The Risks of Managing Prairies Exclusively for Plants

Prairies are often defined as plant communities dominated by grasses, sedges, and wildflowers.  However, prairies are also home to thousands of animal species, not to mention countless varieties of fungi, bacteria, and other microbes.  Animals are just as much part of the prairie as plants, and they can have immense impacts on the plant community and overall prairie function.

Mixed-grass prairie managed with periodic fire and intensive grazing. Gjerloff Prairie - Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

For most of us, prairies are characterized by the plants we see when we walk through them. Gjerloff Prairie – Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Nebraska mixed-grass prairie managed with periodic fire and intensive grazing.

Despite the importance of animals, many prairie managers and biologists focus largely on plants when evaluating the quality of a prairie or when making management decisions.  Interestingly, many ranchers do the same thing, though they tend to focus mostly on dominant grasses while biologists often look more at plant species diversity and/or rare plant species. Regardless, it is rare that the needs of harvest mice, leafhoppers, or smooth green snakes are incorporated into management plans or evaluations of prairie quality.  (A major caveat is that some prairies are managed primarily for bird habitat – either song birds or game birds – a practice that has its own set of ramifications.)

Deer mice and other small mammals are rarely considered during management planning. Small mammals and other animals have specific needs for habitat structure, however, and are also vulnerable

Deer mice and other small mammals are rarely considered during management planning. Small mammals and other animals have specific needs for habitat structure, however, and their populations can decline or disappear after several years of unfavorable habitat conditions.

To be fair, there are good reasons to give plants primary consideration in management planning.  Cattle ranchers correctly recognize that cattle feed mostly on grass, so maintaining robust stands of grasses is critical for a successful ranching operation.  For biologists and conservation land managers, plants are often good indicators of prairie health.  Plant communities are easier to assess than insect or small mammal communities, and they provide the foundation for many ecological processes.  Pollinators, for example, rely on plant diversity and abundance of flowering plants.  Many other insect species need particular plant species or groups of plant species for food and/or living quarters.  A diverse plant community also provides a consistent supply of vegetative growth and seed production for plant-eating animals.

Bees and other pollinators rely upon plant diversity to provide a consistent supply of flowers throughout the growing season. This bee (Svastra sp) is on a native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in September.

Bees and other pollinators rely upon plant diversity to provide a consistent supply of flowers throughout the growing season. This bee (Svastra sp) is on a native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in September.

Not only are plants helpful in assessing prairies, every plant species is also significant and worthy of conservation for its own sake. However, the same is also true for animal species.  A prairie without birds, ants, butterflies, or grasshoppers just wouldn’t be the same, and not just from an aesthetic standpoint.  The complex interactions between all the various organisms in prairies are difficult to study, but absolutely critical to ecological function.  Studies that have excluded or suppressed populations of small mammals or insects have documented tremendous changes to the plant community – usually resulting in lower plant diversity and dominance by a few species at the expense of others.

Animal communities are vital to prairie communities and ecological function, and conserving healthy animal communities relies on at least two broad factors: plant diversity and a variety of habitat structure. As mentioned earlier, most pollinators and herbivores rely upon a wide range of plant species in order to be able to find food at all times of the season, and many insects depend upon particular plant species for survival.  However, habitat structure is also critically important for animal communities, and because every animal has its own unique habitat requirements, prairies need to provide a wide variety of habitat conditions.

Habitat structure for animals is driven by factors such as the amount of plant litter covering the ground and the height and density of the vegetation.  Some animals depend upon short vegetation with lots of exposed bare ground, some need tall dense vegetation, and still others prefer something in-between – or combinations of several habitat types.  The size and distribution of habitat patches is also important.  For example, some animal species need fairly large areas of a particular habitat structure, while others thrive best in situations where small patches of short and tall vegetation are intermixed.

A variety of habitat structure types across a prairie helps ensure a diversity of animal species, including invertebrates, will thrive.

A variety of habitat structure types across a prairie helps ensure that a diversity of animal species, including invertebrates, will thrive.  This area of intensive grazing is adjacent to other patches of taller and thicker vegetation.  Restored prairie in The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This is the same restored prairie as shown above, but in a diffrent yet

This is the same restored prairie as shown in the previous photo, but in a year when management provided different habitat structure.  Cattle have grazed much of the grass, but have left behind a diversity of blooming plants, including Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and many others.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Prairie management regimes that don’t consider animals’ needs can lead to problems.  For example, prairies with relatively uniform vegetation structure provide limited options for animals, regardless of whether that structure is uniformly short, tall, or somewhere in the middle.  A subset of animal species will thrive in those prairies, but other species can experience significant population declines.  If those same conditions persist for too long, some animal species can disappear completely.  Whether or not those species return depends upon the mobility of the animals and the degree of habitat fragmentation around the prairie.

Some management tactics can also cause animal populations to disappear or decline dramatically.  While it is an important part of prairie management, prescribed burning can be particularly dangerous to animals, especially if an entire prairie is burned at once. Fire can directly kill animals, including insects overwintering or living inside plants, but animals can also suffer from the sudden loss of habitat.  These impacts are especially severe in fragmented landscapes where there is nowhere for animals with limited mobility to go for better habitat, and no way for recolonization by species wiped out by fire.  Uniform haying and intensive grazing can have some similar impacts to fire, although both tend to leave a little more habitat for at least some species.

Snakes like this red-sided garter can be vulnerable to fires that occur during the growing season. However, dormant season fires can also be very damaging for insects and other species that overwinter in grass litter or in aboveground stems of plants.

Snakes like this red-sided garter can be vulnerable to fires that occur during the growing season. However, dormant season fires can also be very damaging for insects and other species that overwinter in grass litter or in aboveground stems of plants.

Plant diversity and the survival of rare plant species are important objectives for prairie management.  However, the same can be said for animal diversity and rare animal species.  In some cases, well-planned management can largely account for the needs of both.  Providing a shifting mosaic of habitat patches across big prairies can usually facilitate plant and animal diversity, and accommodations can be made for rare species or species sensitive to particular management tactics such as fire or grazing.  Understanding the needs and evaluating responses of various groups of plants and animals, however, is crucial to successfully adapting management strategies over time.

Conserving all species is much more difficult in small and/or isolated prairies.  A single prescribed fire can potentially wipe out animal species, and repetitive use of any management tactic, including fire, grazing, haying or rest risks eliminating species as well.  Read more about the challenges of managing small prairies here.

In both large and small prairies, setting clear objectives for management is very important.  Ideally, those objectives will accommodate the needs of most or all animal and plant species and sustain ecological resilience.  In reality, it’s more likely that the needs of some species will have to be sacrificed or given less priority than others.  As an example, frequent burns might sustain high populations of many plants (including some rare species) and help suppress invasive trees or grasses, but are likely to eliminate some species of butterflies and other invertebrates, and potentially some snakes and other vertebrates as well.  Alternatively, applying periodic patchy grazing and rest treatments in the same prairie could increase habitat heterogeneity to the benefit of many animals, but could reduce the relative abundance of some sensitive plant species while stimulating higher populations of more grazing tolerant plants.

These kinds of management decisions can be extremely difficult, and there are no easy answers.  The disappearance of any species from a prairie is a big loss, particularly at isolated sites, and we don’t yet know how to predict the ripple effects of losing most species.  Even when management decisions don’t directly eliminate species, reducing population sizes can make species more vulnerable to diseases or other factors that could eventually wipe them out.

Regal fritillaries are

The regal fritillary butterfly is one of many prairie animals that has been shown to be vulnerable to disappearing from prairies because of incompatible management.  Even for fairly mobile species like butterflies, recolonization after local extinction is far from assured, especially in fragmented landscapes.

No matter what management decisions are made, it’s crucial that land managers consider the needs of as many species as possible – including both plants and animals.  It’s not necessarily wrong to manage a prairie primarily for plant diversity or to sustain populations of rare plants.  It’s also understandable that a cattle rancher would want to sustain consistent vigorous stands of grass.  However, in both cases, managers need to acknowledge and accept that optimizing conditions for a particular suite of plant species will lead to negative consequences for other species, including both animals and plants.

Hopefully, continuing research and experience will help us better understand the inescapable tradeoffs that come with these kinds of difficult decisions.  For now, the impacts of losing plant or animal species and the potential for those losses to affect ecological resilience are still very unpredictable.  The best we can do is to be clear and honest with ourselves and others about why we’re making decisions, and do our best to evaluate the results and learn as we go.


If you’re interested in learning more about how excluding or suppressing animal populations can lead to unexpected and complex reactions in grassland communities, here are a couple example research papers.

Herbivory and Plant Species Coexistence: Community Regulation by an Outbreaking Phyotophagous Insect.  Walter P. Carson and Richard B. Root.  2000.  Ecological Monographs 70(1):73-99.

 Secondary plant succession: how is it modified by insect herbivory?  V.K. Brown and A.C. Gange. 1992. Vegetatio 101:3-13

Massive and Distinctive Effects of Meadow Voles on Grassland Vegetation.  2006.  Henry F. Howe, Barbara Zorn-Arnold, Amy Sullivan and Joel S. Brown, Ecology 87(12):3007-3013

Effects of Coyote Removal on the Faunal Community in Western Texas.  1999.  Scott E. Henke and Fred C. Bryant.  Journal of Wildlife Management 63(4):1066-1081

Prairie Word of the Day – Habitat Heterogeneity

Do you know what time it is?  It’s time for another PRAIRIE WORD OF THE DAY!

Today’s Prairie Word of the Day (fine, it’s actually two words) is:

Habitat Heterogeneity

Heterogeneity is really just a longer word for Diversity, which is another way of saying “lots of different things”.  So why use the word “heterogeneity” instead of just saying “lots of different things”?  Well, for one thing, using big words makes a person sound smart, and when you’re a prairie ecologist and no one really understands what it is you do for a living, it’s good to at least sound smart.

More importantly, there’s a nice alliterative (another big word!) feel to the phrase Habitat Heterogeneity, which happens to be one of the most important phrases in prairie ecology.  In fact, I would argue that the foremost objective of any prairie manager should be to create habitat heterogeneity within the prairie(s) they manage.

Habitat heterogeneity simply means diversity or variety in habitat types.  Habitat homogeneity is the opposite – a lot of habitat that is all the same.

Every organism in a prairie has its own unique habitat requirements, so the number of different habitat types in a particular prairie is correlated with number of species that can live there.   Let’s use prairie birds as an example.  Birds such as upland sandpipers like to nest in large patches of relatively short-stature grassland.  Around here, a big hay meadow is great habitat for them, especially if it was cut fairly late in the previous year and is still short in stature when the subsequent breeding season starts.  On the other hand, Henslow’s sparrows want to nest in prairie habitats with relatively tall and dense vegetation.  It would be highly unusual to find Henslow’s sparrows and upland sandpipers nesting in the same patch of prairie because their habitat preferences are very different.  So, if you want both species in your prairie, you have to provide both short and tall/dense habitat.  Other birds have their own unique habitat requirements, including nearly bare ground (e.g., horned lark), relatively short, but with abundant thatch (grasshopper sparrow), tall with lots of tall/weedy wildflowers (dickcissels), tall and nearly impenetrably dense vegetation (sedge wrens), and many others.  Only if your prairie provides all those different habitat conditions will you attract all those different bird species.

Dickcissels prefer

Dickcissels prefer habitat with lots of tall wildflowers or weeds.  They often weave their nest into the stems of a tall clump of vegetation.

The same diversity of habitat preferences exists in other groups of prairie species as well.  Among small mammals, for example, voles tend to prefer habitats with abundant thatch, while pocket mice are more often found where bare ground is abundant – and there are many others.  Insects and other invertebrates have the same kind of diversity in habitat preferences

Scale is important.  While a bird, mammal, or insect might have a broad preference for a certain kind of habitat structure, it is likely to need some heterogeneity within that habitat too.  A mouse, for example, might prefer patches of prairie with fairly sparse vegetation, but it is likely to need a few clumps of vegetation dense enough to hide in when predators are near.  Insects and reptiles are ectothermic (cold blooded) and need to regulate temperature, so while a snake might like to hide in tall dense so it can bite your ankle as you walk by (I’M KIDDING!), it also needs some places to bask in the sun.  All of this means that habitat heterogeneity is important any many different scales.  Heterogeneity at a fairly large scale (acres) helps provide places for many different animals to live in a prairie, but heterogeneity within the home range or territory of each animal (square meters, or even centimeters) can be important too.

Some habitat heterogeneity occurs simply because soil texture, nutrients, and moisture, along with topography all vary across a landscape.  A prairie is likely to have areas of more productive soils where vegetation grows tall and thick, and less productive soils where vegetation is more sparse, for example.  In addition, water will pool in some areas of a prairie more than others because of topography, altering the habitat for both plants and animals.  However, despite this “naturally occurring” heterogeneity, it’s still important for prairie managers to look for ways to provide more.

This landscape at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa shows the kind of natural heterogeneity that occurs in many landscapes.

This landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa shows the kind of natural heterogeneity that occurs in many landscapes.  Topography, soil variability, and other factors create a diverse set of conditions for plant growth and habitat structure.  Land management can add to that heterogeneity and improve it even more.

Prescribed fire and haying/mowing do a great job of altering habitat structure at a fairly large scale (acres).  By applying those treatments in different parts of a large prairie each year (and varying the timing of each from year to year), a manager can create a shifting mosaic of habitat patches that supports a wide diversity of animals.  However, both fire and mowing are pretty non-selective – most or all of the vegetation within a burned or mowed area gets the same treatment.  Leaving unmowed patches of grass here and there and varying the height of the mower as it moves across the site can help leave more heterogeneity behind.  Designing prescribed fires so that not all vegetation burns (e.g., mowing around some patches ahead of time, burning on days with lower temperatures or higher humidity, etc.) can also help with habitat heterogeneity – though those kinds of fire might also be less effective at killing trees or accomplishing other objectives.

In prairies where livestock grazing (cattle or bison, for example) is feasible, it is much easier to create small scale heterogeneity because grazers pick and choose which plants, and how much of each plant, to eat at any one time.  By controlling grazing intensity, and varying it across both time and space, managers can create prairie patches that are ungrazed, almost completely grazed, and in various stages of partial grazing – with a mixture of tall vegetation and nearly bare ground.  The uneven application of “fertilizer” from the rear ends of grazers contributes even more to habitat heterogeneity by temporarily altering soil productivity in lots of little spots across the prairie.

These cattle at Konza Prairie in Kansas

These cattle at Konza Prairie in Kansas have created a nice example of small scale habitat heterogeneity by grazing many of the grasses short while leaving leadplant, purple prairie clover, and other wildflowers ungrazed.

Whether it’s fire, mowing, grazing, herbicides or various combinations of those, creating habitat heterogeneity may the most important job of a prairie manager.  We still have a lot to learn about how the scale and configuration of habitat patches affect wildlife and insect populations.  What we do know, however, is that the prairies thrive when they have a lot of different types of habitat.  …When they have habitat heterogeneity.

And that, folks, is your Prairie Word of the Day.