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Thinking Like a Grassland: Challenges and Opportunities for Biodiversity Conservation in the Great Plains of North America

Augustine, David, Davidson, Ana, Dickinson, Kristin, Van Pelt, Bill
Rangeland ecology & management 2019
Conservation Reserve Program, biodiversity, biodiversity conservation, bison, cropland, databases, fauna, flora, government agencies, grassland management, grassland restoration, grasslands, grazing, herbivores, indigenous species, land cover, land ownership, landowners, landscapes, livestock, migratory behavior, pastures, population viability, primary productivity, prioritization, ranching, savannas, sedentary species, spatial variation, temporal variation, watersheds, weather, Great Plains region, United States
Fauna of North America’s Great Plains evolved strategies to contend with the region’s extreme spatiotemporal variability in weather and low annual primary productivity. The capacity for large-scale movement (migration and/or nomadism) enables many species, from bison to lark buntings, to track pulses of productivity at broad spatial scales (> 1 000 km2). Furthermore, even sedentary species often rely on metapopulation dynamics over extensive landscapes for long-term population viability. The current complex pattern of land ownership and use of Great Plains grasslands challenges native species conservation. Approaches to managing both public and private grasslands, frequently focused at the scale of individual pastures or ranches, limit opportunities to conserve landscape-scale processes such as fire, animal movement, and metapopulation dynamics. Using the US National Land Cover Database and Cropland Data Layers for 2011−2017, we analyzed land cover patterns for 12 historical grassland and savanna communities (regions) within the US Great Plains. On the basis of the results of these analyses, we highlight the critical contribution of restored grasslands to the future conservation of Great Plains biodiversity, such as those enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Managing disturbance regimes at larger spatial scales will require acknowledging that, where native large herbivores are absent, domestic livestock grazing can function as a central component of Great Plains disturbance regimes if they are able move at large spatial scales and coexist with a diverse array of native flora and fauna. Opportunities to increase the scale of grassland management include 1) spatial prioritization of grassland restoration and reintroduction of grazing and fire, 2) finding creative approaches to increase the spatial scale at which fire and grazing can be applied to address watershed to landscape-scale objectives, and 3) developing partnerships among government agencies, landowners, businesses, and conservation organizations that enhance cross-jurisdiction management and address biodiversity conservation in grassland landscapes, rather than pastures.