By John Bradley, NDWF Executive Director
Any hunter who has walked the great plains and had a sage-grouse flush at their feet, knows the thrill. Even the most seasoned hunter gets a rush of adrenaline as the birds explode from cover. I was fortunate enough to hunt sage grouse in Montana last fall, where there is a 30-day season. Even with the best hunting dogs (and my lab, Ida, is far from that), trying to find these birds is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Unfortunately, opportunities to hunt these birds are becoming rarer, with most states severely cutting back, if not eliminating the entire hunting season. And while there are many other upland game birds that are out there and still have long seasons, there are a number of non-game species that are facing the same peril as sage grouse. Those brown little “tweety birds” should serve as an early warning for the upland bird hunter of the great plains.
Nationwide, grassland songbirds are disappearing. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the continent’s longest-running bird monitoring program, chestnut-collared longspur numbers have tumbled by 81 percent since the survey began keeping records in 1966. It also shows an 80 percent decline in Baird’s sparrow populations over that same period. While hunters may not have a huge interest in these little brown birds, upland birds – especially sage grouse and prairie chickens – have also been on a significant downward trend across the great plains. Even grassland species that were common not too long ago, like North Dakota’s state bird, the western meadowlark, show downward population trends. When driving across North Dakota, it’s clear to see what accounts for this troubling drop in grassland bird numbers – conversion of historic grassland into cropland.
It wasn’t always this way. For much of our history, grassland birds lived in harmony with farmers, ranchers, and foresters, taking advantage of hedgerows and grazing lands. Even before that, birds coexisted with native grazers like bison, which naturally grazed the plains. But over the last several decades, surging land and crop prices, as well as modern technologies have driven producers to favor planting row crops rather than leaving their land in grass-based agriculture. That coupled with other development from oil and gas, as well as residential development has resulted in over 70 percent of our nation’s grasslands being lost. This dramatic shift has raised serious concerns that grassland ecosystems, and the species they support, could be at risk.
Wheat and other row crops are essential to North Dakota’s economy. Unfortunately, grassland birds have trouble nesting in wheat. Grain fields lack the vegetation structure and insect production that native prairie provides. Approximately 85 percent of the remaining grasslands in the northern great plains are privately owned, the best way these bird populations can remain viable is if ranching remains profitable enough to keep the land in grass.
Luckily, ranchers and conservationists, cowboys and sportsmen are coming together to find common ground and creating solutions to keep grasslands intact and birds on the ground. Next week, the fifth biennial America’s Grasslands Conference will bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss opportunities for working across boundaries to create strong and effective partnerships for grassland conservation. The conference will be held August 20–22, 2019 in Bismarck, and will focus on the opportunities for grass-based livelihoods to learn how to incorporate grassland restoration and conservation into their ranching operations, and to learn about the benefits to both ranchers and wildlife.
If you enjoy the prairie and game birds that call North Dakota home, thank a rancher. Keeping grasslands intact and ranching viable means more habitat for wildlife and songbirds, as well as the upland birds that fill our game bags each year. That’s something we can all get behind!
To learn more about America’s Grasslands Conference, visit www.nwf.org/grasslandsconference
Featured Photo: Co-Op. Cooperative efforts are under way between the ranching and conservation communities to improve producers livelihoods while promoting the preservation of natural prairie. These programs will be at the heart of next week’s Grasslands Conference in Bismarck, N.D. DEO Photo by Nick Simonson.
John Bradley is a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer and the Executive Director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.