Grassroots Works for Grasslands

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

Grasslands are subtle. They don't shade us from summer's sun or shield us from winter's wind. They don't grow stately and tall like forests. They don't yield lush and colorful fruits.

As uninspiring as grasslands may be, we owe our existence to them.

From grasses we take our daily bread, and from grass-eaters we take our daily meat. Just three grasses --corn, rice and wheat--supply 50 percent of the world's daily supply of nutrients.

Of all the world's ecological systems, none has been more dramatically affected by humanity than grasslands. Prairie once covered 40 percent of the continent. Most of it has been transformed into vast fields of grain. In the tallgrass prairie region, less than 1 percent is still native grassland. In Missouri, less than one-half of 1 percent remains.

Many of the creatures native to our prairies have not adjusted to this dramatic loss of habitat. First to go were the large mammals. Grizzly bears, wolves, elk and bison have been squeezed into mountainous areas or isolated preserves.

As native prairie continues to dwindle, the smaller animals are diminishing, too. Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining group of birds in North America. Most have been in constant decline since the Breeding Bird Survey was initiated in 1966. Several bird populations have dropped by more than 80 percent. Since 1990, prairie chickens in Missouri have plummeted from 3,000 to 500 birds.

Dwindling prairie habitat, and the demise of the creatures that depend on it, sparked the formation of the Grasslands Coalition. Led by the Missouri Prairie Foundation, the Coalition formed in 1998, within a month after the greater prairie chicken had been placed on Missouri's state endangered species list.

Natural resource agencies and private conservation groups joined the Coalition to pool knowledge, manpower and resources to better understand and address the needs of grasslands. The prairie chicken, a widely recognized symbol of the grasslands, is the Coalition's mascot.

The Coalition has two goals. One is to help the public understand the importance of grasslands. The second is to improve grassland habitat in areas that could make a significant and lasting difference to species like the prairie chicken. The term "grasslands" was chosen to define the Coalition, because even though our remain-in prairie is vital to grassland wildlife survival, many thousands of acres of non-prairie grasslands are also important in stabilizing grassland wildlife populations.

To get started, the Grasslands Coalition launched the Lek Trek, a public awareness campaign named after the booming ground (lek) of the prairie chicken. From July to October 2000, hundreds of people walked parts of the 565-mile Lek Trek route through western Missouri. This part of the state once was covered by tallgrass prairie.

During the Lek Trek, thousands of people learned about grassland issues through media coverage or by attending any of the 18 special events or 24 "Learning Days" offered along the route. During this public aware-ness campaign, "Boomer," the prairie chicken mascot, spread the word about prairie communities and grass-land wildlife at schools, field days and social events across the state.

Meanwhile, work on grasslands switched into high gear. The Grasslands Coalition orchestrated manpower, funding, knowledge of grassland ecology, and the sup-port of Missouri landowners to address habitat issues in key areas.

Private organizations add an important dimension to the Coalition, offering fresh questions, observations, volunteers and enthusiasm.

Coalition members attend workshops on prairie chickens, grazing, prescribed burning, insects and other aspects of grassland ecology. They share manpower and equipment to conduct burns, remove trees and brush, run a prairie seed collection cooperative and monitor wildlife-friendly grazing systems.

They also provide matching funds and labor to compete for grants. They sponsor Americorps Teams to help supply manpower. They work together to apply new Farm Bill programs, such as WHIP, GRP and EQIP, to grassland management.

To decide how and where to direct resources, coalition members inventoried 15 areas that still support prairie chickens. Based on the amount and quality of existing grasslands and the level of landowner interest, nine of these areas were chosen as focus areas. Team leaders wrote strategic plans and work objectives for the focus areas and assembled work teams to help them accomplish their goals.

Obtaining grants offered a solution to the huge problem of funding. In a few short years, good grant writers helped change the landscape, so to speak.

Donor organizations prefer projects that promise long-range planning and long-term commitment from a number of partners. Because grassland wildlife is of particular interest to many organizations, Grasslands Coalition projects fit perfectly.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Phillips Petroleum, the National Wildlife Federation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have all contributed to Grasslands Coalition work. In the few years since its inception, the Grasslands Coalition has applied more than $1 million to prairie management and grassland wildlife.

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>.

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