Grassroots Works for Grasslands
The cooperation of willing landowners within focus ar-ea's is crucial to the efforts. Although much work is done on public land on behalf of grasslands wildlife, stabilizing these populations requires that habitat improvements be expanded on private land. Fortunately, private landowners have expressed interest in a wide range of projects, and have demonstrated long-term commitment to imp-roving their grasslands.
Although grassland wildlife face many perils, two are particularly threatening. One is fescue, an aggressive, exotic grass that crowds out beneficial food and cover plants. About 17 million acres or 40 percent of Missouri grassland is now occupied by fescue.
The second is the encroachment of trees that were once controlled by prairie wildfires and native browsers. Thousands of miles of relatively new tree lines provide travel lanes, hunting perches and denning sites that support predators. Grassland birds and small mammals nesting near these tree lines fall prey to elevated numbers of predators. Most are unable to produce enough young to offset the increased losses to predation.
Removing fescue and trees is expensive. Herbicide, seed and the time required to convert fescue to other forages can cost hundreds of dollars per acre. Removing trees can cost thousands of dollars. Those amounts are daunting for even the most obliging landowners. That's why funding from grants is so important.
On John Whitesell's farm in Dade County, for example, trees have grown up in fescue pasture that once was prairie. Tree removal costs alone are estimated at $12,000. Converting fescue to native grasses and forbs could cost up to $400 per acre. Fortunately, financial assistance was available.
With the help of a grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Whitesell has removed trees from 160 acres of fescue. Thirty acres have been converted to prairie grasses and forbs, and more will follow. Whitesell is working with a Grasslands Coalition biologist on a grazing system that will focus on livestock gains and prairie chicken habitat. He also is interested in a pos-sib le long-term conservation easement.
Whitesell's farm abuts a public prairie, so he is well aware of how important his farm could be to the local prairie chicken population.
"The farm needs to be economically self-sustaining," Whitesell said, "but I think we can do that with the right combination of forages and grazing rotations. I'm willing to work out the details. It's important to do it, considering that the land is so close to native prairie and the prairie chickens."
The Grasslands Coalition promotes practices that are economically sound, sustainable and acceptable to landowners like John Whitesell in order to ensure continued improvement of Missouri grasslands. You can be a part of this important work by joining one of the Grassland Coalition's member organizations. For more information, contact Sharron Gough at (417) 876-5226 or <Sharron.Gough@mdc.mo.gov>.