Improved Habitat Management for Prairie Chicken & Blowout Penstemon

Nebraska Natural Legacy Project Partnership Team Innovation Grant

Final Report

Summary

This project supported, encouraged, and improved habitat management and monitoring for the Greater Prairie Chicken and Blowout Penstemon on private lands.   The overall objectives of the project were to maximize the quality and quantity of nesting and breeding habitat of the Greater Prairie Chicken, maintain the Blowout Penstemon planted in this area and assist in further planting, and demonstrate large- landscape conservation compatible with livestock management through collaborative cross boundary private landowner actions.

Objectives and Results

Objective #1: Conserve, restore, and manage native grasslands to improve habitat for native grassland birds, especially Greater Prairie Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido), and for the rich bird species diversity that characterizes the Sand Hills.

Results:

Through the actions of this project it is estimated that habitat was improved within approx. 1.6km of seven Greater Prairie Chicken leks (as well as 6 Sharp-tailed Grouse leks).  Nearly all of these leks were near to areas that have had reduced lek activity in the past several years.

Prescribed grazing recommendations, as outlined in the collaborative Stewardship Plan, were employed on the project area.

√ Approx. 2,228 total acres of upland Sandhills were cleared of eastern red cedar through contracted services.  By ridding the landscape of predatory perches and woody cover, nesting and breeding habitat were immediately improved, fragmentation was decreased, and habitat conducive to grassland bird predators was greatly reduced.

√ Two prescribed burns were conducted on the project area during this time, totaling approx. 850 acres.  Conservative stocking rates and/or deferment was used to allow fuel buildup in order to have successful burns and conservative stocking rates were employed post-burn.  The re-introduction of a fire-grazing regime will strengthen the overall health of the resource over time while encouraging appropriate food sources and breeding habitat in the near term.

√ The bird survey was conducted in April of 2011 and 2012.  In 2011, the average number of male prairie chickens per lek = 8 (.77 hens) while in 2012 the average number of males = 7.1 per lek (3.6 hens).  While the total number of males was slightly lower than the previous year, it was extremely clear that leks that were free of invasive red cedar tended to have larger concentrations of birds in 2012 (leaving some leks with very few birds while others had more than average as compared to 2011).  Of course, this is only a one year comparison, but very encouraging for our management practices.

Objective #2:   Blowout Penstemon habitat improvement.

Results:

√ Habitat for the continued health of Blowout Penstemon was maintained by utilizing the different grazing/behavioral habits of yearling steers vs. cows and calves.  The yearlings proved to “work over” the blowouts, helping ensure a shifting sands environment, while still allowing conservative stocking rates within the prescribed grazing plan.  With the recent drought, shifting sands habitat within the project area is not in immediate danger.

√ Priority areas (5 targeted blowouts) were cleared partially or completely of man-made materials that had accumulated over the years to further encourage a shifting sands environment.

√ An old gravel pit site (open sand area) was cleared of encroaching weeds and designated as an experiment/nursery site for penstemon plants.

√ 200 new seedlings were planted, over 500 seeds were spread and several plants were transplanted on the project area.

√ A penstemon count was performed on 5/28/12 with 579 stems being counted.  Six years ago the project had 0 stems.  Most of the growth of new stems has been in the past three years.

Objective #3: Outreach and Public Education.

Results:

√ Neighbors and local volunteer fire volunteers were asked to help conduct the prescribed burns where the goals of the practice as it related to the project were shared. (approx. 12 persons)

√ Tourism guests of the Switzer Ranch were informed of the project when taking ranch tours.  Management goals were discussed, “treated” acres were visited and funding sources acknowledged. (approx. 50 persons, many out of state visitors)

√ A Ranch Tour was conducted that covered the project goals and accomplishments.  Local landowners attended the field tour and took in a presentation over supper. (12 participants, plus landowners)

√ Project Coordinator, Sarah Sortum, gave an overview of the project at the recent NE Natural Legacy Conference held in North Platte, NE. (approx. 60 persons)

This grant project was able to accomplish more than originally intended.  More acres of invasive red cedar were cut and more penstemon seedlings were planted than expected.  The volunteer help was very useful (and appreciated) for completing tasks expediently.  This project was a successful demonstration of the great potential of public-private partnerships benefiting conservation in our state.

The Gracie Creek Landowners are extremely grateful for this grant project and have enjoyed implementing the above measures and seeing the results!  They also felt positive that most of the project area acres in this project lay adjacent or near to lands managed by NE Game & Parks, thus furthering cross fence collaborative management for priority species.  Thank you for supporting this project.

Please see below for some photos taken during the project.

A before and after of one of the blowouts that volunteers helped clean up.  After clean up, penstemon seeds were dispersed.  This blowout had 22 brand new penstemon seedlings growing in it the summer of 2012.  The penstemon seedlings look much better than the previous tires!

 

Volunteers assisting with the penstemon count and blowout cleanup, respectively.