Reversing Declines of Grasslands Biodiversity with the Regional Conservation Partnership Program in the Interior Low Plateau Ecoregion

Jeremy Frencha and Brittney Viers, Quail Forever/Southeastern Grasslands Initiative

The southeastern region of the U.S. was one of the most diverse grassland regions of North America, yet more than 99% has been lost due to such factors as conversion to row crop agriculture, forest succession, and wetland drainage. Reversing the decline in grassland biodiversity will require a regional effort with a multitude of partners. Our objective is to use NRCS-RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program) funds to conduct a multifaceted conservation program that will complement existing efforts, especially near protected landscapes. This RCPP is led by the Central Hardwoods Joint Venture (CHJV) and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Our RCPP includes efforts needed to recover populations of grassland bird species deemed in need of conservation attention by Partners in Flight, as well as the native biodiversity associated with the historic grassland landscapes of the Interior Low Plateaus ecoregion of Tennessee and Kentucky. Habitat improvements for the bird species of concern, which are more dependent on vegetation structure than on species composition, can be accomplished by opening up suppressed native grasslands with removal of woody cover and prescribed fire, reconversion of cropland or fescue pastures to native grasses, increasingforb-to-grass ratios, changing grazing intensities, and altering haying regimes. We are also focusing on imperiled grasslands simply in need of management practices to restore them back to their natural conditions. This strategy will be employed in cases where higher native plant diversity is important to maximize benefits to a wider variety of organisms. Three species of grassland-breeding birds were designated as priorities for the CHJV in the 2016 Landbird Conservation Plan: Northern Bobwhite, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark. The CHJV region supported an estimated 6.5 million-acres of native grasslands (prairies, savannas, barrens, glades) at the time of European settlement, but nearly all of it has been lost or degraded due to conversion to row-crop agriculture or non-native pasture grasses, succession to woodlands and forests, and urban development. As a result, it is critical that we work with NRCS and other partner agencies and organizations to implement farm bill programs that favor grassland restoration, either through biodiverse focused conservation practices or establishing native warm season grass pastures that mutually benefit livestock and native grassland species.