Building a Network of Grassland Landscapes in the Midwest: Change Strategies for the Future of Grassland Birds

Jul 22, 2016 (Last modified Jul 28, 2016)
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Authored by: Abigail Anderson, Michael Barnes, Anne Christianson, Lisa Elliot, Amanda Meyer and Hannah Ramer

The Midwest Grasslands Network recognizes that successful grassland conservation needs to take effect at larger scales and in permanent ways in order to halt the long-term declines of grassland bird populations. In 2015 the Network convened a seminar to develop strategies for scaling up conservation efforts to achieve landscape-level outcomes for grassland birds.

The interdisciplinary seminar was hosted at the University of Minnesota on the Saint Paul campus and via video conference. Thirty graduate students, faculty, and conservation professionals convened weekly to deliberate on a fundamentally challenging problem: how to replicate local conservation successes at a scale sufficient to reverse the precipitous declines of grassland birds in the Midwest. Students then integrated insights from ecology, sociology, economics, public policy, and natural resource management into a set of change strategies for the future of grassland birds. This synergistic approach seeks to spur innovation in sustaining prairies, surrogate grasslands, and the many services that they provide.

Seminar participants decided on a goal of retaining an existing 6 million acres of Midwest grasslands, restoring an additional 6 million acres, and maintaining all 12 million acres in perpetuity. Five general strategies encompass a range of recommendations for increasing and maintaining clustered and connected grass on the landscape. These are:

  1. Modify the Renewable Fuel Standard
  2. Bundle payments for ecosystem services
  3. Foster social networks for grassland stewardship
  4. Increase connectivity via energy corridors
  5. Support the broad spectrum of uses that maintain grass

Grassland Landscape Conservation and Restoration Strategy (from Anderson et al. 2016)

1. Reduce the negative impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a national policy that requires all transportation petroleum to contain a percentage of renewable fuels. Percentage requirements increase each year until 2022, at which point the program expects a total of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be included as transportation fuel. Currently, the most common form of renewable fuel being used is corn ethanol, resulting in increased demand, increases in corn prices, and consequently a conversion of grasslands to corn crops.

This strategy takes a national policy approach to halt the conversion of grasslands by adjusting the RFS. One approach is to change renewable fuel requirements to deemphasize ethanol and instead emphasize cellulosic ethanol and native biofuels. A second approach is to subsidize alternative biofuel and cellulosic ethanol production for both the agricultural and processing levels of production to make it more viable. Specific elements of this approach include: retrofitting ethanol production infrastructure to process cellulosic sources; earmarking tax dollars for technical support and subsidies for grassland conservation; and adjusting renewable fuel value estimates to reflect the true impacts (updated emissions estimates, land conversion, etc.) from corn ethanol production.

2. Bundle Ecosystem Service Payments

This option addresses the problematic and direct association of high crop prices with high grassland conversion. The goal of this approach is to account for the value of ecosystem services provided by grasslands, help offset the opportunity costs of maintaining grasslands, and incentivize the maintenance and restoration of grasslands through ecosystem service payments (ESPs). Organizations interested in protecting different ecosystem services provided by grasslands (e.g. carbon storage and water quality) pool funds to provide higher, more competitive payments to farmers. These partnerships can be established among existing organizations and social networks that have already established trusted relationships. Payment agreements should be structured to incentivize long-term enrollment as a means of encouraging retention despite market fluctuations. Such incentives might include higher rents for longer terms or bonuses for lengthier participation. Criteria for how to prioritize parcels will differ depending on the services of interest, and must be negotiated among buyers who are partnering to pool funds. 3. Using Social Systems

To enact most conservation strategies, adequate social capital in the form of trust, information, and resources is essential. The following recommendations aim to foster social capital and learning networks and to address public perceptions of grassland ecosystems. This is especially important as our sense of “normal” and “healthy” declines in the face of increasingly degraded ecosystems.

Social networks can be effective mechanisms for promoting conservation actions and increasing interest in grassland ecosystems. Efforts to engage these networks should: build on the land ethic and ecologically-oriented values of farmers; crosswalk and strengthen extant networks—especially those serving farm owners, operators, state agencies, and conservationists; plan infrastructure and support for self-governance and conflict management; focus on new landowners who are more likely to adopt new land management practices; communicate a pluralistic, place-based narrative that includes the history, evolutionary significance, aesthetic attributes, and ecosystem services of grasslands; and use art as a communication tool to influence behaviors and advance landscape stewardship.

4. Opportunities on private lands: rights-of-way

Energy corridors represent a growing yet underutilized opportunity for building grassland connections. Although these relatively narrow strips of land are generally not suitable as grassland bird breeding habitat, they can provide corridors between prairie patches and larger tracts of grassland habitat. This land is more readily available for grassland restoration compared to acquiring large tracts of land through purchase or conversion away from currently economically productive uses.

Energy companies that own vast networks of pipelines for the transport of fuels serve as a case study. Pipelines maintain a right-of-way with a minimum of 60 ft. wide, but average right of ways are closer to 100 ft. This habitat could be useful for nesting grassland birds when it is adjacent to grasslands. We recommend mapping potential habitat, researching compatible and competing uses, and developing best management recommendations and strategies that benefit both the conservation potential of the land and the economic needs of the corporation. At the least, this habitat can provide foraging habitat and corridors for grassland birds, as well as provide other environmental services such as pollinator habitat.

5. Maintaining Grasslands

Grasslands require disturbance (fire, mowing, or grazing) to be maintained, as well as continued ethical and/or economic incentives to sustain these activities. Public and private land managers and owners require support for a broad spectrum of approaches to grassland stewardship. Fostering cooperation between neighboring operations to economize labor-intensive practices (e.g., prescribed burning, cooperative ranching to institute larger rotational grazing schemes) may expand opportunities to adopt conservation measures. In addition, scaling up The Nature Conservancy’s “Grass Bank” and similar programs would allow more farmers to graze on large holdings in exchange for carrying out practices on those lands that benefit the soils and wildlife. Finally, continued outreach to landowners and managers about bird-friendly maintenance techniques will be an ongoing need.

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Citation: Anderson, A., M. Barnes, A. Christianson, L. Elliot, A. Meyer, and H. Ramer. 2016. Building a Network of Grassland Landscapes in the Midwest: Change Strategies for the Future of Grassland Birds

Conservation Biology Institute. 2016. Building a Network of Grassland Landscapes in the Midwest: Change Strategies for the Future of Grassland Birds. In: Data Basin. [First published in Data Basin on Jul 22, 2016; Last Modified on Jul 28, 2016; Retrieved on Aug 19, 2022] <>

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Conservation Biology Institute

The Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) provides scientific expertise to support the conservation and recovery of biological diversity in its natural state through applied research, education, planning, and community service.