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Management of Northern Prairies and Wetlands for the Conservation of Neotropical Migratory Birds

Some Management Recommendations


The following thoughts are offered regarding what could be done in the northern prairies to enhance habitat for migratory birds. The proposed actions would be beneficial to a variety of other species as well, and would offer general conservation benefits.

Save the Sod.—Perhaps the highest priority is maintaining the base of native grassland that still remains. Several species of birds absolutely require this habitat. Most native grassland is privately owned, and much of it is excessively grazed. Nonetheless, even over-grazed prairie provides better habitat for grassland birds that does the alternative, cultivated fields. Although it would be worthwhile for agencies and conservation organizations to purchase native grasslands and manage them for their natural values, the total area that could be protected in this manner pales in comparison to the needs. Thus, migratory birds—and those who care about migratory birds—are dependent on privately owned ranches and farms. Maintaining range- and pasture lands is a conservation priority, and individuals and groups whose interests include birds should cooperate with ranching and farming advocates on issues of mutual benefit. Too often, the groups view one another as antagonists, rather than potential collaborators.

Grassland can be restored, but the full complement of forbs, vertebrate animals, invertebrates, and soil microorganisms cannot. It is far less costly to maintain a prairie than to reconstruct one. Further, existing grasslands often can be managed differently, in ways that improve the habitat they afford wildlife while still providing economic returns to the landowner. Biologists, range scientists, and the agricultural community should work together to develop and test land-use practices that offer economic benefits as well as wildlife and other conservation values. These practices might include rest-rotational grazing systems, minimum-till agriculture, and integrated pest management, among others.

Preserving wetlands will also benefit many species of migratory birds. In contrast to prairie, restoration of wetlands can be accomplished easier and with greater success. Wetlands have positive non-wildlife values, such as water retention to reduce downstream flooding, but also negative values, as impediments to agricultural operations, for example.

Target Farm Programs for Conservation Benefits.—Billions of dollars have been expended under past farm programs to balance supplies of commodities with demands and to maintain farm economies. Some of those programs also afforded conservation benefits, including protection from soil erosion and habitat for wildlife, but many did not. Although the current "Freedom to farm" plan appears to foretell the end of farm programs, it remains to be seen if that result will be realized. In any event, future farm programs could be developed to include conservation and wildlife benefits as high priorities. As one example, long-term rather than short-term set-asides not only permit cover to be planted that will benefit wildlife, they also help farmers plan with greater certainty about the future.

Manage What We Have.—Public lands, including national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, national and state parks, national grasslands, and game management areas, are managed in various ways. Too often, little is known about the effects of those management practices on wildlife. Researchers and managers need to work together to learn about those effects. Researchers should not avoid management questions because they are "too applied," and managers should not avoid evaluating practices they apply because the research "costs too much and takes too long." The results of moving dirt are immediate; results of an evaluation are longer in coming, but may have more lasting value.


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