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Management Considerations for Enhancement of Prairie Grouse Habitat on the Sheyenne National Grasslands

Llewellyn L. Manske PhD

Associate Range Scientist
North Dakota State University
Dickinson Research Extension Center

The prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands respond favorably to sound range management practices. The key native vegetation habitat for prairie grouse management on the Sheyenne National Grasslands is the tall grass prairie habitat type. The lower portions are dominated by switchgrass and are more important as grouse habitat than the upper portions. Other native vegetation habitat types are important to the prairie grouse but do not require specific management efforts other than good range management. The prairie grouse use the switchgrass areas for most of their concealment cover activities. These are primarily for nesting, roosting, and escape cover. Cattle naturally tend to avoid these areas if other forage is available because of the high percentage of coarse stalks in the herbage. The switchgrass areas deteriorate in quality as prairie grouse habitat after 5 years without burning or mowing defoliation manipulation. The graminoid plant densities tend to decrease and the amount of woody plants tends to increase. These areas need to be manipulated by summer mowing or prescribed spring burning on a 5 or 7 year cycle. The areas that have not been manipulated by burning or mowing for 3 and 4 springs, provide excellent prairie grouse concealment cover. The sedge meadows on the toe slope need to be managed by burning or mowing defoliation manipulation on a shorter cycle. The sedge meadows are probably managed better on a 2 or 3 year cycle and some of the wetter lowlands should be manipulated annually. The manipulation of the switchgrass areas by summer mowing on a 2 or 3 year cycle tends to reduce the amount and the density of the warm season grasses and increases the amount of cool season graminoids. This reduces the quality of the switchgrass areas as prairie grouse concealment cover habitat. A fringe area of switchgrass should be left unmowed on the foot slope around the lowlands that are mowed on a 2 or 3 year cycle. The wider fringe areas of over 20 feet are more beneficial for the prairie grouse than the narrow areas of less than 10 feet wide but all areas of switchgrass have potential use as concealment cover. Summer mowing management of the sedge meadow-switchgrass plant communities would have greatest beneficial effects if conducted between 1 July and 15 August. Prescribed burning in the spring cannot be expected to leave a fringe area of switchgrass around the lowlands. Prescribed spring burning does have some advantages over summer mowing. Burning stimulates the growth of the warm season grasses more and it draws the cattle to the lowlands longer than mowing in the summer.

The sedge meadow-switchgrass areas can be managed by manipulation to benefit the prairie grouse, the warm season grasses, and the livestock. The main objective would be to have a few areas of the switchgrass plant community in the 3 and 4 year stage of growth after manipulation each spring in each pasture. One possible manipulation scheme would be to use a combination of prescribed spring burning and summer mowing on several sedge meadow-switchgrass areas in each pasture on a staggered rotation. Each sedge meadow-switchgrass areas could be burned in the spring on a 6 year cycle. The sedge meadow on the toe slope could be mowed in the summer on a 2 year cycle. The switchgrass areas on the foot slope would not be manipulated when the sedge meadows were mowed. The prescribed spring burning and summer mowing management manipulation scheme would work on a 6 year burn cycle if one sixth of the sedge meadow-switchgrass areas of each pasture would be burned in the spring of each year. No manipulations would be done in the sedge meadow-switchgrass areas in the second, fourth and sixth years after the burn. Summer mowing only of the sedge meadow areas would be done on the third and fifth years after burning. The first year manipulations would be repeated on the seventh year. The manipulation sequence would be staggered on the sedge meadow-switchgrass areas so that some areas of all stages of growth after manipulation would be present in each pasture each spring.

There is no doubt that several other possible burning and mowing defoliation management manipulation schemes could be developed that would also work. The desired goal would be to have a few areas of switchgrass at the 3 and 4 year stage after manipulation in each pasture each spring. The allotments that would manage for a high amount of the switchgrass areas at the 3 and 4 year stage after manipulation each spring would have a high prairie grouse "carrying capacity".

The grazing systems of the allotments regardless of the number of pastures should be developed to rotate two or three times in each pasture. All of the data presently available indicates that the vegetation and the prairie grouse are benefited more in the pastures that are grazed two or three times over when compared to the pastures that are grazed one time over or season long grazing.

All of the pastures of an allotment should be grazed during the growing season. No one pasture should be deferred during the entire growing season and grazed for a long period in the fall. This practice puts unnecessary grazing pressure on the other pastures in that allotment. The nutritional quality of the herbage in the deferred pasture would be below that of a pasture that has been manipulated and grazed during the growing season. The prairie grouse concealment habitat is as good or better in pastures that are grazed twice over during the growing season as in the pastures that are deferred for the entire growing season and grazed in the fall. No pasture should be grazed at the same period in two consecutive years. Burning and mowing manipulations of the sedge meadow lowland areas should be coordinated with the grazing rotation dates.

The grazing pressure in each pasture of an allotment should be nearly even. The grazing pressure for each pasture should be calculated and based on the size, number of head, and number of grazing days. The use of uneven grazing pressure to attempt to improve the range condition on range that is already in good condition is counter productive. One pasture is improved while the other pastures of that allotment decrease or stay about the same condition. None of the pastures in an allotment would have to decrease in range condition to "improve" another if the grazing pressure were nearly even in each pasture and the grazing rotation dates were set in accordance with the phenology of the vegetation.

Non-native vegetation habitat types are very important to the prairie grouse in the winter period. All of the prairie grouse present in the spring of the year have spent the previous winter on or very near to the boundaries of the Sheyenne National Grasslands. The amount of cropland habitat and adjacent tree shelterbelts on the Sheyenne National Grasslands is relatively small. The trees in the planted shelterbelts and in the small volunteer clumps are used by the prairie grouse for food and shelter. The spilled grain and crop residue are used for winter food. When the snow is deep, the prairie grouse need standing corn or sunflowers to provide high energy food to survive the winter. Some standing corn and/or sunflowers should be made available for the prairie grouse each winter. Birds that are in a weak or unhealthy condition in the spring have very low reproduction rates. The birds have to come through the winter period in a good healthy condition to assure good reproduction success in the spring. Any management effort to provide good spring-summer concealment habitat is of very little use if the birds do not survive the winter in good health and reproduce in the spring.

Literature Citations for this Reviewed Range Management Report should be as follows:

Manske, L.L. 1995. Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota. 30 p.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Habitat associations and habitats types on the Sheyenne National Grasslands of North Dakota. Pages 2-6 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Habitat usage by prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. Pages 7-13 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Management problems of the vegetation on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. Pages 14-15 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Effects of burning and mowing on prairie grouse habitat. Pages 16-19 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Effects of grazing management on prairie grouse habitat. Pages 20-25 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Biological mechanisms in grassland plants can be beneficially affected by grazing. Pages 26-28 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.

Manske, L.L. 1995. Management considerations for enhancement of prairie grouse habitat on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. Pages 29-30 in L.L. Manske, Habitat management for the prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center. Range Management Report DREC 95-1009. Dickinson, North Dakota.