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Wildlife and ranching, Prairie chickens need diversity in habitat

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The better job ranchers do managing their grazing land, the better the habitat for wild game birds like the Lesser prairie chicken, according to a research assistant with the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. John Kraft told ranchers during the Nebraska Grazing Conference that lesser prairie chickens have variable habitat needs but prefer large, continuous grasslands or native prairie over the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and ditch lands preferred by their counterparts – grouse and pheasants.

“They select different habitats based on whether they are nesting or already have chicks,” Kraft says. 

In the spring, they prefer bare ground with a mixture of shrubs and sage-type vegetation. 

“They like spots on top of hills that are open so the males can display and be seen well,” he explains. 

When the birds are nesting, they are looking for areas with the most amount of cover because they don’t want to be seen at all. Once the chicks hatch, they are looking for a medium range of habitat and open ground, so the chicks can move around easier.

Grazing impacts

  The diversity of habitat needed by the birds concerns Kraft because contemporary grazing management strategies lean towards smaller pastures, shorter grazing periods and higher stocking densities. These strategies are becoming more popular among ranchers who want to more uniformly graze their grasslands. 

“As grazing strategies strive for uniformity in grazing pressure, habitat heterogeneity and biodiversity is sacrificed,” Kraft explains to producers. “Although some wildlife species reap benefits of homogenous or uniform grazing disturbance, the costs to species more reliant on variable vegetation structure are significant.” 

Creating more and better habitat for the prairie chicken can be accomplished through landscape heterogeneity, Kraft explains. 

Patch burn grazing

“Most commonly, patch-burn grazing has been the management regime of choice for creating landscape and pasture heterogeneity beneficial to grassland wildlife,” Kraft says, while admitting the technique lacks popularity among ranchers. 

Patch burn grazing is created by controlled burning of a part of the pasture and directing grazing pressure to a smaller part of the pasture to create highly used areas and lower used areas, he explains. 

“Studies have shown recently burned patches have higher forage quality than areas burned three years ago,” he notes.

Careful management

It may be possible to use careful grazing management as an alternative. He proposes developing pasture heterogeneity through livestock grazing management strategies like pasture deferment, pasture size and stocking density. Utilizing patch grazing, along with placing water and mineral in strategic locations and managing grazing pressure in multiple pastures can allow producers to better manage wild birds like the prairie chicken.

Kraft believes producers can use forage quality to drive grazing distribution. He believes producers tend to stock smaller pastures with more livestock, while larger pastures are typically understocked. 

“If they could stock these pastures so the most pressure is concentrated on high-quality forages, it would leave other areas that don’t have a lot of use,” he says. 

Robust habitat

Studies have shown that modest grazing utilization creates the most habitat for the prairie chicken, Kraft shares. 

“The optimum lesser prairie chicken habitat is what they will use the most. I think it follows the basis of take half, leave half,” he explains. 

The prairie chickens place nests in the most robust habitat, Kraft continues. 

“There is a low probability of nest placement when the availability of forage drops below 20 percent. However, 20 percent forage utilization creates a more desirable nesting habitat. Twenty percent isn’t as plausible as 40 to 45 percent to a beef producer, but it can create a full variant of habitat structure using these variables,” he explains. 

“The birds could be trying to select from both habitats at one time,” Kraft says. “One pasture might offer better nesting habitat, like switchgrass that hasn’t been grazed, next to good brooding habitat that has been grazed more.” 

“It is a matter of nest success versus bird survival,” he explains. 

“At higher stocking density, we won’t get the increase in heterogeneity, which is driven by grazing selectivity,” he says. “But, as pasture size increases, there is a higher probability of grazing habitat because we have a tendency to stock larger pastures lighter.” 

“With any increase in grazing pressure, we will see a drop-off in nesting habitat,” he adds.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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