Agro-wildlife Ecology and Management

Agricultural Wildlife Conservation Summary

More than 71% of the contiguous United States consists of non-federal, rural land uses. Approximately, 50% of these rural lands are committed to agricultural production. Consequently, the conservation of natural communities and wildlife species is dependent on the actions of these private forest and agricultural landowners. In highly modified agricultural systems, the creation and maintenance of herbaceous natural plant communities produces numerous environmental services including water filtration, soil conservation, sediment trapping, agrichemical retention, support of pollinators, provision of wildlife habitat, and connectivity of remnant natural patches. However, allocation of land to non-crop purposes reduces production opportunities for farmers, thus intangible environmental benefits must be multiple, known, and, and quantifiable.

A suite of research projects is addressing how landscape context, configuration (patch size and width), plant materials, and management regimes affect wildlife benefits of conservation practices in agricultural landscapes. One project has demonstrated how strategic enrollment of low-yielding portions of croplands in select conservation buffer practices can increase whole-field profitability for producers. Another project has demonstrated that upland conservation buffers provide important winter habitat for migratory grassland sparrows and breeding habitat for numerous grassland and early successional bird species. In general, wider buffers support greater density of birds, more species, and higher nesting density than narrow buffers, but narrow buffers provide greater habitat benefits than unbuffered fields. An ongoing study is demonstrating that within the first three years after establishment, upland habitat buffers planted to native prairie grasses will attract and support a diverse assemblage of grassland butterflies, including native prairie specialists. MSU scientists are also coordinating a national monitoring program tracking bird use on approximately 500 fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program CP33 Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds practice. This study is demonstrating that these native grass buffers can increase local abundance of grassland birds such as northern bobwhite, Dickcissel, Field Sparrow, and Painted Bunting by 50-100%, relative to conventionally farmed fields. Collectively, these studies demonstrate that working agricultural landscapes can support key species of regional conservation concern when select conservation practices are strategically deployed to create native plant communities on farmlands.