Ranchers of the Northern Great Plains provide a safe haven for grassland birds

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Spring rains, billowing waves of healthy grass, mule deer bounding across the prairie, and birdsong at dawn; all of these things are brushstrokes on an irreplaceable canvas called the Northern Great Plains. If we lose just one of these elements, the painting will no longer be the same. As Montana rancher Dale Veseth puts it, “One of my neighbors said it best…what’s good for a duck, is good for a deer, is good for a cow. And we all live on one small planet.” Recently, WWF’s Northern Great Plains program has begun to look more closely at the role that grassland songbirds play on ranchland throughout the region.

Birds can be excellent indicators of ecosystem health, according to several studies. They occupy many habitats, eat a variety of foods, are relatively easy to monitor, and are sensitive to changes on the land. Grassland birds, as a whole, are in steep decline and a growing wildlife management concern. Ranchers appreciate birds for several different reasons and look to them as signals for seasonal changes, as game species, and agents of insect control. For others, it is simply the intangible ways in which birds improve the quality of our lives through their beautiful songs and coloration. WWF’s mission is to raise the public’s awareness of the value of working ranches as productive wildlife habitat, and gain more insight into ranching practices that help to sustain healthy bird populations on ranchland.

Well-managed ranchland can harbor a diverse community of wildlife and plant populations. WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative is focused on measuring the capacity of ranchland to support grassland birds, while also providing information that helps sustain ranching. Each year, WWF and our monitoring partner, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, set up survey locations within each individual participating ranch. Surveys are randomly located within property boundaries allowing all areas an equal chance of being surveyed. At each survey location, a 200-acre square grid of 16 bird counting points (each 250 yards apart and surveyed for 6 minutes) is used by survey crews to monitor birds. This method allows birds that are found within the sampling square on each ranch to be surveyed, and also allows for comparison with surveys in similar habitat on other private, federal and state lands. These counts are part of a larger monitoring system for birds that spans several states.

How is the survey information used to help birds and ranchers?

1.  As a guide for WWF and its conservation partners on ways to best help to sustain ranching.
Our work wouldn’t be possible without the coordination and cooperation of our ranching partners. When WWF initiates the monitoring process with a ranching partner, we are also building on a conversation with ranchers that helps determine how WWF can most effectively offer support in areas such as public relations and ranching-friendly policy. Our monitoring of birds and vegetation provides information that can be used to build public and agency appreciation for ranching.

2.  To provide ranchers with information on birds related to range condition
WWF provides each participating ranch with a list of the birds found during surveys on their property and reports on how their information compares with other ranches at the local, regional, and multi-state level. All survey information is anonymous and remains confidential. For some landowners, a bird list leads to more questions about what can be done to increase current bird populations or attract other species. For others, bird and vegetation data can useful for ranchland management—this may be particularly important when newly acquired land is being managed or changes in management are being considered. Some may even use the newly acquired bird information to help market their beef and other aspects of their operations such as bird watching and hunting. For the rest, a bird list satisfies landowner curiosity about species that their land supports and how their operation compares with other ranches. WWF staff offers insight to landowners on how various bird species have specific habitat needs, which may help to inform their ranchland management options.

3.  To establish benchmarks that can be used to understand bird distribution dynamics on ranchland.
The information that results from bird population surveys on ranchland will establish regional benchmarks that can be used to understand short-, mid-, and long-term patterns in bird distributions, and how they change annually. Linking the abundance and occurrence of birds to vegetation patterns will contribute to a better understanding of grassland bird ecology, while also providing feedback to the ranching community in regard to how current management practices affect grassland bird populations.