Cattle, curlews and conservation: The New South Dakota Mission advantages the birds and work areas of the Nice Plains

American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is working with Pheasants Forever, the USDA Conservation Service (NRCS) and private land managers on a new habitat improvement project for curlews and long-billed billybuck under other iconic grassland birds in the northwest of Northwest South Dakota.

The new project runs from 2020 to 2024 and will improve the habitat by using rotation cattle with pasture in excess of 21,000 acres and restoring 670 acres of annual farmland to perennial grass. It is funded by the NRCS in South Dakota as part of its Conservation Implementation Strategy (CIS), a subset of funds from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that addresses high priority resource issues such as wildlife habitat for species decline and conservation target the water quality of water catchment areas.

The long-billed curlew was selected as a priority species for the project because its habitat requirements range from shorter grass for oviposition to longer grass for chick rearing and the habitat of many other grassland species that will also benefit from efforts to protect the curlew.

The new project builds on previous ABC efforts, including: a publication called Land Manager's Guide to Grassland Conservation and the Long-billed Curlew; a report entitled Curlew Conservation Strategies: Areas of Focus, Desired Habitat Conditions and Good Management Practices; and a three-year ABC-led curlew survey on the roadside in southwest North Dakota. These and other private land conservation efforts on the plains aim to help ranchers strengthen their land management and operations so that wildlife can thrive in healthy, resilient work areas.

Long-billed curlew, Copyright John C Folinsbee, from the Surfbirds Galleries

Rotating cattle between pastures rather than keeping them in a pasture can improve grass height and biodiversity, improve plant health, and better feed the cattle by allowing plants to recover and grow between grazing seasons.

Annual farmland is a poor habitat for most wildlife species. By returning less productive fields to perennial grasses, landowners and managers can provide hay or grazing land and bird habitat – especially if wildlife-friendly measures are in place, including post-bird haymaking and the provision of ramps for birds to live on can safely drink from livestock containers.

“Many ranchers have fond memories of curlew pairs returning to their lands year after year, and this project embodies our shared desire to preserve these birds and territories for future generations,” said Jessica Howell, ABC Northern Plains Conservation Specialist and project director .

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