Managing Grasslands for Wildlife Habitat
The native grasslands and prairies found throughout the US were once vast and served as important wildlife habitat. They still are important and do serve as excellent habitat, although many native grasslands are long gone with on small pockets of high quality prairies available. Major grasslands, supporting bison, elk, and prairie chickens, existed in the central US and spanned eastwards as far as Kentucky. These prairies were dominated by warm-season grasses and supported several hundred species of native plants that are important themselves, but also served as food and cover for wildlife.
Land management practices are necessary to restore the native plant communities for habitat and wildlife management purposes. Why? Many prairies reverted to forests when burning of the land by Native Americans and the early pioneers ended. Today, only a fraction of the native prairie remains throughout the US. Most has been replaced by cropland and introduced warm-season or cool-season grasses or simply have been lost to overgrazing by livestock.
Habitat Management for Native Grasses and Wildlife
The small remaining tracts are referred to as remnant prairies and are vital to the survival of many grassland bird species and small mammals. Proper habitat management techniques promote and allows for the establishment of native prairies. Experienced federal, state and private biologists can provide information about the special management needed to maintain or restore native prairies. Properties with healthy, native plant communities are excellent lands for conservation easements and should be protected either privately or publicly.
Native grasslands, when grazed appropriately, will provide excellent summer pasture for livestock and habitat for native wildlife. Timing, however, is critical for maintaining the health of these valuable plant communities. Landowners should begin grazing native grasses around mid-May when the vegetation is 10-12 inches tall, but native prairies should not be grazed any later than September 1. It is also important that natives not be grazed any lower than 8 inches in height.
Grassland Management is Wildlife Management
Native prairies can provide good quality hay, but the haying of grasslands should be discouraged because of the great habitat that it provides for birds, deer and other wildlife during the nesting, fawning and birthing season, which primarily spans from mid-April through July. Deferred mowing and grazing of native prairies from the beginning of the growing season until the end of July is an excellent wildlife management practice because the action provides supplemental cover for the wildlife species that require it.