A collaborative effort between conservationists and farmers in Nebraska has resulted in a noticeable increase in the local Mountain Plover population. Photo courtesy of Tyler Michaels and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

Boosting Birds Through Contagious Conservation

Landowners and conservationists find cooperation provides mutual benefit

The relationship between the conservation community and landowners has long been a complicated one. The two groups have often squared off over their differing views on how best to serve the land. But a new wind is rising across the Great Plains, bringing with it the philosophy of mutual cooperation for mutual benefit.

Grady Grissom, Rancho Largo Cattle Company, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Nick Clement and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

“The concept of cooperative conservation between landowners, nonprofits, and government agencies is something that I see happening throughout the Great Plains…,” says Grady Grissom, a Colorado rancher who embraces the importance of conservation and uses it to enhance his work. “The majority of the ranchers and the mainstream of the conservation community are seeing eye-to-eye and are seeing common desired outcomes.”

Grassland conservation efforts have begun to shift to include the idea of ranching and grazing as a necessary replacement for the vast herds of buffalo that once roamed the grassland, but Grady embraced this outlook as a function of simple economics.

“In the late 1990s, our ranch was overstocked and in economic and ecological decline. When we got the stocking rate right, the bleeding stopped, but a focus on ecological health through grazing really made the economics work.”

By promoting plant and ecosystem diversity, his lands captured more rainfall and grew green forage for a longer time in spring and fall, allowing him to spend less money feeding the cattle protein supplements.

At about the same time Grady was changing to a more holistic grazing management approach, he was introduced to Tammy VerCauteren, executive director of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. Their conversations about grassland birds, tamarisk invasion, and playas led to a number of collaborations, with Grady eventually becoming a board member of the non-profit organization. Besides hosting several workshops at Rancho Largo Cattle Company, Grady partnered with Bird Conservancy to restore two playas at the ranch.

Grady Grissom worked with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies to restore two playas on his ranch. Photo courtesy of Grady Grissom.

While he appreciates the conservation benefits of promoting migratory birds and enjoys the sight of the wildlife that flocks to his playas, he also looks at the work with an eye for improving his bottom line.

“I have never set an ecological goal to increase the abundance of any bird species. But what I found is that by increasing the diversity of plant species, I created an environment where a lot of my grass plants go to seed every year, which is food for a lot of birds. So it inadvertently created a system that the birds like, and the birds became a good monitoring tool.”
The restored playa provides important habitat for shorebirds, like these two sandpipers, and other wildlife. Photo courtesy of Grady Grissom.

Since he has begun to nurture the diverse ecology of his ranch, Grady has embraced his avian visitors as a barometer by which to measure the success of his efforts. “Birds are the absolute best monitoring tool because they’re mobile. If I’m doing my job right in managing the ecosystem, those birds will show up,” he explains in a video that showcases him as the recipient of the 2017 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the skill to monitor those birds myself, but having Bird Conservancy of the Rockies do that is key.”

While bird monitoring is often done to evaluate the results of a specific conservation project, like the playa restoration Grady did on his property, it becomes even more informative when implemented across a large region or landscape. The data can be used to understand why grassland bird species are in such steep decline and how private landowners and conservation partners can take actions to reverse those declines.

Beyond simply using birds as an indicator of local ecological health, long-term monitoring efforts allow conservationists and landowners to keep their finger on the pulse of a variety of climate and landscape changes, assess the impacts of management actions designed to improve the health of wide swaths of cropland and rangeland, and follow trends of bird population change wherever they are found. Diligent monitoring efforts can also lead to impactful change and fruitful partnerships on a smaller, local scale as in the case of the Mountain Plover.

Mountain Plover near a nest marking flag. Photo courtesy of Clay Edmondson and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

The Mountain Plover is a festival of contradictions. It’s a shorebird, but it doesn’t spend time at the beach. It is named for the mountains, but it’s a native of the shortgrass prairie. We asked Tammy why the Mountain Plover matters for landowners. One reason, she says, is that they love to feast on insects.

“Especially during the breeding season. Birds can’t usually control large insect outbreaks after they’ve begun, but under normal conditions they can actually suppress the number of insects, keeping them below the outbreak levels.”

In the case of the Mountain Plover, detailed information about their numbers and locations allowed farmers to work cooperatively with Bird Conservancy to preserve the species prior to a decline that would have necessitated intervention from the government.

As a ground-dwelling grassland bird, the Mountain Plover prefers to make nests in prairie dog towns or heavier grazed rangeland, but in recent decades the species has adapted to nesting in fallow crop fields. Unfortunately, since they are small and easily overlooked, that often leads to accidental plowing of their nests.

In collaboration with state wildlife agencies and local farm bureaus, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies approached landowners directly to explain the problem and work toward a solution. The resulting partnership was more rewarding than anyone expected!

Larry Snyder, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies ambassador and unofficial guardian of the Mountain Plovers in southwest Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Nick Clement and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

According to Larry Snyder, who works for Bird Conservancy as a local ambassador and unofficial guardian of the Mountain Plovers in southwest Nebraska, the solution required several steps. First, they had to find the birds, a difficult task that becomes easier once plovers begin to nest. These birds are fiercely territorial and protective, so when a nest is threatened, by a tractor for instance, the birds fly out, feign a broken wing, and attempt to lure the threat away from the nest. Once the nests were found, they were marked with visual cues so local producers could continue farming and easily avoid the nests.

“We offered a cash incentive to landowners for farming around these Mountain Plover nests in a tilled field,” says Snyder. “If our field crew came out and located the nest, we gave them $100 to defer tillage around that nest site. If the landowner made the effort on his own of locating the nest, reporting it to a field crew, and allowing us to do research on that nest, we paid them $200 a nest.”

In addition to the financial aspect encouraging producers to mark the nests without assistance, teaching producers how to identify Mountain Plover nests led to a contagious conservation all of its own. Once landowners learned to find and mark the nests, they spread that knowledge to their friends and neighbors, resulting in a noticeable increase in the local plover population. In areas where there once were one or three nests, there are now ten to twelve year after year.

Mountain Plover brood. Photo courtesy of Colin Woolley and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

With this harmonious cooperation, Mountain Plovers were not listed under the Endangered Species Act as was originally proposed. Private landowners, who were already stewards of the land, became aware of the plovers nesting in their fields, and many of them remain vigilant to this day, even without an incentive payment!

This mutual respect between landowners and conservationists is developing a strong foundation of ecological benefit and fostering bonds that have the power to affect real, positive change in our landscape. As we find ways to work with individual farmers and ranchers to accomplish common goals, we serve the environment without doing each other a disservice. Whether that service is in the form of simultaneously increasing plant diversity and one’s bottom line or protecting birds from tractors and preventing population decline, burgeoning partnerships are flourishing all across the plains.

As Grady says in the conclusion of the 2017 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award video, “The pioneers of conservation included a human component. I think we went off the rails when we came up with the idea of environmentalism, which doesn’t have a human component and is driven by separation of humans from any natural environment.”

Integrating and welcoming that human component into conservation work is opening continually greater potential for productive engagement.

Landowners and conservationists no longer need to work at odds, but rather hand in hand to safeguard the environment for years to come. When we work together to accomplish goals that bind us, we do immeasurably more good than we do apart.

Grady Grissom, Rancho Largo Cattle Company — 2017 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award

Many species of grassland birds unique to the western Great Plains are in steep decline. To better understand the causes of these declines, we need information about the distribution, abundance, and habitat that the species use across their range. Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) is working with many partners, including Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, to fund and implement the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program across our six-state region. This program, IMBCR for PLJV, helps conservation partners understand how to best manage wildlife populations, where to target conservation actions to reverse species declines, and, as in the stories above, demonstrate how ranchers and farmers can operate in ways that support both ecological and economic goals.

Want to learn more? Head over to Who Cares About Trends? and The Get Down: Hormones and Birdsong Lead to Conservation for a more in-depth discussion about bird trends and the role of the IMBCR program in detecting them!

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