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The Center for Native Grasslands Management

Title: Should heterogeneity be the basis for conservation? Grassland bird response to fire and grazing
Year: 2006
Author(s): Fuhlendorf, S. D., Harrell, W. C., Engle, D. M., Hamilton, R. G., Davis, C. A., Leslie, Jr., D. M.
Source Title: Ecological Applications
Source Type: Journal
pages: 1706-1716
Original Publication: http://  
Abstract: In tallgrass prairie, disturbances such as grazing and fire can generate patchiness across the landscape, contributing to a shifting mosaic that presumably enhances biodiversity. Grassland birds evolved within the context of this shifting mosaic, with some species restricted to one or two patch types created under spatially and temporally distinct disturbance regimes. Thus, management-driven reductions in heterogeneity may be partly responsible for declines in numbers of grassland birds. We experimentally altered spatial heterogeneity of vegetation structure within a tallgrass prairie by varying the spatial and temporal extent of fire and by allowing grazing animals to move freely among burned and unburned patches (patch treatment). We contrasted this disturbance regime with traditional agricultural management of the region that promotes homogeneity (traditional treatment). We monitored grassland bird abundance during the breeding seasons of 2001-2003 to determine the influence of altered spatial heterogeneity on the grassland bird community. Focal disturbances of patch burning and grazing that shifted through the landscape over several years resulted in a more heterogeneous pattern of vegetation than uniform application of fire and grazing. Greater spatial heterogeneity in vegetation provided greater variability in the grassland bird community. Some bird species occurred in greatest abundance within focally disturbed patches, while others occurred in relatively undisturbed patches in our patch treatment. Henslow’s Sparrow, a declining species, occurred only within the patch treatment. Upland Sandpiper and some other species were more abundant on recently disturbed patches within the same treatment. The patch burn treatment created the entire gradient of vegetation structure required to maintain a suite of grassland bird species that differ in habitat preferences. Our study demonstrated that increasing spatial and temporal heterogeneity of disturbance in grasslands increases variability in vegetation structure that results in greater variability at higher trophic levels. Thus, management that creates a shifting mosaic using spatially and temporally discrete disturbances in grasslands can be a useful tool in conservation. In the case of North American tallgrass prairie, discrete fires that capitalize on preferential grazing behavior of large ungulates promote a shifting mosaic of habitat types that maintain biodiversity and agricultural productivity.