The grasslands of Texas and Oklahoma should be alive with native birds: Painted Buntings, Eastern Meadowlarks, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Loggerhead Shrikes, Dickcissels, and many others, including Northern Bobwhite, an iconic species in the region. But poor land-management practices such as overgrazing and fire suppression have turned much of the prairie into subpar habitat for the birds and other creatures, including the monarch butterfly, that depend on it.
When their habitat suffers, native bird and butterfly populations decline. The number of Northern Bobwhites has dropped by as much as 57 percent in the last 10 years in the Oaks and Prairies ecoregion.
The figures aren't encouraging for other bird species. Eastern Meadowlarks have declined by as much as 48 percent, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers by 18 percent, and Loggerhead Shrikes by 51 percent in the last decade, for instance. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), meanwhile, is evaluating whether the monarch butterfly's migratory populations should be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The number of Northern Bobwhites has dropped by as much as 57 percent in the last 10 years in the Oaks and Prairies ecoregion. Photo by Gary Kramer/National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
“The issue is the same for all of them, which is the loss of native habitat,” says Jim Giocomo. He is ABC's coordinator for the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture (OPJV), a coalition of state and federal agencies and nonprofit groups that have joined forces to support bird-conservation efforts in Texas and Oklahoma. The partnership includes the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, ABC, and others.
With the help of local landowners and biologists, a new OPJV program, the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program (GRIP), aims to stem or reverse the decline of native-prairie habitat and help bring back the quail and other species. Through the program, ABC and other Migratory Bird Joint Venture partners are working to improve or restore more than 40,000 acres of habitat in Texas and now Oklahoma.
Eastern Meadowlarks and other grassland birds depend on healthy prairie habitat to survive. Photo by Gualberto Becerra/Shutterstock
The GRIP program “basically pays landowners to do good things with grassland,” Giocomo says. Those “good things” include the use of prescribed burning, proper grazing and fencing, brush clearing, and planting native species instead of exotics such as Bermuda grass.
GRIP began in late 2013; it's so new that conservationists don't have enough data yet to know how well it's working. Over time, though, they'll try to answer that question as they track populations of bobwhite and other species through the Breeding Bird Survey and other assessments.
Trouble for Birds and Butterflies
What benefits the birds helps other creatures as well. A robust prairie ecosystem supports not just native grasses but an array of forbs, broad-leafed flowering plants that bees and other pollinators feed on. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs only on native species of milkweed; when they hatch, the larvae feast on the milkweed and absorb toxins from the plants, which makes them unappetizing to potential predators. That protective advantage remains in place when they become adults.
What benefits the birds also benefits other creatures, including the monarch butterfly (pictured here on milkweed). Photo by Rob Routledge, Sault College/Bugwood.org
Science supports the GRIP approach. When native bluestem, Indiangrass, and other tall native bunch grasses aren't plentiful, the animals that rely on them for food and shelter feel the effects. Bobwhites need thick clumps of grass for nesting sites and a healthy plant community where they can forage for seeds and insects.
“Everybody needs prairie,” says Wendy Caldwell, Program Coordinator of the Monarch Joint Venture, which works to protect the monarch migration across the continental United States. Several of the partners in that program focus not just on monarchs but on grassland birds and other species as well. “There's a lot of overlap between the habitats that these critters use,” she says. “When we're restoring habitat for monarchs, that's essentially prairie restoration.”
Like many of the birds whose habitat they share, monarchs are in trouble. Researchers estimate the strength of the North American migratory monarch population by estimating how many individuals overwinter in Mexico. In 1996, close to 1 billion butterflies made it there. In 2013, that figure dropped to an estimated 35 million.
Monarch butterflies are in trouble, and damage to prairies is a big culprit as crucial milkweed plants are displaced by intensive farming. Photo of monarch caterpillar on milkweed by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service/Bugwood.org
Several factors have contributed to the butterflies' plight, Caldwell says, but damage to the prairie ecosystem is a big culprit. Milkweed that used to grow alongside and within row-crop fields has been displaced by more intensive farming of the land. Herbicide-tolerant crops drive habitat loss “because those herbicides are eliminating milkweed and other nectar sources.”
“The availability of nectar-producing forbs is a big issue,” says Benjamin Hutchins, an invertebrate biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The state recently put in place a Monarch Conservation Plan he helped develop. “Overgrazing, planting with non-native or invasive species, urbanization—all of these have resulted in a pretty substantial reduction of what was historically grassland prairie.” In the Blackland Prairie ecoregion of north-central Texas, for instance, less than 1 percent of the native prairie remains.
That's where the prairie restoration work supported by the GRIP program comes in. It collaborates with landowners on a voluntary basis, giving them financial incentives and expert advice to help them manage their land in ways that encourage healthy grassland habitats. Any of the Joint Venture partner organizations can submit specific project proposals, which are reviewed by local teams of biologists and land managers.
In areas that were historically grasslands with scattered trees, the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program can help landowners remove understory vegetation to ensure those ecosystems meet the needs of the birds and butterflies that reside there. Photo by Jon Hayes
The Ax, the Plow, and the Match
Jon Hayes, a conservation delivery specialist with the TPWD, covers the southern portion of the Joint Venture's focus area. He works closely with local wildlife biologists and landowners who participate in GRIP. Much of his job revolves around “strategies we can put in the toolkit of the local biologist that's working with the landowners,” he says.
When he describes the GRIP approach, Hayes invokes a well-known observation made by the conservationist Aldo Leopold that the tools that harm the land can be used to repair it: “the ax, the match, the cow, the plow, and the gun.” GRIP focuses on the ax, the match, the cow, and the plow. For instance, Hayes says, “we get folks to chop down woody invasives” that don't provide good habitat for grassland birds.
Prescribed burns also keep grasslands open for both birds and native plants—but setting fires can be a tough sell. “Fire's an integral part of maintaining grasslands in the West,” Hayes says. “But it's something people are often hesitant to do.” GRIP provides training and encouragement.
Prescribed burning is one of the most cost-effective habitat management tools in grassland ecosystems. Here a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department burn crew member lights a fire during a prescribed burn operation. Photo by Jon Hayes
The program also supports the removal of exotic grasses, imported from Asia and Africa to feed livestock. “They tend to take over,” Hayes says. He adds that exotics like Bermuda grass also require a lot of fertilizer and water to make good fodder. Good conservation practices make sense from a ranching perspective, too. Native grasses “tend to be more drought-resistant than the other grasses,” he says. “They're higher in nutrients, and replace more biomass.”
GRIP helps landowners replace exotics with native grasses where it's feasible to do so. The program defrays the costs of plowing and planting native seed mixes and, when necessary, applying herbicides. Local or regional seed companies can custom-mix seed blends to suit particular locales, increasing the chances that what's planted will thrive.
“That's costly, and it's not something that landowners are readily going to do on their own,” Hayes says. “We have to make the case to them that there's an economic benefit there, there's a forage benefit there, and there are tremendous wildlife benefits.”
Prairie grasses and flowering plants flourish following a prescribed burn. Photo by Jon Hayes
A Love of the Land
Many landowners GRIP works with don't need a whole lot of convincing to adopt more wildlife-friendly practices. They may be conservation-minded to begin with—or they've noticed that they're not seeing once-familiar birds as often as they used to.
“They may not recognize that Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are on the decline, but they do recognize that bobwhite are,” says Kenneth Gee, a conservation delivery specialist with OPJV. He covers the northern part of its range. “You use the species that's of most interest to get the point across and get your program implemented.”
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are among the many bird species that benefit from the GRIP program. Photo by Ken Slade
Beyond money, GRIP provides crucial know-how. “We're here to educate. We're here to give advice,” says Matt Reidy, a wildlife biologist with TPWD who's been working with GRIP since it began. “It takes time to build relationships.”
For instance, he works with a small group of ranches—about 18,000 acres in all—whose owners started talking a few years ago about how they could jointly improve quail habitat on their land.
“Quail management provides an umbrella for so many other species, including monarch butterflies, including grassland birds,” Reidy says. Conservation can be contagious. As landowners become more familiar with those species, “they do get excited to see Painted Buntings or Grasshopper Sparrows or meadowlarks.”
Sometimes a light touch—or light grazing—works best. “For years and years, wildlife biologists were saying ‘Get the cows off, get the cows off,'” Reidy says. Now they recognize that “in a lot of ways, grazing is a wonderful tool.” Historically, these prairies were home to large numbers of bison as well as deer. Cows can be a healthy part of the landscape as long as they're not allowed to overgraze it. On the other hand, “you can get too thick with grass,” Reidy says. “To be a successful cowman and take care of the land, you've got to be flexible.”
By collaborating with landowners, the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture is helping to make grasslands healthy once again for birds such as the Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Maria Jeffs/Shutterstock
An approach that works one year—a year when there's been ample rain, for instance, and the plants are thriving—might not work when drought strikes. The GRIP approach takes that into account, equipping people with the knowledge to adapt what they do as conditions change.
“Land management is not simple, at least not down here,” Reidy says. “You have to try to teach the landowners the skills to evaluate the landscape and say, ‘What should I do next?'”
Knowing how to make the right call can make a world of difference—not just to bobwhites but to monarchs and the myriad other species that count on healthy prairie ecosystems in order to survive and thrive.
Jennifer Howard is Director of Public Relations at ABC. She was a writer and reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education for 10 years and before that was a contributing editor and columnist with The Washington Post. She writes nonfiction for The Times Literary Supplement and the Boston Review and her fiction work has been published by Virginia Quarterly Review and others. Follow Jen on Twitter at @JenHoward.