Land Stewardship
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Land Stewardship

Strength in Numbers: How a Joint Effort is Restoring Grassland Bird Populations

This story was originally published at wild-wonderings.blogspot.com in June 2014. For the most up-to-date information, please visit our website at nri.tamu.edu.

In the past 50 years, Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus; hereafter “bobwhites”) populations have declined by over 90% throughout much of Texas. The eastern meadowlark, another once common grassland bird, has seen its populations drop by over 75% in the last fifty years. Grassland bird populations across the country are showing the greatest decline among native bird species. Factors contributing to these declines include fire suppression, improper livestock grazing, habitat being converted to large-scale crop production, urbanization, and the planting of exotic grasses and other non-native forage. In Oklahoma and Texas, around 2.5 million rural acres have been converted to urban areas. Addressing the various factors causing grassland bird populations to decline on a large scale requires the coordination and cooperation of many different natural resource professionals.

Restored grassland area in Austin County, Texas

Joint ventures are collaborative, regional partnerships among state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, corporations, and individuals that address the conservation needs of migratory and grassland bird species in different regions across the nation. Joint ventures create region-wide conservation plans that focus on the needs of specific birds and their habitat in their specific regions. The Oaks and Prairie Joint Venture (OPJV) unites organizations with a common goal of reversing grassland bird declines across Texas and Oklahoma and is active in two bird conservation regions (BCRs): the Edwards Plateau BCR and the Oaks and Prairies BCR of Oklahoma and Texas. Combined, these regions cover 59 million acres of land that are habitat for over 450 species of birds, including two federally endangered species: the golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) and the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla).

Black-capped vireo, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov)

On November 1, 2013, OPJV began the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program (GRIP) which is an incentive based program that encourages landowners and land managers to improve habitat for grassland species, including bobwhites. The GRIP provides funding for approved practices to improve grassland habitat such as native grass reseeding, brush management, prescribed burning, and disking. These practices greatly benefit bobwhites and other grassland birds by maximizing the availability of needed food and cover. Using available data on land usage patterns, urbanization, and distribution of target species, the OPJV selects counties with land that is favorable for grassland restoration and that are on the receding edge of bobwhite habitat. The hope is that these focus areas, where quail populations have recently declined, will be the easiest locations to restore their populations. Since its inception, the GRIP has enrolled over 50 participants with a combined total area of 34,000 acres. At the low average cost of $15 per acre, the GRIP has invested half a million dollars in native grassland restoration. A list of GRIP eligible counties and more information can be found on the GRIP page.

GRIP eligible counties, courtesy of Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture

The OPJV, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the AgriLife Extension Wildlife and Fisheries Unit (Extension) are striving to promote grassland restoration. Extension has been an important player in the conservation projects of the OPJV. In particular, Extension helps the OPJV identify research needs through research and science teams: part of the “learn” segment of the strategic habitat conservation model. In addition, Extension offers the OPJV conservation ideas and objectives to help reduce the grassland bird decline: part of the “plan” segment.

Strategic habitat conservation model, courtesy of Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture

Healthy grassland and prairie ecosystems benefit not only quail but also other species such as Texas horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum), Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna), and lark sparrows (Chondestes grammacus). The OPJV, TPWD and Extension are paving the way for native grassland restoration, thanks to the help of participating land owners and land managers. However, management practices may differ according to habitat and ecoregion; in order to best manage the land in your area or to get help creating a management plan, contact your local county Extension agent for more information. More information on how to get involved to improve grassland habitat can be found at the AgriLife Bookstore and the Wild Wonderings Blog, with educational videos on the Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Extension YouTube channel.

Forbs occupying a previously disked strip

This article was developed through the Reversing the Quail Decline Initiative funded by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department through Upland Game Bird Stamp funds.

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The Land Stewardship publication provides landowners, land managers, outdoor and conservation enthusiasts with research and know-how to support land, water and wildlife stewardship.

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Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute

Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute

At the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, our work improves the conservation and management of natural resources through applied research. nri.tamu.edu

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