Effects of livestock grazing management on the ecology of sharp-tailed grouse, grassland birds, and their predators in mixed grass prairie habitats of Montana

Roughly 2.5 million cattle and 225,000 sheep are maintained in Montana with grazing occurring on nearly 70% of the state’s land surface. Grazing by livestock has direct effects on vegetative structure, density, composition, and productivity of native grasslands (Holocheck et al. 2010 ). Thus, grazing management plays a primary role in the quality and extent of wildlife habitat in Montana. Although livestock grazing can negatively impact wildlife, rangeland management practices that produce structurally diverse grasslands can provide quality habitats for wildlife (McNew et al. 2013, 2015). Moreover, livestock ranching maintains intact prairie and is preferable to other land uses that destroy or divide native grassland habitats (Deeble 1996). Maintenance of ranching economies where private grasslands are appropriately managed to maintain good range condition offers the greatest hope for conservation of obligate grassland wildlife (Krausman et al. 2009). Thus, the primary focus of wildlife conservation in the large mixed prairies of Montana should be on developing grazing management systems that produce diverse high-quality habitats for wildlife while providing viable income for producers.

Fish, Wildlife & Parks currently manages 89,000 acres of grazed habitats on state-owned lands and has administered 106 grazing management contracts to encourage habitat improvements on private lands through the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program (UGBEP). Minimum standards for grazing on FWP-managed rangelands and privately owned conservation easements are set to provide adequate composition, structure, and diversity of grassland vegetation for cover and food for upland game birds. Management guidelines are flexible but based on a rest-rotation grazing system (Hormay and Evanko 1958) under the assumption that pastures periodically rested from grazing provide higher quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat for ground-nesting game birds when compared to season-long or continuous grazing. However, empirical comparisons of the effects of these grazing systems on habitat use and demography of focal sentinel species are lacking (Krausman et al. 2009).

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Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) are an excellent model species to evaluate the effects of grazing and rangeland management on prairie obligates because they depend on diverse high-quality grassland habitats distributed across broad landscapes. Because much of their distribution occurs on private lands, population dynamics are largely determined by grassland management decisions by private landowners. Indeed, poor range management on private lands has been implicated in the reduction of sharp-tailed grouse in both the United States and Canada (Kessler and Bosch 1982, Johnsgard 1983, Kirby and Grosz 1995). However, the effects of specific grazing systems have not been evaluated for sharp-tailed grouse and a better understanding of the ecological impacts of rangeland management is needed for effective planning of conservation strategies. Therefore, our goals are to investigate rest-rotation grazing as a rangeland management technique to improve habitat conditions for sharp-tailed grouse. However, there is also an interest in how grazing impacts other avian species that use similar habitats, as well as the predators of sharp-tailed grouse that may also impact sharp-tailed grouse populations. Thus we also aim to develop a mechanistic understanding of the ecological effects of various grazing treatments with a focus on rest-rotation grazing by examining densities and demographic performance of the grassland bird and mesopredator communities.

Project Reports
  • 2022 (PDF)

  • 2021 (PDF)

  • 2020 (PDF)

  • 2019 (PDF)

  • 2018 (PDF)

  • 2017 (PDF)

  • 2016 (PDF)

Quarterly Reports
  • 2018 3rd Quarter Report (PDF)

  • 2018 2nd Quarter Report (PDF)

  • 2017 2nd Quarter Report (PDF)

  • 2016 3rd Quarter Report (PDF)

  • Effects of grazing management on nest survival of sharp-tailed grouse (PDF) (These are preliminary results from an ongoing study.)

  • Factors affecting space use of sharp-tailed grouse in mixed grass prairies (PDF) (These are preliminary results from an ongoing study.)

  • Effects of grazing systems on the abundance and diversity of grassland birds in northern mixed-grass prairie habitats (PDF) (These are preliminary results from an ongoing study.)

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Project Personnel
Lance McNew

Assistant Professor, Wildlife Habitat Ecology

Department of Animal & Range Sciences

Montana State University


John Ensign

Region 7 Wildlife Manager

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Melissa Foster

Area Wildlife Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Lorelle Berkeley

Wildlife Research Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Megan Milligan

Ph.D. Student

Department of Animal & Range Sciences

Montana State University

Skyler Vold

Masters Student

Department of Animal & Range Sciences

Montana State University

Justin Gude

Wildlife Research & Technical Services Chief

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Project Funders

Financial support for this project has been provided by:

  • Pittman-Robertson funds issued to FWP by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

  • Montana State University (MSU)

  • Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit at MSU

  • Montana Agricultural Experiment Station

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