Wildlife habitat credited to good planning

Farm Forum

Huron (NRCS) – As South Dakotans prepare for fall hunting, some may not realize the lengthy planning behind the great habitat found on working agricultural lands. Ranchers have known for years that good grazing management also benefits wildlife.

Doug Sargent, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) biologist, Pierre, describes how grassland management impacts wildlife, especially birds, “Grazing which provides for a lot of structural variation in terms of tall, medium and short grasses, can provide habitat for a broad array of grassland dependent species.” Sargent adds that many birds need more contiguous acres. These private landowners translate those concepts into their respective ranch’s operations.

Rotational grazing is part of every ranch plan. Hyde County rancher Jim Faulstich leaves a patchwork of paddocks grazed at different levels that provide variable height of diverse grasses and forbs. Mellette County rancher Dan Rasmussen combines light, season-long grazing in large pastures with rotational grazing in smaller paddocks. Pastures reserved for winter grazing are home to nesting birds and animals all summer. Gregory County rancher Dave Steffen utilizes the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to defer grazing for a whole year on 30 percent of his grass. He was delighted during last year’s drought to see that previous year’s deferred pastures produced noticeably better than grazed pastures, providing more grass for his cattle and critical wildlife habitat.

Near Veblen, S.D., Neil Bien’s 70-80 acres of trees add another layer of vegetation for wildlife habitat. Faulstich plants wildlife friendly trees that also serve as winter wind protection for his cattle.

Stocking density, frequency of moving and pasture size all impact utilization rates in individual pastures. Sargent says allowing half or more of existing vegetation to remain creates the “mosaic” of short, mid and tall grasses and forbs considered optimal for wildlife.

Water development is also critical for wildlife habitat. NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) has been instrumental in providing water to pastures. Some ranchers take water development a step further. Jeff Smeenk who ranches near Newell, SD, qualified for special EQIP assistance because he has land near sage grouse breeding grounds. The contract calls for him to install bird ladders on new tanks. A Bird Tour on the Smeenk Ranch counted over 40 species. Rancher Larry Wagner, Chamberlain, also has bird ladders in

his tanks as does Dave Steffen.

As conservation-minded management practices are implemented, these landowners have noticed increasing wildlife, most noticeably in the quantity and diversity of birds. These South Dakota Grassland Coalition members like watching lively bobolinks sway perched atop tall grass seed heads. Bobolinks and similar species are in decline in many places across the upper Great Plains.

Interested in ideas for your operation? NRCS rangeland management specialists offer free on-site consultations and the SD Grassland Coalition (http://www.sdgrass.org/) provides tips for various facets of grazing and livestock management, including wildlife considerations. Planning for wildlife seems to be addictive. The more these landowners have put what they’ve learned into practice, the more committed they are to helping others help their resources provide good wildlife habitat.