Prairie History Provides Modern Habitat Tools

Austin Lang, ND PF Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist

By Austin Lang

Whether fin, feather, or fur, habitat is a key aspect in having healthy sustainable wildlife populations. Pheasants Forever is known as “The Habitat Organization.” With the moniker comes the recognition of how important habitat is for healthy wildlife populations. But buyer (or hunter) beware, not all habitat is created equal. Habitat is not just something to be installed and forgotten, but rather, remains a work in progress. The work of management and follow-up activities will help ensure that habitat is providing high quality cover for years to come.

Habitat can be managed at many different levels. It could be someone with a large backyard, to a large farm and ranch, to properties managed by the state or federal government on behalf of the people. Often, the management is determined by the goals and capabilities of the land manager. Two parcels of similar land may be managed differently for various reasons.

One common theme of successful habitat management is moving away from the “set it and forget it” mentality. Whether your goal is to produce more wildlife, more saleable commodities, or both, adaptive management is a key component in reaching your goals in any scenario.

Within my role, I often answer questions on how practices like grazing, fencing, water, fire, and cover crops help wildlife. The root of those questions reveals a misconception that agriculture and wildlife are mutually exclusive.  This is not the case, and for species such as the ring-necked pheasant, populations often thrive within landscapes that contain a mixture of cropland and undisturbed cover.

Let us imagine we planted a stand of perennial grass and wildflowers that grew well and provided the habitat needs of our target species. What do we do now? What will the area look like over time? We have learned through decades of experience that just leaving the stand alone lends itself to the planting being taken over by undesirable cool-season grasses. These grasses have shallow root systems that don’t handle drought well, they lose forage quality quickly, and they choke out desirable flowering plants which wildlife need. These conditions are not ideal whether you are producing wildlife or an ag commodity. So, if leaving the stand idle will eventually create less desirable results, what is the alternative?

Looking at how nature managed the ecosystem for thousands of years gives us a good starting point of some tools to consider. Prior to settlement, large groups of herbivores roamed the plains. Their grazing cycled nutrients and carbon from the forage back into the soil. Periodic fires “reset” the plant community and encouraged species diversity. This deep-rooted and diverse plant community met nutritional needs for a plethora of animals year-round. This cycle, which continued annually over thousands of years, created a prairie full of resilient, deep-rooted plants that grew in soils rich in organic matter. While I wasn’t there to see it myself, written records from that period indicate wildlife was very abundant.


The table is set. Flowering plants help provide forage and attract insects for food within a good stand of grass cover. Having food, water, and shelter readily available with minimal travel required on behalf of the wildlife helps make this a great spot to raise a brood of upland birds.  NDPF Photo for DEO.

Examining our modern-day management, we should consider similar tools to manage the land for both better wildlife and agriculture. Cropland or grassland, some of those principles that built the prairie will still work today. Those principles are best and most quickly described in the five Pillars of Soil Health. Those principles include maintaining soil armor (residue/cover), minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining plant diversity, having a continual living root, and livestock integration. For further reading on this, visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/nd/soils/health/.

So down to the management. If we do not graze, hay, burn or otherwise set back succession in perennial cover, we get undesirable conditions for wildlife through loss of diversity, excess residue, and a low-vigor stand. If we overutilize our native or planted grasslands, we remove concealment cover, expose soil, deplete organic matter, increase erosion, and have no additional resources to support wildlife. The trick is using managed grazing, haying, fire or other disturbance to help maintain the quality of the perennial cover and habitat.

Many wildlife-centered organizations or agencies recognize the need to manage our grassland resources and are witnessing a change in management styles. Even in popular programs like USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), management is being allowed more frequently to help maintain the quality of the habitat over the life of the contract. Research and decades of experience have made it clear that a management event every two or three years (it doesn’t have to be annual) is beneficial for the plants and the wildlife. Approaching management from this angle uses the same principles that built the prairies, just in a manner that is compatible with modern land management practices. Ag and wildlife really can work together, and my job at Pheasants Forever gives me the opportunity to show farmers and ranchers just that.

Using an example from my own land, changes I plan to make to help promote wildlife while making the land better for ag production include:

-Converting some depleted hayland to well-managed grazing with occasional use of fire

-Smooth-wire fences for less maintenance, visual obstruction, and easier wildlife movement

-More flowering plants and diversity through cover crops and perennial plantings (in lower yielding areas)

-Try to add more habitat and connectivity through buffers and corridors

-Convert poor-producing cropland to cover crop grazing or perennial cover

-Fresh water tanks and wildlife-friendly tanks

These are just a few practices available to not only help wildlife, but productivity as well. Using cover crops, minimal disturbance farming, crop rotations, perennial cover or grazing in low-producing areas, managed grazing on grassland, and wildlife-friendly haying not only make production more efficient, but better for wildlife as well. Keep in mind while this is how I am choosing to manage, everyone has different goals and requirements of the land. I find often on a piece of land 3 biologists would have 3 different opinions on how to manage it. There are many factors to consider when planning management, but the important part is that it gets accomplished to help keep our land healthy and productive.

Next time you are in uplands after your favorite game, pay attention to the difference in habitat stands and see if you can relate it to the kind of management. If you have questions about habitat, feel free to reach out to myself or one of the ND Pheasants Forever staff. My email is alang@pheasantsforever.org. Have a safe and productive fall!

Austin Lang is a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer and a Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist with Pheasants Forever in southeast North Dakota.

Featured Photo: Well-maintained habitat helps bring young upland birds into adulthood with food, water and cover all generated by multiple layers of plants. Simonson Photo.

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