewart. 1982. Revised checklist of North Dakota birds. Prairie Nat. 14:81-92.

Johnson, D. H., and M. D. Schwartz. 1993. The Conservation Reserve Program and grassland birds. Conservation Biology 7:934-937.

This resource is based on the following source (Northern Prairie Publication 0914):

Johnson, Douglas H., Randy L. Kreil, Gordon B. Berkey, Richard D. Crawford, David O. Lambeth, and Steven F. Galipeau. 1994. Influences of waterfowl management on nongame birds: The North Dakota experince. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conferences 59:293-302.

This resource should be cited as:

Johnson, Douglas H., Randy L. Kreil, Gordon B. Berkey, Richard D. Crawford, David O. Lambeth, and Steven F. Galipeau. 1994. Influences of waterfowl management on nongame birds: The North Dakota experince. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conferences 59:293-302. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. (Version 16JUL97).

Author Information:

Douglas H. Johnson, U.S. National Biological Survey,  Northern Prairie Science Center,   Jamestown, North Dakota

Randy L. Kreil, North Dakota Game and Fish Department   Bismarck, North Dakota

Gordon B. Berkey, Minot State University,   Minot, North Dalota

Richard D. Crawford and David O. Lambeth,   University of North Dakota,  Grand Forks, North Dakota

Steven F. Galipeau,  U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,   Bismarck, North Dakota

Table 1

Table 1. -- Waterfowl management practices in North Dakota that were evaluated by the review team.
Grazing--short term
Grazing systems--rotation
Wetland restoration
Wetland creation
Wetland creation (in a wet meadow, type II area)
Wetland creation (west of Missouri River)
Re-seeding uplands to dense nesting cover
Re-seeding uplands to native grasslands
Cattail control by glyphosate
Cattail control by burning
Wetland manipulation/management on hayland or pastures
Wetland enhancement
Delayed haying
No till/minimum till
Predator trapping on islands
Island creation/peninsula cutoffs
Predator fence exclosures
Prescribed burning
Haying on wildlife areas
	Cropping--to rejuvenate nesting cover or establish lure crops
Tree planting--multi-row shelterbelts
Weed control by chemicals, mowing, grazing, etc.
Gravel shoreline
Nest structures/boxes
Bird feeders
Chemical fallow

Figure 1

Figure 1.
Result of review of short-term grazing as a waterfowl management practice and its anticipated effects on birds in North Dakota.

MANAGEMENT PRACTICE: Grazing--short term

Mostly done to stimulate grass production through litter removal or removing competing species of grass, done for short-term (2- 4-week) periods, aimed at grazing cool-season exotics (also can affect cool-season natives) and enhancing warm-season natives. The FWS typically grazes 20,000 to 25,000 acres annually.


  1. 2-4 weeks duration in May.
  2. Purpose is to promote taller native grasses and reduce cool-season invaders such as Poa pratensis.
  3. Some of the species mentioned will be affected only if wetlands are present.
  4. Impacts will vary depending upon geographic location and excess vegetation, e.g., east to west changes in amount of prairie, growing potential, and litter build-up.
  5. The practice may result in an immediate short-term decrease for some species; however, in the long term the practice may be beneficial to all the negatively impacted species and detrimental to the positively affected species.
  6. Frequency of use is once every 1 to 5 years (but variable; may be annual for a few years, then cease for 10-15 years).

Very beneficial: [++] No species indicated.

Beneficial: [+] ferruginous hawk, killdeer, willet, marbled godwit, common nighthawk, horned lark, Sprague's pipit, Baird's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, Brewer's blackbird, brown-headed cowbird

Negative: [-] dabbling ducks, American bittern, northern harrier, ring-necked pheasant, prairie chicken (nesting habitat), Virginia rail, sora, upland sandpiper, short-eared owl, mourning dove, dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow, Le Conte's sparrow, sharp-tailed sparrow, bobolink

Very negative: [--] No species indicated.

Unknown: [?] gray partridge, Wilson's phalarope, clay-colored sparrow, western meadowlark, lark bunting, savannah sparrow

COMMENTS: Pattern of use is inconsistent with regard to frequency. Practice also reduces cool-season natives. Doubtful that it reduces Poa pratensis (according to A. D. Kruse, among others).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Result of review of wetland manipulation on hayland or pastures as a waterfowl management practice and its anticipated effects on birds in North Dakota.

MANAGEMENT PRACTICE: Wetland manipulation on hayland or pastures

Drained, partially drained, or created wetlands are enhanced or partially restored with water control structures in active hayland or pasture. These projects are normally designed to provide temporary water for pair habitat and use by spring migrants, while increasing soil moisture for forage production. The landowner is allowed to draw down the wetland for haying or grazing purposes normally between May 15 and June 15 with the structure being closed after harvest to catch fall rains and next spring's runoff.

This type of practice is not as beneficial as complete restoration. However, the success of these projects is important in demonstrating that wetlands can be an important component of a successful agricultural operation. This practice fills a niche that may provide wildlife benefits on thousands of wetland acres and is designed to show that wildlife and agriculture can co-exist and mutually benefit. Since 1987, 30 wetlands totalling 429 acres have been manipulated in North Dakota.


  1. Typically involves drained wetlands that private landowners do not want restored, but wish to use for forage production (hay or pasture).
  2. Temporarily flooded until May 15 - June 15. Uses water control structures. The water is drawn down rapidly after an agreed-upon date between May 15 and June 15.
  3. Done in areas with sufficient brood water.

Very beneficial: [++] Migrating waterfowl (ducks), migrating shorebirds

Beneficial: [+] swallows

Negative: [-] American coot, pied-billed grebe

Very negative: [--] sora, Virginia rail, Wilson's phalarope

Unknown: [?] ducks, nesting American bitterns, nesting shorebirds (these unknowns are dependent upon available nesting cover and brood water)

COMMENTS: In order for this management practice to be beneficial, nesting habitat and brood water must be available in adjacent areas. Later drawdowns would provide greater benefits and lessen negative impacts on nesting species. The later the drawdown the greater the benefits.

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