Hope for Montana’s Prairie Songsters

Rotational grazing and cropland conversions could help slow the decline of fast-disappearing grassland bird populations. By Bruce Auchly

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
July–August 2002

Early some summer morning, pick a gravel road anywhere in north-central or eastern Montana and drive three miles north of nowhere. Turn off the engine. Soon you’ll hear a prairie songbird chorus filled with shrill short notes, tiny sleigh bells, and pulsing trills, repeated over and over. Listen now, because the songbirds of the prairie are disappearing.

Since 1967 the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) has documented the relative abundance of bird populations in Canada and the United States. From the beginning, BBS counts have indicated a long, continuous decline for many prairie bird populations, especially songbirds like the Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, and McCown’s longspur. Numbers of other species, such as the ferruginous hawk and the burrowing owl, have dropped so precipitously they have become species of special concern in Montana. And then there is the oddly named mountain plover—a prairie shorebird that has become so rare it has been proposed for listing as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The culprit responsible for the disappearance of so many grassland birds? The plow. “Problem number one is the loss of native prairie,” says John Carlson, a zoologist with the Montana Natural Heritage Program. Before European settlement, roughly 77 percent (72 million acres) of what is today Montana was not forested, according to Natural Heritage Program estimates. Most of that acreage was mixed grass prairie east of the Rockies, but it also included meadows west of the Continental Divide and the sagebrush-dominated steppe in eastern and southeastern Montana. The first large assault on this prairie sea occurred from 1900 to 1921, when Montana saw the arrival of nearly 200,000 homesteaders, many of whom turned grasslands into farm fields.

And sodbusting continues even today. From 1982 to 1997, 1.2 million acres of Montana’s prairie were converted to cropland. That’s an area about the size of a middling county like Judith Basin or Toole.

“With conversion to cropland,” Carlson explains, “you totally eliminate the habitat for 99 percent of those prairie bird species.”

Fortunately the picture of Montana’s prairie birds is not as bleak as on the rest of the Great Plains. Rest-rotation grazing done by some ranching operations is reinvigorating large tracts of grasslands, while the federal Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to convert erodible farmland to wildlife habitat made of native plant species. The results, say biologists, could stem the decline of some grassland bird populations in Montana.

Drab as a homesteader’s cabin
Prairie songbirds are among the least- known and -studied birds in North America. That’s not hard to figure. They nest far from population centers, in a region and climate most folks aren’t eager to visit. And because many prairie songbirds are sparrow species, some people mistakenly equate them with the pesky house (English) sparrow. Another reason for prairie birds’ obscurity is their color (or lack of). When these songbirds do show themselves above the short grasses of Montana’s prairie, they are as drab as a homesteader’s cabin, often marked only by furtive streaks of brown and white feathers. To most people, chestnut-collared longspurs, Sprague’s pipits, and McCown’s longspurs are simply “LBJs”: little brown jobs.

That’s not to say the plain-looking songsters don’t have a fan or two. “The people who live out here in the plains just love these birds, even if they don’t know their names,” says Beth Madden, a federal wildlife biologist at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, located in Montana’s northeastern corner. Prairie winters are long, and the barren landscape is frozen for much of the year. When prairie songbirds return in the spring and sing again, they represent to local residents a return of warmth and new life. “It adds to the quality of life,” says Madden.

Aside from their pretty spring melodies, however, prairie birds aren’t highly valued. A common question posed to biologists is why something so seemingly insignificant is worth saving. Fortunately, even LBJs had an eloquent champion in Aldo Leopold, the renowned ecologist and founder of modern wildlife management. “The last word in ignorance,” wrote Leopold, “is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?”

Modern ranchers, certainly no fools, may unwittingly be the best friends those little brown jobs have. Although a significant portion of Montana’s prairie has been plowed, the state has retained more than half of its native grasslands (roughly 40 million acres), much of it cattle pasture. Meanwhile, about 75 percent of the entire nation’s mixed-grass prairie has disappeared.

“Compared to Kansas and eastern Colorado we have a lot of intact habitat,” says Carlson. “Our challenge is to keep it that way.”

That’s where ranchers come in. Ranchers, as well as wildlife biologists and range scientists, believe that the best use for Montana’s remaining prairie is turning its grass into beef. Because Montana’s native grass prairie evolved with grazers, mainly bison, they contend that cattle ranching can actually conserve grass prairie habitat while providing a livelihood for ranchers.

“[Private] land has to produce an income,” says Rick Northrup, a Montana FWP biologist at Malta. “And there are four ways to do that: lease land for someone’s private hunting playground, small-grain farming, ranching, and, in some areas, subdividing [for commercial development]. For most of the public, ranching is the best option because it supports native wildlife and provides hunting opportunities. It also maintains the native setting and the aesthetics.”

Ranchers, in other words, could actually help save Montana’s prairie glee club.

Not that Henry Gordon of Chinook knows one prairie songbird from another. But the Chinook-area rancher does believe that ranching is a lot better for wildlife than farming has been.
“This land was never meant to be farmed,” says Gordon, 52, whose grandfather homesteaded more than 100 years ago. The Gordon Cattle Company controls 60,000 acres, about half of it north of Chinook and the Milk River—thin-skinned land in a dry climate that never should ever have felt a plow.

“Cattle and wildlife are the only things this land is good for,” Gordon says.

Prairie patchwork
To a large extent, wildlife biologists agree. Historically, the Great Plains exhibited a patchwork of prairie reflecting a variety of grazing patterns. For example, Lewis and Clark reported a carpet of prickly pear cactus around what is today Great Falls, apparently due to bison overgrazing the area. Meanwhile, other portions of the prairie were hardly grazed for years, and others were scorched by prairie fires.

Today, wildlife biologists encourage ranchers to employ a practice called rest-rotation grazing, by which some pastures are rested while others are temporarily grazed. The result is a diversity of grass heights that support a wide range of wildlife species.

Prairie grass evolved with grazing bison. When cropped, the plants put energy into roots and the remaining top growth, which concentrates nutrients. Hoofed animals also help break up the soil and dead grass while spreading seeds.

Traditional cattle grazing management does clip prairie grass short, but too often it also creates a monoculture of uniform grass height. That lack of diversity, says Carlson, robs many wildlife species of their unique habitat. “These grassland birds evolved in a system where nothing was the same over 20 miles, 40 miles,” he says. “You had grass that was beaten down to nothing, grass that was left alone, grass that was burned, and grass that was in good shape.”

Different prairie birds take advantage of varying grass heights and conditions. McCown’s longspurs, for example, put their nests in sparse plant cover. Baird’s sparrows, on the other hand, need overhanging vegetation for nesting and will abandon an area if the surrounding grass gets grazed too much. Mountain plovers make their nests in short, sparse vegetation—even bare ground. Burrowing owls use a mixture. They nest in burrows of prairie dog towns, where the surrounding barren ground lets them see predators more easily. To find food, however, the little owls head to dense vegetation, at least 12 inches tall, which holds insects and small mammals.
To help ranchers maintain or improve grazing programs that produce a diverse prairie landscape, FWP and other agencies and organizations offer conservation easements. Landowners are paid to give up certain rights, like subdividing, sodbusting, and surface mining. In return, they agree to conserve land and wildlife habitat in order to maintain a healthy range and watershed. FWP has about 250,000 acres under conservation easements—mostly for elk and deer habitat. Roughly one-fifth of that, or 50,000 acres, is classified as sagebrush-grassland.

“The best thing FWP has going for grassland birds is the department’s conservation easement program,” Carlson says. “Even when it’s intended for conserving big game habitat, it does good things for other species.”

Northrup, the FWP biologist, has helped oversee three grants through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. The most recent project combined $1 million from NAWCA and
$2.7 million of money and in-kind contributions from the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, five government agencies, and seven private groups.

“That money will go to protecting and establishing wetlands,” Northrup says, “and to grassland and wetland conservation easements that will protect those places from tillage and draining.” He adds that the easements will allow for traditional ranching uses such as grazing and haying, but only after July 15, when most grassland birds have finished nesting.

Less erosion, more wildlife
Conservation easements keep the plow off the prairie. But what about a prairie already turned upside down?

So far, the best attempt to restore cropland to grassland has been the federal Conservation Reserve Program. It began in 1986 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture paying farmers to take erodible, marginally productive farm land out of production. The goal: raise grain prices while reducing soil erosion.

Though still reducing grain gluts and soil loss, CRP has been revised in recent years to focus more on benefiting wildlife and water quality. Farmers bid their fields on a point system—the more points, the better the chance a particular field will qualify for enrollment. Points are given for using legumes and native seed mixtures beneficial to wildlife, such as those that provide nesting and sheltering cover and restore rare and declining native grassland habitat. Additional points are given for establishing food plots.

Arlo Skari has about 1,000 of his farm’s 7,000 acres in CRP and other conservation plantings. The Skari farm lies north of U.S. Highway 2 between Chester and the Sweet Grass Hills. It’s inside the Golden Triangle formed by Cut Bank, Great Falls, and Havre, a region named for its productive wheat fields. Eighty years after the end of the homestead era, abandoned cabins still litter the landscape. The scars on the land from eight decades of intensive farming are slow to heal,
too. Skari came to farm this fertile land in 1947 as a young man and, over the years, cultivated increasing acres as he expanded his holdings. Then, 15 years ago, he stopped.

“I felt it was not needed,” Skari says. “The country was awash in wheat and we needed the preservation of native plant species.”

The Skari farm, now managed by his son, is a model of land conservation and agricultural economics. Yet looking back on a life well spent, Skari wonders if he and his neighbors might have left more land unplowed.

“Stepping back and looking at the big picture,” Skari says of the prairie, “it never should have been broken out. I think it would have been better if it would have been left in ranching.”

Skari lives far out on the prairie, almost 14 miles from the pavement. Stretching to the horizon are acres and acres of wheat and barley along with an occasional field planted back to native grasses. Off to the side of the road, out of the vegetation, a small drab bird takes off, flying skyward to 100 yards. At its zenith it circles and then begins a long glide while singing a 12-note melody of jingling, metallic sounds. After several bouts of song, the bird drops into the grass and disappears.

Was it ever really there at all?Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly, an FWP information officer at Great Falls, is a frequent contributor to Montana Outdoors.

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