Collaborative Research Shows Livestock Grazing Management Could Create Habitat for Grassland Bird

Colorado State University researchers along with U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service and California State University-Fullerton researchers are studying grazing practices to determine if livestock can be successfully managed to create nesting habitat for the mountain plover, a grassland bird.

The effects of grazing practices on plant communities, ecosystem functions and processes, livestock gains, small mammals, arthropods and other grassland birds will be discussed by the researchers at a tour of study pastures at 9 a.m. April 3 at the USDA-ARS Central Plains Experimental Range near Nunn, Colo.      

Researchers are modifying seasonality of use, the intensity of grazing and animal behavior to create suitable nesting habitat for mountain plovers. Mountain plovers winter in the Central and Imperial Valleys of California and migrate to the shortgrass steppe in mid-March to mid-April to nest.  

The bird has experienced a substantial population decline in the past two decades, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the species for listing under the Endangered Species Act; however, this petition was withdrawn in favor of local and state conservation efforts.

In contrast to traditional grazing management in the shortgrass steppe, which employs season-long (mid-May to mid-October) cattle grazing at moderate stocking rates to optimize livestock gains and results in the domination of vegetation by the shortgrass blue grama, this research is designed to increase landscape scale heterogeneity in vegetation composition and structure necessary for this grassland bird species.

For example, nesting habitat of mountain plovers can be characterized by sparse cover and very short structure of vegetation, high amounts of bare ground and little litter or residue plant material. These habitat requirements are potentially in opposition to what has been considered good rangeland management practices in shortgrass steppe. Modifications to current grazing management strategies are needed in seasonality and intensity of use, as well as animal behavior, to create habitat for mountain plover.

Research has been initiated to determine the consequences of changing season of use from summer to early spring to coincide with the nesting time period of mountain plover, as well as increasing grazing intensity to very high levels to reduce vegetation structure and cover. In addition, researchers are modifying animal behavior by strategically placing supplemental feed in areas that are preferred by mountain plover to target desired vegetation changes in key areas within large pastures.

Initiated in 2004, the research project is a collaborative effort with the Crow Valley Livestock Cooperative, the oldest grazing association in the United States.

To participate in the tour, contact Mary Ashby (970) 897-2226 by April 1. For more information about the study, contact Justin Derner (307) 772-2433 ext.113.