Cattle, Curlews, and Conservation: New South Dakota Project Benefits Great Plains Birds and Working Lands

Montana's Long-billed Curlews will be among the beneficiaries of the new RCPP award. Photo by Tim Zurowski/Shutterstock

A new project in South Dakota aims to enhance Long-billed Curlew habitat through grazing management and by returning annual cropland to grass. Photo by Tim Zurowski

With the tagline “cattle, curlews, conservation,” American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is partnering with Pheasants Forever, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and private land managers on a new project to enhance habitat for Long-billed Curlews and other iconic grassland birds in northwestern South Dakota.

The new project will run from 2020 to 2024 and will enhance habitat by implementing rotational cattle grazing over 21,000 acres and by returning 670 acres of annual cropland to perennial grass. It is funded by the South Dakota NRCS through their Conservation Implementation Strategy (CIS), a subset of Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds targeting such high-priority resource concerns as wildlife habitat for declining species and watershed water quality protection.

The Long-billed Curlew was chosen as the project's focal species because its habitat needs range from shorter grass for egg laying to longer grass for chick rearing, encompassing the habitat of many other grassland species, which will then also benefit from curlew conservation efforts.

The new project builds on prior ABC efforts including: a publication entitled Land Manager's Guide to Grassland Conservation and the Long-billed Curlew; a report called Conservation Strategies for the Long-billed Curlew: Focal Areas, Desired Habitat Conditions and Best Management Practices; and a three-year ABC-led roadside curlew survey conducted in southwestern North Dakota. These and other private lands conservation efforts in the Plains aim to help ranchers strengthen their land management and operations so that wildlife can thrive on healthy, resilient working lands.

Rotating cattle among pastures instead of keeping them in one pasture can improve grass height and species diversity, boost plant health, and provide better forage for livestock by allowing plants to recover and grow between grazing periods.

Annual cropland is poor habitat for most wildlife species. By returning less productive fields to perennial grasses, landowners and managers can provide hay or grazing space as well as bird habitat — especially when wildlife-friendly steps are taken, including hay harvests timed to occur after bird nesting and the provision of ramps that allow birds to safely drink from livestock tanks.

“Many ranchers have fond memories of watching curlew pairs return year after year to their land, and this project embodies our shared desire to maintain these birds and lands for future generations,” says Jessica Howell, ABC Northern Plains Conservation Specialist and lead on this project.


Media Contact: Jordan Rutter, Director of Public Relations, 202-888-7472 | | @JERutter
Expert Contact: Jessica Howell, Northern Plains Conservation Specialist |

American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).